Rebecca and I always wanted to go to Australia. Originally, we hoped to visit there as part of our sea going adventures, but when health concerns changed our plans after we had crossed the Pacific and made Auckland New Zealand, those dreams were amended, and we made the trip to Australia in the conventional way.
Arrival in Sydney
January 16, 2017
We arrived in Sydney at 06:30 after a seventeen-hour plane ride from Dallas on a gigantic A 380 double decker behemoth. It's amazing such big things can fly. We bought business class tickets, so we could lie flat and get some sleep on the way over. This was a good choice and we arrived in relatively good shape. There is effectively an eight-hour body time difference between Ann Arbor and Sydney and we seemed to adjust pretty quickly.
Sydney is a gorgeous city with large parks and modern skyscrapers. Many British Commonwealth cities were the beneficiaries of Queen Victoria's love of things botanical. She certainly left a brilliant and vibrant legacy, and Sydney's Royal Botanical Garden is no exception.
Sydney is a city of neighborhoods that sprawl along the many bays and inlets formed by low lying hills that separate the inner harbor from the ocean about ten miles west of the iconic city harbor. The downtown area is dominated by the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House that lie astride the inner harbor. Following the harbor west from the ocean, each bay seems to identify a neighborhood, and they are characterized by cozy, charming, small single-family homes. Aside from all the various neighborhoods like the Rocks, Darlington and Paddington, there are the famous beach neighborhoods of Manley Beach and Bondi Beach with its famous Iceberg's Restaurant. Apartment living is very popular in Australia, with gleaming glass residential buildings contributing to the beautiful skyline. For those who are inclined to follow celebrities, you may find it interesting to know that in the Paddington neighborhood we saw St. Mark's Church, the site of Elton John's marriage to Renate Blauel in 1984. I wasn't aware of this tidbit of trivia, but travel is all about discovery I suppose. Elton's marriage lasted four years before he "came out." That's the extent of my knowledge and more than I really cared to know, but St. Marks is a cozy, beautiful, classical Scottish style country stone church.
Aside from my hospital stay, we had about five days to look around Sydney. One afternoon we visited Harry's Diner, which features the best meat pies in the city (meat stew in a crust, topped with mashed potatoes, mashed peas, gravy, and the piece de resistance... catsup!). It was actually quite tasty. On another day, we toured the Opera House inside and out. What a fabulous creation!
One interesting day we walked about the Rocks region of the city. This is the site of the original village and is named for the rock quarry the early convicts were required to excavate. Convicts transferred to Australia from England in the early nineteenth century were required to cut building blocks from the sandstone formation here to be used to build the first large, permanent buildings of the city and the harbor wharfs. Most of the older government buildings of the city were quarried and built during this period. Many of the original army barracks occupied originally by the British garrison are still used as homes and many eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings are still in use mostly as shops and quaint tourist attractions. One of them is the Lord Nelson Pub, reputed to be the oldest operational pub in Australia. We dined on fish & chips and beer one evening amongst a boisterous crowd; interesting, but not heartily recommended.
Unfortunately, I experienced a serious UTI, no doubt extant from AA and compounded by the dry, long plane experience. I sometimes try to avoid drinking a lot of water, so I don't have to go to the restroom all the time, but that is what bacteria love and probably the real cause of my problems. I felt great until one morning, when the bacteria exploded within and my heart raced to keep up with demands placed on it and went into flutter. I was taken by ambulance to a public hospital. The ER was very good. I was ultimately assigned to a ward of four men. Since it was a Saturday evening not many experienced physicians were about. As it turned out, Saint Vincent's was a teaching hospital and site of a popular Australian TV medical drama. I was ultimately attended by high level professors and fellows of their specialties. The public hospital experience was quite a contrast to the U of M Hospital. The rooms have no electronic equipment in them and hence neither do the nursing stations. It seems like a bare bones operation, and when I mentioned the contrast to my cardiologist, he proudly acknowledged the difference and noted that Australia has a lower mortality rate than the U.S. health care system (if we have a system) and it's much cheaper. Nursing was terrific, and they attended me with smiles and helpful efforts at every moment. Each day a finance person stopped by to let us know how much the preceding day cost (AUD $2,350 or about $1,833 USD) and promptly charged it to my credit card. My treatment consisted of a course of I.V. antibiotics along with cardioversion. All-in-all, I responded very well to treatment. I think we could learn a thing or two from the Aussies in many areas including health care. (At home I am insured by the Blue Cross Medicare Advantage plan. It should pay most of these expenses subject to a deductible and coinsurance after I submit the bills to them.)
My 'roomy' in the ward was a fellow about my age. He spoke with some sort of eastern European accent and I asked where he was from; 'from Russia, just north of Kazakhstan', he replied. Knowing that you need a good deal of money to emigrate to Australia I asked how he managed to get here and whether or not he was a citizen. Then he told me his sad tale; he owned a construction company during the Soviet period. It was small but growing and it provided he and his family with a comfortable living. After Yeltsin came to power, someone approached him offering to partner with him to move into bigger jobs. As time went on he learned to his chagrin that he was now in bed with the Russian mob. They edged him out of his business and took all his property and money. He went to the authorities, but they also wanted money to look into things. This enraged the mafia who then threaten to kill him. He fled to Cyprus and applied for refugee status in Australia, which was granted. He hasn't seen his family for about ten years, including his daughter who is now just 14 years old. His face is disfigured from the beatings he endured at the hands of mafia thugs. He claims Russia is a criminal political enterprise. Anything of value is stolen from private citizens by the government/mafia. He talks with his family on Skype every week, but Australia hasn't given them asylum. Now he has lung cancer and is lonely and afraid. Poor man.
