Australia 2016 Part 8:  Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), Camel Rides and the Field of Light

Sunday, July 31, 2016

We were in for another long day today.  We watched the Uluru sunset yesterday, and today’s itinerary called for a sunrise viewing of Kata Tjuta.Our guide picked us up at 6:15 AM and we were off.  We shared the van with a family from England and one from Australia.  Our guide was an attractive, engaging young lady from Germany named Hannah.  I am beginning to wonder if they have any Australian guides in Australia.  Yesterday we had Toulouse from France, and this was our second German guide of the trip.  Thankfully Hannah was sweet, unlike the Opera House Nazi we met earlier in Sydney.

Enough sweeping generalizations about foreigners and complaining about perfectly nice people!

Kata Tjuta is about 33 miles west of Uluru, so we had a little drive ahead of us.  Most of us were pretty quiet during the predawn ride.  Perhaps our companions had a rough night as we had the night before.

Kata Tjuta is a series of 36 rock domes rising out of the desert floor. The aboriginal name translates as “many heads.”  In fact, the Pitjantjatjara people only have three words for numbers:  one (kutju), two (kutjara) and many (tjuta). That sure would make their math class easier.

Kata Tjuta got their “whitefella” name from explorer Ernest Giles, who first saw them in 1872.  He wanted to name them after his benefactor and trip sponsor, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, but the Baron owed a favor to Queen Olga of Wurttemberg because she had given the baron his title the year before.  The domes became the Olgas.  Incidentally, Giles always said that he saw Uluru before William Gosse, but Gosse beat him to naming it Ayers Rock.

All of Kata Tjuta is a sacred men’s site.  It is said to be the home of the snake king Wanambi.  It is so sacred that women cannot go there, and even today aboriginal women will turn their heads while riding in a car to avoid looking at it.  It is still used for Anangu rituals to this day, though what goes on there is a mystery to us outsiders.  Our guide claimed that the men’s business and women’s business, though segregated, are considered equal in importance in aboriginal society. I asked her if she was aware of a women’s sacred site as large and imposing as Kata Tjuta, and she was not.  She wasn’t aware of any site that men had to avoid looking at while driving by in the car either.  I’m not sure I buy the separate but equal theory.

We arrived at the lookout and trudged up a gentle hill to our vantage point.  We were not alone. There were probably 75 other tourists from various tour groups vying for position to watch the sunrise.  We are old pros and threw elbows with the best of them.  I shoved my big camera lens between the selfie sticks and got my shots.  From our vantage point,  Kata Tjuta was close, but we could also see Uluru.

The first warm glow of the sun lit the night sky.  The crescent moon sang her last night song.

Uluru looms at sunrise.

My intrepid travelers.

Kata Tjuta glows with the first light of the sun.

 

Uluru says, “Look at me!”

Kata Tjuta says, “Enough of that Uluru.  Cast your eyes here!”

It only took a few minutes for the brilliant reds and oranges to fade, and we were left with the early morning sun.  Our guide rounded us up, and we headed back down to the van.  It was a short ride to a rest area with picnic tables and a bathroom.  Our guide fixed us a delightful breakfast in the bush.  She made hot raisin bread with butter, milk and cereal, tea, hot chocolate and–most important for me–coffee!

A word about the bathrooms:  our guide described them as “long drop toilets” and warned us not to lose our iPhones.  They reminded me of many of the old-style privies you used to find in parks all over Arkansas and Texas.  (You still do in remote areas like Albert Pike.)  It was just a bank of toilets sitting over a gaping hole that stretched down, down, down into the darkness.  The smell was rank, and I could hear the steady, low buzz of flies.  We were told that the flies in Uluru are very oppressive in their summer (our winter), but we did not have much trouble with them.  I think they are all hiding out in the bottom of that outhouse waiting for hot weather.  We did our business and got out of there!

The desert is in bloom, and delicate beautiful flowers are everywhere.

My delicate, beautiful flower who begrudgingly allows me to take her picture.

The Australian family asked Greg to help them take a photo of them with one of their cell phones.  Genene and I were resting quietly on the benches nearby, watching the impending disaster.  Greg and technology do not get along.  After a time, we heard laughter.  After several tries, Greg had managed to cut the Aussie’s heads off in each photo.  They should have paid attention to who was carrying the big camera on her hip.  Finally they saw the error of their ways and motioned for me to come over.  I quickly rescued Greg from their mockery and got the shot for them.  In return, they took this nice family photo of us.

After breakfast, we took a walk into Walpa Gorge, named for the wind (walpa) that whistles between the rocks.  Hannah explained some of the geology to us and pointed out various plants that are used as tools, food and medicine by aboriginal people.  Of particular interest to me is their use of spinifex grass.    They take the grass and beat it on the ground until the resin comes out as a fine powder.  The powder can be heated and will form a sticky blob, something akin to super glue.  When cool, it hardens and will adhere anything.  Heat it up again, and it gets sticky.  Aboriginal people used this resin to make spears and daggers:  ingenious!   I wonder how they ever discovered that.

Walking into Walpa Gorge.

It has been very wet this year, and grasses pop up from the red earth.


It was very difficult to capture the colors in these photos because the gorge was either bathed in sunlight or hidden in dark shadows.  I did my best.

 

We strolled back out of Walpa Gorge, talking with our traveling companions as we went.  We learned that the English family is doing our trip in reverse.  They are headed to the Barrier Reef tomorrow.  We warned them to stay away from the marine biologist!

As we crossed the final footbridge with only a couple hundred yards left before getting to the car park, a kangaroo appeared as if on cue.  He was a little hard to spot against the red rock, and I wished I had my 500 mm lens.  He showed out for us, and I think I captured him pretty well with my 300.

It was the perfect end to our morning tour.  We had seen Australia’s iconic animal bounding in front of us, wild and free.

We came back to our hotel by a few minutes past 11:00. These beautiful birds hang out on the grounds.

 

We had time to wash up in our room before lunch and shed our cold weather gear.  I am amazed by the extremes of this desert.  In the morning, you need to “rug up” with coat, hat and gloves.  By midmorning you want to get shed of all that, and by afternoon you need to be in shorts and a t-shirt.

This next shot is from our room, and you can just barely see Uluru peeping up over the trees.  What I really like in this shot is all of the desert oaks.  I wish I could tell my dad about them.  He was a forester and loved trees.  I can’t tell him, so I’ll tell you.  Virtually all the trees in this shot are desert oaks.  The name is misleading, for the tree is a kind of pine.  Notice how all of the smaller trees are skinny and scraggly.  When young, this tree conserves its energy.  It stays skinny and small, using all its energy to send its tap root down, down, down.  Once the tap root gets down about 80 feet to the water table, the tree can get a big drink and spread out its limbs.  See how the canopy on the older tree is spread out.  Daddy would have loved to hear about that.

 

We had lunch in the town square at the Gecko Cafe.  I had the “outback” pizza with smoked kangaroo, emu, and other “regular” pizza ingredients, along with another Jack of Spades porter.  Greg had a kangaroo burger, and the meat was lean and delicious, something between beef and venison.  Genene stuck with the pork loin sliders and a nice, cold Coke.

Can you see the kangaroo and emu?

You should definitely be able to see the kangaroo in this shot.

 

We strolled around the very small town square and watched two aboriginal girls painting.  The artwork was beautiful.  Many of the paintings use an intricate pattern of dots, and Kuniya and Lira make appearances in many of the works.  I wanted so much to take the girls’ photos, but photography was prohibited and I respected their wishes.  I am not sure how to describe them without sounding condescending or patronizing.  They have very distinctive, beautiful facial features unlike any person I have seen before and a look in their eyes that seems almost untamed.  It was like looking backwards to a time when people’s needs were simpler and more basic.  They probably pulled out their iPhones after I left.

The stroll back to our hotel took less than 10 minutes.  The noonday sun was hot and our bellies were full.  We had another sunset tour scheduled, so we were happy to have the chance for a nap and a break from the action.  We went to our room, cranked up the air conditioning, pulled closed the shades, and watched our eyelids for a while.

At 4:00 PM we left again for a very special event.  We were taking a camel ride to dinner!  Amy the cameleer from Uluru Camel Farms picked us up from our hotel.  She was tall, blonde and beautiful.  She wore shorts and cowboy boots, much like a saucy Texas girl might.  She had a cowboy hat with a feather sticking out, and her iPhone stuck out of her back pocket.  She makes her living with Uluru Camel Tours and loves her camels as we would love a horse or a dog.

We got to the farm, had a brief safety briefing, and went out to meet our caravan.

The camels all have names.  I was assigned to ride Jill, and Greg and Genene shared a ride aboard Diesel.  Diesel made a noise like Chewbacca the entire time he was sitting down.  Amy says it is because he wants us to hurry up and get going.  The camels get up with their back legs first, and it was a little scary because it is a long way up (though not as far up as the elephants we rode last summer).  We held on for dear life as they climbed to their feet.  Amy made them get up one at a time, with the camel at the rear rising first.  Amy explained that if she stands the camel at the front up first, every single one of the camels will rise at the same time, which is not a good idea with all of us greenhorns around.

Camels are not native to Australia but were imported from Afghanistan, India and Arabia in the 1840s to help with exploration, colonization and settlement of Australia.  They were used to help haul supplies and people and were instrumental in construction of the overland telegraph through the desert.  The heart of Australia is brutal, and these animals are much better suited to this country than the traditional European mount, the horse, whose sharp hooves get stuck in the sands.  The camel has a soft, flat foot.  They were born for the desert.

The camels did their jobs well, but with the introduction of the car, they became obsolete.  The cameleers turned them loose into the countryside, where they have thrived in the wild.  In fact, the feral camels are a problem, as most introduced species are.  They eat too much of the vegetation, competing with the native species, and they drink watering holes dry, causing problems for farmers and aboriginal people.  They also damage fences, water tanks, pumps and pipes.  Their exact numbers are unknown but may be as many as a million.  The Australian government does participate in culling operations to keep their numbers in check.  Uluru Camel Farms captures a few of them every year for their use.

The camels we rode all started their lives in the wild.   It takes the cameleer only about three to six months to train a wild camel.  Amy claims that they are as smart as a 7-year-old child and can easily learn.  They do not respond well to brute force or fear tactics and must be trained with care and love.

Diesel makes his Chewbacca noise.

 

 

Greg mounts first with Amy’s help, and Genene will ride in front of him.  I am going to ride Jill, the camel in front of Diesel.

 

Howdy, partner!

Amy talked non-stop about her camels.  They are her babies, and she is passionate about their welfare and keeping.  She reminds me of every real horse person I have ever known–wonderful, heart-of-gold, crazy.

Uluru begged us to take its picture again and again.

My self-portrait.

Now this one needs to make the Christmas card for sure

In this next photo, you can see Diesel’s pierced nose.  You can’t use a bit on a camel as you would a horse because they are ruminants, like cows.  They regurgitate a cud all day, and a bit would interfere with that.    You can also see the breakaway string attached to the rope.  If another camel in the line jerks away, the breakaway rope snaps, and thus prevents damage to the camel’s nose.  Diesel actually popped his breakaway rope once during our tour.  Luckily Amy happened to be on the ground nearby when this happened, although I don’t think it would have mattered much.  He didn’t run.  He just put his head down and started eating.



