(November 2 - December 6, 2006)
Collapsing Lava Tube Cave
Statues on Sandstone
November 10, 2006
Hello friends and family....
My Australia (Oz for short) adventure is proving to be everything I had hoped it would be. Yet, even after watching discovery shows and reading books I was not prepared for the shock of arriving in a country that is so unlike any other place on earth. Most importantly I am with my best friend Lisa, which makes me eternally happy.
Oz is amazingly Americanized...of all the places I have been here I see more social and cultural familiarity, which juxtaposes the oddity of the environment. The trees don't seem bizarre until you look close and notice that the "pine-like" trees have bunches of needles but the needles are soft and almost appear fuzzy while the bark is smooth and the tree itself flexibly sways in the breeze. Other "pine" trees look like how a Christmas tree would be depicted in a Dr. Seuss book. The pinecones, well I don't quite know how to describe how weird they are....skinny and long but instead of the spiral of woody shelves there are little pods that look like woody lips covering the surface of the cone. And then there are the cars, all the same cars you see in the US (minus the hummers) but mostly manuals and all right-hand driving (yes I still attempt to get into the wrong side of the car). My favorite part is the store names, like the Fruitologist (veggie and fruit market) and the Chemist (drug store). It is like being in a universe slightly skewed from the US. The people are nice and pleasant, with cute accents, and everyone is truly fun to be with. There is so much to take in every minute, it is a bit overwhelming.
The day after I arrived, Lisa and her beau Sam took me on a driving tour of the city. We saw the Sydney opera house (the famous white building on the harbor that looks like sails), the Sydney Harbor Bridge, downtown, the beach, well pretty much everywhere. The city is more than I ever expected...beautiful and exciting with history and elegance. Both Lisa and Sam live in Bondi, right next to the famous white sand beaches, turquoise waters, perfect waves, and fierce rip tides. There is currently an international art exhibition called Art on the Sea with over one hundred sculptures along the Bondi Beach shoreline. As with most art, words will never do it justice. The pieces were strange, beautiful, bizarre, elegant, and just about every other adjective that can be applied to art. The best part was walking along the beach overlooking the waves and following nature's own sculptures. The shore is lined with beautiful stripped sandstone honeycombed by erosion, and streaked with white, orange and deep purple. Leave it to me to walk through a beautiful art exhibit and be entranced by the rocks and waves.
On Tuesday, November 7th the nation celebrated Melbourne Cup day....horseracing! So I experienced my first horseracing extravaganza in downtown Sydney. Almost everyone gets out of work around noon, or their companies host huge banquets for their employees, and everyone dresses up. For those of you who have seen the movie Pretty Woman...the women actually wear the full get-up like the high society club does in the movie. There are stylish and fancy dresses, wide brimmed hats, expensive jewelry, and for those ladies who opt out of the hats...little bunches of feathers that make the crowd look like swarm of birds from above. The men are in suits and everyone is drunk...yes companies actually buy large amounts of Champagne, wine, beer, and liquor. The races viewed on the television were a bit lost on me but it was fun to see the city crowd roar in excitement for the 3 minutes each race took. Every once in awhile someone would shout "I won" and proceed to spend their earnings on more drinks. Overall it was a great change to see everyone just have fun...besides we all need more occasions to wear the nice outfits stashed in the back of the closet.
After way too much celebration Lisa and I stumbled to the train station and headed for the Sydney Olympic stadium where we met Sam and Thea at a Pearl Jam concert. With thousands of people in the stands, most of them likely still drunk from events earlier in the day, the crowd was energetic. The Olympic stadium was gigantic and people streamed to and from the stadium in large groups. I must say the experience was all the better because I am in Australia...good people watching!
I spent the next few days seeing more of Sydney. I toured Centennial Park, which has amazing botanical gardens. It features the largest flower in the world; named the Titan Arum...its scientific name translates to 'huge deformed penis' (for the falic stamin). No, I am not making this up. This Indonesian flower is up to about 6 feet tall and only opens for 2 days every 2-3 years and smells overpoweringly of rotting fish during that time. Then the flower collapses in on itself and the protrusion slowly falls to the ground and then it grows into a tree. So for those of you who keep thinking yeah right, look it up on the internet.