I was released from the hospital on Australia Day, which coincidentally was also my birthday, January 25. We spent the day at the harbor near the Opera House enjoying the day's festivities. There was an aircraft carrier anchored near the harbor bridge which acted as a platform for military bands and official speakers. Large audio and TV screens let everyone see what was going on. It was interesting to observe the conflicting emotions shared by many Australians: James Cook landed in Australia on January 26, 1788. For many liberals, it represents the date of the European invasion and the beginning of the decline of the native peoples. Some people seemed embarrassed by the celebration, even the official speakers reflected a sensitivity to that sentiment. There is a movement afoot to change the date so as not to seem to celebrate the British' invasion', but rather to celebrate Australia as the vibrant society that it is.
We toured the Sydney Opera House. The building is iconic and of course both interesting and creative in appearance. The building houses the Joan Southerland Opera Theater as well as a larger concert hall and several playhouses and recording studios. The exterior was designed by the Danish architect Jorn Utzon. but the interior was designed by other architects. The building from the outside is spellbinding, but our experience in using the building as opera goers was another matter. To get to the concert halls a patron has to climb about one hundred or more stairs after completing (perhaps in the rain as was our experience) a walk of at least a quarter mile. One would have to park blocks away. Taking a taxi would leave you at a very tight security turn-around area that is a quarter mile or so from the entry stairway. Once inside you continue to climb upward toward your assigned row. From there the view of the performance is unobstructed from any seat, and the seats are very comfortable. The acoustics are superb. The inside of the building does not match the exterior, in fact in some areas it looks very much like what it is, rooms created by vast precast concrete surfaces. There is a lot of glass in the building, but at night the windows appear as black areas of nonlight, the ceilings are the underside of the concrete ribbons that hold up the tiled roofs, but they are not really attractive except in an engineering sense. We observed that very little investment has been made in using architectural lighting to enhance the building at night. Overall, the real attraction of the opera house is the exterior.
Unfortunately, my hospitalization caused us to reschedule and miss Canberra. However, all the Aussies that we have spoken with told us we didn't miss much. We were, however, able to salvage two days in Melbourne.
January 27, 2017
Melbourne is another great city of beautiful, modern skyscrapers. Like San Francisco, Melbourne was established because of a gold rush that occurred coincidentally at about the same time as the gold rush in California and the city became wealthy overnight. Today, the cities wealth comes from shipping, agriculture, and natural resource exportation.
Melbourne is a large, beautiful metropolis with a skyline like New York except with large, green and wonderful Royal Botanical Gardens that give it a fresh and open feel. The brown waters of the Yara River flow through the center of the city and provide a venue for shops and cafes along its banks. It is a gleaming, fresh, energetic, city like Sydney, with not a speck of dirt or trash anywhere. Free public transportation is provided in the city center, making it a pleasure for tourists to get around. The city is packed with apartment buildings purchased by absentee Chinese investors trying to get their money out of China. Melbourne looks new and is a visual delight.
One of the notable historic points of interest in Melbourne is the 888 monuments. During the Victorian era, the exploitation of labor was common worldwide. The people of the Victorian Provence of Australia pride themselves on their 'fairness', and as evidence of this attribute point to their creation of the 888 principles, to wit: workers must be allowed 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of personal time, and could only be required to work 8 hours a day; in-other-words, the eight-hour day. There is a stature here commemorating the "fairness" and eminent logic of their system that was eventually adopted worldwide.
One evening we dined at Donovan's, a lovely beachside restaurant owned by a Connecticut Yankee. We met Mr. Donovan, and he has enjoyed life and prosperity in Melbourne for over thirty years. Donovan's is a wonderful restaurant.
January 29, 2017
We left Melbourne for Tasmania and spent three nights in Hobart. It is the smallest of the provincial capitals, a port city, and very pleasant. We stayed at The Henry Jones Art Hotel, which is a converted stone wharf building in the center of it all. It was interesting and nice to be at the wharf among boats again. We toured the local area for two days including the Richmond and Port Arthur area known principally for the prison that was built about a hundred years ago, and now lies in ruins. It is picturesque, but the historical recitation was unpleasant. Basically, during the early eighteen-hundreds the English population was expanding faster than mouths could be fed. Many poor souls were reduced to the theft of bread or other petty crimes. A reading of any Dickens novel will fill in the details. These people were considered criminals and sent off to Australia or other colonies (America included before 1776). They were given at least a seven-year sentence and forced into labor. Many places in Australia conduct tours of the remains of the barbaric prisons that these poor wretches were forced to endure before gaining their freedom, as it is an important part of their history.
The next day we drove to Bruny Island, which is known for its picturesque views and coastline. The topography of southeastern Tasmania is almost identical to northern California with brown grasslands covering large rolling hills dotted with green Eucalyptus and Myrtle trees. It is beautiful, but I expected more of a rainforest environment like Alaska's southern coast. Apparently, the west side of Tasmania gets the rain and east side is relatively dry. We were able to visit Bongorong, a private animal rehabilitation facility with our guide Tony who was formerly a park ranger. There we were able see Tasmanian Devils, Quolls, Wombats, Koala Bears, Emu, miscellaneous birds, and Kangaroos. We learned that the Devils fight like dervishes during the mating season. They are a vicious looking little beast. Somehow, they have contracted a form of mouth cancer that is killing them, because they pass it on when they fight. Wombats are being infected by a flea or mite brought to the island by domestic dogs. Both are endangered. On the brighter side, we had the chance to pet a Koala Bear. They are beautiful, docile little creatures. It was real highlight of our trip to see and interact with these animals.