The caravan has a particular order.  The lead camel is, of course, a leader and is ridden by the cameleer.  She or he is the most trusted camel of the group.  The next most trusted camels are at the rear of the caravan.  The camels right behind the lead camel are like the kids that the teacher seats at the front of the classroom.  They are the cheeky ones you need to keep your eye on.  I was on Jill, right behind the lead camel, and Diesel was right behind me.

We arrived at our dinner destination and got the champagne welcome.  This is my kind of caravan.

Amy sat her lead camel down and got off.  One by one, she came to us and assisted with our “camel down” and dismounts.  I said goodbye to cheeky Jill.

I caught the moment as Diesel went down, with Genene and Greg holding on for dear life.

Greg says goodbye to Diesel.

And so does Genene.

We walked up a short trail to our sunset vantage point, where we drank champagne, ate canapés and watched the sun go down on Uluru.  The group at the top of the hill was much larger than just our caravan.  Many people arrived to the dinner by bus.  How boring!


We were treated to an aboriginal dance.  I must confess that we all found it a bit underwhelming.  For one thing, the men were wearing what looked like Adidas running shorts under their costumes.  That took away from the “wild” effect considerably, and there was no possibility of me getting a “peekaboo” under the fringe.  For another, and I am not sure how to say this, I wondered how authentic the dance was.  Two of the three dancers looked as white as I am.  I realize that to even give voice to this is perilous:  in America, we have spirited debates about what constitutes being African-American, and the issue is thorny.  Greg says that his mother claims to be part Native American, and he always says in reply, “Your grandfather was once scared by an Indian, and that’s as close as you came to being Indian.”

I think his grandfather was once scared by an aborigine.

Are you looking at me?

We watched the dance respectfully.  I took my shots.  But…I really wish I could show you those girls we saw in the town square earlier today.  They were not in any costume, but they looked more “real” to me.

 

The sunset was spectacular.

.

We sat down at our table, set under the open stars, and met our dinner companions, all Australian except for us.  They wanted to know about Hillary and Donald, of course.  It was a fascinating crew.  There was a retired miner, a rural health nurse, some city folks from Sydney.  Our conversation was lively and easy.  They wanted us to tell them about America, and we tried to be good ambassadors.  They wanted to know if we are gun owners.  (We are.)  We wanted to know if they had seen the road trains in the outback.  (Sure!  Many times.  Scary as hell.  They will blow you off the road!)  One of the ladies from Sydney made me feel so proud.  She gave us a little pep talk.  She said, “So many people in your country think that American isn’t great any more.  That is not how we see you. America is still great.  It never stopped being great.  We look to you for how a free people should act.  Your economy drives the world economy.  You are still great.”  I wanted to stand up and sing “God bless America” by the time she finished pumping us up.  I sincerely hope she is right.

Our dinner was wonderful.  It was billed as a three course, bush tucker inspired buffet and it delivered.  We loaded our plates ate it all–chicken, beef, kangaroo, emu.  Wattle seeds were used in several of the dishes, and every third item had the modifier “bush”:  bush tomato, bush yam, bush onion.  It was all delightful. As we ate, a man played a didgeridoo, and that was a truly awesome sound.  I really felt as if I was in Australia as I listened to its low drone.  Our Australian tablemates seemed unimpressed and did not stop talking.  The most interesting thing about the didgeridoo is how the musician uses circular breathing to maintain a constant drone.  I have never been able to figure out how to breathe like that in years of playing the clarinet, but apparently it involves using air that it stored in puffed cheeks while inhaling through the nose.  Our musician had it down to an art, and the didgeridoo hummed constantly.

After dinner, we sipped on port and coffee, and our astronomy guide came out to give a lecture.  He was a New Zealander (Kiwi) with the most powerful laser pointer I have ever seen.  He could actually point a beam of light up and it seemed to extend all the way to the stars.  He got in one joke about how they couldn’t find any Australian astronomers because they were all in the pub.  As he lectured, we all noticed how disruptive the people at the table next to us were being.  The entire table was filled with rowdy, drunk Italians.  They were cackling, talking at the tops of their voices, and being very disrespectful.  People at other tables made the “shhh” noise several times, but they continued to laugh boisterously.  (I was so thankful that it was not a table of Americans.)   The Kiwi continued his lecture for a minute or two, stopped, and said, “Italians…shut up!”  The entire audience clapped with approval.  I guess the Italians had some shame because they quieted down after that and made no more trouble.

We had no trouble finding the Milky Way smeared in a wide swath across the sky.  The night sky was cloudless, and there was virtually no light pollution.  The Kiwi was able to show us the Southern Cross, some signs of the zodiac, and even a distant galaxy.  At the conclusion of his lecture, we were dismissed to make our way to our last treat:  a walk through the Field of Light.

The Field of Light is an art installation by British artist Bruce Munro.  He is known for producing large-scale immersive light-based art installations.  His work has been shown museums in London and New York, but this is art on a really grand scale.  The work uses 50,000 stems covering an area equal to seven football fields. The entire installation is solar-powered, and all the materials are reusable and will be recycled for other installations.  The artwork uses over 236 miles of optical fiber.  Enough facts and figures:  Let’s walk through it.

 


This next photo just might be my favorite of the night.  As we walked through the field, I looked up and found the Southern Cross.  Standing there without benefit of a tripod or even anything to steady myself, I pointed my camera at the sky and got a freehand shot of it!


To give you an idea of scale, in this last shot, you can see the silhouettes of a group of people on the right side of the frame.  There were a lot of lights.

Buses were waiting for us at the far end of the art installation to take us back to the resort.  The day was long, but it was fascinating.  I found myself wishing we had more time at Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  I would like to simply sit and look at the red rocks for a few days to see if I could gain some enlightenment.

Alas, it is not to be.  We get back on the plane tomorrow.  We are heading to Kangaroo Island for a few days of relaxation.  I think we have earned it!

 

 

Australia 2016 Part 7:  Uluru (Ayers Rock)

 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Our day started at the butt-crack of dawn.  Our driver was to pick us up at 5:15 AM, so we had to have our bags packed and ready for the porter at 4:45.  I never sleep too well on “transfer” days.  I am worried that I will oversleep, worried that I will miss the plane, worried that the driver won’t be on time, and so on.  I slept some, stared at the clock some and waited for the alarm.

We got up at 4:15, splashed water on our faces, brushed our teeth, and zipped up the bags.  Thala Beach Resort packed a boxed breakfast for us to take away, and it kept the wolf away.  Thankfully there was no Vegemite in it!

Our driver arrived promptly and drove us back down the winding road to Cairns.  In Arkansas and Texas, you drive slowly in the predawn hours out of fear of hitting a deer.  In Australia, the danger is running into a kangaroo.  We did not come close to hitting any, but we saw a few poor, unfortunate dead ones on the shoulder of the road.  Like many of our drivers, this fellow asked about our upcoming election.  Australians are following the US election with a great deal of interest, perhaps with more interest than we Americans.  They seem to regard it as something of a soap opera or entertainment.  What will Trump say next?  Will the Russians crack Hillary’s email server?  Stay tuned for another episode of “As the US Burns.”

Our flight left on time at 7:30 AM, and we were in the air for about three hours.  There is a 30 minute time zone change between Cairns and Uluru so we set our watches back a half hour.  We will lose it again later when we get back to Sydney!

The airport at Uluru was very small, and we walked across the tarmac to the terminal.  Signs instructed us to throw away whatever produce we were bringing in.  There is a lot of concern about spreading fruit flies throughout Australia.  I didn’t have time to put that last breakfast banana into my belly, so I tossed it into the bin.  The baggage claim area was small, and for once our bags came out quickly.  A large AAT Kings bus was waiting to take us to our hotel, Desert Gardens.  There are half a dozen hotels and resorts in the small township of Yulara, which mostly exists to serve tourists who want to see Uluru.  There are only about 1,000 full-time inhabitants, making it the fourth largest city in the Northern Territory, after Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine.  Back in 1963, only 5,462 tourists visited Uluru.  Last year, there were 279,794 visitors in the national park.  Tourism has definitely found its way to the outback.

We arrived in the late morning to find that our room was not ready yet.  We had a tour beginning at 2:00 PM, and the front desk told us that they could probably get us into our room for a quick freshen up before then, even though check-in was not officially guaranteed until 3:00 PM.

We took advantage of some of the down time to do laundry.


We were excited because use of the washers and dryers was free.  The front desk even provided us with laundry packets!    We met a very nice lady from Melbourne who was retired and making her first visit to Uluru.  We teased her about not having seen her country but then had to take it back when she told us she had seen the Grand Canyon in the states, and I had to admit that I had not.  She was very jovial, and it was fun to just sit by the washer and pass the time.  She taught us a new Australian expression.  We told her that we were going on a sunrise tour of Kata Tjuta in the morning, and she told us that we better “rug up!”   That means to put on some warm clothes.

After our clothes were done, we wagged our bags full of clean laundry over to the café at the hotel and got some lunch  The best part of that was my discovery of the James Squire Jack of Spades Porter.  It was very Guinness-like.  The rest of the lunch was unremarkable.  We did get into our room with a very little time to spare.  We had about 40 minutes–just enough time to gather up our backpacks, slather on the sunscreen, shoulder the camera gear and head out.  We were off to Uluru.

Our guide arrived promptly in a comfortable van.  She was a lovely young French woman from Toulouse, whose name none of us can now remember, so I will call her Toulouse.  I must confess an initial bit of disappointment at having a young French lady as our Uluru guide.  I guess I was hoping for another Crocodile Dundee type or perhaps an aboriginal person with a boomerang and a didgeridoo.  There was another Australian couple in the van, along with a guide trainee.  My disappointment quickly waned, for Toulouse was an engaging and enthusiastic guide.

How can you describe Uluru?  Facts and figures do not begin to do justice to its looming presence on the red landscape, but here goes:  It’s 2 1/4 miles long and 1,141 feet at its tallest point.  The huge slab of rock is believed to extend below the ground for another 3 miles.  It is an enormous monolith sitting in the middle of nowhere in the desert.  It reminds me just a bit of Enchanted Rock in central Texas, only on a much larger, grander, colorful scale. I found this graphic in one of the free tourism books and I think it is illustrative.

The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park expands across more than 327,414 acres of Australian outback.  Uluru is a World Heritage listed site.  The area holds a deep cultural significance to the indigenous people, the Pitjantjatjara and the Yankuntjatjara, collectively known as the Anangu.  They believe that they are the direct descendants of the beings who formed the land and its physical features during the Tjukurpa, sometimes called the Dreamtime or the creation period.  Before the Dreamtime, the world was featureless.  (I was reminded of Genesis:  “And the earth was without form, and void.”)  The stars of the creation show are a python, an emu, a blue-tongued lizard and a poisonous snake.  They traveled across the land, creating features like Uluru.  I don’t think my Western mind is able to comprehend the nature of Dreamtime.  Apparently it is a misnomer to even call it “Dreamtime”:  it is neither a dream nor a time.  Aboriginal people describe themselves as being able to connect to it.  Perhaps after a few drinks, I might be able to understand it better.