The botanical gardens also include hundreds of orchids and amazing trees. One tree, the Jacaranda, is particularly gorgeous this time of year because it is covered in vibrant purple-blue flowers that carpet the ground like a skirt. They are all over the city. The gardens are next to the Sydney opera house, which is spectacular. The seemingly mirror-like exterior of the building is actually 2 different colors of tiles arranged like fish scales that reflect the light. Lisa and I enjoyed wine and snacks in the Sydney Opera House bar, under the glare of the building with an amazing view of the Harbor Bridge and city skyline. I will continue in about a week with more adventures and insights. I know for a fact that some of the most exciting things are yet to come! Stay well.
November 21, 2006
Sydney continues to be an amazing place. Lisa and I are having so much fun. Since I last wrote I have covered so much more ground and I find it amazing that I have only explored one city.
About a week ago I took the bus to The Rocks district to go shopping. I hit every opal/jewelry shop I came across, probably more than 20. The opals are beyond beautiful. Their interwoven colors look like the stone is burning through all the colors of the rainbow. The fire opals are bright warm colors, the black opals bring in greens and blues, while the white opals are fiery pastels. The boulder opals are my favorites though because the colors weave amongst the browns and yellows of the sandstone in which they formed. I spoke to many of the shop owners about the opal industry and found the lapidary work is traditionally a hobby (so no jobs for me there) and the industry is mainly gemologists, so I would have to go back to school for 1-2 years to do that. Oh well, at least I have the information now and know to look for jobs elsewhere. It was nice that my knowledge got me in a few back doors to see examples of gems not normally on display. I also got to see and hold unaltered champagne and pink diamonds. Such a treat considering the mines will run dry in the near future.
Wednesday was expected to be a stormy day so we started out early to take advantage of the nicer weather in the morning. We went to the lighthouse and then hiked a paved path to the beach. The views of waves crashing against sandstone cliffs were stunning and the cliffs provided amazing panoramic views of the city and surrounding suburbs. As the storm came in it got so windy it seemed I would blow right into the ocean. Once we reached the beach we enjoyed wine and fish dishes while overlooking the water and watching the black cumulus clouds roll in.
On Thursday the storm had settled in the area and it was so cold it seemed the wind was blowing directly from Antarctica. We decided to go to the Sydney museum to pass the day out of the rain and cold. The exhibit had pictures and maps of the city dating back to the 1800's. The transformation of the city is amazing, considering its beginnings as an English prisoner settlement. I was amazed to find that the only reason that Sydney is not the world's largest city in area is because National Parks surround the city. We warmed up in the evening by throwing some shrimp on the barbie.
On Saturday five of us girls went to ladies day at the races....my first time at the horse race arena. We got all dressed up, with feathers in our hair, cute shoes and all. We met at the Sydney central train station and had to run to make our train The train operators actually held the train for us as they called "don't break a heel girls" after us over the loud speaker. We were laughing so hard by the time we hopped on board we could barely stand. The races themselves were crazy. Dozens, if not hundreds of girls were all done up....I took a collage of the pictures to fully define the occasion because words really don't do it justice.
The activities for the ladies day were the best part. They had best dressed contests, male strippers, Brazilian dancers, clairvoyants to help you choose your horse, people on stilts, and of course, tons and tons of alcohol. The pile of glass bottles could have fully covered the floor of a basketball court ankle deep. So, I am sure you can imagine that the crowd gradually lost inhibitions through the day. Sunburned ladies took to the stage and danced for hours, the races that occurred every hour or so were the only thing that could draw attention away from the party atmosphere. Hours later the park emptied out and people scattered, many headed to downtown Sydney to continue the festivities. Crazy day. I barely woke-up in time to get to the airport the next morning, and I must admit that was not the most comfortable airplane ride I have ever had. When the plane landed I was in a tropical setting with palm trees, fluffy clouds, humid air, and the ocean leading out the Great Barrier Reef. But more about my adventures in the north next time (and yes they are beyond fantastic so far!!!!!!!!!!!).
