Note: This is part two of a six-week trip. For the previous installment, please see New Zealand 2014.
We picked up a rental car at the airport in Hobart and drove to a house we’re staying at through Airbnb. I’ve been an Airbnb host for three years and am excited by my first time being an Airbnb guest. Paul made all the arrangements with a man named Chris, who, it turns out, was just housesitting for the owner, Kirsten, who returned a few days ago. When we arrived, they were both here, as was Kirsten’s teenage daughter Matilda, who had juggling beanbags but didn’t know how to juggle. I started to give her a lesson, but her father showed up to pick her up for a few days with him. She asked her mother where her bag was, and her mother asked where she’d left it. Matilda didn’t know, so Kirsten suggested she check the back of a chair in the kitchen. Matilda complained that it wasn’t there, but when Kirsten said to look again, it magically appeared. They were both very good natured about it, but the whole interaction was so perfectly teenage daughter that it made me miss my nieces, and I was sad when Matilda left. I was pleased that the cat stayed. In the bathroom, there is a circus festival poster that features an (unidentified) man. I identified him as the Birdmann I saw perform in at the New York Clown Theater Festival a few years ago. He was great, very funny.
Most of the restaurants within walking distance were closed, but we found a Mexican place. It only offered a three-course prix fixe menu, so I ate too much even though it was bad and I wasn’t hungry. In the morning, Kirsten went to work, and Chris came over to help us plan our time here. He had a lot of ideas, but many of them required several hours of driving. We only booked two days here because we wanted to see Tasmanian devils, but as we were flying in, I read two different airplane magazine articles about Tasmania and started thinking there was a lot to do on this island. I started skimming the giant Australia guidebook too and upgraded my goals for this stop:
- See Tasmanian devils
- Visit the Museum of New and Old Art
- Learn about Tasmania’s penal colony history
- Check out the Hobart waterfront
- Eat at Pigeon Hole With Chris
We settled on a plan for our two days: today we’d drive to the penal colony at Port Arthur and the Tasmanian devil conservation park, possibly stopping at a beach and some scenic cliffs along the way; tonight we’d eat at Pigeon Hole; and tomorrow we’d visit MONA and the waterfront. As soon as we got in the car though, Paul said he didn’t like the sound of Port Arthur, the drive was too long, and the wildlife sanctuary got a much worse review than one in the opposite direction. We keep doing this, talking to a local, making a whole plan, and then doing something else. Well, I don’t know how that day would have been, but this day was pretty great, so maybe Paul was right. Since the real reason we came was to see Tasmanian devils, we started with that. I, of course, was picturing this:
Instead, we got this:
We spent the morning at the Bonorong Wildlife Center (funny, I’m willing to spell bungee jumping “bungy” like the New Zealanders, but I’m not willing to write “centre” for anything). It is distinctly unlike a zoo. They only take animals who are unable to fend for themselves (orphans, animals hit by cars) or have special circumstances (Tasmanian devils are going extinct), and when possible, they return the animals to the wild. We saw lots of birds, a tiger snake, and a few blue-tongued lizards, one of which we think was pregnant, but the real treat was the marsupials. To start with, kangaroos were all over the place.
Our ticket price included a bag of kangaroo food and instructions for how to feed them (keep your hands low and they like being rubbed on the chest but not on the head or back). I had a hard time narrowing this down to one photo, but I picked this one (even though I cut off her ears) because you can see the kangaroo’s hands holding mine and the joey in her pouch.
I loved the way they’d grab my hand to eat out of it, but they did scratch me up a bit.
Paul didn’t like them slobbering all over his hands, so he came up with his own method for feeding them.
After walking around a bit on our own, we took a tour, which wasn’t really a tour but a dude telling us about some of the animals, showing us their pouches, feeding chick carcasses to the Tasmanian devils, letting us pet a wombat and a koala, and railing about how horrid humans are and how great animals are. He was young and cute enough that his nuttiness was endearing. And of course he probably wasn’t wrong. The wildlife sanctuary was extremely satisfying.
On the way back, we went to the Museum of Old and New Art, which our guidebook listed as the third best attraction in the whole country. We’re going to do at least the top five. After a quick lunch outdoors at the museum café, we submerged and worked our way back up through three floors of underground art. The exhibition that took up 70 percent of the floor space was called “The Red Queen” and focused on the art-making process. MONA doesn’t use wall tags. Instead, everyone gets an iPod with basic details on every work and short essays by and/or about the artists, interviews, songs, and other media for many of them. The museum mixed Egyptian mummies with Henry Darger manuscript pages and ancient Chinese sculpture with Marina Abromovic videos. I loved it. We spent a few hours there, and I think I saw every work of art, but I sure didn’t watch all the video throughout the galleries although I might have liked to if I’d had hours more. Here are just a very few pieces. WaterArtMONA
We drove back into Hobart and parked near the waterfront. We walked around the two neighborhoods we’d heard were cool, Salamanca Place and Battery Point. As we were walking back to the car, we saw a sculpture of a number and realized it was part of an art exhibition that I’d been curious about but Chris had said nobody liked. We decided to check it out anyway. The Battery Point Sculpture Trail is a series of numbers spread out over maybe 20 blocks. Signs direct you where to walk, but it’s still a bit of a scavenger hunt to find some of the pieces. Each one is a number, but they’re all constructed differently. Some are carved, one is topiary, one floats in the water. The numbers all stand for something in Hobart’s history, with explanatory signs. It was really fun to walk along, looking for art and reading about the town.
At the end of the walk, we stopped in a little grocery store before heading back to town. Paul bought a honey-flavored milk I’d been eying. It was nasty. “What’s the difference between Vegemite and Promite?” I asked the woman behind the counter. “They’re totally different,” she answered. “How?” I asked. “That’s like asking how peanut butter and Vegemite are different,” she said. “Yes,” I said, “and there’s an answer: peanut butter is made from peanuts and Vegemite is made from yeast extract.“ She told me to go read the labels. Both included yeast extract, and Promite lists more vegetable content. As soon as we left, Paul looked up the differences on his phone. There were a few, but basically the answer is different brands.
As we were walking back to the car, we ran into Kirsten on the street with a friend. She told us the restaurant we were on our way to was only open breakfast and lunch. I wanted to eat oysters, so they recommended a nearby place. We walked over and had delicious raw oysters and bland friend fish and shrimp. That was a good day.
Thursday we woke up and went to Pigeon Hole, the restaurant I’d convinced Paul it would be worth springing for because it was touted in both airline magazines and our guidebook. It turned out to be lovely but not exactly the fancy treat I’d imagined. Pigeon Hole is a tiny, modest café. We each got a baked egg dish. Mine mostly tasted of lemon, oddly. We were still hungry, and the sweet dishes looked more interesting, so I asked the waitress which was the most interesting. She said she liked the nectarines on rye, so we got that. It was delicious: fresh nectarines, goat cheese, candied apricots, and hazelnuts on rye. Stuffed, we drove an hour and a half to the Port Arthur Historic Site to learn about Tasmania’s convict history. The admission included a short harbor cruise to see the Isle of the Dead and the boys prison. A pod of dolphins followed the boat. The boys prison was the first in the British Empire. Boys were allowed to work from the age of four, legally responsible for their actions by seven, could be executed at age seven, and were eligible for transportation by age nine. Maybe being sent to Australia was considered worst than death.
We wandered through the visitor center, learning about life in the settlement, and I visited the memorial for the victims of the 1996 mass killing. Then we took a quick tour and wandered through the grounds, which were riddled with wallaby poop. Chris had warned us that Port Arthur made a theme park out of a disturbing chapter in the nation’s history, but I found it respectful and fascinating. The most disturbing part was the separate prison, one of the first penitentiaries to use isolation to encourage reflection and reform. Men spent 23 hours a day in their cells, communicated only in hand gestures, and had to wear hoods to hide their identity any time they left the cell so they couldn’t even recognize each other.
On the drive home, we stopped at scenic points in the Tasman State Park. The spots had names such as Remarkable Cave, the Blowhole, Fossil Bay, the Tasman Arch, Devil’s Kitchen, and the Tessellated Pavement, each more striking than the last with sheer rock drops to blue waters, stone arches, and crashing waves. At one I bought six raw oysters and a giant prawn from a food truck, and when I walked back to the car a tiny blue bird was sitting on the windshield. It definitely wasn’t a jay, but it flew away before I could get a photo.
Paul wouldn’t eat the oysters because they were already open, so when we got back to town we found a seafood restaurant and ordered a dozen oysters for an appetizer. I got two raw, two with pear ponzu, and two cooked with bacon and Worcestershire sauce. I took my six and left Paul six raw ones. Paul says, “you took the little ones. You need to take the big ones.” I thought he was worried our division wasn’t fair, so I assured him I didn’t care which two raw oysters I ate. He repeated that I should take the big ones, and I asked whether he thought the small ones tasted better. He said no, the big ones grossed him out. I asked whether he even liked oysters, and he said he likes little ones if he covers them in sauces, so he covered his in Tabasco. He choked down three, and then I ate all of mine and half of his. They were plump, briny, and delicious. I also got a shrimp-crab risotto with truffle oil, but it was bland.
Back at the Airbnb, Kirsten and Matilda came back, and I was flattered that Matilda was so obviously excited to see us and asked a lot of questions about what we’d been doing. We stayed up too late chatting with Kirsten, who teaches English to refugees, mostly from Afghanistan. We woke up early and flew to Melbourne, where a friend of a friend had agreed to host us. She, Jess, and her soon-to-be roommate Emily met us at the airport. They’re in the process of moving and already occupy both apartments, a block apart, so they have a ton of extra space but of course are stressed and have stuff spread all over. Almost as soon as we’d dropped off our bags, we went into Fitzroy to eat native flora and fauna at Charcoal Lane, a restaurant with a mission to help aboriginal and disadvantaged youth. I have no idea whether the 12-year-olds serving us were aboriginal or disadvantaged, but the food included things I’ve never even heard of.
We asked what was on the chef tasting plate: camel chorizo, crocodile, baby deer, beef roulade, and a bunch of fruit and vegetables I’d never heard of. Needless to say, we ordered it. I wasn’t even disappointed that the deer wasn’t on it as promised because I’ve had plenty of deer. I’ve also had kangaroo (right in Manhattan), but Paul hadn’t so we got that too. Heck, we were feeding kangaroos two days ago and eating them today. Circle of life.
We also got the wallaby (tastes like liver but with the consistency of turkey) and the quondong/bunya nut salad. The bunya nuts were starchy.
After lunch, we strolled along Smith Street, where I loved every junk store, thrift shop, boutique, and book store. We tried to go to the Center for Contemporary Photography, but it was closed while they were installing a new exhibition. Instead, we caught a tram back to the Shrine of Remembrance, a memorial to Australians killed in World War I. We got there too late to walk into the shrine itself but just in time to see the ceremonial flag lowering.
Here’s a random photo that I might have taken in the Shrine of Remembrance.