Uluru was known by the aboriginal people for many thousands of years, but it got its “whitefella” name from explorer William Christie Gosse, who spotted it in 1872 while on a surveying expedition in the outback.  He named it Ayers Rock, in honor of the Chief Secretary of South Australia.  Gosse just happened to be engaged to Ayers’s daughter.  I guess he was trying to impress his in-laws-to-be.   Gosse shouldn’t have bothered:  while he was out exploring the outback, his girlfriend found another beau and jilted him.  I’ll bet he spent a lot of time thinking, “I wish I had named that blasted thing Gosse Rock!”

Uluru sits on land traditionally owned by the Anangu.  In fact, at one time the area was what was essentially a reservation for the aboriginal people, who described being “herded” onto the desert land after the arrival of Europeans. In the mid-20th century, the government of Australia realized the significance of the place and the potential for tourism and carved out Uluru and Kata Tjuta from the rest of the desert and declared them a national park.  Predictably, they ran the aboriginal people off of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, causing a political outcry that lasted for years.  In a high point for aboriginal rights, the government of Australia passed an act to give the Anangu people their land back in 1985.  The event is called the “Handback.”  Five minutes after the Handback took effect, the traditional owners signed a 99 year lease back to the Australia Parks and Wildlife Service.  As a condition of the lease, no scientific studies of Uluru or Kata Tjuta are allowed. Much about the Anangu culture remains unknown, and they still conduct ceremonies on their holy site.  Three communities of aboriginal people live in the region, and four indigenous men, four indigenous women and three “Australians” serve on the council that oversees the park.  According to Toulouse, everything is going “quite well” with this arrangement.

Anyway, enough preliminaries:  I give you the first look at Uluru.

This one might make the Christmas card:

It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the desert was in full bloom. Toulouse explained that it has been an unusually rainy year, resulting in a bloom that hasn’t been seen in years.

 

Toulouse drove us all the way around Uluru.  She told us that certain parts of Uluru are considered to be so sacred by the Anangu that they request that these areas not even be photographed.  In fact, the entire north face of Uluru is sacred ground, so I have no photos of that area.  Toulouse stopped and told us the story of Liru and Kuniya:

During the time of creation, the Tjkurpa (Dreamtime), there was a woman python named Kuniya.  She was a good snake.  She set her eggs at the base of Uluru (and you can see the eggs, large boulders, at the base of the north face) and went out hunting.  She had a very bad feeling and so returned to check on her eggs.  They were fine, so she went back out.  She discovered her young nephew who had been speared and left to die in the outback.  Spearing is an aboriginal custom.  It is a way of punishing a young man for violating tribal rules.  It seems quite harsh, but the tribe is not without mercy.  The person who administers the spear to a youth is also responsible for tending the child’s wounds and nursing the youngster back to health.  To spear someone and leave him for dead is a violation of aboriginal law.  Kuniya was furious about her nephew’s injury and abandonment and went out looking for the culprit.  She searched the desert and found Liru, the venomous snake.  He was responsible!  An epic fight ensued.  Kuniya’s first blow with her stick was a glancing one and only scratched Liru.  (You can see scratches in Uluru that depict this.)  Her next blow to his head resulted in Liru’s demise.  You can see a wavy line depicting Kuniya slithering in.  You can also see dark spots, the blood of Liru, and the head of dying Liru depicted in the rock.  (I had to squint really hard to imagine this.)  I respected the wishes of  the Anangu and took no photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it.  Toulouse explained that these stories have several layers of meaning for the Anangu.  First, the young boy learns that misbehavior can earn him a spearing.  Another lesson to be learned is that the tribe will (or should) always care for you, even if you have misbehaved.  A third message is about the importance of family–the aunt took care of her nephew and battled on his behalf.  The final, and perhaps most important message, is this:  never mess with a woman!  As Toulouse delivered this message, the men in our group nodded thoughtfully.  Greg whispered to me that he already knew that one.

Toulouse showed us the sacred men’s sites and sacred women’s sites.  Men cannot even cast their eyes toward a woman’s site, and vice versa.  As you may imagine, men’s duties and women’s duties were strictly segregated, and the duties of each remain secret to the other.  (That is why four aboriginal men and four aboriginal women serve on the council; so that the secret duties and places of each are fairly represented.)  Many of the secrets remain unknown to Westerners, but some things are obvious:  women gathered plants for food, while men hunted.  In the women’s sites, you can see flattened areas of rock where they pounded seed into flour paste.  The men’s areas had drawings on the wall that depicted watering holes and information about the land and hunting areas.  All of us ladies were joking about our secret women’s business.  I joked, “It’s all a secret until the credit card bill comes in.”  The men all cackled at that.

Climbing Uluru is not prohibited, but it is frowned upon.  As I have already mentioned, Uluru is sacred ground and it is disrespectful to crawl all over it, willy-nilly.  Also, the Anangu people as custodians of Uluru feel great responsibility for  us, the “guests” they have invited onto their land.  They feel great distress if anyone is injured on Uluru, and the climb is strenuous.  Many people have had heart attacks or heat stroke while climbing it, and others have fallen to their deaths.  The back of the park entry ticket says, “It is requested that you respect the wish of Anangu by not climbing Uluru.”  We respected their wishes, but we saw plenty of others who did not.  The climbing area is scheduled to be closed by 2020, so if you want to violate Anangu custom, you better hurry up and get your ticket to ride.

This picture gives some perspective on the size of Uluru.  You can see people climbing at the base, and you can also see people at the handrail.  Follow the rail (the line visible in the center of the photo) up to the top and you can just barely make out a person standing there, a tiny white dot against the sky.  That “dot” person is only about 1/3 of the way to the top!

We went inside the caves and overhangs.

In this photo, you can see some of the cave drawings.  Aboriginal culture is the most longstanding one on earth, having 50,000 years of continuous existence to its credit.  We expected these cave drawings to be thousands of years old, but Toulouse disabused us of that notion. She said that many of the drawings were quite recent.  In fact, some of the people in the village can remember when they were painted.

The black streaks down the rock come from the water that runs off when it rains.

Toulouse took us to a pool of water.  You can see the grass and the rock reflected back.

The late-day light was different and cast strange shadows on the rocks.

We stepped into this cave, which would have been a place for families to gather.  The drawings demonstrate lessons to the children by their parents.

The circular feature is a watering hole.


Kangaroo tracks are depicted below.  Can you see how the long foot hops?

Like other aboriginal people, the Anangu do not have a written language.  Their traditions are passed along through oral storytelling, cave-painting, and song.

Greg got this next photo with his iPhone set to panorama.  I thought it turned out great.

We took a short walk down to one of the largest bodies of water at the base.  The rainwater trickles down through the rock and into the pool, making a refuge and watering hole for animals.

 

We retired to our sunset observation post, along with a few hundred other vans and cars.  There was plenty of room to spread out, so we all had our own view.  Toulouse poured sparkling wine and set out fresh bread with olive oil and spices.  Our tour was finished, so we were just having a grand time relaxing and joking with the other couple,  Toulouse and her trainee.  We sipped our sparkling wine and traded travel tales.  That’s always a favorite pastime.  The people you meet on the road can often give you the best ideas about your next destination.  Genene got to practice a little French with Toulouse.  She told Genene that her accent was quite good:  Go Awty!

The lore about Uluru is that the rock changes depending on the time of day and the light.  We were absolutely enchanted to discover that this is true.  As an amateur photographer, I have already discovered the difference in morning light, mid-day light and evening light, but Uluru puts all of that on a different level.  We dipped the bread into the herbs and olive oil, sipped the wine, and watched the show–the same show that humans have been watching for 50,000 years in this spot.

When the last light faded, we piled happily back into our van and headed back to town. We were very tired after the early start and full day of activities, and we were ready for some chow.  The town of Yulara has only a few restaurants, and Toulouse suggested that we try one in the town square.  She dropped us off and we bade a happy goodbye to our new Australian friends and wandered into the restaurant.  We were immediately disappointed because the restaurant was a “cook your own food” place.  No one had told us that.  Our resident cook, Greg, is normally game to stand at the barbie at any time, but tonight he was not in the mood for that.  We are on vacation!  We didn’t want to stand in line to buy raw meat and then stand over the hot coals.  We wanted to sit on our butts after a long day of travel and touring and be served!

Yulara utilizes a free bus system.  The resort buses make a continual loop around, so it should have been easy enough to hop on and go back to the hotel for some grub.  We found the bus waiting for us and hopped aboard.  It just sat there, and so did we.  We were pole-axed.  We had been up since before 5 AM.  We had ridden an airplane, done laundry, walked around at the base of Uluru, watched the sun go down, and drunk a bunch of cheap sparkling wine.  We were DONE.  After about 8 minutes, during which Greg, Genene and I simply sat in a mouth-breathing stupor on the bus, all of the riders began to stir around and murmur.   One guy finally said what we were all thinking:  “Hey, mate, what’s with the bus?!!!”  The driver admitted that something wasn’t functioning right and he was waiting for help.  Why didn’t he tell us that??!  We all hopped off, grumbling.  One local fellow told us he would walk us across the trails back to our hotel.  (As I mentioned, the resort buses travel around in a big circle around what is basically an enormous median, an island of land criss-crossed with trails, and our new friend was proposing that we walk across the middle of the island.)   He reassured us that he had a “torch” (flashlight).  Brilliant!  Off we went, blindingly following and trusting a stranger we just met on the bus.  Anything was better than continuing to sit there starving to death.  About four minutes in, as we and other bus-mates all walked with our new friend through the pitch black night on a winding trail in the middle of the desert, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect spot to be relieved of our wallets.  It was just a passing thought, and I did not want to telegraph fear to Greg or Genene so we pressed on.  Happily, our young Samaritan was totally legit.  (Thank goodness there are still good people in the world.  Greg admitted later that he had the same bad thought.)  Our friend showed us the way to our hotel, and along the way, we got to admire the most beautiful night sky.  The Milky Way looked as if it was painted across a jet-black canvas.

We wandered into our hotel dining room, and the maître d’ informed us with a certain haughty air that we could not dine there without reservations.  I always hate this kind of brush-off, especially when you can look behind the person and see a dozen empty tables.  Then he offered officiously, “Would you like to make reservations for tomorrow night?”  Genene and Greg have been watching a lot of Fawlty Towers lately, and the first thing that came into all our heads was, “No, you silly twit!!!”  We stifled the urge.  Instead Greg and I said in unison, “No, we don’t want reservations tomorrow.  We are hungry now.”  He gave us an impassive stare, and we trudged away to our rooms. We walked past the dining room windows, counting the empty tables as we went.  I resisted the urge to stick my bare buttcheeks up to the window.

Thankfully, there was a room service menu.  We got into our robes, washed the red dirt off our bodies, and pounced on the room service tray as soon as it arrived, scarfing down burgers and fries.  In retrospect, we would have been better off cooking our meal on the Barbie in town, but then we would have missed the walk-about in the desert, the Milky Way and the silly maître d’.  And after all, isn’t that what a vacation is all about–adventure!

