Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Monday, March 24, 2014

Good bye, Australia

For millenia, Australia was untouched by most of the world, only the native flora, fauna and people existed in perfect harmony. Literally, in thousands of years little had changed on this continent. And everything in Australia is a little different. All the native animals are uniquely Australian. There are no bears as in the rest of the world; no lions, no tigers or cougars. There are plants that can only be found in Australia and vice versa too. There are no kangaroos anyplace else on this earth; no koalas, no wombats and none of the myriad of other creatures. Australia developed separately from all other continents. Australia is unique!

The native people, the aborigines, have occupied and taken care of the land for close to 70,000 years. Only in the last 200 years, has the rest of the world started to move into the land down under. Yes, similar events happened in the Americas, but let's stick with Australia. How or what were my impressions of this sovereign and independent nation? What did I see or how did I feel while spending 3 weeks traipsing from one town to the other? I gave myself some time for reflection to think about that and I am going to write some of my ideas down in this blog even if I prove myself totally wrong in years to come. On the other hand I might only state the obvious.

Australia today is a first class nation; run very efficiently and proud of their differences from other countries. Australia was Influenced in a major way during the British Empire period into "thinking" British. Like driving on the left side of the road, like ruling their land using the British Parlimentory setup, like basing their laws on the British commonwealth rules, like speaking English, etc. Yet, Australia is not British. For sure they have their own say and do their own thing when governing themselves. Australians are regarded highly by their neighbors, mostly the small or large Pacific Island nations. In fact the whole earth thinks of Australia in a benevolent way. Not because Australians are friendly, they are that, but because Australians rule themselves and do so well that people from equally developed continents or countries, like Canada or Europe still immigrate there today. Australia is still a magnet to many people. People can earn a good living in Australia, especially if one has a skill that others do not have or few people have. The minimum wage is $18.50/hour, more than double what you can earn in the U.S. ($7.25) and that is a huge draw for lots of people from all over the world. Australia today is a bit picky about whom they want as a citizen or even whom they let in as a worker. I can not blame them, they have worked hard to have a good life. Before they share this life with others they want to be able to sort out who it will be that benefits from what they now have. That is only natural.

On the other hand, the aboriginal people occupying the land did not have the same choices. The British moved in by force and just took what they considered free land. They established penal colonies to relieve the overcrowded British prisons. The prisoners, having served their sentences, generally remained in Australia and worked as laborers, miners or farmers. Their rough and ready ways still permeate Australian behavior today. Their European thinking, in a very short time, flooded the whole of Australia. So did their diseases. Nobody is proud of this part of Australian history. Land grabbing by foreigners happened on other continents on this globe. That it happened before or that this is just the way it is, eases some people's minds, but does not make the whole of it right. The natives, in their own way, lived a good life, too. Nobody can go back to a previous time and undo things, so let's stick with looking at Australia the way it is today.

I missed the internet in Australia. Oh, sure they have it. But I was not going to pay $7 for one hour of access that one motel wanted to charge. Even in a McDonald's, they charged for access to the web. Yes they have the internet. Free WiFi is rare, and when I did find it it was slooooow and often did not connect. Some hotels used satellite dished for their connections which were useless on clouded days. I feel that wifi could be hugely improved upon in Oz.

Gasoline is available everywhere but it is essential not to run one's tank too low in the outback. The stations are very spread out and there are hardly any stations between towns. Towns are about 80 miles apart.

All the roads were in ok shape, yet the roads are much narrower than the roads I am used to in North America. Most roads are just 2 lane roads. Each side or lane is as wide as a semi trailer truck. I felt really badly for the truckers, there is no wiggle room. Your truck fits onto the asphalt, yes, but just barely with no room on either side of your wheels. Driving like that at 110km/hour (68mph) is not fun. I also found that cresting a hill was an adventure, the climb was so steep I could, many times, not see past the crests.

I liked the speed limit controls. 60km/hour means just that, it does not mean 61 is ok. Get caught and it will cost you dearly. Speed cameras are everywhere. Just do not speed in Australia and do not run a red light. Most traffic lights have cameras build in. The light is yellow and you think you can make it? Flash, you got a ticket. Expensive! All GPS's have the speed limit built in. If you want to know the speed limit look at your GPS, it will show you. It will even give you a soft ding tone if you set it up that way, should you travel over the limit. The electronics across all of Australia to control traffic flow are all in place and they work. If your GPS tells you you will arrive in 27 minutes, you can trust it, barring an accident someplace. The roads are so controlled, that you can trust yor GPS to give you the right ETA. It simply works!

Since the wages are so high the cost of living is high, too. Be aware that Australia for outsiders is an expensive place to visit. A simple dinner of fish and chips with one beer will cost you between $20 to 25 depending on where you are. I liked the no tipping policy. All help in the restaurants make at least minimum wage, so no tipping. Same for taxis and other services. No tipping! Yea!

Australia is clean, well cleaner than lots of other places I have visited. Brisbane was spotless. They can compare themselves to Singapore, I am sure. Melbourne had the most grafitti but it was an art form there. Sydney near the airport (we walked from the car return back to the hotel) needs a cleaning crew badly. The smaller towns like Aberdeen were ok, they work great as a supply station for gas. There is not much else to write about them. We did see a pub in every town, though. I don't think there is a town anyplace in Australia that has no pub. Beer is their favorite drink and they drink a lot.

I said it before, Australians are friendly, even jovial. Cuing up is in their nature, no shoving or pushing. When I was pushed, it was invariably an Asian person, not even an Asian Ozzie. Other visitors from China or Korea or other Asian countries are stand outs when it comes to being loud and noisy and pushy. Japan excepted.

Modern Australia is a mix of people, all trying to fit into this self made, different from the rest of the world, country.

The people who really do stand out to me are the original inhabitants. Their demeanor is foreign to me. I can not read their facial features; they live (still?) in a different world. But then, I did not see too many of them. They seem to hide in the shadows. They still talk about their dream times, they still live a different life it seems. I don't know anything about Australia I guess, since I could not talk to them at all. The many men and women of the original tribes are so different. It is like seeing a deer stand next to a kangaroo, both eat grass, while developmentally they are native to their own areas yet they are so different in many other aspects. Millenia of development can not be eliminated in just 200 years. Cooperation between the cultures, as is starting with land management in the Uluru area, might lead to an even better place to Iive than Australia is today.

Viva la difference!