The next day we drove north a few hours to the Freycinet Peninsula and stayed at a wonderful twenty suite resort called The Saffire. It has to be one of the world's top ten places to stay. It is architecturally stunning with a setting overlooking five pink granite mountain peaks of the Freycinet Peninsula seen from across a bay. The room fee covers all you can eat and drink including wine, champagne, liquors of every type, and wonderful food. The first night I enjoyed Wallaby Tartar followed by a wonderful short rib main course done to perfection and finished with a wafer topped with pistachio cream and accompanied by raspberry sorbet. Of course, a separate wine is available for each course.
One day we took a four-hour quad-bike ride through a Eucalyptus forest to a spectacular white quartz sand beach. Surprisingly, Rebecca loved riding the bikes. The next day we took a 3 KM hike up and over a mountain pass to view Wine Glass Bay. Like the name implies, it is shaped like a wine glass and its beautiful aqua color belies the history behind its name. Sadly, it is red wine glass that best describes the shape of the bay as whalers used it to corral whales inside to be slaughtered, and the water turned red with their blood!
After three days at The Saffire, we headed west by car about eight hours across the island to the town of Strahan on the west coast. This area is more rugged and covered in rainforest habitat than the eastern coast. It was a slow trip over winding, two lane bitumen roads around and over a low rise of mountains that were no more than perhaps 1,500 meters in height. Most of the trip was across a large rolling grassy plain dotted by cattle and sheep stations, and wheat and barley fields. It was a highly developed agricultural area. Like northern California, the grass was brown, and the rolling hills were dotted with trees and shrubs. Lots of dead wombats and wallabies lay along the roadside, evidence of the dangers of driving at dusk or after nightfall. Eventually the pastureland gave way to temperate rainforest and the road rose into the western coastal mountains. Again, these mountains were made of granite and were once a subsurface formation that was thrust upward to the surface about 350 million years ago. They showed clear evidence of having been eroded during the last ice age. The closer we got to the coast, the more the vegetation changed; now we could see the huge and ancient ferns that were perhaps twelve feet in diameter and perhaps twenty feet in height; dinosaur food for sure! Soon we would be entering the Franklin-Gordon Wildness Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest wilderness areas remaining on the planet at over a million acres. Strahan lies on a very large natural harbor at the mouth of the Gordon River. Like many cities in Australia, it was founded as a site for a prison. The prison was built here in part because convict labor could be used to harvest the then giant Huon Pine. These trees are one of the longest living organisms on the planet. Scientists have recently located one of the few remaining giants that escaped the logger's axe deep within the reserve and found it to be over 5,000 years old. In past ages, Huon pine was valued for ship building lumber among other things, because its wood is impervious to the naval worm. The wood is a beautiful clear yellow color and gives off a lovely fragrance from which they make a talc and men's cologne.
Strahan is a very small place with a permanent population of a few hundred people. The main business today is tourism, mainly directed at people who come to see the World Heritage Site forest. We stayed at a B&B, which was a converted home a nineteenth century lumber baron. It was an interesting place to learn something of the local history, but old buildings can often be a challenge. We took the tourist boat day cruise out to the Devils Gate, the entry to the harbor from the Bass Straight. It was one of the nastiest pieces of water (despite it being a fairly benign day) that we had ever come across in our travels at sea. The boat captain told me that 10-meter waves at the entrance were not unusual.
We traveled for an hour or so up the Gordon River into the wilderness reserve and stopped at a dock that permitted a guided walk-about on a boardwalk into the rainforest. The vegetation was interesting and beautiful, particularly the giant Huon Pines and Marri trees. The rain and drizzle that chilled the afternoon's tour continued into the evening, but then at twilight we decided to walk about 2 km into the forest on a footpath to see Hargath Falls and to look for the elusive platypus. These unusual creatures live in ponds that are fed buy flowing water and can only be seen at dawn or dusk. We were advised that this little river and the pool below the falls was a good place to look. It was a beautiful walk, a picturesque waterfall, and it was lovely to be in the rain forest at twilight in the rain, but no platypus.
The next day we departed Strahan after looking about the log mill and local curio shops and drove back across the mountains to Pepper's Cradle Mountain Lodge. Our accommodations there were a backpacker's dream; a duplex that was a basic and sparsely decorated cabin set off in the woods, but thankfully with ensuite facilities. We had reservations for three nights. Food was another matter. Pepper's bar and grille was a greasy spoon sort of place, or you could reserve a spot for fancy dinner. This didn't appeal to us because of the heavy meat load and lack of vegetables offered. We were perplexed as to what to do until we found another lodge a few miles away that offered a good, balanced menu.
Cradle Mountain National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a large wildlife preserve surrounding Cradle Mountain and is noted for its hiking trails amidst the mountain peaks. We took several treks including one on the afternoon of our arrival in which I was fortunate enough to spot for a fleeting second the elusive platypus. That made my day.
