Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Perth, Australia, February 15

We spent 10 days in the southwestern corner of the state of Western Australia (WA). Perth, the state’s capital, has been called “the most remote city in the world”. It’s four hours, by air, to any other city in Australia or Asia. Perth didn’t seem remote. The city was full of new buildings, luxury goods, expensive cars, microbreweries and supermodel wannabees.
Our friends Steve and Jillian showed us a wonderful time. Steve emigrated to Oz 20 years ago from Seattle, and Jill came from England around the same time. They took us to see an Australian Rules football game – Jill works for the league so we sat in the commissioner’s box. They introduced us to great music and the best local libations. They arranged for an afternoon of sailing out of Royal Perth Yacht Club, proud home of Australia II, winner of the 1983 America’s Cup. Took us bike riding on the glorious Rottnest Island. And we’ve gotten to know three out of four of Steve’s wonderful daughters.
Three hours south of the Perth was Margaret River - nirvana for people who love the fine things in life. Home to 140 premium wineries, the area’s Indian Ocean beaches draw an international surfer set. Talk about beautiful people. The area is quiet and bucolic. There’s no traffic. The stars at night are something to behold. One wanders around in a haze of fine wine with galleries and food to match.
Most of Australia’s mineral wealth is found in WA and this sector has been the major driver of the country’s economy in recent years. There’s gold, nickel, iron, uranium, copper, diamonds, salt, oil and gas and more. China has been the dominant buyer as well as a major investor.
We were not out of fire danger in WA. We went for a hike in a national park just minutes from our hotel in Margaret River. We smelled smoke. We drove down the road to catch a view of a huge plume of smoke rising out of the hills. At the hotel, an evacuation was in process. We packed our bags and wondered what was next. Six hours later, the fire was under control and we got back to the hotel but the firefighters spent 48 hours mopping up. The park was lit up with flames again the next night – perhaps, it was speculated, by arsonists seeking the thrill of the Victorian bushfires.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Victoria, Australia, February 7

The state of Victoria, as everyone by now knows, is the site of the horrific Australian wildfires that exploded on February 7. We were never in the impacted areas and we left Victoria February 6, the day before the disaster struck. We visited dry plains dotted with gum trees, steep forested hills and mountains, traces of waterfalls and rivers, dramatic limestone cliffs. We saw lots of kangaroos and koalas in the wild, along with a lone emu. In contrast to the green east coast, Victoria, in the southeast, was brown and dry. Now in the twelfth year of a drought, there have been bans on watering for years. We tried to go to a car wash. It had been closed for three years. We took a detour to see the lake built for the rowing events of the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, a beautiful area according to our Lonely Planet. All dried up. There were signs everywhere, “Extreme Fire Danger”. There was evidence – physical and anecdotal - of massive forest fires in the recent past. The news had daily coverage of bushfires raging already in the area. Down at the coast, along the Great Southern Ocean, we were told, by the friendliest people so far in Australia, this kind of heat is not normal. It had brought a plague of annoying but harmless flies that sought you out wherever it was hot and sunny as if to say, you don’t belong here. The tourist sites were hard to appreciate because everyone around was doing their best to wave off the flies. Hiking was not particularly pleasant either. Bushfires, we have been learning, are essential to the ecology of Australia. The indigenous people engaged in controlled burning to allow germination of seeds for their food supplies. The white people didn’t fare so well. One of the most evocative pieces of art we have seen was a frightening Victorian bushfire at night, painted in 1898. We can honestly say the place was in high alert. After the week of extreme heat during the tennis tournament in Melbourne (3 days in a row over 108), the temperatures moderated a bit, staying just below 100. Days in advance, the weather forecast for February 7 was, “record heat and high winds…with the risk of catastrophic fires as in Black Friday (1939) or Ash Wednesday (1993)”, each of which left dozens dead. The policy is “leave early or stay to defend”. People were prepared – but not for this one, with flames as high as 200 feet roaring down the hills not 30 miles from downtown Melbourne, a city of 3.5 million people.