 

 

Katoomba,

I call Katoomba the great canyon of Australia. Maybe not as big a place as the American Grand Canyon, it is still a huge canyon. Situated a few hours West of Sydney it is a park that is worth seeing. While the Grand Canyon is mostly rocks, Katoomba is a huge canyon covered with undisturbed jungle. The subtropical highland climate is unique and covers all of the area inside the canyon. Summer temperatures range from 20 to 30 C. Snow can be found in winter but that is rare. Yet the plant life is subtropical. I have heard of some plants that grow within this region but never seen them. A turpentine tree for example. They have huge specimens growing within the park that have trunks, very straight, up to 55 meters (180 feet ) high. An amazing sight. I love trees, especially old trees that took hundreds of years to grow this tall. The biggest turpentine tree (Syncadia glomulifera) still stands in a reserve near Barrington Tops National Park, NSW and has a height of 58 Meters with a trunk circumference of 7.90 Meters (26 feet). The wood of those trees is almost totally resistent to termites and marine invertebrates. It was used as pilings for docks in years back, before the use of steel re-enforced concrete. Some places still use turpentine wood today for heavy flooring or telephone poles. A shame really, it takes them years to grow this tall. Cutting them down with a chain saw takes an hour. Modern life is ruthless!
Carol spotted a lyrebird and took some pictures. Not an easy feat to take a picture of this kind of bird in the wild. Normally those birds are very shy and easily spooked. Lyrebirds can and will imitate any sound they hear. They can bark like a dog, meow like a cat, say a word like a human; or sound like a frog. Anything they can hear they can imitate. The males, during courtship, are show-offs, wiggling their delicately colored tail feathers to attract the ladies. Those birds are not that rare but it is rare to see one since the birds really are shy and unapproachable. Good for Carol to spot one.
Katoomba is a good place for serious hikers. Some trails are for experts only. We met many young, strong, fit people in walking gear spending some quality time on the Jamison Valley jungle tracks. We old folks stuck to the planked tourist board walk, which was tough enough for us. The famous Giant Staircase, 900 hundred steep steps that takes about 2 hours to climb, we left for younger bodies.
Katoomba is a great get away from the urban life of Sydney. The two days and nights we stayed there were rewarding. I very much liked it. Sure it is touristy, we even took the cable car and also the steepest funicular railway in the world (52 degree incline). I even tried to drive along the rim of the cliff but abandoned that part since Carol is a bit freaky of heights. The very narrow road with no shoulder, literally hugs the edge of the cliff. Too close for comfort for Carol.
The town Katoomba is not that large. Total inhabitants about 8000 people. I could see that it must have been a great town in its heyday, some buildings were mansions, now converted into businesses like restaurants or guesthouses. We bunked at the local youth hostel, a clean, large place. A former hotel now converted for the use of the frugal. However the flair of the Grand Hotel still permeates from the layout and the decor. Still, even the youth hostel cost $80 per night with the member discount. That is sleep only, no frills, we made our own bed.
Well, this was the last town we visited in Australia. The rest was driving back to Sydney and repacking for the flight back to Toronto. We stored a large portion of our luggage at a hotel near the airport before we took off to tour Australia. Most of the articles we used on the cruise were in storage at the hotel. We travelled light while in the land of Oz. A good size backpack is all I used for the 3 weeks plus. Carol had a similar arrangment, she used a small roll around pack and a small knapsack. Traveling in Australia is easy but the distances are large. It would have been a chore if we had driven a car for the whole 3 weeks. I am glad we flew from place to place and used public transportation. But I am also glad we did rent this car for the last 9 days of our trip. Both gave me a broader picture of what Oz is about.
Oh, by the way, the male lyrebirds showing off for the females? It works! They do get the females, in fact if they did not show off, no female would look at them... Think about that !!!!!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hunter Valley

This wonderful area is one of the famous wine regions of Australia. We drove to the hamlet of Aberdeen NSW. But visited the wineries in and around Pokolbin NSW. As early as about 1850, some immigrants to Australia started growing grapes for wines in the Hunter Valley in a serious way. Not that I am a wine connoisseur, I am partial to sweet wines and any sweet wine might do for me. But we were told about this region by several Australians and since it is close to Sydney, our end stop, it was on our itinerary.
We also wanted to surprise Azure and Roel, motorcycle world travelers we know and hosted, who are working in a vineyard here. Both of them are winemakers and both know tons of stuff about wines. I call them wine experts. For years those two have made wine for the high end drinkers, for the people that know and appreciate the quality in their wines. But being adventure motorcycle riders for the last five years is, at the moment, more important to them then settling down someplace to make wines. Roel, a young Dutchman, has been on the road on his Honda African Twin (750cc) visiting places few have travelled such as Iran and East Timor. Roel met the American Azure, who rides her own Honda, a few years back. Ever since they met they have been inseparable. Our visit was a surprise, we did not tell them of our arrival. Carol planned it well, we received direction to their hideout from the winery itself, who did not spill the beans about our arrival. The surprise was perfect. We saw them Sunday afternoon, right after they took some time off for lunch. The great hello was a treat for them and us.
The winemaking facility Azure and Roel attend is a million dollar setup. The creation of wine by these two is an art that takes years of learning, attention to many small details and a good head for numbers and chemistry. As travelers, Roel and Azure find their wine making knowledge a true asset. In years to come they want to add to their skills in countries such as Argentina, Chile, South Africa and others. I am sure you can see that all this learning will benefit them in the long run. People will always drink wine. And good wines, the art of making good wines, will always be in demand. You might drink some of their creations sometime.
After we spent some time catching up on each other's news, after a great but not too expensive dinner out, they decided to give us a winery tour of other places the next day. Carol took this opportunity to send a few selected bottles of wine to her nephew, whom we visited while in Melbourne. Since I drove and had to pay attention to the roads I don't have too many pictures. But this area is perfect for growing wine. Warm, sunny, great soil and just the right combination of rain makes for a yearly, fantastic yield of grapes. While we visited Tyrrell, the oldest winery in the area, there are another 148 places that grow wines, too. Like always, if one place does a good business, others want to cash in on the bonanza and businesses will shoot up like mushrooms. Tyrrell started the wine making in the Hunter Valley region and after decades still produce outstanding quality wines, mainly for the domestic Australian market. A bottle at the winery will cost you between $20 to $75 dollars.
Yes they do make commercial wines for export to places like Europe, especially England, and lately to China but that is more in response to competition with the other wineries in the area, who almost exclusively sell to the mass market. Tyrrell, for Australia alone, is a quality oriented business creating exquisite wines for the palates of the true connoisseurs.
The day flew by in this good company. Roel took us on a private and extensive tour of Tyrrell's. Carol and Azure had some great wine tasting experiences. Azure spent time explaining where the grapes of each wine were grown, the flavors in each wine and how long each one should be aged for maximum quality. Carol enjoyed having this expertise and help in selecting some wines but she passed on the $86 Hunter Shiraz.
I limited myself, I was the driver. We reminisced over a coffee about riding our motorcycles in Mexico, the next part of the world Roel and Azure want to visit starting in May of this year. We shared some insights with them and gave them good tips for their visit to this fantastic country. In time, in years to come, someplace on this globe, we will run into them again. You can follow their blog here. Azure and Roel might take our advice and go to Alaska first then back down to Mexico. May in Mexico can be very hot on a bike, don't you think? How about taking your time, visit Alaska until August, then mosey down and start to visit MX in late September? Check out their blog, see what they will do!