The next day Rebecca and I took a long trek across a low bog area and then up into a low pass and on to Lake Lilla. It was a lovely sunny day and the twin peaks of Cradle Mountain were reflected in the pristine lake. It was a beautiful place to stop and lay back on a flat shoreline rock and soak up the beauty of the scenery and the warmth of the sun. After a few minutes, we pushed on, the trail taking us up and around the lake, over a high pass that opened on to another, larger and the equally beautiful Dove Lake. In the course of poking about we were fortunate to see several wallabies and wombats as well as padymelons, which look like a king-sized rat but are actually marsupials related to the Kangaroo. We saw the padymelons running through the bush, and it amazed us to see how fast and agile they were as they scampered over and under fallen trees and limbs.
The following day was cold and rainy, so we decided to drive a few hours east to Launceston, a middle size city in the northeast part of Tasmania. Here we caught a twin-engine plane to Melbourne, and then a transcontinental jet to Perth. Perth is three-time zones behind Melbourne and a continent away.
Perth and Freemantle
Perth is a beautiful, modern, almost new city on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The beautiful King's Royal Botanical Garden is the centerpiece of the city and occupies the highest point in the downtown area. Modern skyscrapers surround the harbor; the city and its suburbs flow north and eastward over the rolling countryside all the way to the wheat belt far to the east. To the south is the city of Freemantle, which is the industrial port. Perth is a wealthy city, with Rolls Royce's, Aston Martin's and other trappings of wealth in evidence everywhere. The city is bordered by a long, white sand beach coastline, and overlooking the beaches are beautiful modern glass fronted homes that are further testament to the prosperity of the area. Where does all the money come from? The export of agriculture and mining products. Australia exports a variety of minerals including gold, iron ore, nickel, uranium, and other things mostly to the Chinese. They also export wheat, oats and other grains, as well as beef, mutton and wool. RioTinto and BHP Billiton and their accounting firms and banks occupy the most visible buildings in Perth. We stayed for two nights in Perth and took a day tour of the area during one of the days. I bought an Akubra hat, an iconic Australian piece of male apparel. Surfing is very popular in the area. We dined at a beach restaurant overlooking the Indian Ocean and watched the surfers glide ashore on the white sand beaches from atop the cerulean blue waves.
We drove about four hours south of Perth to the Cape Lodge. The Margaret River region is world-famous for its virology and is situated on a peninsula that is surrounded by the Indian Ocean on the north and the Southern Ocean on the south. Part of the fun of travel is enjoying the beautiful lodges of the world and the Cape Lodge didn't disappoint us at all. It is a beautiful European style small hotel with just twenty independent chalets situated in a wooded area adjoining the lodge's vineyards. Each evening as we walked from our chalet to the restaurant we could smell the fragrance of the trees, which gave off a lovely peppermint aroma. The lodge is operated by a French family and provides a lovely breakfast and fabulous four course gourmet dinner each evening. The service and menu selection were creative and a wonderful source of enjoyment.
The next day we took a tour of the area with our guide, Peter. He drove us first to the shore of the Indian Ocean where it meets the Margaret River. The river forms a sandy small delta at its mouth, and around the delta were high cliffs covered in low growing shrubs and grasses. The sky was clear and blue, and the blue ocean rolled into the continent with beautiful high crashing waves. Surfers made their way out to the breaking rollers about a half mile off shore. It was a glorious day with a lovely hot sun and a cool ocean breeze to comfort us as we enjoyed a "long black" (essentially one shot of espresso in a cup diluted with water) at the Oceanside Caf above the beach.
Our next stop was the Karri forest, a stand of giant trees of the eucalyptus family that only grow in this environment. Like most large trees, they were heavily logged in the last century and only a few stands remain of the very large specimens. Although not as large as Redwoods, they stand about 200 feet tall and are about 25 feet in diameter. Stately, timeless, beautiful beyond anything created by man, these forests bring a sense of wonder, quiet, and peace to our sensibilities.
Margaret River is a cute little town that has developed to serve the tourists who come to enjoy the wineries. Many people from Perth maintain lovely vacation homes in the area, and the little town gives them some place to shop. Aside from the town, there are wineries everywhere, many of them highly renowned. We visited two wineries; both were replete with beautiful gardens and lovely whitewashed buildings in the Dutch style, like we had seen in the Stellenbosch wine region of South Africa. We stopped for lunch at one of the wineries, and the food was spectacular. I ordered a Chardonnay that was most unusual and flavorful: it has a very woody flavor that made it simply delicious. We also found that a wide variety of mushrooms are plentiful in western Australia and served in creative ways and offered with many meal selections. We have also found that fish and chips is to Australians what the hamburger and fires are to the average America. It can be ordered almost everywhere.
Lastly, we stopped at an artisan's shop that proved very interesting. This gentleman (Jim) makes furniture from the burl of the Kerri and Marri trees. As I mentioned, the Kerri tree is quite large, and these trees often have very large burls growing in place of lost limbs. These things can be huge, perhaps seven or eight feet in diameter. Jim told me that the burls are almost impossible to get anymore as all the large trees that can be harvested have long ago met the axe, but he has managed to obtain a few, and he makes table tops from them. These table tops are just spectacular. We almost bought one, and we may yet if we can find a place to put it!
Before moving south to the City of Albany on the Southern Ocean, we spent the day resting by the pool and enjoying a relaxing day in the brilliant sunshine.
Our drive to Albany took about eight hours, what with all of our "wanders" along the way. Our drive took us through a number of national forests, so the highway was lined with large, beautiful trees during most of our journey. After about three hours we stopped first at the town of Pemberton. It's claim to fame is The Giant Kerri Tree, perhaps the largest extant. For $3 AUD each, we entered the park and visited the Giant. It has rebar rungs like a ladder imbedded in it so that it is possible to climb to the top if so inclined. I was 50% inclined, mostly motivated by the thought of memorializing my accomplishment for posterity.