We won’t get much rest tomorrow.  We are going to watch the sunrise from Kata Tjuta and continue touring the park.

Australia Part 6:  A Make and Mend Day at Thala Beach Resort

Friday, July 29, 2016

What a lovely day!  We had absolutely nothing on our itinerary.  Greg calls these days the “make and mend” days.  I woke up first (as usual) at about 6 AM.  I got some pictures of the early light, and I enjoyed the sounds of the birds calling in the trees and the wind blowing.

We had a leisurely breakfast.  Genene drank an entire pot of tea.  I believe she was an English lady in a prior life.  She has taken a real fancy to Earl Grey.  She tarts it up with a lot of milk and sugar but it’s probably better for her than the gallon of coffee I throw down every morning.  (Wonder why I can’t sleep at night?)

We tried our first (and last) vegemite on toast. Vegemite sells itself as a spread for sandwiches and toast, and the ad boasts, “It’s full of vitamin B.”   Vegemite is really a food paste made from leftover brewer’s yeast dumped from breweries.  It was developed by Australians in 1919, following the disruption of British Marmite (a similar product) imports after World War I.  It’s sticky, thick and brown, and it tastes salty and sour, like a bad, dark, sour beer.  How they have managed to continue selling that product is a miracle to me.  We asked one of our drivers about it, and he claimed it was very good if you spread a VERY THIN layer of it on toast and then followed it up with a lot of butter.  He said, “It puts a rose in every cheek!”  I think his tongue was firmly in his cheek as he gave us this advice.  I checked vegemite off my bucket list, right after the Great Barrier Reef.

We took a nature walk around the resort.  We had the trails to ourselves.  First we headed for the beach:

We watched a man frolic with his two dogs on the beach.  We did not see any crocodile warnings here, so I guess we are all safe.

Genene scratched, “Genene was here” into the sand.

We took a few minutes to lay in the hammocks.  It was cool, and the wind was very brisk.



You can get an idea of how hard the wind was blowing from looking at the trees in the foreground of this shot.


We found this “trig point” hammered into the rock at the highest point of the ocean lookout.

We left the beach and headed into the rainforest.  The trail was easy to follow, and some of the plants had interpretive markers.

Some kind of fungus, I think, growing on the forest floor:

This is a strangler fig, which begins its life as an epiphyte.  This means that it begins life living off the atmosphere using the host tree for support.  The fig grows slowly at first, sending small, thread-like roots to the forest floor.  Once the roots connect with the ground, the plant grows quickly, enveloping the host plant and eventually depriving it of light and nutrients.  (Thanks, buddy!)  The tree produces a fig that attracts birds, who in turn spread a variety of seeds.

We stumbled upon a huge bird incubation pile.   According to the interpretive plaque, this one was made by the orange-footed scrub fowl.  Their mounds can weigh over 50 tons. They generate heat just like the mound of the Australian brushturkey that we saw at Daintree.  Like the brushturkey, when the scrub fowl eggs hatch, the little birds must make their way to the surface alone, and they run away and fly without any help from Mom and Dad.  I know that Genene wishes she were a scrub fowl about now.

We saw a tar tree, but it was unremarkable to look at and I did not photograph it.  Besides, I didn’t want to get close to it.  The tree contains a toxic sap which will cause severe blistering of the skin simply by brushing against the bark or foliage.  Disturbing the sand under the tree or breathing the smoke from its burning wood can also irritate.  Its fruit looks a bit like an acorn, and that is toxic too.  Leave that bad boy alone!

Another fungus, I think:

Can you see something peeking out from under that leaf?

Greg stood near one of the mounds to give perspective:

Watch out for salties, Genene!

This pretty fellow stopped, perched and posed for me:

We wanted to see the Ulysses butterfly but had to settle for this smaller fellow:

Genene hates it when I stop to photograph spiders:


We walked by the wallaby field, but we didn’t see Apple or any of the other wallabies.  It was getting to be lunchtime, so we ambled back to the resort.  We had a nice lunch at our usual table out over the rainforest canopy.  We got to watch a monitor lizard (I think he’s a lace monitor) coming up for a drink.

The lorikeets played in the nearby trees.  We could watch the wildlife without leaving our lunch table.

Greg ordered the crocodile curry.  You guessed it:  it tastes like chicken.

After lunch we retired to our room for some well deserved R&R.  After all, it’s not every day that you survive the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.  Greg napped while I took some notes for the blog.  Genene did some sketching, listened to music, and played some games on her iPhone.  We have no wifi in our room, so she has to content herself with old-fashioned games that do not require it.  I heard her giggling softly so I know she was enjoying herself.  One thing about being an only child:  she is always content with her own company.  I think that is a trait that will stand her in good stead as she continues to navigate the joys and pains of growing up.

I think I must have fallen asleep for a little while.  Our rooms are good for that.  There is air conditioning and we have used it some.  Most of the time we simply use the windows.  They are screened and slatted, and we open the slats and let the breeze come through.  The wind whips through the trees of the rainforest.  It’s a very relaxing sound, although the wind has been pretty fierce.  If I heard wind like this in Arkansas, I would expect to look out the window and see a major thunderstorm brewing or maybe even a funnel cloud.  Here it is just an all-day feature.

I wish we had more time to sit on this deck:

and look at this view:

Late in the afternoon we cleaned up and packed.  Our driver arrives at the ungodly hour of 5:15 AM tomorrow, so we will have to roll out.

We headed down to the bar.  I ordered this very subtle, refined, pre-dinner drink.  They called it the Thala Beach coconut bomb.  It contains “coconut milk and a secret ingredient.”  I’m reasonably sure that the secret ingredient is rum.  It was fun to drink, and I got some exercise for my biceps by lifting it to my mouth.

We had our last dinner at Thala, and it was delicious, as usual. Greg has become a regular James Boag beer drinker.  On the first day, the barkeep was congratulatory at Greg’s good taste, telling him that this was the beer he drank when he was “feeling fancy.”  By our last night, the barkeep came up with our order, which had been placed by another waitress, and said, “I thought I might find you on the other end of this beer.”

We will miss the relaxing atmosphere at Thala Beach, but we are ready to see more of this big country.  We are done with the rainforest and the reef…and the vegemite!  Our next stop is the red centre of the country–Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  Stay tuned.

 

Australia 2016 Part 5:  The Great Barrier Reef

Thursday, July 28, 2016

We had a leisurely breakfast at the resort this morning since we had a civilized pickup time of 9:00 AM.  Our destination is the Great Barrier Reef.   We loaded up our masks and snorkels (after all, who wants to borrow someone else’s snorkel), gathered my waterproof camera and Greg’s GoPro, and waited by the bus stop.  Just before the bus was scheduled to arrive, I looked at Greg’s GoPro and asked, “Do you have the waterproof cover on it?”  A moment of panic came to Greg’s eyes, and he raced back to the room.  Of course, that’s when the bus pulled in.  Luckily the driver needed to get out of the bus for a moment, so we didn’t keep anyone waiting too long.  It was a short ride into Port Douglas.  We were traveling to the reef with Quicksilver.  They pride themselves as the gold standard Great Barrier Reef tour operator.  Their high-speed catamaran takes you to Agincourt Reef, where it ties up to a pontoon.  (Some of you may remember Agincourt Reef from the news years ago.  A dive boat operator miscounted the number of divers in its boat and left two Americans stranded in the water.  They were never seen again.  There was even a movie about it called “Open Water.”  Cheerful to think about, isn’t it?)  Anyway, you can hop right off the pontoon and snorkel, dive, or ride around in their semi-submersible vessel.  We were ready to hit the water.

Our bus dropped us at the port, where we checked in and got our tickets to ride.  Along the way, we were warned repeatedly by Quicksilver representatives that today was very windy and choppy.  Seasickness was “highly probable.”  (That’s true for me in the wave pool at Schlitterbahn.)  We were advised to take seasickness medicine which would be readily available on board the catamaran.

A little about the reef:  the Great Barrier Reef has over 2,600 individual reefs and 300 islands and is the largest complex of coral reefs in the world today.  It extends for over 1,200 miles along the northeastern coastline of Australia.  It’s larger than Great Britain and about half the size of Texas.  The entire reef has been run since 1975 as a marine park and is managed by an Australian governmental authority.  It made the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1981.  It boasts over 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of coral, 4,000 species of mollusks and tons of other creatures.  The reef system began forming approximately 6,000-7,000 years ago.  It is the largest living feature on earth and is the only one visible from space.  In other words, it’s a whopper.

When we got on board our catamaran, the ginger pills for seasickness were free, but the “good stuff” was being sold for a price of $3.50 Australian for two pills in a packet.  We paid for two packets, but I felt a little put off that we had to pay for medicine that they were shilling.  Virtually everyone was buying it, so Quicksilver was taking in a good bit of money before we even settled into our seats.

Here’s a photo of the sister catamaran, taken from the one we were on:

As I mentioned, I am no sailor.  I get seasick on any kind of boat on the ocean.  Greg, our Coast Guard veteran, helped us to choose a seat, facing forward and on the main deck, where rocking would be at a minimum.  I am guessing that the boat would hold about 450 people, and it was pretty crowded.  Here’s a shot from our seats:

If it moves and has a motor, Genene will go to sleep on it.  She had no trouble with seasickness, but perhaps the medicine made her sleepy.

When she woke up, we went out on deck.  It was windy and cloudy, and at times, it rained slightly.


The journey to the reef would take about 90 minutes.  We were all lucky.  The medicine worked for us, much to my amazement.  It was worth what we paid for it, in spite of my grumbling.  Tons of people were using the seasick bags, and the staff was busy carrying the full bags out of the main cabin.  I don’t know where they were going with them, and I don’t care.

Selling seasick pills was just the beginning of the Quicksilver QuickProfit plan.  They certainly have capitalism down to an art form, and we were all a captive audience aboard their vessel.  Shills came around to our table throughout the journey.  Would you like a Lycra suit?  It will help against jelly fish stings, even though it isn’t jelly fish season.  Rental price is $8.  Would you like to scuba dive?  Give us your credit card.  Would you like to rent an underwater camera for the day?  $50 and we will give you the SD card at the end of the day.  No thanks, no thanks, no thanks.

And then we did it:  we fell for the pitch made by the marine biologist.  They offered an hour-long, small group advanced tour of “areas of the reef where the other passengers can’t go.”  I’ve always thought a good guide can add so much to the experience, and the lycra suit was included.  What could go wrong?

The guides were all worried because Greg has a heart stent.  They kept telling him how strenuous the tour was.  They should not have worried about him.  They should have been interviewing me:  I’m the Arkansas landlubber.

The ship arrived and docked at the pontoon.  The biologist gave us a small paper map to tell us where to meet her on the pontoon, after we had gathered our fins, lycra suits, and optional wet suits for buoyancy.  We all took advantage of the wet suits.

Genene is suited up:

Snorkel?  Check.  Mask?  Check.

