Friday, January 30, 2009

Melbourne, January 31

Here we are in Melbourne at the end of the Australian Open. It’s truly a stroke of luck for us because we aren’t big tennis fans, at least not until now. We are here now because our Seattle friends Alan and Margaret had been planning a pilgrimage to this Grand Slam tournament to coincide with our time down under. They had to cancel, leaving us with a hotel room just down the river from the Machu Picchu of this sport – the Rod Laver Arena and the Melbourne Park tennis complex.
There are huge TV screens set up in public places downtown – plazas, malls – and hundreds of people sit as a community watching the play in silence, cheering or clapping at appropriate moments. It’s also been 110 degrees Fahrenheit three days in a row (think, summertime in Las Vegas except the city is not set up for this kind of weather, with train tracks buckling and massive power outages). The longest and hottest heat wave to hit Melbourne in 100 years, they say. It’s beastly hot. Great weather for staying indoors and watching “the tennis” on “the telly”.
But yesterday we braved the heat and experienced the tournament live and in person. Our first major tennis tournament watching Venus and Serena Williams winning the women’s doubles – with the roof closed. Later, with the roof open, the 5 hour, 14 minute semi-final between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasca, the battle of the Spaniards, an absolutely riveting match, with Verdasco matching Nadal point for point, set after set...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Airlie Beach, Queensland, January 26

First Dive

Tom and Stacey

In two weeks, we travelled north, about 600 miles by campervan and about the same distance by air and boat. The land has grown greener and greener. We have seen nothing remotely resembling outback. We have moved from temperate weather to the tropics here in North Queensland/Great Barrier Reef.
Camping was a great way to see the country. We could move at our own pace. We stayed at trailer parks and national park campgrounds and met a lot of Australians along the way. One lady told us about four wheel driving in the outback (personal record, 5.5 days seeing no one else). They have a single sideband radio network (like yachties) and air intake towers that allow the engine to work in flood waters. She lent us a book of Aussie poetry. Did you know “Waltzing Matilda” was originally a socio-political epic about a starving poacher who killed himself when he was apprehended by the police?
The landscape was great. The small towns attractive. We had reunions with boat friends who have sailed on to Australia. We saw Neil Young in concert. Many Aussies stayed up all night to watch the Obama inauguration.
Brisbane was a monument to big brash civic vision. Transportation system? Ferries of all speeds and sizes run up and down a completely revitalized river. Hot? Cool off in the fantastic water gardens right downtown underneath bowers of bougainvillea. Museums, take your pick of world class architecture. A massive airport. Two enormous new bridges and 20 mile freeway segments under construction.
Airlie Beach is about 1200 miles north of Sydney and 800 miles south of Cape York (the northernmost point on the East Coast of Australia). It’s gorgeous if you can ignore the pesky bugs and the stultifying muggy heat characteristic of summer, the rainy season. Reminiscent of Bali and Hawaii, it rains very hard but has cleared up every day.
This is a small resort town that is the hub of Australia’s #1 boat cruising area, the Whitsunday Islands, 74 forested mountainous islands on the inside of the Great Barrier Reef. Our friend Steve Ingram’s daughter works on a boat based here. She generously offered us her home and car while she was off at work.
Stacey’s place is made out of corrugated tin and sits in the middle of sugar cane fields by a creek under green mountains. The fields are filled with wallabies (little kangaroos). There’s water from a tank that collects rainwater from the roof, electricity, refrigeration, and hot and cold plumbing. No air conditioning, just 2 ceiling fans and big frames that slide open to the outside. No screens, but a mosquito net canopy around the bed. The area is nicknamed “Snake Valley Yacht Club” by the locals but we saw no evidence of the namesake in the five days we were here, nor of the tarantula that supposedly lives in the yard. It’s really quiet when the rain stops, the frogs pipe down, and the geckos go to sleep.
We took an excursion boat to the Great Barrier Reef. It was 55 miles out and back again. Now that we have seen one of the seven wonders of the world and tried scuba diving for the first time, we can say that we have seen more impressive reef breaks and undersea life snorkeling off Rasa Manis.

Queensland, January 22

Lots of wildlife in twelve days of camping in the hinterlands and beaches of the East Coast. The first live kangaroo sighting – a pair – came after six days roaming the woodlands. After that we’ve seen our fair share of hopping marsupials in the bush. We still personally can’t tell a kangaroo from a wallaby, a wallaroo, or a pandelemon.
There are big prehistoric looking lizards – goannas – and geckos all over the place. Snakes, including a huge dead python. Colorful noisy birds and laughing kookaburras. Cicadas so loud the sound pierces your eardrums. Frogs so loud you have to yell over them. Dingoes howling at night. We are grateful to have metal between us and the creatures of the night.
In captivity we have seen cute koalas, hefty wombats, massive sharks, and after much determination, a duck billed platypus. We lost most of our very amateur wildlife photography trying to use an underwater case that malfunctioned when we took it snorkeling. Ooops.
Fortunately we have not yet encountered the fearsome poisonous jellyfish. Now, the southern summer, is stinger season. These stingers are sometimes fatal. We met a fortyish man near Brisbane. When we told him we were headed north, he said, “Watch out for the jellyfish”, and showed us the permanent scars he’d received at age 4 when he was on holiday with his parents. Tourists, they had no idea of the risk they were taking swinging him by the arms along the water on a hot and humid summer day. He spent two days in hospital close to death.
Now, there are big signboards by the beaches identifying the various jellyfish, some of which are barely visible. There are bottles of vinegar attached to the signboards which counter the effects of stings from one or two of the numerous species. “If you are stung, flush with one to two liters of vinegar for 30 minutes. Get emergency help immediately…..Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, loss of consciousness and a looming sense of dread…”. The government constructs lovely swimming pools by the beaches and one wears a full body stinger suit engaging in water sports.
Then there are the sharks. Last year, the state of Queensland netted over 800 sharks off popular swimming beaches. 20% of them were Jaws-sized monsters. One is advised not to go near the water at dawn and dusk, especially not while walking a dog (favored shark bait). Who would have thought swimming could be this hazardous to your health?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

January 13, 2009, Sydney Region, Australia

“We’re not hobbits. It’s nice to get out of the shire.”

Australia’s awesome. Maybe it’s just the contrast with gnarly New Zealand, but everything seems vibrant, big, brash, ambitious. Sydney’s a beautiful city with a lovely harbor, excellent beaches, an extensive, coordinated public transportation system with bus, trains, light rail, ferries, and monorail and millions of young people (every exchange student in the world?).

We missed New Year’s Eve but we got opening night of the Sydney Festival. Not only were there fireworks, but the downtown streets and parks were transformed into a free performing arts festival with an estimated quarter of a million people in the streets, listening to live music and learning “The Sydney”, a specially commissioned dance via huge video screens.

After five days in Sydney we picked up a campervan (small motor home) and headed out to the Blue Mountains, big eucalyptus forests covering long ridges, vast limestone caves and deep, deep canyons. We’ve reached the Hunter Valley, a big wine region. There are 90 wineries here. Impressive estates, they must be competing for architecture and landscape design prizes along with Wine Spectator ratings.