November 27, 2006
My arrival in Cairns marked the beginning of amazing solo adventures. I arrived on Sunday a little under the weather, so I took a shuttle to Rosie’s Backpackers Hostel which ended up being the best hostel I have ever stayed in. The people are friendly and went out of their way to make everyone feel welcome. The grounds were beautiful with a swimming pool, on site laundry, and a TV room open for common use. Many of the people staying there had been there for weeks to even months, while working in town on the holiday working visa unavailable to Americans. My roommates were really nice and though the number and personalities of the people in the room changed daily, not once did I end up with someone who was rude, untrustworthy, or otherwise difficult to share a room/bathroom with.
My first full day in Cairns started very early with a 7:25am pick-up, and many of you will be surprised that I had no trouble waking up in time. The bus took all of us who had paid for the Kuranda rainforest tour to the Kuranda train station. The train to Kuranda was constructed in the days before the handy tools we have at our disposal today, so all the work was done with hand tools and the rock had to be carried down the mountain. This was made more difficult because the tracks were laid on hills densely covered in rain forest plants and the workers had to blast at least 5 tunnels through granite on their way to the Aboriginal and Caucasian-settled village in the mountains.
We took this historic train for almost 2 hours through small towns and up the hills, affording us beautiful views of the valley and sea below. We stopped for picturesque views of the Barron (water) Falls and finally arrived in Kuranda, a once traditional village that has since become a tourist attraction and destination. I immediately headed for the zoo because I had paid the extra fee to go into the Koala Park where I got to hold a koala and have my picture taken with it. The Koala was the size and weight of an 18-month old child and petting its fur was like petting coarse felt. I could feel the pressure of the long claws on my back as the koala clung to me and I have no doubt it could have torn me to shreds if made angry.
I then went into the Kangaroo and wallaby area where I got to feed and pet a large grey kangaroo (the ones we are most familiar with) and a small red wallaby. They were obviously tame and willing to stick around as long as you had food. Their fur was like a deer, and you may be interested to know that Australians have the same attitude toward kangaroos that we Americans have toward deer. They are considered pests and are routinely killed for food and fur to keep the population down. In fact, they even sell kangaroo balls as small bags to carry around for good luck. When I picked one up and read this the look on my face must have been priceless because the store owner almost doubled over in laughter.
After the zoo I wandered through the shops and ate lunch before heading toward the sky rail terminal. Instead of returning by train we sat in car suspended on thick cables above the jungle, rivers, and valley floor. The views were amazing. I shared a car with a retired couple from England who were incredibly nice and asked I spend the rest of the day with them. We soared over ferns, tall trees with wide canopies, large flowers, and we could see for miles around. We stopped twice to walk through the jungle and soon descended into the Cairns valley where we went to the Tjapukai Cultural Park, an Aboriginal center set up to give tourists an idea of the Aboriginal culture without disturbing the Aborigines throughout the nation. We got to throw boomerangs and spears, which I failed miserably at, and saw demonstrations of didgeridoo playing and a video depicting the Aboriginal creation story. It was an amazing experience to see these aspects of a culture that is fading away. The Aborigines in the park wore the traditional costumes with face and body paint and seemed to truly enjoy sharing their culture with outsiders. After this experience the tour bus returned us to our respective accommodations.
The second day tour adventure I signed up for was a sailing trip to the Great Barrier Reef. I was picked up at 7:15am and brought to the harbor where we boarded the Ocean Spirit vessel. The boat held about 150 people, a large portion of them part of an Italian tourist group and the others were mostly English tourists. The Italians were amazingly rude and pushy, so those of us not a part of their group ended up sticking together. The sea was incredible choppy and 15 minutes into the trip a large portion of the passengers were very sea sick...and once again I was so happy I do not get motion sickness. The trip was beautiful, sailing out in the great blue with green hills on the horizon and about an hour later we came to a stop next to Michaelmas Cay Island, a sand island inhabited by nesting birds.
