Monday, December 31, 2007

Some of the charms of "down under"

Plymouth has the Mayflower. Jamestown has the Susan Constant. In Christchurch it is the Charlotte Jane.

Every motel room has a little coffee service in the room complete with milk. Very convenient.

This is what is called a flat white coffee. (I THINK it is a cappucino)

How DO they stand it?

the rental camper vans are EVERYWHERE

serious beer drinking

West Coast, New Zealand

I am at something of a loss to adequately describe West Coast, New Zealand. Perhaps I should start with what I expected. When you look at a map of New Zealand, Route 6 is the only road that runs from Greymouth to Haast. So I envisioned a scaled down version of an American Interstate. And because it is on the coast, I envisioned houses … lots of them … overlooking the ocean.

What I found instead was an isolated, narrow two lane road that in some areas lacked pavement. Almost ALL the bridges of any consequence on this road were one lane and there was no consistent rule about who had to “give way” … it was different at each bridge. On one bridge just outside of Hokitika there was a one lane bridge that also served as a railroad bridge. I have NO idea how THAT was supposed to work. And there are no houses overlooking this remarkable landscape. Where ARE all the people?

dirt road and one lane bridge on Highway6

The other thing I didn’t expect was all the tropical vegetation. Especially tropical vegetation nestled up against glaciers. These ferns are everywhere in West Coast (which is the name of the province.)

The Silver Fern

The Glaciers

So yesterday we started at the Franz Joseph Glacier. I like the Maori name and story better. The Maori call it Hine Hokitawa. Long ago Hine Hokitawa, who was an adventurous sort of girl who loved mountain climbing, invited her not so outdoorsman boyfriend, Tawe, to go hiking. Sadly, Tawe slipped and fell to his death and Hine Hokitawa shed a million tears that froze and became the glacier.

reflection at Franz Josef Glacier

Fox Glacier


When we turned the car east again at Haast, it had started to rain. We ascended along the Haast River surrounded by rain forest vegetation. Then the road flattened out and the skies cleared and we found ourselves in an expansive mountain meadowland. Still no people … no farms … no sheep … just beautiful mountains as far as the eye could see. We are now on the shores of Lake Wanaka (emphasis on the first syllable). It is a heavenly blue sky day. Tomorrow we head for Queenstown.

Where IS everyone?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Baaaaaaaad joke

The view from our room in Franz Josef

It is 9:30 at night. It is still light. I am sitting on the back deck of our motel looking out at the mountains surrounding the Franz Josef Glacier. There are exotic birds singing and I can hear the roar of a glacial stream nearby. The crazy thing is, that this alpine setting is filled with rainforest flora like giant ferns. It is so incongruous. It is unique.

We left Christchurch around 10 and were at Arthur Pass by noon. The drive on the eastern side was arid and for the most part barren of trees.

The eastern side view

But as soon as we started to descend the western slope there were palms and ferns everywhere and a solid mass of forest. We have spent the day on the finest roads the south island has to offer. They are two lane. The bridges are for the most part one lane and you never know until you get to it whether your direction is expected to yield (“give way” is the term they use) or has the right of way. And, of course, all of this is done on the left side of the road driving a standard shift. It has been a challenging day.

When we got to Hakitawa I turned in and left Hunter sleeping in the passenger seat while I walked out to view the Pacific. Huge tree trunks and other fabulous driftwood littered the beach. The West Coast is decidedly funky and laid back.

The Tasman Sea

The geological story of these mountains is very interesting. While at lunch we browsed through a book at the inn about how these mountains were formed. A few interesting facts: Before it eroded, this chain of mountains shot up 20 kilometers into the sky … that is into the stratosphere. All this erosion has left a deposit of sand and silt in the ocean that does much to form off shore New Zealand. And like the San Andreas Fault in California, there is a fault line that slices along the west coast of New Zealand and has moved north over the years.

Tonight at dinner I tasted New Zealand lamb for the first time while in country. They were lamb shanks that had been braised in beer. At one point during the meal Hunter looked over at my plate and said. “Your shanks look really good. Nice and meaty.” I shot back “Be careful, here in New Zealand a comment like that is considered foreplay. “ A waiter who was walking by added … “Yes and never forget that in New Zealand baaa means no.”