Then we walked through the Royal Botanic Gardens. At one pond, a sign instructed us to be careful not to hurt the baby turtles. We sat at the pond for a while but didn’t see any turtles. We did see a tiny duckling, but it was too little and didn’t show up well on my photos. We took the tram back to St. Kilda and met up to take Jess and Emily for dinner at an outdoor Italian restaurant. The strip of restaurants and stores near St. Kilda was also good fun. I had pizza puttanesca. Then I went and bought just about every pastry in a shop and carried them out to the St. Kilda Pier where a colony of 1,200-1,400 penguins nests. We waited and ate pastries as the sun set. The view of the city was lovely, but it was cold, and we weren’t seeing any penguins. A pelican walked up onto the sand, pooped magnificently, and then spread its wings proudly. We also saw a duck and several rats. Eventually we gave up, but as we were walking back, we saw a white head poking out between some rocks. Even though we were less than 10 feet away, you could barely see it hiding in the dark, but right as we went to step off the wooden steps onto the concrete pier, a fluffy brown penguin peered up at us from just a foot off the path.
Between seeing the pelican, rats, ducks, and penguin and eating the kangaroo, camel, crocodile, cow, and wallaby, that was more wildlife than I bet most people encounter in one day in a city this size. At about 5am the neighbors’ parrots woke me, but I put in earplugs and went back to sleep. Apparently the neighbor feeds so many feral parrots that they’ve become a Melbourne tourist attraction. When I re-woke at a decent hour, we walked to the monthly Veg Out farmers market for fruit and bread samples and a gözleme, a Turkish bread stuffed with, in this case, spinach, feta, and spring onions. It was bland but warm, slightly greasy, and satisfying. In New Zealand, I’d kept seeing ice cream and bottled drinks flavored with feijoa, a fruit I’d never heard of, apparently also called a pineapple guava. Paul had read about a chocolate pudding fruit, so we’ve been checking fruit stalls and farmers markets for both but without luck. We were hoping for better luck at the South Melbourne Market, and while we didn’t see either of those fruit, we did find plenty of strange, exotic food. We started by splitting a small “bug,” a shellfish that looked like a pale lobster but had almost no body above the tail. Doesn’t this picture look like a bin of tails? That’s the whole animal.
South Melbourne Market is known for dim sum, in particular a place called Dim Sims, which did in fact make the best steamed chicken dumpling I’d ever tried. The dough was thin, and the meat was flavorful. I made us each get a mangosteen and a passionfruit, two of my favorites, neither of which Paul had ever tried. It’s Chinese New Year, so the market was full of dancers and loud drumming, and outside even louder firecrackers popped. We walked through non-food stalls too, but food was the highlight. The only non-food item I was tempted by was the Rap Coloring and Activity Book. I’d recently and relatively randomly bought someone the Gangsta Rap Coloring Book and was happy-mad to find something even this much more awesome.
From there we took the trams all the way into the city center and followed the Lonely Planet’s walking tour, which is generally my default way to see a new city. We veered off the path a few times, skipping the suggested restaurants and bars in favor of a Latin street festival (sweet corn cakes with tomatillo and roast chili salsas).
We wandered into alleys to check out Melbourne’s famous street art. I was expecting something more organized, a la 5 Pointz, but everything was all painted on top of each other a la street art, including beautiful full-panel pieces, stencils, tags, and print blocks.
On the stairs of the Parliament someone had set up a hunger strike protest, although it wasn’t clear who or for what cause. My guess was Falun Gong because they had a small presence across the street. Immediately behind the sad hunger protest, a group of tourists smiled for a big picture.
I liked the many old theaters.
We strolled through several arcades to admire the architecture, but we didn’t buy anything. I’m good at looking but bad at shopping.
We also ran into a protest march about saving sharks and a pile of kangaroo pelts. The female pelts are noticeably softer than the male ones and accordingly cost five dollars more.
One building in Chinatown was covered with red paper, half in Chinese and half in English. The English pages each had a children’s riddle on them, for example, “What’s the best month for a parade?” or “Which is faster, heat or cold?” A man had paper and pens, and if you answered five riddles correctly, you won a prize. We answered five and walked into the building, at which point we realized we’d been suckered into church. Tables were set up with crafty stations, for example, one had calligraphy and another made your photo into an ID card. We handed in our page (March!, Heat, because you can catch cold), but the woman told us one of our answers was wrong. “What was the question?” I asked. She said she didn’t have the questions, but we’d written down “Time.” I remembered the question: “What flies forever, rests never?” I argued (of course): “But that’s true!” She smiled, “It’s true, but it’s not right.” Whatever. We walked out. When we got home, Paul looked up the answer: air. I don’t get it. Is there an expression about air flying? I do admit that sometimes time drags and doesn’t fly.
It was a very hot day, and by late afternoon, we were exhausted, so we turned into the free, air-conditioned Australian Center for the Moving Image. I was so tired I was desperate for a nap or at least to sit and watch a movie or something, but the beanbag chairs were taken. Luckily, it had free wifi, so I chatted with friends on Facebook and after a while felt better. Paul read somewhere that Prahan market was the place to go for Feijoa, so we mustered up our energy and headed there. It was still open but barely, with the stalls packing up. We split an okay avocado, and I had one sweet, delicious fig. Paul was still hungry so we walked along Chapel Street, occasionally turning into alleys to check out Melbourne’s famous street art. I watched a juggler for a while but didn’t feel like talking to him. We came back to St. Kilda and caught the end of a street fair celebrating aboriginal art and culture. At a stand selling native food, we got an emu-mushroom pie. I thought it was nasty, but I don’t like that kind of meat pie. Paul liked it.
This is the second place advertising native food that’s offered us camel chorizo. Guess it’s a thing. I just looked it up, and Australia’s got thousands of feral camels since they were introduced here from India in the 19th century. Who knew. We watched a bit of the aboriginal singing and dancing. Most participants looked white. I don’t know whether they were part aborigine or just celebrating.
Circus Oz had taught a workshop earlier in the day. It was frustrating to see the signs that I’d just missed it. I had planned to contact them and a local circus school and to see some shows here, but so far I keep not doing anything circus related. We’ve been running around non-stop without a lot of time in each place, and I don’t want to drag a civilian to my circus activities, especially when we don’t even have time for all the classic tourist stuff.
We walked back to St. Kilda’s restaurant strip for sushi and then went home to collapse. While we were on our computers, our host Jess came home, followed by her roommate Sarah, whom we had not previously met, and Sarah’s cousin Jess. We hung out chatting for a while, and then when they went out for drinks, we walked back to Luna Park, the beachfront amusement park a block from here that looks like the one in Coney Island but was made by someone else. We rode the Scenic Railway, age 101, supposedly the world’s oldest continually operating roller coaster. It was absolutely beautiful, with exotic murals and twinkling lights, went the wrong way, had a driver in the middle, and had a box for people to leave their purses, cell phones, etc. unguarded, so it was an interesting novelty. On the other hand, it was a horrible ride: it wasn’t scary at all and had no big drops, but it shook and rattled so much that it hurt. After that, I was definitely ready for bed.
Emily picked us up in the morning, and the three of us drove to Wilson’s Promontory, which was in some email I’d gotten about the 20 places you needed to see in the world. I wish I could find that email, which was also why we went to Castlepoint. The drive took us forever, and when we arrived we were told a road was out, so we’d need to take a shuttle bus to a drop-off point for the hike to the summit of Mt. Oberon. That was fine, but the last shuttle down left at 4:45. It was already 2pm, and the hike was supposed to take two to two and a half hours. When the bus dropped us off, there were plenty of cars there, so we don’t know why they asked us not to drive up. Between Paul and me, we’ve probably got 40 years and 140 pounds on Emily, and she’s a PE teacher. She led our charge up the hill at a much faster pace than we’re used to, and it was great since we were worried about missing the last bus down. The hike was fine, hot, tiring, and satisfying, with brightly colored rosellas flying across the path. We made it to the peak in 50 minutes and stopped for the stunning views of beach and rocks.
On the way down, a black snake with a yellow belly slithered onto the path in front of us. Australia has a lot of poisonous snakes. I asked Emily if she knew what that one was. “Probably a yellow-bellied black snake,” she answered. We got down just in time to catch a bus and then we drove to Squeaky Beach, where the powdery white sand squeaks beneath your feet. The water was cold and perfect. We got back to Melbourne sun burnt, exhausted, and happy.
Back home was the Superbowl and eight inches of snow. Here it was 105 degrees, and we spent 12 hours in the car.
We had decided to drive from Melbourne to Sydney when we thought we’d go to Wilson’s Promontory along the way, but since we already went yesterday, we probably should have bought a flight, especially because we had a little mix-up with Orbitz, and the car cost more than we thought. Oh well, c’est la life.
In any case, we weren’t planning to make it in one day, so we dawdled, first stopping for lunch in Violet Town just because of the name. I had grilled barramundi, Paul got grilled blue grenadier, and we split an order of wedges. The fish was fine, and the wedges were sublime. The order was huge—actually I’d gotten it as a side order for me, but it was more than big enough for two. The potatoes were crisp and salty on the outside, soft and hot on the inside. We ate some of them plain, some with ketchup (in the ubiquitous tomato-shaped squeeze jar), and some with a thick, rich sour cream.
I realized I’d accidentally stolen my host’s myki card, the MetroCard of Melbourne’s public transit system, so I stopped at a post office to mail it back to her in a thank you card. Paul mailed his friend a third batch of snow globes. He’s a generous friend. He’s spent at least $150 on shipping alone and who knows how much on the globes themselves.
We stopped in the twin border towns of Wodonga (Victoria) and Albury (New South Wales). At the visitor center, I realized Albury was host to the Flying Fruit Fly Circus. A tourist pamphlet said to call from the visitor center, but the woman there was singularly incompetent. The funniest part was that she couldn’t read a map, as she cheerfully admitted. Lots of tourists want help with directions.
We didn’t have any trouble finding the circus building though. The organization is 35 years old, but after the worldwide financial collapse of 2008, the Australian government invested in infrastructure projects as stimulus, and one of its projects was to build Flying Fruit Fly a brand-new and beautiful training facility. The administrator and director were both very welcoming, and I stayed for a while, chatting, watching kids train, and envying.
Both Albury and Wondonga have combined library-museums. We went to the one in Albury, which had a photography exhibition I really liked. It explored the post-9/11 cult of heroism by showing Mexican immigrants working in New York City dressed as superheroes. Each photo was accompanied by a tag stating the person’s name, city of origin, occupation, and weekly remittance.
The other temporary gallery was installing an exhibition on the Phantom, but it wasn’t open yet. The permanent collection was about Albury and included displays on aboriginal and colonial history, local sports stars, tabloid murders and gruesome crimes, Flying Fruit Fly Circus, and immigration.
The woman at the visitor center had given us a pamphlet for a walking tour of historical buildings, so we did that next. The pamphlet said it would take two hours, but I got so annoyed by the irritating way it was mapped and marked that we probably only gave it about 45 minutes. Plus, it was 105 degrees out. The walk took us right by the one restaurant Lonely Planet loved, but it was closed so we went to a kebab place. I got a falafel sandwich that, true to its name, made me feel awful. Nah, it was just bland.
Back on the road, I marveled at the exotic place names: Jingellic, Gundadai, Wagga Wagga, Tumbarumba, Ladysmith, Cooininee and imagined their American equivalents: Okichobee, Osh Kosh, Ho-Ho-Kus, Cincinnati.
At least small towns here aren’t all strip malls and chain stores.