I gathered my snorkeling gear and took a ferry to the beach where I went through a short snorkeling lesson as a refresher course and then explored the reef with a Marine Biologist. Amazingly I was the only one who signed up for a tour with the Marine Biologist so I got a private tour. He led me to different colonies he has been visiting for years and pointed out Angel and Coral Fish. He brought loose samples of the soft and hard corals to the surface for me to touch. The hard coral is dense and rough like a callus and the soft coral was soft like cashmere and slimy at the base. The coral were every color of the rainbow, with bright blues and yellows the most prominent. I was amazed to learn that coral fish rarely move from a specific area of the reef and so they become familiar with the Marine Biologist over time and will play with him when he arrives.
The tour was well worth it and afterwards I returned to the boat for a buffet lunch of seafood and salads and then boarded the semi-submersible for another tour of the reef. The same Marine Biologist guided us in a tour in the lower portion of a boat with all glass sides while someone steered the boat from above. It was a great opportunity to take pictures and see lower portions of the reef unavailable to snorkelers.
After this I donned my snorkeling gear once again and returned to the reef. About 5 minutes into my solo exploration I came across a lone turtle dining on the reef. I hovered above it and it soon rose to the surface and as it came up its shell touched my hand. It let me pet its shell and then swam with me. Every once in awhile it would dive to eat more but kept returning to the surface for air and each time it did it would swim right next to or below me for a minute or two. It was majestic and beautiful. Its shell was stripped blue and brown and its fins were soft and scaly. It looked me right in the eyes with ones its large black eyes and after 20 minutes I let it go on its way as I had to return to the boat. It was the most intense experience and will forever remain one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. The return journey on the boat was just as rough but I was high from swimming with the turtle and barely noticed. I met a young couple from Nebraska on their honeymoon and talked with them over complimentary champagne for most of the trip back to Cairns.
My third day trip brought me West toward the outback to visit the Undara Lava Caves. The tour bus picked me up at 7:50am and about 20 of us headed into the rain forest. The tour guide and driver was incredibly informative and guided us through the trip. We drove through the valley covered in fields of sugar cane and soon started climbing into the dense rain forest that had been badly damaged by Cyclone Larry last March. We could see whole trees snapped in half and sky where the canopy used to be. The cyclone had traveled for 200km inland devastating rain forest, houses, and banana plantations. Incidentally, the driver informed us that banana plants are not actually classified as trees, but as herbs because they have no trunks, which is why they were so easily destroyed in the high winds.
As we drove on the flora changed and we were driving through a dry rain forest. This term is odd, but refers to rain forest that is just as thick but survives on a fraction of the water the wet rain forest does. We stopped in a small town for tea and breakfast, and here I met another American (New York) couple on their honeymoon. We re-boarded the bus after a short time and drove on and the landscape changed again into a semi-thickened dry rain forest with large termite mounds scattered about. Termites look like white ants but are actually closer related to cockroaches. They make subterranean homes because they have no pigment and die very quickly in the sunlight. The mounds were light beige to ochre and orange and ranged from pointy and tall to round and wide, with rain rivulets in the surface. There were hundreds as we drove through the forest.
We passed through a town called Mt. Garnet, outside of which the set for Survivor Outback was set up. So those of you who believe they were really in the outback, well they were only 2+ hours from civilization and not even close to the true outback. As we neared our destination the landscape changed in a savanna with eucalyptus trees and grass lands. This is the environment that the Undara National Park is in, along with a privately owned resort in the middle of no-where catering to the adventurous tourist. A restaurant was set up within an old dining train car decorated for romantic evening dining. We enjoyed an incredible buffet lunch on the patio with a view of the savanna. The noise from the crickets was deafening, as were later told, because the crickets there have two set of noise-makers and they make constant music.
After lunch we boarded a tour bus and headed to the caves, and on the way we saw wild kangaroos sleeping under the trees. Kangaroos take refuge from the daytime heat by napping in the sparse shade. Our destination, the lava caves were immense, and when the tour guide found out I was a Geologist/Volcanologist he became slightly nervous, though I promised him I wouldn't criticize. The caves were fairly shallow because sections had caved in, but the walls showed the melt marks where the hot lava had flowed through 190,000 years ago. We walked on a boardwalk because the caves are protected as a national resource. I was struck by the beauty of the walls and ceiling because years of calcium and iron staining had painted the cracks in the black basalt with orange and white residue.