Some down notes

I was unaware in this age of electronic tickets that we needed to show paper proof of our flight OUT of New Zealand before we could leave Australia. I discovered this about an hour before my international flight was to depart Brisbane. I could call up the itinerary on my computer screen and show it to the agent… an itinerary which if it had been printed out would have been sufficient, but because it was not on paper, it would not suffice. Nor could the airline, I was flying with call up my itinerary even though I had bought it as one large Circle Pacific fare in the Star Alliance. Finally an Air New Zealand customer service representative was able to get a United agent to fax the itinerary to her and we made to the gate just in time.

And speaking of United Airlines … the bag has not been found despite numerous calls to Chicago. Today we bit the bullet and bought a new bag. We also spent a day getting prescriptions for the missing medications, a task that took about four hours a doctor’s visit and a visit to two pharmacies. Later in the afternoon we wandered around the square in front of Christ Church Cathedral and watched some stand up outdoor chess games.

The New Bag

We also began driving today … on the left side of the road. Very strange indeed. Requires constant concentration. It’s like learning to drive all over again.

Oh … and it’s chilly here. I was not expecting chilly.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

...and then the rains came

I had never experienced a tropical rain before last evening. Hunter had just returned from a new Chinese restaurant with some carryout when the skies opened. We stood on the balcony and watched as a curtain of rain approached from across the harbor. We toasted our last night in Cairns to the comforting patter of rain around us. This was no passing shower. It went on steady and hard well into the night. How lucky we have been to have the excellent weather we have had. Now it is on to New Zealand.

And for those interested, the bag remains elusive. Hunter is slowly acquiring an entire Billabong wardrobe. [Cowabunga!] First stop in Christ Church ... the pharmacy.

Christmas Day

“What do you need to take out to the reef? Only yourselves!” With those instructions from my crew member I jettisoned my watch AND my glasses and headed out to Michaelmus Cay to snorkel. It is GOOD to live without your watch every once and awhile and just surrender to the wonders of the marine world. It is amazing what I CAN see without my glasses and it is amazing how timeless the world becomes without your watch.

It was quite a treat to float above this magical world of parrot fish, and angelfish and batfish and giant clams. And what a collection of coral there was. When I am snorkeling I lose all track of time and really become entranced with the view I have below me. There is something almost meditative about it as you focus on a world you cannot be a part of and you focus on “the breath.” Some of these pictures are not mine, but were taken with an underwater camera by our crew.

This giant clam is at least 5 feet across

Christmas Eve

Cassowary, fox bats, yellowbellied sun catcher, Jabiru, box stinger, black pudding fruit, dragon lizard … what do these things have in common? When I woke up this morning I didn’t know they existed and with the exception of the Cassowary and the box stinger, I have now met them all. Today’s trip took us into the heart of the Daintree rain forest, a World Heritage Site.

The first stop was an opportunity to see the rain forest from the river’s edge. And while we didn’t spy any crocs, we saw a roost of maybe 1,000 leathery fox bats hanging in the forest making an enormous racket.We saw the yellow bellied sun catcher in its nest which is made from old leaves and feathers and hangs out over the river’s edge suspended from a tree. And there was a stork known as the Jabiru that was circling above the river.

On our walking tour of the rain forest, we learned about cycads … some of the most primitive trees on the planet. They grow VERY slowly and this Macrozamia cycad is probably nearing 1,000 years old. But it looked like a pup next to some of the Mahogany trees we saw stretching up into the canopy. Near the end of our walk we spied a dragon lizard just hanging out on a tree trunk.

And the sounds … they were at the same time familiar and exotic. The high canopy buzz of cicadas was familiar, but there were screeching birds whose call penetrated the forest like a trumpet … a real contrast to the silence of the outback.

But what we were really looking for was the elusive Cassowary. Emu or ostrich like in its size and shape (over 6 feet), the Cassowary is the gardener of the forest floor. When it eats the fruit on the ground and moves along and excretes the seed elsewhere, it increases the likelihood that the fruit trees will survive in the competitive environment of the rain forest. They estimate that there are about 1,500 of them in Daintree. Their greatest threat now is the automobile and the dog.

At lunchtime I got to meet my first wallaby and my first kangaroo. We visited them at a wildlife rescue center near where we ate our barbeque. The kangaroos remind me of greyhounds. They are graceful and gentle creatures with large padded paws. And the wallaby seemed almost fragile.

After our barbeque lunch we headed deeper into Daintree and took a refreshing dip in a fresh water creek while the tour guides prepared a plate of exotic fruits for us to taste. While not native to Australia, these fruits are all grown in the nearby town of Mossman. Many of the fruits are native to South America. The most exotic was the black pudding fruit … it really was like eating a dark pudding, but I also liked the red dragon fruit and the seedy passion fruit. I had to shake my head for a moment as I stood there in the middle of the rainforest in my bathing suit feeling these tropical flavors explode in my mouth that it was in fact Christmas Eve.