Another three hours down the road we arrived at the town of Wapole, home to the Tingles. What's a Tingle? Good question. We discovered it to be the largest of all trees in Australia and the largest of the eucalyptus family. These trees rival the Redwoods, although not as tall, but nearly as big around. The giant of giants was certainly big enough to drive a car, if not a truck, through the trunk. The forest seemed to be a sacred place, home to ancient life that existed before the dawn of modern man. Like the Redwoods, the Tingle Forest lies on a hillside within sight of the ocean.
We continued down the road another two hours and arrived at our accommodations about six o'clock. We stayed at a small B&B, which was clean, neat and operated by a very friendly, corpulent couple Sally and Kevin. Sally directed us to an Indian Restaurant, as I was tired of French gourmet dining and was ready for something offering different flavors.
The next morning, we were up bright and early to begin our exploration off Albany. The city is famous as the site of departure of the 40,000 men along with their horses and equipment from Australia and New Zealand (ANZC) to fight in WWI in defense of the British Empire. Winston Churchill sent them to Gallipoli in Turkey. They suffered almost total annihilation. There is a large war memorial in Albany dedicated to their memory and most towns and cities of Australia and New Zealand have war memorials in their town squares in their honor. Oddly, we didn't see many WWII, Korean, or Vietnam war memorials.
Albany is endowed with a huge natural harbor and spectacular natural beauty. The town is situated between two low mountain peaks, with lookout points offering scenic views of the area. The ANZAC Memorial is located atop one of the peaks. The southwestern part of the bay is formed by a peninsula that juts out into the Southern Ocean. This area is reserved as a national park and has many beautiful natural features, foremost of which is a natural bridge formed by ancient granite rocks. Like the great forests we visit, this area has a certain solemnity about it because it is so old, so meaningful[RT1] in the geologic history of the planet, and so beautiful.
The next day we got started early for our six-hour drive to Hyden, the village nearest Wave Rock. The drive was a big surprise for us. The first hour or so we passed through typical Australian bush country, semi-arid, low growing brush country dotted with a variety of eucalyptus trees. After an hour or so the trees seem to disappear as the Sterling Mountains came into view. The clouds were low and rain was falling among the low peaks. As we drove over a rise the bush and low mountains gave way to vast fields of grain. By vast I mean thousands upon thousands of acres, perhaps thousands of square miles of land under cultivation; as far as the eye could see, grain. It was just amazing. The roads are two lane bitumen, most straight for long distances with fields of grain everywhere; a sea of grain. Beautiful large trees lined the sides of the road as it unfolded mile after mile for another three hours. Occasionally a road-train would pass by, which are 36-meter three trailer behemoths carrying grain to Perth or Albany along the Great Southern Highway that connects the west with the east coast of Australia.
After a couple of more hours we made it to Hyden (pop 200) and checked into the only motel in the little town, The Wave Rock Motel. It was pretty much what you might expect, although it was clean and offered the owners interpretation of art: three commodes on a bench planted with one cactus each; beautiful! Over 100,000 people visit this place each year. Late that afternoon we explored Wave Rock, a granite formation that was formed millions of years ago, deep beneath the earth's current surface. Apparently molten lava formed around what became a softer rock; this rock eroded away over time probably through the movement of water while the rock was underground. Later the harder granite was thrust to the surface and a portion of it looks like a wave, although the overall rock formation of which it is part looks like a normal, rounded eroded granite outcropping.
We poked around the area and finally returned to our hotel. Flies are an issue in the bush and outback. Although it is normally dry and hot, aggressive flies buzz about your head and eyes, crawl up your nose if allowed, and in general make a nuisance of themselves. The air in Australia is very clear. The sun is brilliant, and the skies are deep blue. There is little manufacturing in the southern hemisphere, so unlike North America and Europe, there is no Chinese pollution circulating around this part of the globe.
After experiencing a Wave Rock Motel repast that evening and breakfast the following morning, we set off for Perth. It was a four-hour drive through the wheat belt, and as we got closer to the ocean, larger trees appeared, we crossed a low coastal mountain group, and then passed the eastern suburbs of small, closely built, neat suburban homes. Perth is virtually a new city, and its skyline, although beautiful, is modern and without real distinction. We spent the remainder of the day resting and preparing for our two-day train trip across the Nullarbor Plain.
The Nullarbor Plain and the Indian Pacific Railway.
The next morning, we were picked up by a driver and transported to the Perth Railway Station. There we boarded one of the great railroad adventures left in the modern world, the Indian Pacific Rail Road. It runs from Perth to Sydney via Adelaide, a distance of 1,675 miles, 700 of which constitutes the span of the Nullarbor. The train departed Perth at 10 AM sharp and wound its way over the costal low mountains, past the rain swollen Avon River, and past the wheat belt and bush lands that we had driven through the previous two days. As the train proceeded east the land became dryer and flatter, the height of the shrubs and the existence of trees dwindled and eventually was reduced to low growing shrubs and short grass. The Nullarbor is as flat as a billiard table and nothing grows more than a foot above the plain for more than 700 miles. The train tracks run straight for more than 300 miles (the longest straight stretch of train track in the world). The train's path runs about 60 miles north of the Great Australian Bight. Looking at the view from either the window in our suite or from the larger windows in the club car, we could see the landscape roll buy, occasionally interrupted by the excitement of seeing kangaroos or emus in the distance.