We are ready to launch.

Our small group of 10 (plus guide and lifeguard) went in the water and started paddling furiously.  I knew immediately that this was going to be a problem for me.  The seas were very rough.  Our guides had not insisted that we use the “buddy” system, but I had told Greg that we all had to keep track of each other.  That meant that I had two buddies, Greg and Genene.  Most of the time I couldn’t find either of them.  Everyone looked identical in their black lycra suits.  Our “biologist”, who was at least 15 years old, swam like a bat out of hell for about two minutes on the first leg.  I was frantically trying to keep up with her while keeping hubby and daughter in sight.  The biologist popped her head out of the water and babbled quickly at us over the roaring waves.  I couldn’t understand a word she said.  (I may not have been able to hear her over the beating of my frantic, fearful heart.)  After the third stop (about 10 minutes in), I felt completely desperate, bordering on panic.  I was not comfortable in the water.  I couldn’t see a freaking thing. I couldn’t hear a word the guide was saying.  All I did was worry about Genene, even though she seemed to be doing great.  I think I was projecting my own panic onto her.  At the next stop, I didn’t wait for the guide to start talking.  I said, “This is not for me!  I need help now!” I pulled the plug on the whole thing, and I wasn’t one bit ashamed.  I was saving my own life!

Greg and Genene wanted to continue and I let them!  I admonished Greg to “be her buddy,” and he promised me that he would keep her in his sight.  I grabbed the lifeguard noodle with no shame and let one of the staff members tow me in, leaving them to the rest of the tour on their own.  We really hadn’t gone very far, but in my panicked mind’s eye, we were out in the open water all alone.  My lifeguard made sure I was okay as she dropped me at the pontoon.  I assured her that I was fine and just need a few moments, and she set back out to catch up with the tour.  I sat on the pontoon and gathered myself.  After a couple of minutes of sitting, I got in the water and floated around, dead-mans-float style.

The Great Barrier Reef is indeed beautiful, but I think I was spoiled by the last year’s tour to the mostly gentle waters of the Galapagos.  Also, I think we caught the Great Barrier Reef on a not-so-great day, because it was not spectacular to my mind.

I floated around calmly and got some good pictures.  Oddly enough, my anxiety was much lower when I did not have to worry about Genene or Greg.  I knew that they were safe with one another.  The snorkel area off the pontoon was very crowded, and I spent as much time dodging fins as looking at the reef.  Perhaps on a calmer day, going with the small tour would have been a good idea and not a disaster.


After about 40 minutes, Greg and Genene returned, and I went out part of the way to meet them.  They told me that the rest of the tour went pretty much like the first ten minutes–furious paddling followed by incoherent babbling.  They didn’t learn much and were sorry that they had no time to self-explore. Also, I wasn’t the only quitter.  The group started with 10 but by the time the tour was over, about 5 remained.

We paddled through the big group of snorkelers and sat back on the edge of the pontoon.  Where did Genene go?  She was there just a second ago.  At the beginning of the tour, our guides had told us that we had to sign out as soon as the tour was complete.  I guess they pay a little more attention to their headcounts after losing those two pesky Americans back in the day.  Anyway, we were sitting on the edge of the pontoon looking for Genene, and the lifeguard (the same lady who towed me in) said, rather robot-like, “Greg and Lori need to sign back in.”  We acknowledged her request but replied, “We can’t seem to find our daughter.  Have you seen her?”  The lifeguard said that she had not and didn’t seem concerned about that.  Then she repeated, “Greg and Lori need to sign back in.”  That peeved me greatly (first of all because it seemed a little odd for her to address us by our names while looking right at us) and I snapped, “I’m not signing anything or leaving the water until I see Genene.”  We kept scanning the water, but of course, everyone in black lycra and wetsuits looks the same, and we were literally looking at hundreds of face-down bodies floating in the water.  After a few moments of elevated anxiety, we found Genene out of the water on the pontoon.  Ever the rule-follower, she had gone to the clipboard to sign herself back in. We were a little annoyed with her.  She wants to be self-sufficient, and we want to keep looking after her as if she is a little girl.  She is our little girl.  All’s well that ends well, and I was glad to be rid of the Stepford Wife robo-lifeguard too.

Back to my decision to quit the tour for a moment.  I actually think that my decision, though made in panic, turned out better in terms of reef-viewing.  I saw more of the reef than Greg and Genene did.  They did get to touch a sea cucumber and saw some giant clams.  Ho hum, says me.  Not worth drowning for!

We barely had time for a quick lunch, and we all returned to the snorkel area as a family for a few minutes.  We all wished we had more time.  We never even got to ride in the sub.

By 2:30, it was time to make our way back to the pontoon.  We had scheduled a special ride back to land.  No more catamaran full of puking people for us.  I felt a little like James Bond.  Can you see our ride?

During our short boat ride from the pontoon to the helicopter platform, our guide strapped on a life-preserver.  His advice was simple:  don’t get near the whirling tail of the copter.

We gave Genene the front seat:

Each of us wore a headset, and the microphone was voice-activated.  This was a little disconcerting because I like to gripe about everything sotto voce, and my every wheedle would be broadcast.  Plus you could hear yourself talk through the headphones, always disconcerting.  I soon learned to cope by whining less.  Genene and Greg probably appreciated that.

As soon as we were all in our seats with the doors closed, the pilot lifted us into the air without fanfare or delay.  What an awesome feeling it was to go straight up, up, up!

The reef was gorgeous from the air.

Can you see the stingray?  We also spotted many turtles.  We asked our pilot to look for whales, but he said they would be scarce this time of year.

The helicopter ride turned out to be my favorite part of the day, because you could really get an idea of the enormity of the reef from the air.  In fact, I would say the helicopter saved the day, in terms of leaving me with a positive impression of the reef.  I would have considered the day a bust if it had not been for our flight.  Perhaps I was a bird in a prior life.  I definitely was not a fish.

Can you see why they call this Snapper Island?

We saw the Daintree River from the air.

The waves rippled to the shore like lace.


Port Douglas sat below us, pretty as a postcard.

Our pilot set us down gently in a grassy field.  A car was waiting to take us back to Port Douglas.

One thing we hadn’t realized was that we would have time to kill.  We were taking the communal transport bus back to our hotel, and it wasn’t going to leave until the boat got back.  Obviously, we traveled faster in our little bubble (thank God; I can’t imagine sitting on that boat for 90 more minutes).

We found a bar at the port and settled in to wait for the slowpokes (or should I say slowpukes?) to return.


The sun came out, and we relaxed until we saw the catamaran coming in.  We got on the Thala Beach bus and headed for “home.”  I am happy to check Great Barrier Reef off my bucket list.  I do not need to do it again.

We asked for the earliest possible dinner reservations at the resort.  Greg drank his fancy James Boag beer while I enjoyed an Australian red wine.  We were celebrating:  we didn’t drown at the Great Barrier Reef!

We are looking forward to a quiet day tomorrow.  There is nothing on our itinerary, so we are turning off the alarms and sleeping in.  I hope I don’t dream of sharks or fast-talking marine biologists.

Australia 2016 Part 4: Daintree Rainforest

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

We had early breakfast at the hotel.  The view is awesome:

Our pickup was for 7:20 AM,  and we were met by the most stereotypical Australian man I ever hope to see.  Tall, blonde, khaki-clad, with a crocodile tooth necklace, shorts and hiking boots–he personified Crocodile Dundee.  His name was Rick, and he was also carrying a trainee, a middle-aged bloke named Darren.

We had one other family to pick up at the QT Hotel in Port Douglas.  A young couple and their two children climbed aboard the van, and we exchanged introductions and pleasantries.  They asked us where we were from and we told them Houston.  They laughed.  “So are we!”  They were from the Spring Branch area.  It’s a small world!

It was a short trip in the car to the waters of the Daintree River, where we were to have our very own crocodile cruise.  Rick talked non-stop on the drive and was a wealth of information about Australian history, both political and natural.  The Daintree Rainforest is yet another World Heritage site.  The Australians did not even realize how special it was until very recently, and areas of the forest were often cleared for farming without permit or fanfare.   In the 1970’s, a  farmer’s cattle became ill.  Something was poisoning them, and it was a very mysterious affair.  After a lot of sleuthing, it was determined that the cattle were eating the seed of a plant called Ideospermum Australiense.   The heck you say?  What’s so special about that?  Well, scientists had previously thought that this angiosperm had been gone from earth for 100 million years, but there it was, thriving in the Daintree, along with many other plant species found nowhere else on earth.  The entire area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, and efforts have been undertaken to reclaim some of the areas used by farmers.  Walking around in this rainforest is like taking a step backwards in time to the Land of the Lost.  I kept looking for a Sleestak.

The traditional custodians of the land were the aboriginal people known as the eastern Kuku Yalanji, and they still subsist on these tribal lands and consider them sacred.  They know exactly which plants can be eaten, used for medicine, and made into utensils, weapons, and shelter.  We did not meet any of these people.  Rick told us that they were small in stature, thus adapted to their rainforest surroundings, much as the pygmy people.  Perhaps the small body size benefits their life in rainforests. For instance, even though rainforests are very diverse ecosystems, they do not really have that much food for humans.  Small body sizes, therefore, may have evolved because they require fewer calories.  Rick also explained to the kids that taller individuals have more difficulty moving through the dense vegetation of tropical rainforests. Finally, the Daintree is hot and humid, and everyone who lives in Houston knows that humidity makes it difficult for sweat to evaporate and cool people down. Since small bodies generate less heat during activity, they could survive more easily.  You see–short people really do have a reason to live!  Suck it, Randy Newman!

We pulled the van up to the Daintree River, where a boat was waiting for us.  It looked a bit like my brother’s old covered lake barge.  There were rows of seats in  the middle, and our two families had plenty of room to spread out.  Our captain was a rougher looking bloke than Crocodile Rick, sporting  a couple of days’ growth of beard and the ruddy, sunburned face of every middle-aged Australian.  I’ll bet their dermatologists do big business.

Ostensibly, we were there to see all sorts of wildlife, but I wanted to see the man-eaters, the saltwater crocodiles.  The Aussies have pet names for everything, and they call these guys “salties.”  It makes them sound so cute, doesn’t it?

The saltwater crocodile is the largest of all living reptiles, as well as the largest terrestrial and riparian predator in the world.  As its name implies, this species of crocodile can live in marine environments, but can usually be found in saline and brackish mangrove swamps, estuaries, deltas, lagoons, and lower stretches of rivers. They have the broadest distribution of any modern crocodile, ranging from the eastern coast of India, throughout most of Southeast Asia, and northern Australia.  The saltwater crocodile is a formidable and opportunistic  predator. Most prey are ambushed and then drowned or swallowed whole. It is capable of prevailing over almost any animal that enters its territory, including humans.   Due to their size, aggression and distribution, saltwater crocodiles are regarded as the most dangerous extant crocodilian to humans.  So says Wikipedia.

Greg spotted a crocodile in the water before Captain Ruddyface (sorry, I never got his name) even got the boat underway.  Greg had clearly brought his safari eyes.  Captain R said, “Good going, Mate!”