Lightning Ridge, Black Opal Capital of the World

Are you smiling to read about opals again? Yes, we visited Lightning Ridge. The spot for black opals, one of the rarest gem stones in the world. (The town name comes from a shepherd who was seeking shelter from a heavy rainstorm on a ridge. He, hid dog and all his sheep were killed by lightning.)
While there are a lot of opals, black opals are only found here and we just had to take a look at this place. And what a treat it turned out to be. Imagine an old fashioned gold rush town of the 1890s. Claims need to be staked, shacks are put up to live in, the motors of old cars serve as mechanical pulleys or hoists for mining, all helter-skelter or so it seems. It is not a free for all, there are rules. The rules within the city limits of Lightning Ridge are your typical city rules, down to the trash collection and building codes. The opal mines are not within city limits, they are right next to the city and these areas have their own rules, the outback rules of Australia. Survive if you can.
The population is very European, Eastern European especially. The diggers are here to find the big one, the one stone that will ease all their money problems. But there are also a myriad of true characters. Their lore abounds, particularly among the miners themselves. Story telling is an art here. Tales of the big finds, of the lucky few are spread all around. We visited a copy of a castle build by a miner in his off time over a 40 year time frame and using no machinery. We saw the shack of a wrongly accused murderer who became an artist and astronomer, then blew himself to pieces by accident while lighting his propane stove. Oh the stories are great. Baloney? Malarkey? The gift of the gab? Blarney? All of those!
Yet there is a serious side to it all. This rather small town in the beginning of the Australian outback supplies the world with rare gems. This small town keeps jewelers busy, customers happy and most women wanting. There is a true science to it all. There are no shortcuts, one has to dig for those very small treasures. And the digging is not easy and luck still plays a huge part in all of it.
Any immigrant to Australia can buy an official claim. A claim is 50x50 meters. A yearly rent of $ 350 must be paid to the government. Plus one has to deposit a $ 750 bond to make sure the mine will be refilled with rocks if you want to abandon the claim. You forfeit the bond money if you do not refill before you leave. Also, if you do not pay the annual rental fee, you forfeit your bond money and your claim will be given to somebody else. Ok, suppose you receive a piece of land that measures 50 by 50 meters (160 x 160 feet). Where exactly will you dig for your opals? How deep must you dig before you hit the opal layer? Are you sure there are opals under your claim? How will you know, if you find the opals under your claim, if "your" opals are the valuable ones? How will you recognize them? The list goes on and on. Off course there were and there are the lucky people, the lucky finds. Most miners, however, are working hard and are making a living. If you like this kind of work, then this is a great life. You are your own boss, you drive yourself. Some even drove themselves to insanity. It takes a special person to be a treasure hunter like this.
The town of Lightning Ridge is a small Australian town on the edge of the Eastern outback. A bit modern due to the tourists that keep this town breathing. The town council tries hard to find 'other' venues to make this town needed or essential, such as putting in an Olympic sized pool with the latest design in diving platforms, and some athletes even practice there along with good coaches.
Yet what do you do in a town so far away from civilization? Opal mining is the main reason this town exists. The area around the town proper looks like human moles dug holes in the ground. The rocks not needed are piled right next to the mine entrances and they look like mole hills. The living conditions within the 'mole hills' seem primitive. Some of the shacks look dilapidated and haphazard. There is no running water or electricity. The whole area looks like hoarders found each other and like it there. The people are not dangerous or deranged, just so focused on the big find, they do not let the frills interfere with their pursuit of happiness. Cars are just for transportation, so car body repairs are not color matched. They are not plated. Brakes? A car drives without brakes on this totally flat landscape. Even window glass seems a luxury. Well, I think you get the idea. Mufflers ? Insurance ? as long as the car drives it is good enough. But, don't take this contraption into the town proper, I saw the police stop a man and talk to him. The town is a regular town, but around the town is the outback, there are different rules in the outback.
Some miners have moved to other areas a bit away from Lighting Ridge and even found opals there. Sure there are more opals if one follows the lay of the land and the underground crevices and layers that contain opals. But, and again but, those opals found away from Lighting Ridge are not the black opals. The black opal has a naturally adhering black back which enhances the color. The other opals found have a different composition, a different look.
Black opals are only found in this very small spot, the town we visited called Lighting Ridge, Australia.
Carol and I left after two nights in town. I could not do the physical labor those miners do. Even with the use of some modern equipment. The digging today is still done by hand. Opals are too precious to be dug up with the use of heavy machinery. The actual yielding layer of nodes can be as shallow as 4 feet below ground to 40 feet or beyond. There are no rules, there are no signs. Ground penetrating radar will not work. The opals are not magnetic. There is no other way gto find them but to dig. Opals are pure silica.
What a weird town !