We passed tons of signs warning of wildlife crossing, some shaped like kangaroos and others shaped like wombats or koalas. We had also heard it wasn’t uncommon to see emus. As dusk fell, my hours of peering intently at the landscape paid off as I started seeing wild kangaroos hopping through the pasture lands.
Melbourne to Sydney is 800 kilometers. We drove about 570 today and stopped in Yass for the night. Lonely Planet raved about the Globe Inn Bed & Breakfast, but it was closed, so we got a fine room somewhere else.
Here’s a brand we don’t have in the states.
We decided to drive to Canberra even though it was slightly out of our way and the guidebook said that while it was a must-see for domestic tourists, international travelers would be better served spending their time elsewhere. We drove straight to the parliament building and joined a free tour already in progress. It was interesting and fun.
The most striking thing was how open it all was. There are sound-proof rooms for school children to watch the proceedings, but regular visitors are welcome in open sections in both houses. My favorite part was the stories about prime ministers voting themselves out of office, disappearing, and otherwise behaving in peculiar ways.
We also saw one of only four remaining copies of the Magna Carta. I tried to take a selfie with the MC, but all my attempts turned out too goofy, by which of course I mean unflattering since I’m fine with goofy.
The Parliament House gift shop (or course Parliament has a gift shop) had attractive textiles made from the tessellated outline of the building, maps, and other relevant patterns. It also sold this game.
After a quick Thai lunch, we got back on the road. I saw a group of about 20 kangaroos lounging on a hillside. What is the venereal term for kangaroos? I need to look that up sometime. [Post trip edit: The Internet provides “mob,” “troupe,” and “court.”]
Our only other real stop was at the historic town of Berrima, where we walked into a few quaint jam and tea shops and drove by the historic jail, courthouse, museum, and pub.
We made it to Sydney around 3pm, dropped off our bags at my friend Braden’s house, and drove back to the airport to return the rental car three days early to save money and avoid parking in the city. We took the train back into the city to Darling Harbor, which has adopted a love theme for February with giant heart art, a chalkboard wall for visitors to proclaim their love, and a series of concerts, movies, and fireworks.
We ate at Pancakes on the Rocks. I got Mexican potato pancakes, meaning, unfortunately, regular pancakes with some onion and potato in them and tiny bits of overly sweet beef chili, sour cream, tasteless guacamole, and chopped tomato “salsa” (aka chopped tomatoes) on top. Paul got a single pancake as an appetizer (or as they call them here, entrée), mushroom and chicken crepes for an entrée (or as they call them here, main), and strawberry crepes for dessert (or as they call it here, gluttonous Americana). He asked for them all at once.
We walked home slowly through Chinatown. Along the way I looked for a dessert, but nothing appealed. I did see a store that sold a gabillion varieties of abalone.
Finally I got a fig and hazelnut gelato. I love figs but hated the fig scoop so much that I tossed it in the garbage, which is unheard of for me. As soon as I finished the (fine) hazelnut scoop, I passed a place making liquid nitrogen ice cream, about which I’ve heard raves. As I peered in, a woman walked out, licking her fingers and, unprompted, told us how amazing it was. Maybe tomorrow.
When we got home, I helped Braden’s mom, Yvonne, unpack boxes in the kitchen. We’re all sleeping on the floor as Braden just moved to Sydney from Melbourne a few days ago, and most of his furniture hasn’t arrived yet. We didn’t expect to see Braden as he was working till late, but he came home early because of a migraine. It was great to glimpse him after 12 years, but that’s all it was since he needed dark and quiet immediately.
Poor guy was still sick in bed when we left the next morning. We began Wednesday’s Sydney exploration by taking the subway to Circular Quay so we could gawk at the Harbor Bridge and Opera House.
From there, we walked to the Rocks Discovery Center. The small, free museum included displays on the native people, colonial times, port history, and most interestingly the 1970s protests to save the neighborhood.
The temporary exhibition was architectural photographs of an abandoned power station that reminded me of photographs I’d seen of the fascinating Wingdale Center.
The museum gave us an introduction to the neighborhood, and we set off on the Lonely Planet’s walking tour to explore its historic buildings, learn about the larrikins and women of ill repute who frequented its twisting alleys, and check out the archeological dig from which the museum’s artifacts were uncovered.
Paul buys a friend a snow globe from each place we go. Accordingly, I have had plenty of time to discover that I do not enjoy browsing in souvenir shops. However, in these real cities, Melbourne and Sydney, I have remembered that I do enjoy browsing in thrift and junk stores, book stores, designer-y home furnishing stores, and boutique clothing shops. I also enjoyed looking at opals. A lot of opals.
I inherited my love of opals from my grandmother. When she died, she left most of her jewelry to my aunt, who, at my mother’s request, gave me two pieces, including an opal ring. My aunt didn’t actually want the jewelry and only has sons. So she also gave four pieces to my dad, who gave them to his wife. My father had also given his then fiancée a gorgeous opal brooch as an engagement present. This was all back in the 1980s, but just a few years ago, my stepmother decided that since she didn’t wear such fancy jewelry and planned to leave it to my sister and me anyway, she’d give us all five pieces now. My sister and I didn’t divide them up. We take turns. I don’t have kids, so I plan for her daughters to inherit them all, and I figure I’m just keeping them for now. I love them, but I only wear them at about one or two weddings a year because they’re so precious and valuable. I couldn’t justify buying another piece, but I sure enjoyed gawking at them and learning more about opals and admiring huge pieces in greens, purples, and reds as well as the blue and white colors I’d seen back home.
The walk ended near the Sydney Harbor Bridge, so we decided to walk over it to check out the view. You can actually climb to the top of the bridge’s support structure, but it’s expensive, and we didn’t think it would be as exciting as jumping off that bridge in New Zealand, so we didn’t sign up. We spent a little time at the climb headquarters, where we got to see displays and movies about the bridge. Although or possibly because I didn’t understand all the engineering explanations, I found it much more fascinating than I would have expected.
Rain was predicted today, so I was carrying both of my sweaters and a rain coat and wearing real shoes (instead of flip-flops), but the rain never materialized, and the walk across the bridge was lovely. It did make a me a little homesick for unicycling across the Brooklyn Bridge.
I deleted most of my photos of the bridge and of the opera house because I’ve decided it’s pointless to post my lame photos of things that you could look up on the Internet or buy a postcard of, but here’s the view of the bridge as you walk onto it.
On the other side, we saw a group of schoolchildren who had apparently just walked out of the pages of Madeline. I don’t know where Miss Clavel was, because they certainly weren’t walking all in a line.
The neighborhoods on the north shore are supposed to be posh. The only thing I wanted to see was a garden designed by artists, but as we walked there I forgot that’s where we were heading and got distracted by Luna Park. Paul got interested in the relationship among the Luna Parks in Coney Island, Melbourne, Sydney, and elsewhere throughout the world, but I was too tired to listen, so if you want to know, you can check his blog or look it up yourself. All I know is the park was closed and gorgeous on a gray day.
We caught a ferry back, but since we had extra time we didn’t get off at Darling Harbor near our destination but rather at Circular Quay, where we caught another ferry just to go by the opera house to see it from a different angle. On the first ferry I decided I should include photos of me as part of my effort not to post generic stuff, so I tried to get a selfie that included the bridge and the opera house. I had to lean out of the boat. I took a bunch, but, in a surprise move, they all came out super goofy.
By the time we got back to Circular Quay, we had to hustle a little to meet my friend, but I still picked a route for us to see Martin Place (plaza with planters that were supposed to represent street art) and Queen Victoria Building (beautiful exterior, apparently lavish shops within) on our way to the meeting at the ornate and lovely Town Hall.
I barely knew Ray in 1988-89 and hadn’t seen him since, but oh man is he awesome. He was having some medical procedure in the morning and wasn’t supposed to eat, so he drove us to the hipster enclave of Newtown, which he claimed had the best coffee. I don’t drink coffee, so I can’t report on that. Ray’s still playing in a bunch of bands, including Wog (he was wearing a Wog t-shirt) and the band I knew him through, the Hard-Ons. We debated theories of hipster development (descendant of metrosexualism or of grunge); differing attitudes towards guns, healthcare, family leave, and welfare in Australia and the US; and hypocritical consumerism, and he regaled us with stories of humiliating idiotic record store customers, getting caught at work pretending to be an answering machine, and answering the warehouse’s delivery door “pretending to be Porky Pig,” i.e., naked from the waist down.
Ray dropped us off near where we’re staying, and we stopped for sushi. When we got home, Braden had recovered from his migraine enough to chat, and it was wonderful to catch up. We worked together teaching circus skills for the summer of 2002, after which he finished college and then worked as a dancer for five years, during which he had to have surgery on one wrist and both knees and eventually quit for medical school. Now he’s three years out and just beginning his pediatrics residency. I bet he’s great at his job. His fiancée still lives in Melbourne, so unfortunately we won’t meet her.
Today was the halfway point of our trip.
We walked to the Museum of Contemporary Art and split up. Paul paid to see the Yoko Ono retrospective while I visited the free permanent collections of contemporary Australian art. He’s faster than I am though, so I wasn’t even satisfied yet by the time he’d finished with the whole museum. I saw everything, but I didn’t get to linger or watch the videos. My favorites were a skateboarder doing tricks in slow motion in a storm and a woods scene with weird-looking, fluffy heritage chickens making occasional electronic noises. Here’s the first piece I saw.
As we walked through Thai Town, we each bought a steamed bun. Paul got dragon fruit and pork, and I got green bean and water chestnut. Those buns are always the same, doughy. I couldn’t taste the dragon fruit or the green bean, but the water chestnuts were nice and crunchy, and it was satisfying.
We had already had breakfast and steamed buns when I came across a sign for salted cheese coffee. I don’t drink coffee, and I was full, but I had to know, so I went in to ask the counterwoman. Her explanation was not particularly helpful. She said it wasn’t really cheese but rather cream mixed with cheese and that it wasn’t mixed into the coffee but sat on top of it. I think the rock salt sat on top of the cream/cheese. I hoped I’d see some later in the day, but I never did so my curiosity will remain unsatisfied. Note to self: eat everything immediately.
We walked from the MCA around Circular Quay to the Opera House, which gets cooler and cooler the closer you get to it, but we couldn’t get in very far. From there, we continued through the Royal Botanic Gardens, passing gorgeous gnarled ficus trees and ibises.
I got distracted by a banner advertising a visual poetry exhibition at the public library, so we stopped in to see that. It was called Born to Concrete. It made me nostalgic for some poet friends back home. In a good way.
We also saw photographs of Kings Cross from the 1970s and a display of some of the library’s permanent collection, the only theme of which, as far as I could tell, was that actual objects are super cool, so the display ranged from pocket globes to Captain Cook’s letters.
We walked around the Hyde Park Barracks but didn’t pay to enter the museum. I noticed the gift store had at least three types of skill toys (yo-yos, ball-and-cup sticks, and fancy wooden spin tops). I don’t know if there’s a connection between convicts and skill toys. Oh and for some reason the grounds included a tribute to the Irish Famine.
We ducked into St. Mary’s Cathedral because we were astounded how big it was, and it was even more impressive from the outside. On the other side of Hyde Park, we tried to visit the old synagogue, but it was closed. We continued to the ANZAC memorial, which focuses on the regular men and women who served. The cupola has a star for each of the 120,000 Australians who served in WWI, and the museum under the monument has displays about Australian forces in many wars.