Captain R introduced us to this juvenile crocodile:

We floated down the Daintree, scanning the trees and shoreline for wildlife.

Can you see the snake in the tree?

I believe this fellow is some kind of a kingfisher:

Another snake in a tree!

Another crocodile youngster.  He looks like he is smiling for the camera.

This baby blends right into the brown mud.

Mom Croc hangs out nearby her babies.   A female croc lays between 40 and 60 eggs.  A lot of these won’t hatch, and even fewer will make it to adulthood.  The female crocs are fiercely protective of the offspring, but in spite of Mom’s care, only about 1% of her hatchlings will make it to adulthood.  Captain R knew this girl by name and could tell us exactly how many of her babies had survived the year.  She lost quite a few to flooding and predators.

Next we saw this larger fellow basking at the shoreline.

Grandma, what big teeth you have!

This fellow was the Grand Mac-Daddy of the tour.  I wasn’t getting into the photo for scale, but he was between 12 and 15 feet long.  Darren and Rick said they had seen him eat a dog just last week.

Come a little closer, Lassie!

We took a family photo at the end of the boat tour.

Our boat took us to the other side of the Daintree River, where Rick was waiting for us with the van.  We drove into the rainforest.  Our itinerary called for a rainforest walk, but first Rick and Darren fixed us a little tucker.  A light rain was falling, and we found a covered picnic table where they set up the morning’s snacks.  We had hot tea and coffee, and Rick invited us all to suck and chew  on a bit of sugar cane.  It was crunchy and sweet, of course.  He also introduced us to the traditional dessert of Australia, lamington.  Lamington is a sweet dessert,  made with squares of sponge cake coated in an outer layer of chocolate sauce and rolled in coconut.  Greg isn’t much for sweets.  He’s more of a grease and salt guy.  Genene and I really enjoyed it.

We took a walk through the rainforest.

We were caught by surprise.  The slow drizzle turned into a steady rain.  I felt so foolish.  After  all, it is a RAINFOREST.  I should have come prepared!  We had brought rain gear to Australia, and none of us thought to pack it for today’s outing.  Rookies!    Rick had some umbrellas for us to share, but we got pretty wet and I had to put my good camera away so that it wouldn’t be ruined.   We saw an Australian water dragon on a tree. Rick got so excited that I thought he was going to wet himself.  I thought of Steve Irwin.  He used to get so excited about wildlife, and that kind of enthusiasm is infectious.  We gawked at the lizard as if it were a dinosaur.

We were also hunting for the rare flightless bird, the cassowary.  It’s the third largest bird in the world, surpassed in size only by  ostriches and emus.  The cassowary is endangered and there are less than 1,000 left in the wild.  Rick cautioned us quite a bit about how to act if we spotted the bird because it is quite dangerous.  It has a strong talon-like three-inch claw on its leg.  When threatened, it will attack by jumping and thrusting its feet.  It can disembowel a man.  Rick told us several stories about fatal encounters with these birds, and his description reminded me a bit of the tale told about velociraptors in Jurrassic Park.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a cassowary in the wild, but in the end, I was disappointed that we didn’t.

The buzz throughout today’s tour, at least among the guides, involved a lady from New Zealand (a kiwi) who had been eaten by a croc a few months ago.  The guides were universally judgmental of her and unsympathetic about her demise.  Captain R shrugged his shoulders and said, “She didn’t follow directions.”  He even seemed angry that the game wardens actually try to track down the offending croc.  “It’s not his fault.  He is just doing what he does.  It’s the woman’s fault!”  Rick was a little more circumspect.  He ran it down for us:  “There are four things that could have happened to her because of her bad judgment.  First of all, she was drunk.  She could have just had an accident.  Second, she went swimming during stinger season.  She could have been killed by a poisonous jellyfish.  Third, she could have just drowned.  Fourth, the croc could have killed her.”    Rick declared triumphantly, “The croc won!”  This is dangerous country, and the penalty for foolish behavior can be instant death.

Before lunch, we asked our new Houston friends where their kids went to school:  Awty, the same school that Genene attends!  The small world got a little smaller.  Their daughter, Rebecca, is starting sixth grade, the grade that Genene just finished.  Genene spent the rest of the trip advising her young protegé about all her classes and teachers.

We drove on up to Cape Tribulation, so named by British navigator Lieutenant James Cook in 1770 after his ship, the Endeavor, scraped a reef northeast of the cape.  Cook steered away from the coast into deeper water but  the ship ran aground. The ship stuck fast and was badly damaged, desperate measures being needed to prevent it from foundering until it was refloated the next day. Cook recorded, “…the north point [was named] Cape Tribulation because here begun all our troubles.”

Along the drive, we all enjoyed the artistry of some unknown comic, who had taken an ordinary speed hump sign (below) and spruced it up a bit.

We stopped at a rest stop, and I admired their waste management technique.  It smelled pretty ripe out here.  As many of you know, my job involves representing water districts, so I get to do a lot of talking about water and sewer issues.  (Do you think I can write this trip off on my income taxes now, since I educated myself about their sewer handling?)

We took a wet walk on the beach at Cape Tribulation.

Rick explained how mangroves get their water.  One interesting fact:  their roots are capable of absorbing salty water.  The tree then pushes the salt out into a few leaves, which turn yellow and fall off.  These leaves are sacrificial.

Genene did her best mangrove impression.


These Australian brushturkeys wandered along the shoreline. They build large communal nests on the ground made of leaves, other combustible material and earth, up to 4.5 feet high and up to 13 feet across. The eggs are hatched by the heat of the composting mound, which is tended only by the males who regulate the temperature by adding or removing material in an effort to maintain the temperature of the mound in the 91–95 °F incubation temperature range.  When the eggs hatch, the chicks are on their own.

The kiwi woman obviously didn’t read this sign.  She was too drunk!

She missed this one too!  Doesn’t the beach seem inviting?

Most of the beaches have a bottle of vinegar, even though its efficacy in treating jellyfish stings is debated.  Rick said that they have to dye the vinegar blue to discourage people from using it on their fish and chips.


Our next stop was lunch, and we stopped at a delightful little restaurant/animal refuge.  Lunch was included in the price of the tour, and Rick advised us that the tour would even pay for “first shout,” the first round of drinks.  Any more drinks would be on your own ticket.  We weren’t tempted to drink much because with the lingering jet lag, it would have put us to sleep.  We had one sociable wine and beer each.

Genene spent the lunch advising new friend of classes and teachers she will have in sixth grade at Awty.  Genene was so happy to have someone her own age to talk with.  She really came alive.  She knows that she is lucky that she gets to travel the world, but she is at the age where her parents have become extremely boring and nerdy.  (I think we were always extremely boring and nerdy.  She has just gotten old enough to realize it.)

This resident python was coiled in a tree in the front of the restaurant.  I was reminded of Kaa from the Jungle Book.  I kept waiting for it to whisper, “Mowgli.”

Rick struck a pose in front of a life-size statue of a cassowary.  I am not sure what we would have done if we had encountered that thing on the trail.

The animal refuge rehabilitates animals that are injured.  If possible, they are released back into the wild.  Some become permanent residents of the refuge.  This is an agile wallaby:

Genene is feeding the swamp wallaby as the agile wallaby stands nearby.  The swamp wallabies were pretty tame and allowed us to pet them behind their heads at the shoulders.  The agile wallaby took the food and immediately hopped away.


Swamp wallaby eating a sweet potato:

The agile wallaby finally let me creep up pretty close:  “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Rick persuaded one of the resident rainbow lorikeets to sit on his shoulder and eat bits of watermelon out of his hand.

After lunch, we made a stop at a small fruit orchard, whose sole purpose is to supply fruit for the sorbet and ice cream made on site.  It looked a lot like the peach orchards of Howard County, Arkansas, and I thought of Daddy.  Genene and I bought cups of the delicious cream.  You don’t get to choose:  they serve you four scoops of whatever is on hand that day.  Davidson plum, wattle seed (an edible seed of the acacia tree), coconut and mango were the flavors of the day.  They were all so different.  Genene’s favorite was the wattle seed.  I couldn’t choose a favorite.

Toward the end of our tour, we stopped at the Alexandra Range Lookout.  We had a spectacular view of the mouth of the Daintree River.


We had completed all of our scheduled stops and now just had the long drive back to Port Douglas.  Rick continued to impart information about the rainforest. Of particular interest to me was the discussion about  the cane toad.  The cane toad is not native to Australia but was introduced in the hopes that it would kill the cane beetle, a pest that plagued the sugar cane crops.  Australia has a bad record with introducing non-native species.  Rabbits, house cats and foxes have all been brought in, with disastrous results.  Anyway, as you may imagine, the cane toad  didn’t do a thing to stop cane beetles, but the toad has been prolific.  Without a natural predator, it has become a huge problem.  Eradication programs have not been successful, though people often take measures into their own hands.  Rick said that as a boy, he would take a flashlight and kill up to 80 toads a night.  Their skin produces a toxin, so they do not make good eating.  Some people like to lick their skins and get a dangerous high, and  Darren told us that his dog loves to do this too.  He said the dog grabs the toads in his mouth and squeezes them.  He claimed his dog was addicted and then said, “The flashbacks are bloody hell.  Two days later, he will run around the house like crazy.”  I actually suspected that Darren might be having us on a bit, so later I went back and googled the subject of dogs and cane toads.  Sure enough, there is an entire youtube sub-genre on this subject.  If you have three minutes of your life to waste, this clip is very funny.  It starts slow, but keep watching:

Dobbie the Dog gets high on cane toad

By late afternoon our van pulled to a stop as we waited for the iconic Daintree Rainforest Ferry, which is the way in and out of the forest.  (Rick had crossed over it in the van by himself that morning while we were on our boat ride.). Rick saw fruit bats in the trees, and we all piled out of the stopped van to get a closer look:

I looked at him.  He looked at me.  Neither of us liked what we saw.

We rode the ferry across, and Rick told us the other local scuttlebutt.  Recently a man had driven off the ferry while it was in the middle of the river.  The man simply had what Rick described as a “brain fade.”  He was talking to someone else on the ferry and got distracted.  That would be a bad day!

Back on the road, Rick decided to make one more stop.  He knew where we could see a green ant nest in a tree, and he tapped the green leafy ball and watched them roil out.

He told us that the aboriginal people eat these ants, and their little “ends” have a good taste.  He offered to let us try one and promised that the ant would not be harmed.  We were all game to try.  Rick would catch the ants gently by their heads and abdomens and position the “tail” toward our tongues.  We were told to keep our tongues moist, and he touched the ants to our tongues one by one.  The taste was tart, something akin to a lemon and a Granny Smith apple.  I was amazed.  Rick said, “You can go home tonight and say to your friends, ‘You won’t believe what I did today.  I licked an ant’s butt.'”  Darren quickly retorted, “Imagine it from the ant’s perspective.  He’s going to go back to the nest tonight and say, ‘You’re not gonna believe what happened to me today!'”