Saturday, March 15, 2014

Walgett

We woke up and immediately, after our morning tea, took to the motorway. Not a highway in the American sense. More like a two lane, paved road that will do as a motorway. Deep inside Australia not all roads are paved. I almost believe that only motorways are paved. The signage is pretty good, we aimed for Goondiwindi, then Moree and then the town of Walgett. Walgett is in fat print on the map, so we thought of a large town. Turns out it is a town with a Main street about 3 blocks long and that is it. Only two restaurants were open. The motels were ? We took the one that looked best for us. The whole town had an unwritten sign, an aura, about itself that read " do not go out at night". I listen to those feelings. Especially after we had dinner at the local RSL club. The clients there were especially far out. Let me explain this a little.
I am a dreamer, I do believe that most people are nice. I can talk and adjust to about anybody I meet. Yet sometimes I get this feeling that, no matter how I adjust, the other party will not, will never, will always be "not with the program". I don't know if it is their education level, their upbringing, their outlook on life, their personal space or behavior, we just don't click. Well, Walgett was full of people like that. Not unique to Australia, I have had this feeling in every continent I have been on. What I normally do is lay low and get out of town as quickly as I can. Walgett was one of those towns.
We stopped in Walgett for the night, just 100 km short of Lighning Ridge, because it was near dusk. Driving near or in the dark is a no-no for me. Not only do I not know the roads, the lay of the land, the peculiarities of each country, I also saw evidence of road kill, I mean a lot of road kill, on the side odd the road. The smell, too, of the bloated, decomposing carcasses permeated my nose most of the day. Most victims of the collisions with vehicles were kangaroos. Literally, Carol and I saw hundreds strewn on the road and at the side of the road. It does break my heart to see all the mangled bodies of the Roos while driving. Most of these collisions are at dusk or at night. So any town that has a motel is welcome, even a town like Walgett.
The speed limit is strictly enforced in Australia, even with speed cameras in rural areas. 100 km/hour (60mph) is the norm, yes they allow 110 sometimes, but only in wide open spaces with no traffic. I saw the police pull cars over in spots where you would never expect police to be. There just is no speeding in Australia. The speed limit is strictly adhered to. The fines are huge and expensive. The police have the power in certain instances to take your car away and for very young drivers that do not want to listen, their car can be confiscated and crushed. Yes, crushed. If you have a car loan, too bad. Your car was just crushed.
How can one avoid the collisions between Roos and vehicles? Deer whistles do not help here. Nobody knows, nobody has a good answer. Prohibiting night driving is not practical in today's age. The big trucks, most are long, double trailer semis, have protective bars installed to prevent damage to the grill and hood of their cabs from the Roos. It is a conundrum.
Oh, RSL stands for Returned from Service League. It is the Australian version of a club for soldiers or personal returning from the military. These clubs in Australia sometimes have bars, restaurants and/or casinos attached to them. They are reasonably priced and the food is similar to home cooked meals. Not a bargain, but good food, cheap beer and I just like the idea of supporting the members by spending my money there.
We left Walgett early, everybody was still asleep when we drove out of town. When I told people in Lightning Ridge that we spent the night in Walgett they looked at me in a strange way. One young fellow said: "you would never get me to go to Walgett, those people are strange". My sentiments indeed.



Friday, March 14, 2014

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

When we docked in Brisbane on our cruise we took the aboriginal tour. People we talked to afterwards told us that we really missed something by not visiting the Koala Sanctuary. Well, on our round trip of Australia we decided to go back to this Sanctuary on our own. Having a car now allows us a lot of freedom and we can make choices.
We found a hotel for the first night of having a car and with a little hassle and backtracking, did find an ok place on the service road next to the highway leading out of Brisbane. Rated 3 stars it was not a posh place. Clean but simple. The receptionist was also the cook, bartender and waiter. No restaurant near by, but the motel cooks for you. They advertise this as having a restaurant. They also have a bar. This seems to be standard in Australia.
Each room has an electric hot water maker, tea bags, some cookies and the spoons, milk, sugar, knife, fork etc. for two. Within the room is a small counter that is set up like a kitchen. Very small, but just enough to eat a meal in the room. We stayed in other motels later on that have a restaurant on the premises, but as near Brisbane, the receptionist is also the cook and waiter most of the time. One pays to sleep. Food and anything else are extra charges. The regular going rate for a room is around $ 130 per night. We did find others later that were less, but we never found less than let's say $90/night. Eating out in Australia is expensive, a portion of food is always, it seems, around $20. Drinks, like lemonade or soda are $4. A salad $ 8 to 10. It adds up. Different from the U.S., no tipping in Australia.
After breakfast the next morning we were off to find the Koala Sanctuary. First stop was an electronic store were we bought a simple GPS. With the help of modern tech and with Carol's excellent map reading skills, we nailed the location on the first try. I really love a GPS. A job well done, Carol.
The roads seem different, narrower, and lots of traffic circles ( roundabouts). The signage to the Sanctuary was well placed however. Traffic in the morning hours is like anyplace in the world, heavy to frantic.
I don't like zoos. Yet this is a different place. Yes, set up like a zoo in a way, it takes in hurt animals, or youngsters that were abandoned or their parents were killed. It is a rescue place and specializes in koalas. Yet it also has some native species that are unique to Australia only. Wallabies, wombats, kangaroos, platypus (what's the plural of platypus?), emus, a cassowary, laughing kookaburras, dingoes, a Tasmanian devil, etc. Animals and birds I have heard about, yet how do you get to see them all while in Australia? This Sanctuary seemed the best place to do it all at once. Not only that but when possible we could get close enough to feed them. The 'Roos we met were so tame, feeding them was no problem. Being this close to a cassowary and looking it in the eyes, I don't know, this bird seems stupid to me. Oh, we had a good time at this place. I even fed a raptor, an owl. We saw a demonstration of work on an Australian sheep farm. I am just sorry I did not understand this guy, the 'Shepherd' too well. I am still struggling with the accent.
After having strolled around the Koala Sanctuary for about 4 hours it was time to move on. We decided to go deeper inland, climb up to the tabletop, see some of the outback while we have the car. Remember Lightning Ridge, the opal town? Well we found it on the map and it kind of fits what we were looking for, so off to NSW (New South Wales) we went. We drove until about dusk, then stopped at the town of Toowoomba for a well deserved rest. Again, a clean motel that would cook dinner for you. We had the choice of about a dozen motels, all right next to each other on the highway, not the American chain hotels, but mom and pop places. Still with so many choices the prices were as I quoted above. One of the nearby motels had a restaurant and we took advantage of that and ate there. It was strange that they had to ask the owner if it would be ok if 'non guests' ate in the motel restaurant. Normally the meal would just be added to the room price but since we were not guests, this bookkeeping would not work. We still charged the meal to a Visa card, but not to a room. We had to give them a name for their computer so they could make sense of it all. I guess visiting a restaurant from the motel next door is not done? I don't really know and don't really care, we had dinner. It was a good day, we slept like babies after our experiences. An observation, even though this area had about a dozen motels, there were no independent restaurants near by. Strange!