At 9:30 in the evening we reached the town of Kalgoolie and the beginning of the Nullarbor Plain. Kalgoolie is a famous town in these parts. Gold was discovered here in 1889 when a prospector stumbled across some nuggets lying in the sand by his feet. It is now home to the largest gold mine in the world, an open pit about 3.5 km long and 1.5 km wide. It has been operating since the early nineteen hundred's, and Herbert Hoover lived here and was the manager of the mine for over seven years. We disembarked the train and were given a tour of the mine and the town that evening. The town was quite interesting, as many of the buildings were built at the time of the gold rush and demonstrated the expansive and idiosyncratic Victorian architecture of a town built with new money. There were over 100 hotels operating up to the early nineteen seventies.
We re-boarded the train about 12:30 AM and got underway for our next stop scheduled at Rawlinna for 06:30 the next morning. Rawlinna is a virtual ghost town of perhaps 5 or 6 people who service the trains that pass across the Nullarbor. Engineers and crewmen are only allowed to work a certain number of hours, so Rawlinna has become a waypoint for these trainmen to rest before joining another train passing through. In our case, all two hundred passengers disembarked for a picnic style family breakfast conducted on picnic tables laid out next to the train. It also gave us a chance to take a "wander" while the train was stopped. After we got underway again, we walked to the club car and watched the borderless, endless Nullarbor roll by before lunch. Passengers are given a selection of times to reserve for lunch and dinner. Lunches are a three-course affair, and dinner five courses. All beverages are included in the train fare. The food was very good, and the service was superlative.
Later that day we stopped at the town of Cook, home to four lonely souls. Here we took another walkabout and looked for opportunities to take a couple of snaps. After boarding the train, we looked forward to our next stop, Adelaide, at 07:15 the following morning. After leaving Cook, the land and climate changed abruptly, almost like someone through a switch; larger shrubs, grasses and trees reappeared. It was clear that we had entered a much wetter, although still semi-arid, micro environment.
Adelaide is a port city located in the middle of the southern coast just east of the Australian Bight and located on St. Vincent's Bay off the Southern Ocean. It is home to one and a quarter million people. It is a lovely, older city with a Mediterranean climate and pleasant weather. We had only two days in Adelaide, but it was well worth a visit. The first day we walked along the river past the extensive entertainment and sports complex, university, the beautiful botanic gardens, then on to the downtown area and back to the hotel; on day two we took a city tour and spent the afternoon shopping in the fashion area. During late February and until mid-March the city hosts an extensive performing, graphic and writing arts festival, with venues hosted all around the city in parks and pubs.
Adelaide was founded as a British military site, but later developed great wealth when copper was discovered a short distance north of the city. Today it is the largest copper mine in the world. The discovery of copper fortuitously coincided with the invention of the telegraph. As telegraph requires copper wires, Adelaide grew wealthy supplying the copper and fabricating the wire used by the new invention. Later, after the automobile was invented, William Holden developed Australia's first domestic car, the Holden. This company was later purchased by General Motors. The early wealth developed first by copper and later by auto production is evident in the beautiful stone and brick mansions and large homes built by wealthy businessmen of the of the era. Unfortunately, the city faces changes familiar to our own midwest and in particular Detroit; Ford, Toyota, and GM are all closing their manufacturing plants here this year, and with them the glass, tire and other ancillary factories associated with car manufacture will close. The minimum wage here is about $15 USD per hour plus benefits and Australian manufacturing can't compete with Asian manufacturers. This is causing great consternation here as they search for new ways to generate wealth to support their lovely life style. The government has hit upon medical research as the new wave forward, and to that end they have built a multi-billion-dollar medical research center, hospital, and medical school, which according to the internet is the fourth most expensive building in the world. Unfortunately, many cities are treading this path, so the future may resemble Detroit's recent history.
On the third day, our visit to Adelaide came to a close and we headed to Alice Springs in the middle of the outback in central Australia. From there we flew to Uluru, sight of the massive 600-million-year-old megalith known as Ayers Rock or Uluru as the aboriginals called it.
The flight from Adelaide took about six hours and we arrived at our accommodation called 131o Longitude about 3 PM. This resort is a must for anyone visiting the area: it has twelve tent/luxury rooms that have a wonderful open patio above the ground that has a bed/lounge and fire place so that you can sleep under the stars if you desire. From this perch above ground you can see the ancient megalith that is about six miles away. Rebecca and I spent several hours sleeping outside one night amazed once again by the scope and beauty of the clear night sky. It recalled the wonderful nights at sea that we spent enraptured by the Milky Way; or other night's star gazing earlier in our lives at Isle Royal or Mary Ann Bay in the North Channel before many of life's mysteries had been revealed to us.