Our return journey had us backtracking through the savanna, but when we returned to the wet rain forest we took a road that brought us through volcanic explosion craters, the seven sisters cinder cones, and around the rim of an old volcanic crater. None of the volcanoes are active anymore, but the views were beautiful and we were soon plunging down a canyon toward the Cairns valley once again. We returned 12 hours after we began and when I got back to my hostel I spent the evening with the other guests, with the unhappy knowledge I was leaving in the morning.
A large group of us went into town to a club where they serve free drinks between 11p and 12a because there is little other reason to go given the horrible DJ. So many treated it as a contest to see how much free alcohol they could consume that people were falling down drunk. Given my last flying experience I took it easy and ended up walking the drunkest of the group back to the hostel lest they get lost or decide to sleep in the street. The next morning I packed my bag and boarded a plane to Adelaide to meet my friend Rory, whom I met 5 years ago in Bali and haven't seen since. My adventures in the provenience of South Australia will be in my next email.
December 21, 2006
On Thursday I boarded a plane that took me away from the jungle and brought me south to the wine country. As the plane ascended, the views of the jungle covered hills and coral reef spotted waters gradually changed into arid expanses painted red as far as the eye can seen. River channels cut through the red leaving a patina of orange to white markings. Further to the south grasslands replaced the arid outback and eucalyptus once again claimed the landscape.
Arriving in Adelaide was like déjà vu. The golden hills below were a spitting image of the hills of the picturesque Sonoma and Napa Valleys of California. I kept thinking, 'did I board a plane to back home? There is no way two places on earth could look so much alike'. After landing I headed to my reserved hostel, Annie's Place in West Adelaide, and made myself comfortable. I had splurged and reserved a double room with a private bathroom, and within hours I was immeasurably happy with my decision because I was unmistakably getting sick. I spoke to my friend Rory, whom I had come to Adelaide to see, and we decided to meet the next morning since she had to work that evening. So I walked into town and sat down at Thai restaurant that served the best mango-coconut curry on the face of the earth and then returned to the hostel to retire.
Meeting Rory was like running into a close friend on the street....despite the fact we had not seen each other in five years and had not kept each other up-to-date over that time. It was wonderful to see a familiar face and we spent the day taking a walking tour of Adelaide, which is fairly small but well laid out. The downtown is a one mile square grid oriented north-south, east-west and it is bordered on all sides by park lands, and beyond the parks suburbs spread out further into the valley. We went to lunch and then Rory returned to work while I wandered.
I went into opal shops where I found chunks of discarded boulder opal for sale and a shop that designed its basement floor to look like an opal mine, with chunks of each type of opal embedded into the concrete walls. One of these shops informed me that the National Museum in town had an exhibit of an opalized dinosaur skeleton on display. I didn't need to be told twice; I walked the three blocks to the museum and was amazed by the incredible geology exhibit. They had an expansive collection of gems and minerals of every color, some in chunks hundreds of times larger than I had ever seen before, but the opalized skeleton exhibit took the cake. The dinosaur was a large sea going reptile with fins and a long jaw filled with small needle-like teeth. At about 10 feet long, the skeleton was almost complete and the atoms in each bone had been replaced with hydrated silica so it was completely composed of opal that sparkled and gleamed with every color in the spectrum. Smaller skeletons on display had gone through the same process, though none were as complete. After seeing this incredible exhibit I decided to return to my hostel for a nap, so I hopped on the bus.
A few hours later I met Rory again and we took the train to the beach to walk the pier and see the sights. The coastline was just like the views the tourists flock to in San Francisco. We returned to downtown Adelaide to prepare for a night out. Rory, her boyfriend and I met with two of their friends from Nepal and we went to dinner at a fish and seafood restaurant and then headed to a well-known night spot called Skycity. The moment I walked in the doors I felt like I had been transported to Las Vegas. The Skycity is a casino and nightclub with gaming tables and slot machines on the first two floors of the complex and the third floor has a fully stocked bar and a dance floor.