Driving a car in Australia

After Cairns we flew back to Brisbane to then drive a car for the next nine days to Sydney. We rented a small, white Hyundai, a nice enough car, almost brand new with just 27,000 km on the dash. A piece of cake to drive, albeit is has stick shift, not automatic. And, let us not forget, the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. So in order to shift, you need to do it left handed. Yes, you will use the other side of your brain to do this. I have driven on the left side of the road before. Once in England, but it was a left steering wheel European mainland car, so the steering wheel was not on the 'wrong' side. I was 24 at the time and really did not have much trouble then. It was the same car, a VW bug, that I always drove. I just drove on the left side of the road. The other time I experienced driving on the left was in a rented van with the whole family in the car when we vacationed in Ireland for a fortnight. I still do not remember finding it that difficult then, I was in my mid-40s when I last drove on the left.
Now, at age 66, having constantly driven on the right side of the road, I feel like I am again learning how to drive. The stick shift gives me no problems, even though I do it left handed, it feels ok. As a child, before school started I was left handed so some remnants may still be in my brain. I do not have trouble thinking left, but the spacial distribution of the car, the way the car is placed inside the lane creates problems. I have to, very consciously, remind myself all the time to 'hug' the center line. Carol, as a passenger, is very helpful when I am too far left. I don't know why I drive way too far on the left but in Brisbane, in real city traffic, I clipped somebody's rear view mirror with my outside mirror. Nothing happened to my mirror, it folded inward and had some scuff marks. Carol used some elbow grease to scrub those marks off. The other car however had a dangling drivers mirror. The driver of that car was good about it. He made some phone calls to see how much it would be to fix his mirror and after handing him $500 dollars we shook hands and each went our way. There is no better way to learn to not drive too far left than when one has to pay this kind of tuition. Nobody was hurt, so all is well.
Driving on the left is an experience. The directional signal needs to be activated with your right hand. Stop a minute and think about this. When you make a left, use your right hand to set the blinkers. Early in the morning, when you start driving out of the parking lot, think LEFT side. You become instantly wide awake if you veer to the right. In a way it is fun to relearn the rules of the road. Traffic from the right has the right of way. When entering a road look to the right. Even the rear view mirror is now on your left. Oh, it is fun to drive on the left. It sure gives me a whole new perspective. 6 more days to learn how to drive on the left, then we fly back to Toronto and I will be driving on the right side of the road. A crazy world !

Cairns

In Australian English it sounds like "cans", no "r" heard. I am getting better in understanding their accent but only with my hearing aids in. Not only is it that they leave off syllables, they use totally different words. A kangaroo is just a 'roo. A crocodile is just a 'croc. I ordered two draft beers yesterday and the girl looked at me and had no clue what I meant. Only after acting out the pulling of the tab did her light bulb come on and she drew the beer from the tap. What did I say wrong? The 'not understanding' goes both ways.
Cairns is a tropical, jungle town and we are here in the rainy season. We had plans for our time in town, we even booked a snorkeling tour via a travel agent, but that was a costly mistake. Not only did we have rain, we also had a cyclone warning and the small ships going out to the outer reef did not want to take a chance. Our snorkeling tour and the colorful reef, our main purpose for visiting Cairns did not take place. So, what do you do instead?
Carol had the great idea to visit the much closer to shore reef instead. We found a small catamaran that took us out. The ocean was in turmoil, choppy waves greeted us when we came out of the, more or less, quiet harbor. In the boat's bar was a basket with ginger pills for sea sickness pills so both of us, Carol and I, took two pills each. It was a ride for sailors not for landlubbers. Up and down the waves we rode until after about one hour we reached the reef close to Green Island. It was a small atoll island. Getting off the small boat was a challenge as we had to jump off but we both managed. The wind was strong. My Tilley hat would not stay on my head, so I packed it away in my knap sack. Our first outing on this island reef was a glass bottom boat. We went, but there were hardly any fish to see. The reef bottom was gray and had large dead coral pockets among the mostly algae eating species that were left over. The only coral that did flourish the spaghetti coral and the fish we saw were some zebra fish and a larger species (bat fish) that were not good eating because they ate all the trash in the water (turtle droppings) and were very bony. Our little put-put glass bottom boat had a tough time holding its position over the fish. The ocean pushed us back constantly. The reef was very small and while our guide said it was a healthy reef, it was not colorful, but rather drab looking. This reef was just too close to shore and the run offs from the land brought too much pollution to have the very exotic corals and fish living on it that we were looking for. The glass bottom view was disappointing.
Next we thought we would take, and we paid for it, a semi submarine trip. Windows all around to sit smack in the middle of this living, natural aquarium. Well, the sea was so rough by then, that the tour company cancelled our booked trip. We got our money back for this part of the outing. So what to do? To be on this small reef island without a tour was not fun, there was no place to hide. The wind whipped us, there were no shelters. Not ours, but another boat was due to go back soon. We opted to abandon our tour and made haste to go back on this boat to the harbor. While this boat was a bit bigger than our first boat, it still was small enough to be tossed about, too. We should not have made this trip, while we did not get sea sick, it was a waste of money. The results were not what we hoped to see and what was advertised.
The following day, even though the tour we had previously booked to the outer reef was not cancelled and we could have gone an this tour, we did not go. We came to Cairs to visit the Great Barrier Reef, yet only saw the dull, small reef off the coast. Yes, the weather, the cyclone, was a factor, but after the disappointing first trip that turned out to be a dud, we gave up on the whole reef tour.
Instead we took a train ride on that day. We took the famous Kuranda Scenic Railway trip. It took a total of 17 years to build this railroad line of only 56 km. It is not a long track really, it takes just 45 minutes to ride up the mountain. But in the late 19th century, when this railroad was built, it was an engineering feat. All labor at that time was done by hand. The tunnels were dug out by hand with picks and shovels. Workers had to supply their own tools. Landslides and treacherous cliffs made building the tracks almost impossible. This was before fancy survivor equipment, jack hammers, heck, even before bulldozers.
The tracks, from Cairs to Kuranda, were put in to harvest the original lumber out of the local jungles, then haul it to the ships anchored in Cairns. Pictures show the size of the trees that were harvested. Huge! All of the old growth lumber was cut down. It was worth the effort to install the railroad since the money made on the sale of lumber, even though it was harvested without regard to ecological side effects, was tremendous. The jungle has grown back since the railroad was built, yet the trees look skinny and the area still suffers from the raping of Mother Nature. Today, the town of Kuranda, is a tourist town, nice to look at, quaint even, especially the old train station. Yet the town opens and closes with the arrival of the tourists on the train. Once the last train leaves, the town rolls up the sidewalks and goes to sleep. Kuranda, the lumber town, the end of the train town, lives off her old glory days. The scenery of the ride up the mountain, the sheer beauty of the landscape, the waterfalls, the greater region around the train tracks, the jungle and all the living things within have now been turned into a national park. One of many parks Australia set up to preserve the environment. Yes, it is touristy, a good place to visit, should you ever come here.
For the way down the mountains, the way back to Cairns, we did not take the train but a skyrail. A very long cable car that glides over the jungle below with a few stops to get off and look around. I was amazed by how many visitors this whole setup attracted. Each cable car held up to six people and were spaced about one minute apart on the stations. Seldom was a gondola empty even though the operators did not load the cars to maximum, but tried to keep groups and families together. I enjoyed this sky rail, too. The stops were informative. A park ranger gave tours, explaining some of the native wild life, but also pointed out some not so nice plants that grow right on the side of the path. Like I had learned previously in the jungle, if you do not know the plant, do not touch or even lean against it. Some give you some very nasty reminders, should you ever forget. Poison ivy is mild in comparison to what you can find in the jungle.
We came to Cairns with the intension of visiting the Great Barrier Reef. Maybe the next time we are in Australia we will take a reef tour to the outer reef. I liked Cairns yet we came in the wrong season.