During the day, the view from the deck over the outback was stupendous in part because the desert was in full bloom as it had received prodigious rainfall over the previous weeks, and in part because of the view of ancient Uluru. In fact, the area was closed the previous week due to the flooding of roads, but during our visit the grasses and shrubs were all green and small desert flowers were radiant. The outback is normally a brown waste land of spindly, stick like trees, grasses and low shrubs. The land is red sand with ancient dunes scattered about. At one time this area was a part of a great ocean, which has receded from above the middle of the continent down to what is now referred to as the Great Australian Bight. Only two stone megaliths break the horizon, Uluru at 700 meters in height and Kati Tjuta 400 meters. These two mounts were ceremonial as well as dwelling places for the aboriginal peoples of the area, and we were able to enter several of the caves which were in use until about 1930 as living spaces. We spent most of our time wandering around the base of Uluru, which has a bright rust red color owing to the high iron content of the rock itself. As it has been worn away over the millenniums, the iron oxidizes or rusts, producing its distinctive color. The shape of Uluru is captivating as one walks around it, seeing how erosion of both wind and water have produced various shapes over which the light plays. This was particularly evident as the sun set. The temperature during the day can be as hot 1300 during the summer, but it was only about 1000 while we were there. Flies are a real nuisance, as they buzz around your eyes and nose trying to find some moisture. Insect nets are a necessity.
After our arrival and orientation, we were escorted to Uluru for a walk about and sundowners' gathering with appropriate refreshments. After sundown, we returned to the lodge for a wonderful five course dinner with wine and spirits. The next morning began with breakfast at 05:45, and our first walkabout at 06:30. We were taken on an hour's drive to Kata Tjuta and began our hike to a water hole deep within the mount. On the way, we became fascinated watching a small mob of red kangaroos munching on grass for their breakfast. The hike took about two hours and was a beautiful experience. From the height of the trail we were able to see the beauty of the plain with its dunes and the green and brown waving grasses below. After the walk, we returned for lunch at the lodge, and then drove into the little town to look for souvenirs. We didn't find much of interest there, or anywhere else in Australia for that matter. I have been looking for a nicely carved wooden kangaroo to add to my collection of nick-knacks, but I couldn't find anything, so we enjoyed a brief afternoon nap upon our return to the lodge.
That evening we joined the other lodgers for a sundowner experience at a distance from Uluru so as to be able to photograph the changing shades as the sun set. Following that iconic experience, we all headed for The Field of Lights, a field of optical fiber energized lights that change color in waves over a ten acre or so sized field. Paths permit viewers to walk in the field and enjoy the changing color of the golf-ball sized bulbs that perch atop 30-inch sticks that wave in the breeze something like wheat stalks. The exhibition by Bruce Munro is very interesting and engaging and is itself a big tourist draw to the Uluru area.
That evening the lodge hosted an under-the-stars dinner in the outback. It was warm, clear and the sky was brilliant with stars. An astrological expert gave a brief talk on how to recognize various constellations.
The next day we departed and made our way to Cairns (pronounced by the Australians as "Cans"). This city lies far to the north on the eastern side of the continent and is famous as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef as well as the Dain Rainforest. After we landed in Cairns, we were driven to the resort town of Port Douglas. Port Douglas receives about four meters of rain a year, and we were there at the end of the rainy season. In fact, our visit coincided with the first day of autumn.
Port Douglas is a lovely little place with resort hotels, time shares, condos and beautiful homes organized around its streets and on the sides of the jungle covered hills surrounding the town. Many of these are beautifully modern in their architecture, and most have the distinctive Australian metal, slanted roofs. On the main street, one encounters a long line of shops and restaurants bordering a covered walkway. On the east side of town is a long beach and very warm ocean water. The air temperature is around 900 or more and the humidity boarders 100%. The ocean, as inviting as the long and pristine beach was, is teaming with bity-stingy things as well as animals with very big teeth and bad tempers. This area is home to the box jelly fish, a deadly little creature the size of a pencil eraser that floats by here from late November to early March and may be the most poisonous critter on the planet. Other famous nasty animals include the salt water crocodile, a very large aggressive animal that inhabits the briny inlets if northern Australia and reaches eighteen or more feet in length. The bull and tiger sharks also compete for most unwelcomed.
Traveling brings surprises around every corner, some welcomed and some not so welcomed. This brings us to our accommodations in Port Douglas; after our stay at the 1310 Longitude Resort our tastes were upgraded beyond what we found at the Peninsula Resort at Port Douglas. Although it was certainly adequate, it was below our normal standards as well as expensive. However, we were not in the room much, and so it didn't make very much difference.
On our first full day in Port Douglas, we arranged to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. Our Quicksilver catamaran took us flying 35 miles off the coast to three reefs in about an hour and a half. The boat can accommodate four hundred divers and snorkelers, but thankfully this wasn't the high season and we had only fifty or so people on the boat to compete with. Once at the reef, the boat tied to a buoy and we prepared for a wonderful experience. We were instructed to wear a Lycra suit as protection against the lethally poisonous box jelly fish among other things. It was a complete body cover including hands and hood. As we found out, many of the beaches and seas around Australia are unsafe for swimming much of the year because of dangerous wildlife including jellyfish, sharks, and saltwater crocodilians. The water was about 900 and perfect for the four and a half hours of snorkeling that we did on the three reefs.
The ocean off the eastern coast of Australia is very shallow for hundreds of miles out into the sea until east of the Great Barrier Reef. (The coral reefs we visited were about 35 miles off shore and were relatively small patches of coral heads existing in 20-40- feet of water.) Most of the coral and fish live within 20 feet of the surface and were clearly visible from a snorkeler's vantage point. With a Lycra suit, life vest, and 900 water it was very easy and pleasant to watch the myriad corals and fish as we floated overhead. Our first reaction was how shallow the corals were and how colorful and diverse in the type of corals and fish we saw. We don't remember seeing the vibrant colors at other reefs nor the variety of fish; it was wonderful and wondrous. Rebecca spotted a very large octopus, and we both saw many giant clams of different types, as well as sharks and many other interesting but smaller fish. It was a real "bucket list" sort of experience I would highly recommend.