One of the things I have noticed about Australians is that people of all ages go out on the town, and though this doesn't seem to have altered the normalcy of the social scene I have seen throughout Australia, this dance floor was particularly entertaining with everything from an eighteenth birthday party to 60 year-old women stuffed into outfits made for eighteen year-olds. The men, for the most part, were any sober girls' worst nightmare with bad moves and bad clothes from the disco days. But the music was even worse. I stood there wondering who let that woman on stage with a microphone; she wouldn't even make the first round of American or Australian Idol. We soon vacated the scary dance floor and went downstairs where Rory and I put chips in the machines and pushed random buttons. Surprisingly we won a few times but lost overall. The night ended shortly thereafter.
The next day I went on a wine tour. I boarded the tour bus at 8am, after stopping by the pharmacy to get cold medicine. The bus driver was great, with non-stop humor and endless facts about Adelaide, historical monuments, and the wine country. We drove up a ravine along a river and soon passed a reservoir before crossing over into the Barossa Valley, the Australian equivalent to the Napa Valley. The similarity still shocks me, you actually couldn't tell pictures of the Napa/Sonoma Valley from the Barossa Valley, even if you lived in both places. The valley was broad and covered with vineyards. The area was settled in the 1800's by Germans fleeing religious persecution and it has retained its German heritage in architecture and place names.
We stopped for breakfast soon after entering the valley and then proceeded to the first winery, which boasts the oldest Shiraz vines in the world. The wine was incredible, as one might expect. The second winery was connected to a restaurant at which we were served lunch. I had a delectable vegetable fettuccini but the majority of those on the bus ordered kangaroo meat cooked rare in a wine and berry sauce. One of the women offered me a piece of meat so I tried it. Kangaroo is very much like beef but less chewy and with a more intense flavor. After lunch we proceeded with the second tasting in a large high ceiling room with a beautiful bar. The top of the bar was a solid 3 inch thick slab of a beautiful mahogany colored wood divided into three pieces that totaled more 50 feet in length. After drinking our fill we proceeded to an overlook point to take pictures, with the dry golden grass surrounding us and vineyards stretching below for miles in every direction. The third and final winery was one of Australia's largest wineries. As you can imagine, between the cold pills and endless wine tastings I was a bit loopy by this point, but so was everyone else on the bus, except for the driver. So we headed back to Adelaide, most passengers passing out on the bus during the drive. We were dropped off at our prospective accommodations and left on our own to sober up.
My last day in Adelaide went slowly because my cold was full blown, so I took full advantage of my private room and watched Australian music TV. Rory and I met later in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day exploring Adelaide. We went to the botanical gardens where we wandered through Australian trees and bushes and into the rose gardens, which displayed at least one of every kind of rose bush I have ever seen and more. The spring bloom was full and the colors of sterling, yellow, red, coral, and white roses were dazzling.
As we wandered we heard music coming from a nearby park so we headed toward it and stumbled upon a festival protesting negligent use of chemicals. We happened upon it as it was winding down and everyone was sloppy drunk. People were wandering in circles, weaving through the crowd running into every person they were avoiding, and displaying even more extreme levels of alcohol toxicity. It was hilarious; a couple even managed to fall into the lake as they attempted to get out of their boat. As the party broke up we wandered away, avoiding the drunken crowd that was now filtering out of the park. We then walked though Adelaide University among its old stone buildings and beautiful old trees. We soon stopped for dinner where we talked until we were exhausted and said goodnight. The next day we said our goodbyes at the airport and I flew over the eerily familiar golden hills back to Sydney.
The remainder of my time in Australia was spent lazily in Sydney. I spent most days on Bondi Beach enjoying the warm weather and flour soft white sands. One evening a small group of us went to the Sydney Opera house to see a symphony. The inside of the opera house was as beautiful as I imagined and the acoustics were amazing. Afterwards we joined some of Lisa's hockey mates at a birthday night on the town. We were out until 4am and yet we still went out the next night, and this time I saw the sun come up before I went to sleep. What can I say, Aussie's party harder than most and I did my best. The week went quickly and before I know it was time to leave. It was a teary goodbye to Lisa and Sam and after 20 hours of uncomfortable travel I arrived back in San Francisco.I would return to Australia in a heartbeat. I love the uniqueness f the country, the variety of environments and people, and there is so much I have yet to do…