Friday, March 07, 2014

Camelus Dromedarius

When one thinks of the great deserts in this world a camel comes to mind. Not native to Australia, the one humped camels, the dromedary kind, were imported during the Australia's formative years. Yes, Australia has a huge camel population, living wild in the Outback. As a beast of burden, much more able to handle the desert conditions of the Outback than any other animal, it was introduced most likely from Afghan-Indian stock. Camels, like dogs, are separated into different breeds. The breed used in Australia was bred to be strong and can carry enormous weights for days on end without ill effects. Trained cameleers, people that know and could handle camels, flocked into Australia about the same time from the Middle and Far East. Most of the railroad installations, the supplies and wooden railroad ties, the food for the workers, heck, even the workers themselves, were transported by camels into the huge desert of Central Australia, the region we today call the Outback. Whole towns and their supplies, before the invention of the automobile, were constantly supplied by camel caravans.
The strength of those camels is amazing. Camels can comfortably carry half their body weight for 6-8 hours a day. Every day for months on end. A bull camel weighing in between 700kg (1540 lbs. ) to 900kg (1980lbs) can therefor carry 350kg (770 lbs.) to 450kg (890 lbs.) all day long, In temperatures that are on average plus 30 Celsius (92 F) in full blasting sun with no shade available. Temperatures can reach 45C and up in the Outback in summer. A camel's water consumption, or the lack thereof is legendary. A camel needs little water if their diet contains good, moisture-rich pasture. On average they consume 20 - 30 liters of water per day (5-8 gallons) if water is available. If they have gone without water for a long period, they can gorge themselves with water if they need to rehydrate. A camel can and will drink 100 liters (27 gallons) within 10 minutes without any ill effects. A camel can go without water for about a week. Amazing animals and much better adopted for Australia's center desert than a horse. The only drawback, is their walking pace - it is an 'amble speed' of 5 km/h or a little more than 3 miles an hour. They don't like to be rushed. Well, hey, in heat like that, who wants to run? In short spurts, though, they can gallop at approx. 60 km/ h (about 38 MPH). What really made Australia a heaven for camels is that they can eat 82% of all the vegetation varieties native here, so food for them is plentiful. One misconception some people have is that they store water in their hump. Wrong! The hump is pure fat, they use it like a storage container. For lean times they draw on these fat reserves in order to survive.
Carol and I visited one of the camel ranches established near Uluru. Some people had the good idea to tame some of those wild roaming camels and use them as a tourist attraction. Tied in line like a train , those beasts now carry fat American (and Canadian - not so fat) tourists, two up if it's a couple, as burdens. In exchange for plenty of food and water and good treatment, they now carry a slight total weight of 180kg for just an hour, up to four times a day. A good deal for the camel. All seemed happy, the tourist gets a guided, elevated tour through the desert (a fully grown camel stands 1.85m/6 feet at the shoulder and 2.15m/ 7 feet at the hump) for a better view of the surroundings and no sand walking, the camel gets needed exercise with a small load and the cameleer makes a living milking the tourists. Everybody wins!
The slow gait of the camel makes this excursion a pleasant experience. The animals seemed eager and content and from the sounds of the camera clicking tourists, so did they. It did not take very long, though, before the tourists found out that taking pictures from a constantly swaying platform is not easy. The gait of the camel, a camel moves both feet on one side of its body, then both feet on he other side, is a constant rolling, side-to-side motion. Plop, a camera falls into the sand and must be retrieved by the walking cameleer. The lead camel takes it in his head to graze and it needs some coaching by the cameleer rider to make it obey. Ornery is a good word for a camel. Not vicious, but they do not like to be told too much, they do like to do their own thing. Are they kind of like some people you know?


Uluru

4.45 AM, our alarm goes off. We had booked the sunrise tour of Uluru (Ayers Rock) with the hotel and all is still black outside. Only the stars sparkle above. A pretty site in the darkness of the desert. A busload of tourists wait already in the reception hall, all are here to see Uluru change colors when the morning sun strikes the rock. We receive a boxed breakfast and board the coach. Each bus is fully air conditioned with the latest layout and modern facilities. Ayer's Rock Resort, the only resort here, caters to a world clientele. It is high tourist season.

The Australian English is sometimes difficult to understand, they have different intonation and words sound a bit odd to me. Also, most speak very fast, another hurdle for my ears. I wonder how folks from non-English speaking countries can understand some of the commentary.

The bus makes a short round through the resort to pick up from different hotels and campgrounds in the Ayers Rock Resort and then, after 20 minutes of driving, inside the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, we are lead to a viewing point. The National Park has constructed a platform named Talinguru Nyakunytjaku (meaning 'to look from the sand dunes') to accommodate the masses so that all can see from this higher vantage point. Some people have a cup of coffee or tea and biscuits before they walk the path to the platform because we arrived about 30 minutes before sunrise.