Rick told us about a few words that don’t mean the same thing in America as they do in Australia.  For instance, a fanny is a vagina in the land Down Under.  So if you talk about your fanny pack or tell someone to move their fanny, expect some odd looks.  “Rooting for” is the Aussie colloquial for “having sex with.”  So if you ask an Aussie who they are rooting for, they aren’t going to say “Arkansas Razorbacks.”  They are going to say, “None of your business, mate!”  A rubber is an eraser.  This one works the other way.  If an Aussie asks an American to borrow a rubber, the American may raise an eyebrow.  Likewise for thongs, which in Australia are simply flip-flops. Rick said he got in a bit of hot water on a tour once when he said, “Girls, we are at the beach.  You can take off your thongs and go in the water.”

It was late afternoon when we said our goodbyes to Rick and Darren.  Genene traded emails and phone numbers with her new Awty friends and is looking forward to seeing them on the first day of school.  We got back to the hotel and peeled off our damp clothes.  We took care of one item of housekeeping.  Genene’s roll away bed was like a glorified cot with metal springs.  Every time she turned over last night, it squeaked horribly like the Second Coming and woke me out of my sleep.  I am a light sleeper on any day, and I didn’t want to listen to that racket for two more nights.  I talked with the front desk and asked for a new cot that didn’t squeak.  I got an odd look.  Apparently a “cot” is a baby bassinet in Australia, and the lady couldn’t imagine why Genene would need that.  We finally communicated, and they quickly sent a new roll away bed with nice, quiet wooden slats.

We had dinner at the hotel.  The seafood is fresh and delicious.  We had tuna and a lamb neck, which was also savory and delightful.  We were exhausted  by 8:00 PM.  We are visiting in Australia’s winter, so the sun goes down sometime after 6:00 PM.  By dinner’s end, it was pitch dark and to us it felt like midnight.

We went straight back to our room and began assembling our gear for tomorrow’s activities.  Mask?   Check!  Snorkel?  Check!  Swimsuit?  Check!  Sunscreen?   Check!

Tomorrow…the Great Barrier Reef!

Australia 2016 Part 3:  We’re Moving! (Sydney to Cairns and on to Port Douglas)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

We were wiped out last night and went to bed by 8:30 PM.  I didn’t need any sleep aid to drift off, even though there was a party going on right outside our window.  In fact, we could peer out our window and down onto the patrons.  If the window hadn’t been there, we could have spat in their drinks.  We weren’t even tempted.

We awoke at 1:00 AM with a start.  Greg’s phone was ringing.  The caller id pegged it as someone from Clarewood House, where his mother is convalescing after having broken her shoulder.  That worried us a bit, and it took us some time to hear from Greg’s sister.  It was only Clarewood’s front office calling to say they were rescheduling one of the periodic family meetings to discuss Essie’s progress.  They had no way of knowing where we were and that there was a 15 hour time difference.  We were relieved it was nothing more serious.  We split a sleep aid and went back to bed.

We are leaving for Port Douglas via Cairns today, but our flight was scheduled for the civilized hour of 12:30 PM.  That meant that we could sleep late, have a leisurely breakfast and finish packing.  Breakfasts at Pier One are marvelous.  They have fresh fruits, hot bacon, eggs made as you like, yogurt, cereal, a hash brown with some secret ingredients that we never could get the chef to share–you name it!  I had a passion fruit that was so succulent.  Greg learned how to order coffee.  If you want coffee with cream, you say, “Long black with cream.”  The coffee here is strong and delicious.  Yesterday our guide (the Ormsome Orm) told us that Starbucks could not make a go of it in Sydney because everyone here is a coffee snob, and the small shops do it so much better than our ubiquitous Seattle chain.

We finished packing, and we were pleased that the same driver who picked us up from the airport was here to take us back. He was an Australian of Indian descent, and he is proud of his country and anxious to give tips about things to see and do.  I love it when you get a talkative driver.  They generally have the best advice about good places to eat, secret tips and tricks, and so on.   He also told us some pretty incredible tales about some of his casino clients.  Australians love to gamble, and casinos are everywhere.  Where there are gamblers, there are Chinese nationals.  (Last year, we ran into many Chinese people in a casino in Myanmar.). Anyway, back to our driver.  His company has a private jet that flies in Chinese high rollers for three-day junkets in the casinos.  Typically the man gambles, while the limousine driver takes the wife and family on shopping trips.  To ride on the private jet, all you need is $5 million (Australian dollars, each worth about $0.80 US) to gamble.  Our driver told us that his clients tell him that the casino life is all about the thrills.  He told of one young man who laughed at having lost $87,000 in one morning’s gambling.  The driver couldn’t see the fun in that, and neither could we.  To each his own.

Airport security was a civilized breeze.  The lines were not long.  We got to keep our shoes and watches on, and no one took away our water.  The Australian security screeners were friendly, a marked change from their American counterparts, who appear to be selected on their ability to be surly and unhelpful.  My accent tends to generate some questions.  One gentleman asked me where I was from, and I told him that I was from the states, particularly Arkansas.  He said, “Oh yes, they’ve been having a lot of bush fires there.  The smoke has made it all the way to Las Vegas.”  I think he is thinking of California, but I can’t blame him.  I don’t know my Australian geography for beans, so I can’t laugh at him for confusing Arkansas with California.

Our flight boarded on time.  Qantas has an app that streams videos onto your iPhone, so Genene disappeared into anime and Greg read while I blogged.

The airport in Cairns (pronounced Cannes, like the French city known for its film festival) was small and efficient.  Cairns is on the northeast coast of Australia, in tropical Queensland.  It began as a gold mining and sugar export town but is now famous as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, a place we will visit in upcoming days.  We wouldn’t see more than the Cairns airport, since we were driving on up to Port Douglas.  Our driver– a middle-aged man of Japanese descent named Sam–was able to meet us in baggage claim and help us wrestle our bags to our car.  Along the ride, we saw our first kangaroos in a field in the distance.  I did not have my camera out so I missed the shot.  I’m sure there will be more.

Sam told us that he spent time in Los Angeles as an exchange student.  He never mentioned how he or his ancestors made their way to the land Down Under.  He warned us that road to Port Douglas was full of turns, but I thought it was pretty tame.  It wasn’t as bad as the Pig Trail in north Arkansas, and it certainly did not compare to some of the Tuscan roads in terms of hairpin curves.  The drive was very scenic, but there wasn’t much room for error or you could end up in the ocean.  We stopped at a scenic overlook.

Sam violates basic photography rules by facing us directly into the sun.  It couldn’t be helped.  That’s where the sun and the view were!


We arrived at our resort in late afternoon.  We are staying in Thala Beach reserve.  It’s beautiful here.  Each “room” is actually an individual bungalow built on stilts with impressive views of the rainforest canopy and the ocean.  We get at least one free day with no planned activities.  I plan to stroll around to the beach and nature preserves.

The reception area:

The dining room, with an ocean view, where we will take our meals:

We spotted our first kookaburra in the tree just outside our room.  Everyone in Nashville, Arkansas will remember singing a round about him in Mrs. Cowling’s music class:  “Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree.  Merry, merry king of the bush is he.  Laugh, kookaburra, laugh kookaburra, Gay your life must be!”  I have many fond memories of the songs we sang in her class, and I always looked forward to going.  I think Genene missed out on that experience.  She had a music class, but she had to share that time period with computers, art, and a bunch of other ancillary work.  I think we had more unstructured time in school as children.  Our curriculum was less varied, but the things we did seemed a lot more fun and there was less emphasis on testing and performance.  Heck, we didn’t even have computers to learn about!  Anyway, here’s the merry, merry king of the bush:

This is the view from our room!  The balcony is actually in the treetops of the rainforest.  You can hear the ocean waves crashing.  I could sit and stare at it for hours.

The resort is a good distance from Port Douglas, and transportation is an issue.  We will need to ride a bus if we want to go into town.  We were content to eat dinner at the hotel, and we did not suffer.  Meals are a multi-course affair, and Australian beers and wines are readily available.  Fresh seafood is a staple, and there is even a crocodile curry dish on the menu that we will have to try.

After dinner, we made our way slowly back through the lobby and found to our delight that a wallaby was taking her snacks at the guest seating area.  We found out that her name is Apple the Wallaby, and she even has her own hashtag.  #AppletheWallaby. Here she is wishing her fans a Merry Christmas:

 

We are going to like this place!

Australia 2016 Part 2:  A Day in Sydney

Monday, July 25, 2016

We were all pretty tuckered out and slept well last night.  I took an Ambien to help me adjust to the new time zone.  I never sleep well anyway, so those sleep aids come in pretty handy for me.  In my life at home, I ration the medicine very strictly.  On vacation, I try to use a few of them on the first nights to help ease the jet lag.  I slept from 10 PM to 4 AM, a really good night for me.  From 4 to 6 AM, I worked on the first blog, discovering to my dismay that my beloved Blogsy app was a deader.  I’m working through the WordPress app, and I’ve only accidentally published a draft twice now!  I’ll get it figured out.

Our schedule called for an all-day private tour of Sydney, so we needed a big country breakfast to kick off the day.  Our hotel–Pier One–is ideally situated on–you guessed it–the first pier in Sydney Harbour.  In its first life, the building was a warehouse but has been spectacularly converted.  It sits in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge with easy access to the trendy Rocks district.  We can watch the boats out our window.  I say all that to say, man, their breakfast is good.  We poked in the grub, gathered our gear and went downstairs.

Our guide Orm met us at just a couple of minutes past 9:00 AM.  He apologized for being tardy, but we were not worried.  Genene was happy to sit in the lobby and catch Pokemon.

First Orm took us to the Sydney Opera House, where we were to meet a private guide and get a tour of the Opera House interior.  Our guide was a middle-aged German lady who operated with stereotypical German efficiency.  Henceforth, she will be known only as the Opera House Nazi.   Apparently we were late, but we could not have been more than 5 minutes behind schedule.  She pounced upon us as soon as we walked up and whisked us away from Orm at lightning speed.  Since it was a private tour, I had hoped we would have more flexibility.  It was not to be.  She raced us through the interiors.  I was literally out of breath for much of the tour.  After each canned spiel, she would ask us if we had any questions and then cut us off in mid-question.  She asked us what we were seeing while we were in Australia and then interrupted Greg in mid-sentence, cut him off and told us it was time to keep moving.  I am not sure whose schedule she was on but it was not ours.    She was not my cup of tea.

The tour of the interior of the Opera House was interesting nonetheless.  We saw the bowels of the place and all the gear it takes to change stages and sets.  The amount of lights, stage equipment, props, etc was mind-boggling.  The only thing I can compare it to is the inside of a vast warehouse with people and equipment movers everywhere.  Photographs were not allowed in the stage areas or in the “working” areas of the Opera House, so you will have to settle for my description.  The stages were nothing extraordinary to my mind, though the organ in the big hall was a whopper, and I’ll bet my friend Gary Smith would love to play it.  The Opera House looks best from the outside.

Here’s the view of the Harbour Bridge from the Opera House.  Sydneysiders affectionately call it “The Coathanger.”

The inside of the Opera House has impressive views of the sky and harbour, though the purple carpet is a bit over the top!