Suddenly we were late to meet my friend Hana, so we raced to the Forresters, a bar back near Braden’s house. Hana and eventually Braden joined us there. I hadn’t seen either of them since we’d all worked together in 2022, and they’d fallen out of touch a few years ago. I was happy to re-connect them, especially since Braden’s just moved to Sydney, and I was happy at how much I liked them both now.
It was also great to see Matt and Heidi, my friends who got us tickets to Empire that night. They’re the stars. After not having seen Matt in years, I’d actually seen him (and met his new wife, Heidi) just two months ago in Las Vegas, which is where we put together that we’d be in Sydney at the same time. I’d seen Empire fairly recently in New York and enjoyed seeing it again, this time with Matt and Heidi and several other new-since-NYC cast members. Afterwards, I used one of the outdoor hammocks as a trapeze while waiting for Matt and Heidi. In the USA, security would have stopped me immediately. We chatted with Matt and Heidi and then walked home. They’re going to stay in my apartment in New York while I’m on tour in April. I’m sorry I won’t get to hang out with them or see the show they’re producing there.
I wish we had one more day in Sydney to go to the beach and see La Soireé. Oh well. It was pretty cloudy for the beach anyway, and I just saw La Soireé in NYC. Actually we would have seen it in Sydney only I got mixed up and didn’t realize Matt and Heidi were in Empire. Long, story, short moral: I’m an idiot. I did enjoy seeing posters all over town featuring the lovely Swedish juggler David Eriksson, his partner Fofo, and other familiar characters.
We booked our flights through Qantas, who have been lovely, but on this trip from Sydney to Ayers Rock, the flights were actually a code share on JetStar who pissed me off. First of all, they’re so cheap they charge for soft drinks and juice. Second of all, the magazine was annoyingly sexist. I’m not the most PC person, but two different features on female athletes showed them with their athletic gear unzipped to reveal their bras (and one reporter was shot skydiving from the front with her cleavage exposed). You could convince me the surfer was showing off her swimwear sponsorship, but don’t tell me the snowboarder asked to unzip a freaking parka to show off her sports bra. Final complaint: the crossword was shaped like a cryptic but had normal clues, half of which were way too easy (“Country whose capital is Beijing.”) and the other half of which were way to Australia-centric (television show hosts and explorers). I was proud that I knew who the richest person in Australia is (Gina Rinehart) but mad that I couldn’t remember the explorer Flinders’ first name. Matthew. I remembered later, but on the flight I kept thinking Michael. I hadn’t heard of any of the other maybe 20 people mentioned.
Paul says aisle seats are premium real estate, but I’ve been very happy with my window seats. As we left Sydney, I saw a gleaming circus tent and thought again how I wouldn’t mind a few more days there (or a few months in Melbourne). As we headed into the middle of the country, the brown fields gave way to what looked like giant lakes of sand.
Then everything turned red. I’ve seen plenty of red earth in the Wyoming and Nevada, but that all looks scorched, and the flora is brown and tan. This land is bright red but scattered with green trees and bushes, some with a pale blue under the leaves. When I got closer later, I also saw tiny purple and yellow flowers. I could see Ayers Rock aka Uluru from the plane. Looks like a big rock.
Our new time zone is 1.5 hours earlier than our old one. This is utterly confusing, but then again I don’t actually approve of time zones even at home and think we should go down to one or maybe two for the USA.
The heritage sites here, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, are only accessible from the service village of Ayers Rock Resort aka Yulara. Everything here has two names. Before I arrived, I thought Ayers Rock was the colonial name and then the country changed it back to Uluru, but now that I’m here, the English and indigenous names just seem to coexist without animosity. Since there’s nowhere else to go, the only options from the airport are to rent a car or to get on a free shuttle bus to the compound. We took the shuttle to our hotel, which isn’t the super expensive one or a family cabin, so it’s a dorm, which was the only other option. We have one bunk bed, and two other people that we haven’t met have another in the same room. The toilets, showers, and communal kitchen are in nearby buildings, as are a restaurant, a fast-food joint, a bar with live entertainment, a game room, a laundry, and a pool. A free shuttle bus runs around the compound regularly, so we have access to the other restaurants and facilities, shops, a spa, an information center, and a town square with regular free cultural activities.
Once we droppped off our stuff (and I changed from the jeans and two sweaters I needed on the over-air-conditioned plane to a tank top, shorts, and flip flops for the maybe 100 degree weather), we headed to the fast food place to eat while we sorted out our plans. We split an order of fish and chips (bland and greasy) and an Outback pizza—mozzarella, crocodile, buffalo, kangaroo, and rocket. It was so nasty I couldn’t eat it. The meat was grisly and fatty, and the cheese was heavy and oily. Gross. Meanwhile, I read a brochure about bush tucker and hoped I’d be able to sample witchetty grubs. How can I want to eat live grubs when I can’t stomach bad pizza?
None of the options in the brochures was perfect. I ruled out helicopter, camel, multi-day, and for once self-guided tours, but there were still a bewildering variety of options, so we walked across the compound to the information center to sort it out. They staff had mentioned several times how long and hot the walk was and that we should take a shuttle bus, but actually it was gorgeous. The only problem I have with this place is the insane number of tiny flies that want to land all over me and in my mouth, nose, and ears. I refused to talk during the 15-minute walk so I could keep my mouth closed. I’m not sure Paul noticed.
I went up to each of the two major tour operators, told them we only had a day and a half here, and said I wanted to see the iconic Uluru and the many say more impressive Kata Tjuta (aka the Olgas), learn about the local culture, and get to hike around the sites. All the tours are half days, either sunrise or sunset, because it’s too hot at midday. We booked two separate tours for tomorrow. If I can stay awake, I’ll go to the free cultural activities in between. If I’m too wiped out, I’ll pass out by the pool. Either way, I win.
By then it was mid-afternoon, and the only free activity left was the Wakagetti Cultural Dancers performance. I was sorry to have missed the aboriginal dance lesson, but the five performers had all the women come up and dance like emus, so I got to participate. All the men did some other dance, but Paul doesn’t ever participate in stuff like that. Maybe he has shame. I sure don’t. It should have felt goofy and fun to act like an emu, but instead it felt a little special, like when you’re a kid and you get to act out a native American story.
Two different people told me that the Desert Dwellers balm would help keep away flies. I bought a tiny jar for $15. It doesn’t work at all, but I keep desperately putting it on. It’s just olive oil, cedar wood oil, and rosemary oil, so it smells good, and my skin is probably dry anyway. My hair, on the other hand, might not need this much oil in it, but I keep hoping it’ll keep flies off my head.
The pool was warm and slightly salty, but the flies attacked the moment I got out. Felt good to cool off though.
We watched the sunset from a 360-degree lookout point on the property. Kata Tjuta was west of us and Uluru east. A very confused Japanese woman asked the English tourists why the sun was setting over the wrong rocks. They explained that you can’t see the colors the sun turns it when the sun is behind it. I felt like we were all waiting for something dramatic and sudden, but instead we watched the color gradually leech out of a big, red rock. It was a fine sunset.
After a bland dinner with horrible service, we walked to the grocery store for dessert. Three aboriginal women were there with two children. Paul’s been complaining about all the white people here who claim to be aboriginal, but this family looked very different from the Australians. They were in western clothing but barefoot, were speaking a language I didn’t recognize, and smelled to high heaven. They really did look wild. In 1985, the Australian government returned the national park to the Anangu, who lease the land back to the government. One village of maybe 500-800 people on the park land and 20 or so other smaller villages in the area still live in their traditional culture. It’s the oldest continuously intact community in the world.
The bus picked us up at 5:15 the next morning. We’d been given very strict instructions to hold onto our $25, three-day Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park pass because we’d need to show it every time we entered the park. It was stamped with a date, and we were told it was only valid if we wrote our names on it along with the hotel we were staying at. The protocol turned out to be that as the bus passed through the entrance, everyone on the bus waved his or her pass at the guard, who waved us through from a room 20 feet away.
Sunrise was lovely. Again I felt like people were waiting for something more, or maybe I was. This time we got to watch a big rock slowly turn red. The best part was right before the dawn a band of bright green popped up around the base of Uluru. The rock is so porous that more foliage grows next to it because it holds water.
I was glad we booked a tour instead of trying to do Uluru on our own. There are a few plaques, but mostly we would have just been walking around a big rock in crazy heat. Instead, we walked around a big rock in crazy heat with a guide explaining the geology and cultural importance of various sites and showing the physical evidence of the Anangu creation myth, and between walks we refilled our water bottles and rode in an air-conditioned bus. My only complaint was that we didn’t get enough time at the Cultural Center, but part of that was my fault because I thought our afternoon tour went there too, so I was taking my time instead of trying to see it all. Then I remembered I had tried to pick two tours that didn’t duplicate anything.
When we got back on the bus after going to the visitor center, there was a fly net sitting on my back pack. Paul had bought us each one. He was right. The fly net allowed me to think about things other than keeping flies out of my eyes, nose, and mouth.
From a distance, Uluru is just a wall of red rock. Up close, it has caves, algae from waterfalls, and boulders…and big walls of red rock.
I was surprised to learn that Australia is the oldest land on earth, but I enjoyed thinking that we started this trip in Hawaii, the newest land on earth, so we’re traveling in time as well as space. When you think about it though, I guess we all are.
What else? We saw a wild dog-dingo mix and a bird that wags its tail. We learned about the Anangu’s initiation ceremony for boys, which involves smashing out a front tooth with a chunk of quartz, cutting their torsos and filling the scabs with hot ash, and circumcising them. We went to a water hole and a few caves.
As part of the deal the Anangu cut with the Australian government, visitors are allowed to climb Uluru (the government was afraid tourism would plummet otherwise) but asked not to (climbing desecrates a sacred site, is causing a noticeable environmental impact, and keeps killing tourists who overestimate their strength or underestimate how strenuous it is). At hand back, over 80 percent of tourists climbed it. Now the number is hovering around 20 percent, and when it drops below 20, the tribe will be allowed to prohibit climbing on the grounds that tourists are coming anyway. Needless to say, we didn’t climb.
The Anangu separate much of life by sex. The board that manages the site always consists of four aboriginal men, four aboriginal women, and four government officials. At several points, we were asked not to take photographs of sacred sites, usually they were for men- or women-only. This site had an amusing name (I took the photo facing away from the sensitive area, so I did not violate the request).
We got back to the hotel around 11am. I had planned to attend the boomerang and spear-throwing workshop, bush yarns (storytelling), and interactive didgeridoo demonstration, but spear-throwing was already wrapping up, and I needed to eat, cool off, and nap before our next tour left at 3:15. I grabbed a take-out sandwich and sat in on bush yarns for a while. I thought it was going to be folklore, but instead the dude showed us native weapons, explained the hunt, and good-naturedly answered inane and racist questions. When he was talking about the law versus the lore, he had to spell out the words, which sounded exactly alike in his accent.
Pretty soon I gave up and went to the pool, but it was so hot that I didn’t last long there either, so I took an air-conditioned nap. I don’t have Internet here and am enjoying the email and Facebook break but am a little afraid to see my inbox.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first tour, but the second one was a bit of a rip-off. Maybe I would have liked it more if I’d done it first.