Yet the time flies quickly. Dawn is near, the rock named Uluru is visible but has not yet been exposed to the sunlight. Cameras click, a certain hush is in the air. We are lucky today, we have some clouds and the East seems to be burning in colors of violet, pink and red. The sun is about to rise, starting a new day. The spectacle we are about to see happens every day yet depending on the atmospheric conditions, Uluru changes colors differently each day. The iron content in the rock formations, when struck at a certain angle by light, radiate a deep hue of orange, red or ochre color. The effect does not last very long. Some people call this the golden hour, but it only lasts a minute or so. Cameras are all poised and ready. Soon a frantic clicking orgy occurred. Most people took dozens of pictures just to see later how their best moment was captured. Of course, portrait shots standing in front of Uluru for the family album were among the many snap shots everybody had to take. In addition, large set ups of professional photographers were there to capture the moment for maybe some magazine. It actually does not matter one bit to Uluru itself the rock just stands there and takes it all in stride.


Uluru is an odd sight to see, though. For hundreds of miles around Uluru there is nothing but desert. Uluru is a very barren rock with sparse desert vegetation surrounding it as far as the eye can see. 50 miles away a similar outcrop of mountains called Kata Tjuta (the Olga's) or like the natives call them 'Many Heads' are different peaks altogether. These steep-sided domes (36 in total) are different, the Olga's are compressed gravel, whereas Uluru is a solid rock. Uluru is 348 meters high, and the circumference walk is 10.6 km. Uluru is one stone. Not only that, but scientists believe it is 5 to 6 km deep, buried in the earh. Only the smallest fraction, the 348 meters stick out above ground. While from far away the surface looks smooth, there are odd caves and impressions on the surface of the rock. The natives gave most, it not all of the odd looking marks, dents and caves, stories of explanation.

During the Creation Time (creation of the earth time), according to the aboriginal oral tradition, odd beings or animals such as snakes, lizards or giants left those impressions in the stone. The aboriginal culture dictates that those Creation Stories stories can only be told when one is near or in front of the particular indentation, mark, cave or impression in the stone. This limited story telling makes it difficult to get a whole picture of the entire dream time story around Uluru. It would take weeks to get each story for each mark on Uluru. Taking pictures of their holy sites is strictly forbidden unless you hear the story of the particular spot. Taking pictures in general is frowned upon except in certain circumstances. Uluru is a holy place to them. Not a man made Stonehenge but a clear sign of the creatures within nature that created the universe. In their beliefs, these beings are still around today, albeit not visible to man unless given the ability to see them.

Uluru is odd. No doubt, the whole idea of a one piece rock, 6 km long, standing on end in the desert, surrounded by sand, with a 'companion' rock 50 km away is strange. Schematics tried to explain how this could have happend about 500 million years ago. 'Could' have happened is the word. Nobody knows, yet here is Uluru for all to see, for some, even to worship. This giant rock, planted like a tree, with just the minimum exposed to the air or the surface, sure is an enigma. The markings on the surface, the many caves, the odd holes and the total presence of this rock deep within the desert of central Australia sure are difficult even for 'scientists' to explain. No, there is not enough water to scoop out the bowl like indentations, one right after the other, all lined up in a row, to explain it logically to me. The caves have almost alien characteristics. No wonder the natives saw in Uluru the 'writing on the wall' and believe or believed what was passed down to them orally since the beginning of time. Oral transmission of the stories are close to 70,000 years old.

Yes, I came to photograph this rock and I did. It was on my bucket list, it was a place so far away that most will never see it with their own eyes. Yes, the trip was a tourist event, a controlled way to take a look. I wonder how many people look at this rock, after they came and saw it, with the same blank eyes they had when they first arrived. I believe this spot, this rock, this experience left an indelible impression on many visitors. It sure made me rethink the story of 'just a rock' in the desert. Pictures can be deceiving, there is more to Uluru than meets the eye. I am glad I came all this way to see it for myself. Touristy or not, I liked this part of our trip to Australia.

 

 

Pakulpa pitjama Ananguku ngurakutu

The title means: Welcome to Anangu land
No way could I learn this language in the few days I am at Uluru; this sacred sandstone mountain smack in the center of Australia. Oh, a lot of debates have and will happen regarding this site. The Ananguku tribes take on the role of native protectors to this place. Two aboriginal groups have shared this honor for as long as can be remembered. It has been scientifically proven that the Yankunyjatjara and the Pitjantjatjara have lived here for at least 22,000 years. Some claim they have been here 70,000 years and are the oldest people on earth. They are living off the land, eating what can be found in the immense desert space around Uluru and drinking from the water holes that have been around for Millennia and only they know. They seem to live a deceptively simple life.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. True, in their traditional ways they do not have any material possessions besides the most elementary tools, like a spear, a club, a digging stick and some baskets, trays or home made rope. True, they did not have any written records, if one does not count their picture graphs as a written form of communication. Their life, some say has not changed for 70,000 years. They were always hunters and gatherers. Their counting goes one, two, three, many. Their living style is unique. Totally in tune with nature, adept at seeing the smallest sign of change in their surroundings, they can live and have lived in the harsh climate of the Australian outback for eons.
I often wondered why no dramatic changes happened within their culture. No life changing event occurred that would ease their difficult life. Certainly the people of Australia had their own geniuses in the past that must have thought of different ways to see the universe. We call them inventors, scientists or entrepreneurs today. The native way of looking at life is very different. They do not wear 'European' or 'Western' glasses to look at life. Their outlook is much more Universal. They are part of the Universe and live within the natural flow of things. Their "God" is not some deity with a name but they are part of all God has created. And this nameless power, this force that keeps the world alive, has taken care of them for ages and will continue to take care of them in times to come, will feed them, give them drink and will be clearly visible in the signs nature shows them daily. The indigenous Australian is the rare living being that lives from day to day, lives within the moment. And they have been doing this for thousands of years and there is no other, easier, different way to live. No modern invention will change the basic nature of things if one lives 'with' nature, like the Ananguku and other tribes have done in the past. Their oral traditions continue to be taught, stories of the creation of the universe are shared and even though they do not make 'scientific' sense, they are accepted by the tribes.
This is a very different way of looking at life, far from what I have been taught in my life. I am at the other, opposite side of my birthplace on earth. But I am also on the opposite side of human understanding of what is life on earth. My European glasses tint my outlook, my trained ego finds it difficult to comprehend this way of the aboriginals. It sure worked for them longer than all of European history existed. The white man brought deep changes to their way of life. Few among the Ananguku are unaffected by what modern Australia dishes out to them. Their traditional ways are challenged constantly, but.... and this is amazing, lately the Federal Australian Government returned land to the natives that now is managed in the old ways by a coalition of 4 Aboriginal men, 4 Aboriginal women and 4 Federal Representatives. However the Indigenous groups continue to give 99 year leases back to the Federal Government because of the huge tourism industry. While before, the white man's point of view ruled over all of Australia, now huge tracks of land are 'retuned' to the natives because they can manage it best. They are, again becoming the guardians of the land.
Atunmankunytjaku they call it. Looking after the land.