The box office area looks pretty ordinary.

People inside the Opera House  must be accompanied at all times by a guide with a badge.  Our guide described an “incident” from a few years ago.  A deliveryman was leaving a package for the stage director.  His escort took a phone call and let the deliveryman proceed alone for a few minutes.  He took a wrong turn and ended up on stage in the middle of a Shakespeare play in front of a packed house.  Luckily the production was modernized so that the actors were in contemporary clothing.  The actors ad-libbed about the package delivery, got the guy off the stage, and the audience was none the wiser.

Let’s back up and talk about genesis of the Opera House.  In 1954, the government of Sydney selected a committee to advise them on the building of an opera house.  Sydney wanted to be considered a cosmopolitan world city, and they needed a signature showpiece building for performance art.  A competition was held.  233 submissions came in from the world over, and in 1956, the committee selected the design of a 36-year-old Dane named Joern Utzon.   His design was influenced by a ship’s billowing sails, palm fronds and Mayan ruins.  It was bold and unique.    Utzon’s design was purely architectural.  In other words, he did not consult with a structural engineer to see that it could actually be built.  Details.

Engineers struggled for years with various challenges that related to fabricating and supporting the sails.  Apparently the idea for the solution came to Utzon one day while peeling an orange.  The shells could be constructed from segments of a single sphere.  Thus the concrete ribs of the building could be prefabricated in a few molds, hoisted in position, and joined together.  Voila!  The project was originally projected to cost $7 million and take 4 years to construct.  In the end, it cost over $102 million and took 15 years to build.  Politicians solved the problem of financing by holding a lottery to raise funds.  Sadly, Utzon was so embittered by the fighting and ego trips associated with the construction that he quit the project, left the country and never saw his masterpiece in person.   A committee of architects did their best to finish the project and honor the design of Utzon.   Years later, Utzon was commissioned to complete an interior room, and he did this.  By this time, he was not in good health and could not return, but perhaps he managed to set some bitterness aside.  His building achieved World Heritage status while he was still living, so the story isn’t all sad.  He died in 2008 at age 90, and the prime minister of Australia ordered the flags on the Harbour Bridge to be flown at half-mast and the lights of the Opera House to be dimmed as a sign of respect.

The exterior of the Opera House is covered with 1,056,000 self-cleaning cream-colored Swiss tiles.  Some of them are matte and some are glossy.  This means that the Opera House will look different in different lighting situations.

Our tour called for us to see the Utzon room, and our guide talked about it but I guess she decided that we weren’t worthy.  She talked about it but never showed it to us.    (Opera House Nazi says, “No Utzon room for you!”)  When we reached the gift shop, we all bolted for the rest room.  There’s nothing like several cups of coffee followed by a run up and down 200 steps to get the system going.  Our guide wouldn’t even wait for us to come out of the bathroom and took her leave of us then and there.  It was only later that we realized that we missed the Utzon room.  Ah well.  Auf widersehen….NOT!

Orm was waiting patiently.  He told us there was no need to rush.  This was our day, our tour, and our pace.  Whew!  We liked him instantly.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Australian history, and he sprinkled bad jokes throughout his tour, earning him instant love from Greg and Genene.
He drove us around the city, stopping at various vantage points to show us the spectacular views of Sydney.


We learned a little about the history of the aboriginal people, whose sad legacy mirrors the American experience  with Native Americans.  Aboriginal people have the longest continuous human history and civilization.  Their heritage has existed uninterrupted for 50,000 years.  When white people (or as aboriginal people say, “whitefellas”) came to Australia, there were over 600 aboriginal “nations” with just as many dialects.  To me it sounds very similar to our Native Americans, who were not monolithic–Cherokee, Sioux, Kiowa, Blackfoot, Choctaw, and so on.  Another sad similarity is the devastation that European people wrought simply by arriving and bringing  their germs:  smallpox killed over 50% of Sydney’s aboriginal people almost immediately.  In 100 years, over 90% of the indigenous population was lost.  Drug and alcohol abuse were rampant with those who did survive.  It all sounds sadly familiar.

Everyone knows that Australia’s early heritage is tied to its inauspicious beginning as a penal colony.  England needed a place to send its petty thieves and since the US had declared its independence and was no longer taking, and Australia seemed a prime candidate.  Life was tough, and convicts were subject to very harsh treatment and punishments.  The worst offenders got sent to Fort Denison, a small island in the middle of Sydney Harbour.  They were sent there for a week without food or water.  Sharks fill the waters of the harbour, so escape by swimming was not an option.  The island was known as “Pinchgut”, for obvious reasons.  Convicts were also executed on the island and left hanging for YEARS as a warning to the new shiploads of arriving convicts.  The aborigines were shocked by this brutality.  They would have plenty of opportunity to be shocked about European conduct.

One of our favorite stops was Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair.  About every fifth thing in Sydney is named for Lachlan Macquarie, a governor of New South Wales who envisioned a role for the country that went beyond its convict heritage.  He governed from 1810 to 1821 and thought that convicts should be rehabilitated and hold a place in society.  This made him radical for his time.  He is often regarded as a father of Australia.  His wife Elizabeth pined for England, and so the governor ordered his people to  carve a “chair” for her out of  rock.   From her perch, she had a sweeping view of Sydney Harbour and would sit in her chair and wait for the ships to come in, bringing news of England.  It seemed a little sad to me that she would just sit watching for incoming boats in a place of such beauty.  But I do understand homesickness, and this was in the days before Facetime.


Orm told us to “look regal” (whatever that means) as we sat on Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair.  Greg struck his best Napoleon pose.

Orm says that the convict heritage is no longer an Australian family stain but is now a badge of honor.  He likened it to our Daughters of the American Revolution.

We took our lunch at the Sydney Yacht Club, home of the famous Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.  I guess it’s famous.  My yacht is still at the yacht store so I don’t know much about the sport. The fish and chips were good, and Orm told us an excellent fishing story that involved him hauling a fish into the boat that chewed his leg up.  I need to go fishing sometime so I can bend a yarn like he did.

We drove all over the city after lunch. Orm pointed out the rich neighborhoods. We got to see Russell Crowe’s place, among others.  We saw Darling Harbour, Double Bay, Rose Bay,Vaucluse, Watson’s Bay–all of it.  Each vista was more stunning than the last.

A magpie in the tree.

Can you see the chain and posts in the next few beach photos?  That’s the shark net!  They haul it up during swimming season.  I am not sure I would trust that to hold back a great white. I’ve seen “Jaws.”  “You’re gonna need a bigger net.”



Late in the day, we headed for a spectacular cliff area called The Gap.  Orm promised us that whales are often seen from the cliff top, and we were eager for a look.  He told us that the Gap also had an unfortunate reputation as a destination for suicides.  Despondent people often fling themselves from the cliff-side.  If the fall does not kill them, they are swept out into the Pacific, never to be seen again.  The city council has installed guard rails, video surveillance and phones that connect to a suicide hotline, all in the hopes of deterring those who would leap to their death in such a spectacular fashion.  Then Orm stopped the car and said, “Oh, look, I think we have arrived in time to see the 2:30 jumping.”  We had to laugh.
The view from the cliff top was glorious, though we saw only white horses.  No whales.


As we stood atop the cliff, Orm told us my favorite story of the day.  He pointed out an unassuming white house just across the road and told us that until just a few years ago, a man named Don Ritchey lived there.  He was a retired insurance salesman, and he often walked along the cliff top.  If he noticed anyone who looked despondent or troubled, he would approach them, palms up, and ask, “Is there anything I can do for you?”  He would talk to the suicidal person, often inviting them into his home for a cup of tea and a talk.  He is credited with saving over 146 lives over the years.  He had no formal training in suicide prevention.  When asked how he did it, he said, “I was a salesperson, and I was selling life.”  He received the Local Hero Award for Australia in 2011, and the National Australia Day Council said, “His kind words and invitations into his home in times of trouble have made an enormous difference…With such simple actions, Don has saved an extraordinary number of lives.” Don died at the age of 86.  He is known as “The Angel of the Gap.”  Isn’t that just marvelous?  I love hearing about ordinary heroes like this.  It restores my faith in humanity.  Who will take up his mantle on the Gap?  Will the suicide hotline phones they have installed up there be as effective as an old man offering a cup of tea?  Somehow I doubt it.

We stopped at world-famous Bondi Beach.  The surf here is notoriously dangerous.  The surf rescue movement began here, and I guess we have them to thank for that horrible TV series Baywatch.  According to Bill Bryson, in 1938, four large freak waves came in to Bondi beach, each of them more than 20 feet high.  Over 200 people were carried out to sea.  Fortunately there were 50 lifeguards on duty that day and all but six people were saved.  It’s a scary place.  There were very large waves, and brave people were surfing in wetsuits.  We contented ourselves with dipping our toes in the cold, turbulent water.

 

I took about 200 pictures of surfers to get one that I liked.


We drove around many of the old neighborhoods.  I learned a lot of interesting trivia from Orm.  Here’s a favorite:  many of the old buildings had beautiful ironwork railings.  Orm explained that early ships used pig iron bars for ballast.  They unloaded and left the iron and loaded their cargo.  The industrious new residents of Australia melted down the iron and made the railings:  balustrade.

We finished our tour in our neighborhood at the Rocks.  I am fascinated by the bridge because we are going to get to climb it.  I keep looking up to see the people.  In the next picture, you can just see them at the top on the left.  Orm explained that they are required to wear a particular colored jump suit so that they will blend into the iron color of the bridge and thus not distract drivers.

As you can already see, the different tiles do catch the light of the Opera House differently depending on the time of day or night.  The end-of-day light gives it a warm glow.

We took our leave of Orm, giving him a small tip.  Australians do not really have a tipping culture, but he told us that he appreciated it and would have a beer in our name.  We came home to Pier One exhausted and hungry.  I took a bath to try to revive myself, but jet lag is still an issue.  We were proud that we had stayed awake all day in the car with Orm.  A car ride usually puts Genene and Greg right to sleep.  It was a testament to Orm’s quick wit, informative tour and bad jokes that we stayed entertained throughout.  All day long, we kept using the word “awesome” to describe the various things we had seen, and Orm would correct us and say “Ormsome!”  Orm was Ormsome!

That evening, we had a simple request for our concierge:  we wanted good food with less than a five-minute walk.  He recommended Lotus Dumpling Bar, an Asian fusion spot, and we were not disappointed.  We had dumplings, duck pancakes, pepper beef, Kung Pao chicken, and a delicate fried eggplant that was absolutely delightful.  A side note about the Asian cuisine:  from the early 1900s until its final dismantling in the 1970’s, Australia had what has been often characterized as a “White Australia” immigration policy.  Their government declared quite baldly that they did not want any “foreigners” (non Europeans) to immigrate to their country and obtain citizenry.  In the end, Australia needed population and labor, and the policies changed.  There are now a large number of people of all ethnicities in the country, and the country has benefited from the new melting pot.  Their cuisine certainly has.  Sydney is now much like Houston, a place where you can find world cuisine.

We strolled home fat and happy.  It was a long first day of activities but a fun one!