When we met our second bus, the guides checked all our water bottles, and anyone who wasn’t carrying enough water was sent back to buy more before they were let on the bus. The bus also carried a bunch of coolers, so we refilled at each stop.
The only reason I booked two was that I really wanted to see Kata Tjuta, and that part was spectacular. The Anangu divide their stories by age, and they only tell outsiders the stories they tell children about Uluru. They won’t tell outsiders anything at all about Kata Tjuta, so there was no cultural tour; we just walked through the Walpa Gorge for an hour to a look out. We’d been told to wear good shoes, but I forgot and did the hour-long trek over rough rocks in flip-flops. Since we’d already heard the geology talk, we set off before the others. The guide had given us a big talk about not overexerting and not having to do the whole thing, but we were fine. We were among the first to the look-out and probably the first back to the bus, almost 20 minutes before our one-hour deadline.
It was super interesting to see Kata Tjuta up close after this morning’s geology lesson, which got me to understand what happened here in a way that a bunch of Wikipedia articles and photos of alluvial fans had not. (I’m not going to explain it here. Ask me in person or look it up.) The site looks completely different from Uluru, with deep valleys between domed rocks, lush foliage, and a tiny creek full of tadpoles. There aren’t any fish at either site.
The guide asked us twice to stay on the paths, saying not only that the Anangu found it disrespectful but also that it was illegal and carried a $500 fine and automatic park expulsion.
Normally, I know I’m a tourist too and try not to look down on anyone else, but I couldn’t help developing some rage as my bus mates strayed off the path and one tossed a cigarette butt on the ground. There’s a very good water table beneath the surface, and the area gets slightly too much rainfall to be classified as a desert, but it still has plenty of fires. Plus, cigarette butts are litter, dude! I picked up some other litter along the path, but mostly the parks (and streets and everything else) are way cleaner than at home.
Then we drove to a different lookout to watch Uluru at sunset.
This was incredible. I mean, the rock looked great, but the tourist infrastructure was incredible. A line of maybe thirty tables was set up with drinks and snacks, one table for each tour group. Hundreds of people watched a rock glow red. Surprisingly, only two local women were there selling art. We were asked not to take photographs of them. Nobody asked me not to take a photo of the tour buses.
I spent most of the 45 minutes grilling the tour guides about which parts were run by the government, the tribe, or private industry. I’m still not sure I understand it all.
I’d never heard of Kata Tjuta before coming here. Uluru’s the big, iconic photo, but Kata Tjuta is taller and maybe more striking. Only here’s the thing. If I saw Kata Tjuta in the distance, I’d think, hey, those are some weird, bulbous mountains. If I saw Uluru in the distance, I’d think, what the heck is that or maybe why is there a huge, red hippo in that field?! It doesn’t look like anything else, and I guess that’s why it was worth it to fly all the way here and check it out.
I’ve been feeling a weird relationship with my phone this trip. Maybe not having wireless or phone service most of the time is making me more aware of it, but I definitely find myself looking at it less, becoming more annoyed with other people texting or talking on the phone, especially around such natural grandeur, and feeling ambivalent about taking photos. I want the photo, but I find myself wondering whether I’m missing something here and now while I’m trying to capture the right image at the right time. But after five straight hours with the rest of my tour bus, I just wanted to disappear into my phone. On the ride back, I turned on Jewel Mania, one of only two games I play, and the phone ate all my data. I had been on level 257, and suddenly I was back to level one. I’d lost my game once before when I upgraded my phone. That time I was on about level 60, and I replayed it fast and easily. This time I almost cried. That game keeps me sane when I need to escape other people and puts me to sleep when I need help quieting down. I don’t want to replay it though. Guess I’m down to just playing Scrabble. Maybe I’ll read a book.
When I got up the next morning, the ground was flickering and twinkling with moths. Suddenly I saw how someone might think they saw fairies.
We drove all day through the aptly named Red Center, a sea of red sand the size of Europe. We did not see any wild charismatic megafauna. We did see farm animals (cows, horses, and camels), abandoned cars, giant termite mounds, miles of scrub brush, and what looked like a lake of salt.
Many of the Outback sites are only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles on unsealed roads. We made two intentional stops along the maybe four-hour drive from Uluru to Alice Springs. Once we turned off the road for the Mt. Connor lookout. The lookout points are just small berms, but the rest of the land is so flat that the tiny elevation makes a big difference. Mt. Connor aka Attila is the most-photographed red herring in Australia because people coming the other way think it’s Ayers Rock. Would have fooled me. In fact, it did. I was just going through my pictures to upload them here and when I got to this one for a moment I wondered why I had another Uluru picture out of order.
We hadn’t had breakfast, but Paul had a loaf of bread in the car and some Vegemite he’d bought to try but probably wasn’t going to eat more of. I like protein and salt, but not soft white bread, so I held out for a while. Paul made a joke about how it was so hot I could toast bread on the windshield, so I decided to try it.
After about 20 minutes on each side, the bread was dry but not browned. I was too hungry to wait any longer though and scooped up the Vegemite with the sun-staled bread.
Eventually we found a place for lunch. I am sick of gristly meat, so when the options were hamburger made with beef, chicken, kangaroo, or vegetables, I ordered a veggie burger… but I still got it with the works: bacon, a fried egg, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pineapple. I was okay with all of that but didn’t realize it would be slathered in mayonnaise. Yuck. Between the mayo, the soft bread, and the mushy veggie burger, my sandwich had no structural integrity. Also, the veggie patty was made of actual vegetables, so peas, carrots, and corn spilled out. It was a tasty mess.
When I walked out of the restaurant, a calf was blocking the door.
Our next stop was more significant. We detoured about 300 kilometers (round trip) out of the way to visit Wattarka National Park aka Kings Canyon, Australia’s Grand Canyon. The major paths were all closed because the day was over 36 degrees, but we took a short walk down into the valley through odd, white, barkless trees.
The rock walls around us were stunning, but the flies were horrendous even with our fly nets around our faces. I took a photo of Paul’s back covered in flies, but I can’t find it, so here are pictures of rocks.
Despite all the heat advisory warnings, the temperature didn’t bother me nearly as much as the flies, so I was surprised to do the math and discover it was 108 degrees out. Here’s the view from the passenger seat. Can you see it says 42 degrees Celsius? This view is pretty typical of the drive.
When we stopped for gas, I went into the station to pay while Paul filled the tank. The dude behind the counter, who by the way had a solid American-west accent because he went to an American school in Bangladesh, asked me if I was with that guy, pointing to Paul, and then asked me to go stop him from using his cell phone while he was pumping gas. I had told Paul that Snopes confirmed that it was dangerous to use a cell phone while pumping gas, but the gas station guy said the risk was so high that it was illegal. Who knew.
We got to Alice Springs too late to do one of the drives I wanted to do while we still had a car. We found a hotel and checked into a double. I would have gone for the $20/night dorm beds, but Paul wanted his own bathroom more than he wanted his own bed. The place is full of young Germans cooking ramen with peanuts. There is free wifi but only in the common areas. As far as I can tell, nobody worries about theft (or any other crime) in this country.
For dinner, we drove to Alice Vietnamese Restaurant, which was a few miles out of town on a dark stretch of tiny, residential road. It was lovely. We sat outside in a covered area between the garden where they grow their own vegetables and the Buddhist shrine sculpture fountain. I had rice stick noodles and a grass jelly drink that tasted like iced tea with glutinous blobs in it (so I loved it, and Paul hated it). Paul had beef pho and coconut juice (different suspended blobs in his drink). Our waiter was from a town near Halong Bay, so we chatted about Vietnam. I loved the restaurant, but although the flies go away at night, apparently the mosquitoes come out, and while I ate noodles, they ate me. Paul emerged unscathed, as most people do when they’re with me.
We drove through Alice Springs to get the lay of the land before we return the car tomorrow. The town’s most striking feature is its population: this is the first majority-black place we’ve been.
Paul hates the backpacker place. The air conditioning in the room barely works, so he tried sleeping in the car, then decided to go for a ride, but they’d locked the parking lot gates. By the time I woke up, he had decided to pay for us to upgrade to a different hotel and keep the car longer. There are some nearby mountain ranges I’d wanted to see, but I’d also been fine with the idea of spending two days exploring the town by foot and lounging by the pool with free wifi.
Admittedly, the place is gross. The free breakfast offers Weet-a-bix or peanut butter and jelly, and the sink with the hot water tap for tea is full giant cockroaches and some more interesting beetles. I poured boiling water on a cockroach and watched it squirm to death.
We checked out of the backpackers lodge and drove to the airport to get another car. Paul dealt with the car rental companies while I uploaded photos on the free airport wifi. The Alice Springs airport carpets and awnings display aboriginal designs.
We then drove to probably the farthest point on the sealed road through the West MacDonnell Ranges National Park. The drive is stunning, with mountains on either side of us. My eyes hurt from staring so hard looking for wildlife, but it’s too hot for anything to be out moving around.
Our first stop was Glen Helen, where we picked up food and checked out the scene. In front of the restaurant was a 1912 heritage meat house. If you know a thatcher, please contact them as they’d like to get it repaired.
Then we worked our way back towards town, stopping at marked spots. The first one was the most spectacular: Ormiston Gorge. We didn’t do the four-hour rim walk, which, signs warned, necessitated swimming through icy water and scrambling over rough rocks. Instead, we walked up for about 20 minutes to a lookout point and then down to a waterhole, where we swam in clear water. It was glorious. I should have asked Paul to take a photo of me swimming, but I was too wet to touch a camera.
I didn’t have a towel and was still wet when we walked back to the car, so I didn’t put my clothing back on, but as soon as I got out of the water, I put the fly net back over my head. My senses of vanity and comedy often clash about these things, but I think comedy has to win, so here are my ridiculous bikini-fly net photos. As usual, I couldn’t decide. The second one makes the point better, but the first one cracked me up. Why am I incapable of looking normal in a photo?
The next stop was Ochre Pits, a short walk to see colored walls that aborigines used (use?) to make pigments.
As we drove to the next spot, I ate the squid salad I’d picked up at Glen Helen. They had scored the large squid but not sliced it all the way through, so I felt like I was eating Cthulu as I tore pieces off the giant carcass. It was tasty and tender.
It started raining on and off as we drove, and we didn’t make it to any of the other spots. Some were on gravel roads, and one promised a steep chasm, which Paul pointed out could be a problem in case of a flash flood. I wasn’t disappointed. I was sun sleepy and satisfied.
Our new hotel is in a section of town labeled “Tourist District” that includes a golf course. We have our own bungalow in a gated community. Paul went out souvenir shopping while I tried to nap, but I couldn’t get the air conditioning to make a dent in the hot, heavy air, so I gave up and tried to get some work done, but I couldn’t get the wifi to connect either. I got so frustrated that I went to reception to work there and eventually wound up sitting outside by the laundry room. Now it’s working in the room but very slowly.
Paul’s souvenir shopping was incredibly successful. While I fought with the hotel AC and wifi, he bought three pieces of art, eight boomerangs, and a didgeridoo for various people.
I, on the other hand, so far this entire journey, have bought my nieces one novelty pack of candy each, a tiny jar of rosella jam for my sister, and two cheap rings for myself. I did send two rounds of incredibly expensive post cards though so there.