Our final stop was at Cape Tribulation. Named by Captain Cook when his ship, The Endeavor, went aground off the Great Barrier Reef in the late 18th century, Cape Trib sports a lovely white sandy beach. HOWEVER, beware the jellyfish most notably the box stinger, which emits powerful and painful toxins. In recent years they have migrated from the estuaries (read climate change) and in these warm summer months are now in the area near the shoreline. The beach is closed to swimming.

Back in Cairns we ate dinner outdoors by the harbor under palm trees by the light of the full moon. Another great day in Australia.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Art Scene

We departed Ayers Rock by plane to Alice Springs. We would layover there for the day before heading on to Cairns. Hunter had been in “the Alice” last August on his trip and had become captivated with Anangu art. Two galleries, in particular, were on his list.

I was starting to become familiar with the symbols in this art scene from some of the wall paintings Wally had shown us yesterday. Wall painting is not really the right term. They were blackboards in the rock that were used to teach the children. These symbols were also painted on the body or on a shield or etched in the sand. It wasn’t until the great “assimilation fiasco” of the late 1960’s when various peoples were herded into education camps that an observant art teacher (yea for art teachers!!!) encouraged adults and children to use paint on canvas to tell these stories.

I learned so much yesterday in the two art galleries we went to that it is hard to share it all. But the result of what I learned is that I can “read” an aboriginal painting much better than I could two days ago. I know the symbols, I have a sense of what colors and symbols are used in what regions of Australia, and I could probably tell a man’s painting from a woman’s painting. You see the same rules apply to paintings … you can only tell your story … you cannot tell someone else’s story. So artists are restricted in the stories they can tell in their paintings.

We were terribly disappointed to find one of the galleries where I am sure we might have bought something, was closed for no obvious reason. But we did meet a very interesting gallery owner in the gallery above the closed one and she was very generous with her time and explanations. Moreover, in the course of our time there 4 or 5 women artists came through and picked up a black gessoed canvas and started to paint right there on the floor of the gallery.

Before we departed "the Alice" for Cairns I dined on a plate of various outback meats.

for those interested... we are in DAY 5 of the lost bag saga and counting.

Into my bones

Our stay in the outback of central Australia got into my bones. Aboriginal culture pulls you in and makes you WANT to think and feel like these people who could create a society so socially coherent that it could survive in this landscape.

The landscape … the geography … in an environment as unforgiving as the outback is the reality that dictated culture. And if your culture could pass on the secrets of survival in this landscape, to the next generation, then you would survive. The Anangu as the Aboriginals refer to themselves have a cultural center at the base of Uluru and we spent the afternoon with Wally and his interpreter, Chris, learning the stories of Wally’s people. In Anangu culture the parents, who are younger and stronger, leave child rearing to the grandparents who are wiser and older. Parents go off and hunt and gather all day. It is from your grandparents that you learn all the laws and customs and religious beliefs of the society which in the Pitjanjatjura language is called Tjukurpa (chook-orr-pa). Over and over again we were told that Tjukurpa is untranslatable to a Western sensibility. It is more than a religion, more than a set of laws, more than cultural norms … it is an all encompassing way of being in the world that encompasses the past, the present and the future all at the same time.

The stories that are passed on to you by your grandparents become your stories. No one else can tell your story and you cannot tell anyone else’s story. But there are shared stories about creation and what is known as “the dreamtime.” It was this story that Wally told us at the foot of Uluru. Near a water hole at the base of the rock he told a dreamtime story about a two giant pythons where the good giant python (a female with lots of eggs) slays the bad python (a male with lots of poison). As we walked back form the water hole Wally stopped and looked back at the rock and the story again, only THIS time you could see the story in the rock face … the track the female python had taken was a darkened coloration along the rock face, the place where the bad python was slain was a crevice in the rock face, the blood from his smashed head a stain of oxidized discoloration.

The men hunted, the women gathered. When you look out over the landscape it appears there is nothing TO gather. Look again. There are grass seeds that can be made into a paste, grubs at the base of the wichetty tree, bush plums that can be stored in their dried form all year and reconstituted with water, the honey ants who carry honey in their bodies, and of course snake eggs (be sure you know that the hole you are digging in belongs to a non poisonous snake.) Supplement that with the occasional kangaroo, and you have yourself some pretty nourishing “bush tucker.”