The next day as we drove out to the Dain Rainforest we crossed hundreds of acres of sugarcane, then we ascended the coastal mountains through different forest environments and finally reaching the Dain Rainforest at 500 meters, and at that point we were just 15 km from the coast. The rainforest receives about 6 meters of rain per year. The Dain Rainforest is perhaps the oldest undisturbed forest in the world at 130 million years old. The vegetation is so primitive it is said to be lethal to most animals including us humans. This forest counts among its living fossils twelve of the fifteen oldest plant species in the world. It is quite moving, at least to us, to see something that has grown on this planet for 130 million years, long before humans emerged from the gloom it seems profound somehow. The paths we walked in the forest were aboriginal in origin, so for some 40,000 years' people have been here scratching out a living among the plants and competing with a variety of pythons, lizards, cassowaries, wallabies, and other things for a living.
Further up the mountain the rainfall reaches 10 meters per year at the crest. On the other side of the mountain peak at 1500 meters, the forest changes to a dry environment forest and more gum and varieties of eucalyptus become present. Large cattle stations exist here. The one we crossed was 30,000 acres, but farther along the road the stations are measured in square miles. A 50-sq. mile station recently sold for $3.5 million AUD. At this point, about 20 km from the coast and over the coastal Blue Mountains, we were in the outback. If we followed the road north it would quickly turn into a dirt track, and if followed for another 800 km would put us at the northern most tip of Australia. Anyone who decides to tackle that road had better have a four-wheel drive and a lot of luck as there is nothing but jungle as you head north. In the mid -nineteenth century thousands of emigrants trod this road in search of gold. It must have been a physically exhausting venture in a swelteringly hot and humid climate with water available only periodically from billabongs. The flies alone would drive a person mad. Yet, despite a long and devastatingly difficult sea voyage from England, they came to seek their fortune in the gold fields of Australia right up this road. One little town we drove through, which now has a population of about 100 people with one pub, had a population in 1880 of 30,000 people, 12 pubs, a brothel, and a saw mill powered by a steam engine imported from Scotland. Gold produced a quick and powerful fever, but when the gold played out, the town folded, and the people left.
Our last day in Port Douglas was spent at a wildlife sanctuary. It was quite an interesting place. We saw several cassowaries, which are themselves living fossils. They are nearly the size of an ostrich. They are a large black bird with feathers similar to fir, two long legs with menacing toe nails, and an ostrich like head that is colored with skin like a male turkey; blue, red and two large red cooling appendages on the front of its breast below the neck. They also have a large brown horn atop their head, which was most interesting. We also saw tree kangaroos. Strangely enough they resemble lemurs; perhaps they are a distant relative. They have similar markings and a very long tail. They also have independent use of their legs, unlike most marsupials. Of course, we saw kangaroos, koalas, lots of tropical birds, and a salty crock (4 meters long, but just a juvenile).
The next day we flew to Sydney to prepare for our flight home. That evening we attended La Boehme at the Joan Sutherland Theater in the Sydney Opera House. We had toured the beautiful building a few weeks earlier but seeing an opera in this iconic theater was a very special memory indeed. It was staged in 1930's Berlin, at least that is what the program said. The stage set looked cavernous and more like 18th century Paris. The only reference to Belin were two police officers in Nazi uniforms. It was interesting to be there, but once you've been to the Met, it's hard to find any other productions to compare.
Observations upon our return:
Australia is a big place! It is about the size of the United States, but with a population of only twenty-five million people. The country is virtually a single race culture, with most people decedents of immigrants from Great Brittan or its former colonies. The social contract that binds Australian society together seems to have produced a happy, pleasant, law abiding, and energetic society. Some of the features of the society include an old age retirement system, public/private health care that is as good as any in the world, free public and university education, no gun ownership, and moderate taxes approximately the same percentage of GDP as our own. Most of the population lives in one of the six largest cities, with the remainder scattered over the rest of the continent. The cities look almost brand new, and most of the large building have been constructed within the last twenty years. Australia is blessed with a moderate climate similar in many ways to California, and all of the cities are located on harbors of one of the three oceans that surround the continent. The continent has green areas around its perimeter which are delineated by a low mountain ranges that block clouds from bringing rain to the interior. Beyond these low near coastal mountains lies the bush country and then the dryer outback. Australia is wealthy, with new infrastructure, 'free' health care for all, and free university education for those who meet entrance requirements. It is also an orderly society: no guns and no trash cans or trash on the streets. People pick up their own litter. Australians are not big fans of the celebrity culture. Colleges do not promote semi-pro sports as we do, nor do they pay coaches millions of dollars or create celebrities out of students. College sports is strictly intermural in Australia.
Australians don't worry about much. They like to go to one of their wonderful and plentiful beaches, dine out, travel abroad, and chill. The cost of food, hotels and clothing are similar to the U.S. Australians earn their wealth through exporting agricultural products and raw materials. They have benefited greatly as the supplier of resources to Asian countries during the boom times of the last two decades. They are very informal in their mannerisms, but straight laced and disciplined when it comes to the enforcement of laws and rules. If they have any real political worries, it is that a big country might try to invade and take over the underpopulated Shangri-La of a continent. Australians love the U.S., consider us a brother culture and carry our political and cultural news on their TVs every day. They are highly integrated with us economically. They are very dependent on the U.S. for their defense.
Australia is a wonderful country with lovely people. We loved being in Australia.