We’ve eaten a ton of local flora and fauna, but either in nouveau cuisine (quondong salad with pepper leaf blah blah blah) or in gristly fast food (crocodile and kangaroo pizza or emu pie). I asked Paul whether there was any place to eat an aborigine-style meal in town. He searched the Internet, and we went to Red Ochre Grill, which was another version of Australian ingredients in generic, shmancy preparations. We didn’t get any main courses so we could try more things (and because the appetizers looked better anyway).
I had an Aussie damper (bread) with lemon myrtle butter; Hervey Bay half-shell scallops with wakame (seaweed) salad and finger lime caviar (clear, tangy bubbles that popped like salmon eggs); and a smoked emu salad with walnuts, fennel, watercress, native bush tomato, and balsamic vinaigrette in an edible basket. Paul also had the emu salad as well as slow-cooked beef cheeks with bush tomato chutney and watercress and the mini-bushman’s platter, which had camel sausage, kangaroo steak, and a variety of vegetable antipasto with feta and grilled pita. Here it all is.
Everything was delicious. Well, the scallops were bland, but the tangy topping made them good, the emu is strong and gamy but blended well with the vinaigrette, and the beef cheeks are muscular but the chutney saved the dish. For dessert I got a wattleseed-scented Pavlova (which we all know is from New Zealand not Australia) with wattleseed cream and berry compote. I was stuffed.
The aborigines here are endlessly fascinating. Their faces and hair look unlike any other people I’ve seen, the languages are completely unfamiliar, and they do things that people at home don’t, like sit on the ground at random intersections or shout at each other on the riverbank. I can’t imagine it’s a coincidence that this town, in which every non-aborigine citizen is apparently in the tourism business, is the first place we’ve been with locked fences around every hotel and signs saying to keep our doors locked at all times. We wonder whether there is real crime or just racism. Paul looks it up and finds some crime but not enough to justify the paranoia. What must it be like to have people travel to your home to gawk at you?
After dinner we strolled briefly through the dark town center, passing groups of aborigines, some apparently drunk. A few said hello as we passed.
Alice Springs is known as the heart of aboriginal Australia. We started the day browsing a dozen aboriginal art galleries and learning about the symbolism, methods, and aesthetics of the art. I didn’t take photos because that’s frowned on. Much of it was beautiful, and of course the more you learn, the more interesting it gets. I really wanted to buy this mannequin, but she was out of my price range. Anyway later I had second thoughts and retroactively liked the paintings more.
I also wanted to get this book for my mom and stepfather. It was in my price range, but recently I’m having issues with physical objects in general and especially when I’m traveling for another three weeks carrying everything. I guess I’m not bringing back presents for anyone but my nieces and even those will be small. Anyway, here’s the book I thought my folks would enjoy. It describes a situation and then explains why the whitefellas and aborigines each acted how they did and what they could do next time not to upset each other.
There are problems with alcohol in some areas. In Uluru, the local tribe has decided to ban alcohol among its own members. When Paul ordered a beer in a restaurant in the service village, he had to show his room key, which confused us because it wasn’t related to his age. Later we found out that the bars there are very strict about not serving alcohol to anyone unless you can prove you’re either a guest or an employee. Anyway, here’s a sign from Alice Springs. We saw quite a few of these.
We took a walk around the central business district and heritage precinct. Along the way we checked out the area’s first hospital, church, and school; the old jail, now a museum of pioneer women; various memorials, monuments, and sacred sites; and the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which services remote Outback communities. The RFDS is still in operation. Actually, later I noticed donation boxes for it in several airports.
The Alice Springs Reptile Center gave us a break on the admission fee because Terry, the 3.3-meter saltwater crocodile, was elsewhere while his habitat was being repaired. We did see Bub, the perentie, but neither he nor the show perentie had reached full length, which can be 2.5 meters. My favorite animal was the thorny devil, which just looked like a pile of leaves.
Showtime wasn’t for another hour, but the woman feeding the lizards let me hold the three show animals, a bearded dragon, a blue-tounged skink, and a python. Paul didn’t touch any of the animals. I would like to carry a large snake with me at all times just to feel its muscles change and flex.
I also pet a Spencers Goana named Ruby, who was roaming the floor.
After all our aboriginal art exploration, we kept hearing about Albert Namatjira, so I wanted to see his work. Naturally, we went to the Albert Namatjira Gallery, which is located on the grounds of the Alaruen Arts Precinct. To my vast surprise, Namatjira painted watercolors of the landscape. His gallery included more traditional aboriginal art though, and the museum’s other galleries included interesting and an interesting display of aborigine-influenced Australian art and a gorgeous exhibition of contemporary aboriginal art. Again, I didn’t take photos. Besides the whole taboo, each piece was more beautiful than the last, and I’m not good at making decisions that leave some things out.
The Arts Precinct venues were all within 30 minutes of closing, so we tore through them: crafts center, sculpture of creation-myth caterpillar (with audio, text, and paintings), Museum of Central Australia (natural history), memorial to the wreck of the Kookaburra, and two-hangar aviation museum.
Finally, we dropped by the Alice Springs School of the Air, the world’s first MOOC, originally on radio. Unfortunately, it was closing up for the day.
We came back to the hotel to do laundry. I sat by the circular pool, which was salty and temperate, and read the brochures about the old jail and the School of the Air.
We had a hard time finding a suitable place for dinner but eventually wound up at a recommended Italian restaurant. The food took forever, but my penne with crab, peas, basil, and garlic was lovely. Over dinner we talked about the strange relationship between the aborigines and Australians here, whether government programs create bad incentives, whether art galleries exploit native artists, etc. Neither of us has a lot of information on any of these subjects, but that didn’t stop us from arguing. Paul has been thinking a lot about these issues, researching them, and working on a blog post. I am a naïve liberal relativist.
About a third of the time, I pick a restaurant from the guidebook or Paul picks one from his phone. The rest of the time, we just wander till something appeals. The next day was our last day in Alice Springs, and I wanted to try a few places I’d read about. The night before, the first few places we’d gone to had been closed. The places I had in mind for today had disappeared entirely. The cafe where I wanted to have breakfast had closed a year ago.
We went back to the Alice Springs School of the Air and this time paid the admission price and went in. I forgot to mention that when we’d been there the afternoon before, just as they were closing, the lobby was full of painters. That was at least the third place we’ve been to that was full of painters, and we’ve been to at least four museums that had galleries closed because they were changing exhibitions. We’re way off season. Anyway, school was in session, so this time we got to see it in action. The school was founded in 1951 for kids who were too far out in the bush to attend normal school. Originally it operated by radio, but now it works over the Internet via satellite dish. It’s a public school, so the kids barely pay anything and follow the same curriculum as kids throughout the Northern Territory, but the school spends $10,000 to $15,000 to set up each student’s equipment, specialized satellite dish, and computer; air drops curriculum materials every two weeks; and picks up the previous period’s assignments for assessment. This year, 118 students ages 4-13 are enrolled, including kids from three aborigine communities (two of which are non-native English communities). I used to tutor online for Kaplan Test Prep, and I was fascinated by this operation. The most moving part was when our guide was telling us about the students coming to Alice Springs three times a year. She said some of them had never played with other kids before. These kids don’t live in remote communities. They live in remote families. I was going to donate two books to the library on behalf of my two nieces, but I didn’t think my nieces would like the books they were asking for.
Paul hadn’t been interested in the School of the Air, and I wasn’t interested in the historic telegraph station or railway, but sometimes we compromise. This time, I inadvertently won. He did my thing, and I agreed to do his things but then didn’t have to. He hadn’t realized that the telegraph station was a whole complex of historic buildings, park land, walking trails, and picnic grounds, and when we got there, he wasn’t interested enough to pay the admission fee. I wanted to walk to the cemetery, so we braved the flies to walk 700 meters or so and were surprised to discover just five graves.
I got sick of the flies and released my own protective face cover.
The Old Ghan (historic railway) and Transport Heritage (trucks) museums are right next to each other, but the train one was closed for a private function, and neither of us were interested in the trucks. I was tempted by the Bush Kitchen we saw signs for but not interested enough to pay to see what looked like a big yard of old trucks.
Following the town’s theme of closed restaurants, the place where I wanted to have lunch, another training venue for aborigine workers, had been taken over by white owners so long ago that the counter woman didn’t recognize the venue’s old name. It might still have been a training place for special people though. It only offered about five different types of sandwich. I asked for an egg salad sandwich. The woman walked to the counter, looked at what they had, and walked back to me, confused. “Do you want the egg and lettuce?” she asked. “Yes,” I confirmed. She walked to the counter again and again walked back to question me. “That one is on a roll. Do you want it?” Again I confirmed. Somehow “egg salad sandwich” and “egg and lettuce on a roll” were totally different things, even though there were no other options with egg in them at all. Whatever. It tasted like bread, mostly, but I won anyway because my “iced chai latte” turned out to be mostly vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.
The lunch joint was on the grounds of the Institute for Aboriginal Development, a complex of buildings. The library was clearly open and active, and a bookstore was only closed for lunch, but the buildings that looked like housing and classrooms were all abandoned. Looked like they still had stuff in them too. Paul made friends with a chatty woman who had set up a few tables of homemade cookies for Valentine’s Day, and I tried to get her to explain what the complex was but she just rolled her eyes and said her tax dollars were paying for people to abandon buildings. Paul bought some of her “Red Centre” cookies shaped like Australia with a red jelly bean in the middle. He thought it was a maraschino cherry and bought it because Shirley Temple died today. Maybe it was a maraschino cherry. He’s not sure, and I didn’t want to find out.
I could have sun bathed or looked at aboriginal art a lot longer, but the flies were too much for us, and since I already knew the airport had free wifi, we headed there four hours early. We couldn’t even check in for the first two hours. I went outside and walked around the Anetyeke Garden habitat, which was absolutely, oddly lovely for an airport garden. It had a little pond with fish, trees full of birds, and apparently frequent kangaroo visitors, although I didn’t see any. Signs explained the habitat, both in natural and cultural terms.
I’d been hearing about these edible bugs for a while, but since this sign was the first I’d seen that actually pointed out which bush to try, I walked right off the path into the shrubbery, looking for bugs and berries to eat. I knew I couldn’t get any witchetty grubs, because you have to dig for those, which is beyond what I can figure out by myself in an airport garden, but I was hoping for that apple thing or the honey ants. No dice. I did, however, find one plant just loaded with fat caterpillars. I thought about but resisted eating them.
When I went back inside, I looked up dive shops in Cairns. Before I left home, I did my PADI SCUBA classroom “knowledge” and pool training, but I need to do four trainings in open water dives before getting certified. There are a ton of dive shops in Cairns, but they sure don’t all offer four “referral” dives with 24 hours notice. I found a few places that did, and emailed them to figure out the differences among them. Also, Paul is already a certified diver, so he wanted to come on the same boat as me but not pay for training classes he doesn’t need. We eventually figured it out, and I signed up for two full days, two dives per day. Most of the courses were multi-day deals living on the boat, but that would have prevented us from getting to do anything else in Cairns. We just came for the Great Barrier Reef, but the guide book had a ton of other stuff I’d check out if I had time, mostly art and aboriginal culture stuff. Anyway, it was a relief to get it sorted.