Our last night in the outback ended with another sunset view of Uluru which I was starting to see in a new way after learning my dreamtime story from Wally.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Road. The Reef. The Rock

The three R’s of Australian tourism are the road, the reef and the rock. We are at “the Rock” … Ayers Rock to be precise. Uluru is its aboriginal name and it is considered sacred by the indigenous people.

My first impression of the Outback was to think this is Nevada squared and red. It is a desiccated landscape and I get this primal feeling when I am in the out of doors that it is designed to kill me. It is as though the plants are looking at me walking by and thinking … she is walking moisture, let’s kill her. Ok not that bad … but it is HOT here.

Last night we ate dinner in the desert under the stars. When we arrived in the isolated location we walked up a pathway to a rise in the desert. I felt like I was going to Tribal Council. We mingled with other guests as a skilled player of the didgeridoo played in the background. He took some time to teach us about the instrument. It is the oldest wind instrument on the planet. The aboriginals used it to accompany their chant. His particular “didge” was made form the trunk of a Eucalyptus tree. The hollowing out is done by termites and burning and termites again until you have the correct pitch. If it doesn’t sound right, you go out in the desert and find a termite mound and stick the trunk on top and let the “mites” work their magic for a few weeks. His was tuned to the key of F. A well made “didge” can cost up to $10,000. Ironically there are more players of the instrument performing in Germany than there are in Australia.

From our little perch, we watched the sunset over Kata Tjuta as Uluru glowed red in the sun’s reflection. We then followed a path way down to our dining area under the stars. (Apperently no one was going to be voted off tonight) Long after sunset the afterglow lighted our setting. We ate by candle light with interesting companions. The theme that united the table was that each of the three couples had “lost a child to Australia.” Two were from the UK and one from Berlin. Their children love it in Australia. They make less or equal money than they would in the UK or Germany, but it is less crowded, a MUCH better climate and it is an easy place to meet other young people.

I used the buffet as an opportunity to taste some new things. Barramundi (the ever present fish of Australia), crocodile and kangaroo were all available for the taking. And there were some spices that were new … but I did not write them down. After dinner we listened to the silence of the desert. I am not sure I have EVER been in a place as totally still as this was. During our after dinner astronomy talk I learned two new ways to locate South. This time of year the Southern Cross does not rise until very late at night and is best seen before dawn.

For those interested in the saga of the luggage … no, it has not yet arrived. We have been given a voucher for $200 to cover the things we need. Hunter has two nice new Billabong shirts suitable for our evening dining. I am not at all convinced it will show today. Well We wanted to travel lite … this is one way, I suppose.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Some Good Some Bad

Good news … we went through an expedited customs in Sydney. Bad news … Hunter’s bag is still in LA. It will do its best to catch up with us was we escape to the Outback in the morning. Bad news … our electrical adaptors are in the LA bag. Good news … we have a voucher to buy up to $200 worth of missing goods. As we talked with a woman to sell us the adaptors she asked “Where are you going in Australia?” And I answered, without missing a beat, “We’re headed out to the Rock tomorrow, then on to the Reef by way of the Alice.” She was very impressed with my ability to speak Australian.

We spent the afternoon touring the Opera House and taking a ferry ride around the harbor. The Opera House has become THE symbol for Sydney and is now on the World Heritage List.

UAL Flight 839

I have just awakened from a blissful night’s sleep. I rolled over in my wide business class “bed” and raised the window. Pink fluffy clouds race by below … dawn is approaching. My individual flight map tells me we have crossed the international date line AND the equator and are head toward an island called Nadi. I have never heard of it. I am suddenly getting the feel for the Pacific and its vastness. Transatlantic flight is like taking a big giant step from Newfoundland to Ireland …. But THIS … this is BIG.

I have been in the air for nearly 9 hours. I have 4 and a half to go. I see now that the sun has risen. Sydney here we come.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

And Away We Go!!!

So maybe I should have looked at a globe first. This is going to be a loooooooong trip. A little preview ... DC to LA -> LA to Sydney -> Sydney to Ayers Rock and Alice Springs. Then on to Cairns. Then Cairns to Christ Church via Brisbane. Then Christ Church to Auckland ... Auckland to Bangkok and finally Bangkok back to DC via LA on a red-eye.

I make no promises for what I will be able to post here ... but I will certainly try.