I didn’t bring a lot of reading material, so I saved the actual Qantas magazine for our last Qantas flight, coming up in a few days, and instead read the QantasLink regional carrier magazine. It was fascinating! It flies to the kind of place where kids need to attend a School of the Air (the one in Alice Springs was the first but something like 16 of them operate throughout the country). I had never heard of most of the airline’s destinations, and the articles and ads were all about mining, LNG (liquid natural gas? They didn’t even bother to explain), “workforce accommodation solutions,” heavy equipment, and other subjects foreign to my world. The crossword was still designed like a cryptic but with regular clues, but it was easy and not all Australian.
Speaking of games, when my phone re-connected to the Internet at the airport, it reset Jewel Mania back to level 242, which must have been where I was the last time it went online however many days ago. That means I only lost 15 levels, so I can make that up. I feel embarrassingly relieved to have my zone-out time back.
We got to our hotel so late that the room key was waiting for us in a lock box. The outdoor pool was still hopping with young backpackers, but I didn’t stay up partying.
The dive instructor picked us up at 7:45 and took us to the shop for me to complete my paperwork. Because I’m over 45, I am required to get a physical within three months of diving and have a physician sign a PADI form clearing me to dive. I did that in New York before I left home, and the dive shop accepted the note. I thought that meant they signed off on it in my dive log book, but the book had no trace of this, and the place here wouldn’t let me dive without medical clearance. It’s a 15-hour time difference to New York. There was no way I’d be able to reach either my doctor or the dive shop that had kept my paperwork, and I wasn’t going to be able to find a local doctor who could sign off on me before the boat left at 8:30am. I was about to race back to the hotel to see whether I had a copy of the clearance on my laptop, but I talked them into letting me use one of their computers, and I actually found it attached to an email. They printed it, and it had my doctor’s stamp and signature…and nothing else: the rest of the form was blank. They turned a blind eye while I filled it out, then they made copies of the completed form for themselves and for me, and I was cleared to dive.
Since they never actually checked any ID, I could have just lied to them about my age. I mean, I couldn’t have lied to them about me age because I’m me, but theoretically someone who lies could have. They all said they thought I was under 35. As I get older, I’m getting more goody-goody. In fact, I’m a nut for rules and I have to bite my tongue not to be insufferably self righteous. I probably am anyway. Just today it came up twice on the boat. I know I’m skipping ahead, but I’m on a rant. Bear with. When we first got underwater, the boat sent a photographer to take photos of each of us, which we later had the option to buy (I didn’t, duh). The photographer threw me some giant sea creature, maybe a sponge or a sea cucumber, to pose with for my photo. Back on the boat later, someone was telling me about petting a fish, and I said I was upset that I even touched the sea cucumber (you’re not supposed to touch marine life). He said, “I never do, but I figured, when am I going to get this chance again?” I thought, “every time you dive! And don’t say you never do when you just did!” Then later, I told someone how much I’d had to pee during my second dive, and he said, “there are two types of divers, those who pee in their wet suits and those who lie about it.” He told me they have chemicals to clean wet suits, and “everyone” does it. I hadn’t even thought about the wet suit; I was worried about affecting the coral. He repeated, “Everyone does it.” I said, “everyone minus one.” Why are you going to say you “never” do something if you just did or “everyone” does something when I just told you I didn’t. What’s wrong with “seldom” or “many people” for crying out loud?
Anyway, rant off. I don’t even know why I got on that, because this was a lovely day. It was raining when we left but soon it turned into apparently the nicest day Cairns has had in a month. There were six beginners in my group, two Dutch, two French, one from Hong Kong, and me. I was the only native English speaker and about as old as the rest of them put together. Several or maybe all the others had done the first two sections of the class (classroom and pool) together over the last few days. I was glad I hadn’t wasted my vacation doing that stuff.
We dove twice. Both times, I had periods of anxiety that I wasn’t getting enough air or wanted to surface and both times I just told my stupid brain to shut up because I was already breathing and I was fine. Everybody went through varying levels of nerves. Two of the women kept insisting they might need to go to the surface early if they couldn’t clear their masks, and one woman had a lot of trouble equalizing her ears, but the instructor just stayed firm, and we all got through everything fine. Later Paul told me that he’d freaked out on his first dive and surfaced immediately, angering his dive master. He calmed down on the boat and then went back down and was fine. We saw some fish and coral, but mostly we worked on skills, regulating our buoyancy, taking off our weight belt or buoyancy control device and putting them back on, flooding and fixing our masks, pretending to be out of air and sharing with a partner, etc. I was fine with all that. The salt water makes me thirsty immediately, and it feels funny not to be able to drink or breathe through your nose, but each dive is pretty short and the fish make it worth it.
The Cairns humidity is a nice change after the arid Outback, but my suit and towel take forever to dry, so I wanted to go back to the hotel to air them out for tomorrow even though I didn’t want to shower. Paul was eager to get the salt crust off his skin and hair, but I love it.
After a little hotel-Internet break, we walked the 30 minutes to downtown Cairns. As we walked, I watched thousands of birds in the sky in front of us. When we got closer I realized they weren’t bird; they were giant bats. More and more of them kept flying from the same small area in the same direction. When we turned the one corner, we saw hundreds of them landing in trees and hanging upside down.
If there are so many bats here, why can’t they eat more of these mosquitoes?
We ate dinner in the Night Markets food court. We chose one of the three almost identical Chinese buffets, paid by the size of our plates, and then loaded them up like good American gluttons. I picked almost all sea food, but a lot of it was too sweet, and none of it was above room temperature.
The rest of the markets sold tchotchkes and massages. I wanted everything but bought nothing, as I always do and always don’t. Here was my favorite couple there.
We had only planned to dive one day in Cairns and maybe go the rain forest the second day. I knew you couldn’t do all four dives in one day, but neither of us realized that I would have to book them as a course. I got really lucky that I found a place that would take me on 24 hours notice, and I got even luckier with the weather. Day two was sunny and gorgeous. Nevertheless, Paul decided to stick with plan A, so he rented a car and drove to the rain forest while I spent the day on the boat again. It would be nice to have a few more days to explore Cairns, but actually I’d be more interested in the art and aborigine stuff than the rain forest anyway, and I had a great day on the boat, so I’m not upset at all. I am a little jealous that he saw a platypus.
Anyway, day two I realized I should take a picture, so here is water.
Again, I was the only native English speaker in my group, this time including the Italian instructor. We also had a newcomer who didn’t even speak English as a second language. Someone else gave her the instruction in Japanese on the boat, and then she joined us underwater, where all the signals are universal anyway. That made me really happy.
My two training dives went great. I wasn’t nervous at all, the skills were easy, and we had plenty of time to look around. We saw a small shark, and I spotted a lion fish and showed the group. I even had the presence of mind to signal “Okay but no thanks” when the instructor tried to hand me that giant thing again. I forgot to ask what it was, but it wasn’t a sea cucumber because I saw those too, and they were black. This was reddish and covered in finger-like things.
At lunch I got my certification, and after lunch, one of my class mates and I went out for our first unsupervised recreational dive. As we went down, I realized I couldn’t see anything out of my right goggle eye, and then I realized I knew what to do. I signaled my buddy to hold on while I removed the mask and wiped the inside with spit, and then I put it back on and cleared it no problem. Diving for fun turns out to be super fun. We saw a giant brown and white clam, a long black pipe fish or some kind, and some giant ugly brown fish that was waiting in a coral cave. Some of the coral had bright purple things poking out of it, and if you waved your hand near them, they disappeared into tiny holes in the coral. The coral looked a bit bleached, but it was still beautiful.
Paul picked me up on the marina, and we came back to the hotel to answer email.
For dinner, we’d wanted to go to a seafood place Paul found in his phone, but its windows were painted up, so we went to the Green Ant Cantina, a Mexican restaurant I’d liked the sound of. We were early enough that they let us sit outside since we promised to be done before their 8pm reservations started showing up. Everything has been tasting too sweet to me, so I ordered a plate of something with some kind of cutesy name that turned out to be chili on French fries, which I smothered in jalapeno-coriander sauce. Both New Zealand and Australia nickle and dime you on sauces, but it was worth it to enjoy the sloppy, spicy mess.
Paul wanted to go someplace else for dessert, but he didn’t want ice cream, which seemed to be the only thing open. We drove back downtown and walked around until I saw a frozen yogurt place that said it had bing-su, the Taiwanese dessert with beans, jelly, syrups, and fruit poured over shaved ice. Snow Yogurt’s only offered a very scaled-down version, and the counter girls were completely confused by my questions about toppings. I wound up with lychees on frozen yogurt over small chunks of ice. It wasn’t bad, but some plain lychees would have been better.
I’m ending today a little beat up. When we came up from today’s first dive, the top of my foot was covered in blood. I must have set down on a rock or some coral when we were kneeling in sand for one of the skills lessons. Tonight walking around, I began to feel a sharp pain in my right ribs. They feel bruised, but I can’t remember getting hit. Finally, for the last few hours since I got off the boat, every now and then the ground moves under me. It’s not unpleasant, but I wouldn’t mind if it clears up soon.
At home, the ground is covered with snow, and Valentine’s Day is dawning.
The clasp on my backpack strap broke on the boat yesterday. I tied it together with a rolling hitch, but the remains of the plastic clasp scrape my arm. When I packed this morning, one of the clasps in my rollerboard was broken. I have no idea how either of my pieces of luggage broke or why they broke on the same day.
Since we left home, Paul has been looking for black sapote, aka chocolate pudding fruit, in every grocery store and fruit market in New Zealand and Australia. He’d seen it on an episode of Bizarre Foods. His phone said this was the place to find it, so he’d gone to the market while I was diving yesterday, but when he’d asked around, a vendor told him it was out of season. He said he didn’t see any unusual fruit there, but I wanted to go back anyway for a few reasons. 1. I like fruit, even normal fruit. 2. I like markets. 3. I wanted to look for myself.
He said they didn’t have food stands, just fruit, so we ate the crappy free cereal at the hotel, asked the front desk to hold our luggage, and drove downtown to return his rental car. These guys live at our Cairns Hotel and freak me out every time I walk by.
The front of the market had a food court, bakery, noodle shop, and a bunch of other interesting eateries. “I didn’t see any of this!” Paul exclaimed. We passed them for the fruit stands, which took up the bulk of the market. We nibbled samples of mangos, peaches, nectarines, pineapples, and avocados. Almost every stand had mangosteen, which kills me because I looked everywhere for them without success when I traveled in Vietnam and China (where I failed to blog my two months traveling with a circus show in 2009). Now they’re legal in the US, but still rare. They were worth the search. They might be my favorite fruit.
We went to talk to a vendor Paul had met the day before. She had breadfruit and velvet apples, which smelled like cheese. I asked her how they tasted, and she said they were supposed to be good for your digestion. I said, “So that means they don’t taste good.” She said she didn’t like them and that they tasted like they smelled. I wanted to try one, but she didn’t have any ripe ones. Later we saw the same fruit at a different stall, which called them tropical peaches. They looked more like donut peaches than apples, but bigger and redder with a pronounced leaf around the stem.
And then there it was. We bought a black sapote to share and a mangosteen and a passionfruit each. True to its nickname, the inside of the chocolate pudding fruit was mushy and black. Paul had heard it was super sweet, but ours tasted a bit like mole. It wasn’t great. Maybe it wasn’t ripe.
The vegetables were also interesting, but we had no way to cook them. I was interested in the women selling betel nuts, which apparently involve a combination of nut, flower, and powder. I asked the women why their teeth weren’t red and whether chewing them made you feel like you had drunk coffee, but I didn’t understand any of their answers. My other favorite mysterious item at the market was labeled biodynamic Russion garlic.
We kept walking to stalls, eating samples, buying anything we didn’t recognize or wanted to try, and returning to the food court to cut our precious fruit open and eat it with a plastic spoon. We ate abiu (sweet and mile), santol (tart), and rollinia (custard apple). We mentioned the black sapote to the woman sitting next to us eating at the food court. She says we should try the yellow sapote because it’s sweeter and more delicious, but it’s out of season.
When we’d had all the exotic fruit we could, we walked to the Center of Contemporary Arts. Along the way, we heard a horrible, loud, screeching. The trees were full of bats. Seems all these bats should be able to do something about the ants, cockroaches, or mosquitoes in this town, but maybe they’re also there for the fruit.
COCA was smaller than I’d imagined it. I didn’t care for either of the main exhibitions, but I really liked the show in the lobby called Women in the Arts: Booked. About ten pieces by different women incorporated books in small assemblages about asylum and immigration, the use of animals in war, pregnancy, and other political and personal topics.
We also stopped by the Arts Gallery but didn’t pay to go in. In the gift shop I admired the Aussie Super Heroes bunting, with Mud Crab Man, Green Tea Hulk, Captain Australia, and other characters suspended from the same string.
Cairns doesn’t have a beach, but it does have the Lagoon, a big public salt water pool. It was gorgeous and not too crowded. I wishes I had brought a suit and towel. We had plenty of time for a swim but no time to dry off, and we’d already checked out of the hotel so no towels. I waded a bit and watched kids play.
From there, we walked along the waterfront to the Reef Casino. I don’t know why I thought that would be a good idea. Just out of ideas, I guess. There actually was more I wanted to do in Cairns, but all my ideas required a car or were too far to make it back for our flight. At the casino, I went to the sport arena and sat in a comfy chair in air conditioning. The giant screen showed four sporting events: NBA All-Star weekend, the Sochi Olympics (women’s ski aerials), Australian rules football, and cricket. I understood nothing except the basketball but enjoyed watching and listening to the other patrons cheer on the footy.
After a quick cafe lunch, we went back to Rustys Market for dessert. This time we didn’t experiment. Paul wanted mango, and I got a bag of lychees, which we ate while we walked the 30 minutes back to the hotel. We got all sticky but washed off at a drinking fountain in a park. It was so hot that Paul took off his shirt and then I got jealous so once we were out of the downtown area, I took mine off too and walked home in my bra.
Again, we got to the airport super early, but the Cairns airport doesn’t have free wifi. I wasn’t feeling well anyway, so I took a long nap while Paul explored the airport and probably blogged.
The regular Qantas magazine wasn’t as fascinating as the regional one except for this page. What was someone doing?
Paul had bought some magazines in the airport, including Australian Popular Science. I was excited to see my friend Hackett’s column on using sunlight to distill drinking water after an (the?) apocalypse.
My friend Michelle picked us up at the airport. She and I met in the Wuqiao Circus Festival in 2009. She’s still performing some, but she’s gone back to school to get a masters degree in creative production. It turns out that last night she performed in the show Clarke MacFarlane (aka Mario Queen of the Circus) was producing. He’d told me about it when I saw him in Christchurch, but the two of them didn’t know each other and just met last night. Crazy little circus world.
Michelle made us dinner, and we ate on her back porch, overlooking the back yard with her aerial rig, Then she took us to Mt. Coot-tha for a scenic overlook of the city. She’s a very sweet host.
We lazed about a bit in the morning, which felt fantastic. About 11, Michelle drove us to the Brisbane Powerhouse, an abandoned power station that has been converted into an arts center with multiple performance venues, bars, and exhibition spaces. Her women’s circus troupe, Vulcana, rent space there. We got to see it, but they’d packed up all the equipment and weren’t currently operating while the World Theater Festival has taken much of the venue. Still, I was jealous of the circus space and more so of the super-cool Powerhouse in general.
We caught a CityCat ferry to South Bank, partly to get there and party just to see the river. While we were on the boat, Paul saw a three-foot shark jump above the surface of the river. A few people said that wasn’t uncommon, so I kept my eyes peeled but never saw anything. We passed some rock walls that people climb. I can’t imagine New York setting up free rock climbing access points on public land. Not because they’d be afraid of people getting hurt, but they’d sure be afraid of lawsuits.
When we got to South Bank, we walked through the Park Lands a bit and got lunch. Michelle showed us through the cultural precinct, which includes a natural history and science museum, an art gallery, a library, a tech incubator, and an outdoor arena, all state-sponsored and mostly free. At the Queensland Museum, we checked out prehistoric local animals. The giant marsupials reminded us that prehistory is also local, meaning Australia and America’s pasts look as different as our presents. For some reason, I loved the fossilized plesiosaur skeleton, which had a giant eye.The link does not do it justice.
Upstairs, I saw an exhibition on local aboriginal and Torres Island culture. It was a good reminder that “aborigine” isn’t one cultural group but includes many diverse peoples. Plus, I always enjoy seeing primitive skill toys. This one had tops, balls, and maybe a game like jacks. I actually resisted taking a photo, partly because even I am bored with all my spin top photos and partly because I thought maybe I wasn’t supposed to take photos of the heritage pieces. Paul was too tired, sun stroked, or bored even to look at the exhibition, so he sat it out. As I was finishing up and heading to the next exhibition, the museum alarms started going off, so we left.
We walked to the public pool and soaked our feet for a while. Michelle decided to go home, but we had plans for later. My back was in such excruciating pain, that I didn’t want to support my own body weight, so I floated in the pool until the sun went down and my guilt over Paul waiting for me went up. He and I got very bland Japanese food for dinner, and then I backtracked a block to try liquid nitrogen ice cream. We’d passed a place in Sydney that had it but we’d never gotten it, and it had been hanging over my head since then so I didn’t want to miss another chance. I got a small scoop of Nutella-flavored ice cream. It was fun to watch the fancy process, and the ice cream was good, but mostly it just seemed like ice cream.
We took a ferry back to the Brisbane Powerhouse. On the ferry, I met a man from Ireland who asked to borrow my camera to take “a photo” because he wanted to show me how my hair was blowing.
At the Brisbane Powerhouse, we met up with my friend Tami and her new boyfriend Tim for drinks. Then we all went to She Would Walk the Sky, a new circus show that was part of WTF. I loved some parts of it, the music in particular, one dancer, and the best wire act I’ve ever seen: six people working in synch, comically getting in each other’s ways, using the wire as a trapeze, or hanging from or standing on each other while balanced on or hanging off the wire. Other parts were too slow, and I missed a lot of the dialog because of the accent. One guy did a corde lisse that included a fast spin with no hand loop. I didn’t like that. I did like it that he got off and finished with a spin in a neck loop. I liked it because it was his closing act but I could do it. Vain, I know. I couldn’t have done hardly anything else he did.
In the morning, two cockatoos and two scrub turkeys were in trees in Michelle’s backyard. We took the train to the central business district and did Lonely Planet‘s walking tour, starting, of course, at another ANZAC memorial, walking through historic buildings and the botanical gardens, and crossing a pedestrian bridge over a maritime museum in which we could see a submarine in dry dock. Paul was curious about the boats, so we walked to the museum, but he wasn’t curious enough to pay, so we didn’t enter.
When we got to South Bank, we detoured to the Queensland Center for Photography, but like every photography center we’ve attempted so far, it was closed while they changed exhibitions. A very handsome Dutch man gave me exhibition catalogs and advice about where else to see photography in town.
To my relief, the state-run museums were all open on Mondays. We did a quick pass through the Queensland Art Gallery, where I was fascinated by Sidney Nolan’s painting of Eliza Fraser, a Scottish woman who was shipwrecked and then, depending how you look at it, saved or kidnapped by aborigines. I was also interested in Cai Guo-Qiang’s Nine Dragon Wall (Drawing for Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A Myth Glorified or Feared: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 28), which was accompanied by a video of its creation.
A few rooms were devoted to Australian artist Fred Miller, including a music hall series. I didn’t take a photo of Little Man Juggling but here is Mountebank accusing his mother.
I was super excited to see Cai Guo-Qiang’s Falling Back to Earth exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art, and I was not disappointed. The museum set up a screening room in the lobby with video excerpts of many of Cai’s explosion projects. The exhibition itself included four pieces and a children’s exhibit. Two of the pieces were made just for this exhibition. Heritage had 99 animals gathered around a water hole with an occasional single drip breaking the room’s silence and rippling the tranquility of the pool.
Eucalyptus was a giant tree on its side. Tea Pavilion also included parts of trees, magazines, and chairs as a quiet place to rest and contemplate. A tea ceremony is held there a few times a week and tea is distributed every day, but I was too late, and they were out. There was also a 20-minute video, but Paul hadn’t wanted to pay to see the exhibit, and I didn’t want to keep him waiting, so I’ll watch it later online.
The last piece, Head On, also included a video and 99 animals. This time they were all wolves. They were posed running at a glass wall, smashing into it, and turning around to try again. The piece, originally created in Germany, was inspired by Berlin’s history, in particular the Berlin Wall.
The children’s exhibition, which was called “Let’s Create an Exhibition with a Boy Named Cai,” had lots of arts and craft supplies and computer monitors on which you could create your own gunpowder drawing or explosion event. I did both.
Paul was already sitting on the floor playing on his phone when I got out, and the museum was closing in 20 minutes anyway, so I quickly perused the other galleries, which included aboriginal art, record covers, and my favorite, Everyday Magic, about transforming every day life into art.
We crossed another bridge back into downtown Brisbane, finished our walk, and took the train back home. We arrived just in time to get our laundry off the clotheslines before about 20 of Michelle’s friends showed up for a dinner party she’d organized in our honor. It was great to meet a bunch of Brisbane artists, performers, DJs, circus people, and other interesting folk. Somebody brought a pavlova, which they claimed was Australian (but admitted that its provenance was debated). Way more of the Australians had been to Vanuatu than had been to Uluru. One of them told me I had to try kava and described the kava scene and the ritual of drinking kava in different places. I said I don’t drink, and she said it wasn’t alcohol, just a fermented root. It reminded me of when I was in Mexico and I told someone I wouldn’t eat a certain dish because I didn’t eat meat. She promised me it didn’t have meat in it…only blood. I was sort of wrong and sort of right. It isn’t alcohol, or maybe any fermented vegetable is alcohol? And anyway it is an intoxicant. I didn’t think I had a policy about drugs; I just don’t do them, but this might be testing me, and I think the answer is I don’t do it. I hate not being able to try something and share a local custom, but I don’t hate it enough to change who I am. I don’t do drugs. Except caffeine. D’oh.
The party was lovely. All in all, a fine way to finish our stay in Australia.
Thanks for coming along for the virtual ride!
Australia was the second of four countries I visited in early 2014. You can also read about my time in New Zealand, Vanuatu, and Fiji (coming soon). For a different perspective on the same trip, check out my travel companion Paul’s blog.