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Melbourne

Melbourne

A couple of highlights when visiting THE MOST LIVEABLE CITY ON EARTH:
Brunswick St Fitzroy – Melbournians are very proud of their café culture, this street is full of an amazing assortment and lots of interesting folk!

St Kilda's Beach – this time of year this part of town down by the water is beautiful; on the weekends there will be markets and a lot of activity.

South Bank – in the heart of the City, this is a great spot to eat at night; it’s a large development along the banks of Melbourne’s Yarra River; walking further down the River connects to Crown Casino, one of the largest casinos in the world (by night this is a really cool walk).

Williamstown – a very different part of the city; great to get to by ferry.

Royal Botanical Gardens – really nice views of the city, they do evening cinema here too during the summer that is a lot of fun.

Aussie Rules Football (AFL) – the greatest sport in the world! It’s pre-season right now, but come April the season proper starts!  You HAVE TO go to the MCG to see a game!
That’s a good start….

Those were the tips given to me by my son's business partner who knows Melbourne well. In the few days we visited we only did three items on the list above. Naturally we experienced the café culture, one can not avoid it. We traveled down to St. Kilda's Beach and we took the hop on/off bus to take a quick look at the south side of the Yarra river. I guess we have to come back. It just is impossible to see this city and the surrounding areas in the three days we had to explore it.

One of these days was spent visiting Carol's nephew Tyler and his young family who immigrated from Canada about 5 years ago and who love Melbourne. Tyler's job in Australia gets him to see almost every city, small and large. By now Tyler knows Australia in detail. He maintains, repairs and installs underground utilities and in order to bid on municipal contracts he needs to see the lay of the land, visit the town his company might work for. He might not get every job the firm bits on, but he and his team need to look before they can bid. Tyler knows Australia from the bottom up. His wife Michelle, a travel agent by trade, was a huge help when it came to details on what to see in Australia. We also had help from Cliff McEwen, who rode his bike with this Australian guy, Wally, throughout Europe. Then Cliff visited Wally in Australia and had a great time. We had Wally's email address, we tried to contact him too, but could not get to meet him while in Melbourne.

For Melbourne lots of people offered us help but still, with 4.5 million people living here it is a huge area to discover. Melbourne is a very, very modern city that tries hard to keep the old mixed in with the new. While the new overwhelmingly wins, there are pockets of charm. Little Italy is one of those areas, we had dinner in this small enclave. Not a big area but everybody is proud of their Italian roots. We found a hotel for our stay way north in Coburg, at the end of the trolley line 19. It took us 43 minutes one way via tram to go from the hotel to downtown Melbourne. The distances are huge. Even though Melbourne is ultra modern, public transportation is mainly by trams. Melbourne has the largest trolley network worldwide. While automobiles probably hate the dominance of the tracks and giving up the right of way on each stop, etc., I must say, the system works. We never waited for transportation longer than about five minutes. A constant flow of trolleys criss-cross the city and a lot of people use this way of transport. Most of the time our trolley cars were filled to capacity. All the trains were new, modern and fitted with an electronic payment system. We caught on fast, the logic behind it, made it easy.

Within the downtown area are small alleys, covered in graffiti art. Art seems to dominate Melbourne. Federal square, is a newly installed urban experiment, blending public space with tourist and local venues as the new town center. Developed with Avant guard buildings surrounding it, right next to the old city train station, it is an odd blend and I am not sure of its appeal. But then so is everybody else debating this newness to urban living. Packing millions of people along the waterfront of the Yarra river and along the harbour and beaches and making it look good, yet still functional, sure is a challenge. Melbourne took on this challenge by modernizing most, if not all of it. The debates about its success fill the local newspapers. The sections of the city mentioned above are worthwhile to see and experience. As a 3 day visitor I don't rightly know what to say. Yet people that live here proclaim it loudly:

The most livable city on Earth !!!!!!

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Excursions

Excursions
A dilemma! Should one book excursions at home, in front of the computer, after reading brochures of what is offered through the cruise line? This is very convenient but rather expensive. Since we are new to this kind of travel we used this for all of our trips once the ship came into port. We totally relied on the ship's way of running the cruise. If we booked more than seven trips, we were allowed a 25% discount on each leg. This added up to a substantial savings. Or should we have booked our own tours as soon as we stepped off the gangway. This would still have been a cheaper way to see the same attractions. Or should we, like some people we met, have spent time on the computer at home and booked independent tours at substantial savings with tour operators that are not connected to the cruise line. Or should we have just hired a driver or a taxi and let the taxi driver be the guide. Even hiring a taxi, in many cases, was cheaper than what we paid for each excursion. However, booking a private tour requires local currency so an excursion booked through the cruise line eliminated the hassle and cost of changing money. Naturally, the cruise company needs to make money, and from what I saw, the ship hires the reliable local tour operators and then adds the ship's profit margin on top of it. We, the passengers, pay for security and peace of mind. Peace in knowing that the ship will not leave without us if we are on a ship booked tour. The ship will leave one behind, should one miss the all aboard call if on a private tour.
So, the dilemma is not the tour itself, but how to take the tour. With a cruise booked tour we had the security of knowing we could not miss the ship. With some ports, the docking time was only a few hours. Not enough time to gamble should something go wrong. (the taxi has a flat and no spare and no way to call for help because the cell line is out of reach and the spare also has a flat) for example. Stranger things have happened in strange countries. I know of one couple that was within sight of the cruise ship but could not walk to it because no foot traffic was allowed among the containers on the pier. They literally made it to the ship with just seconds to spare. Not a good way to save money on excursions when one trades a possible heart attack for some money saved.
Excursions are expensive. I do not travel to a place and then just look at it from the pier. I do want to see some of what the country has to offer, besides what can be seen from the ship. So excursions are a must do when traveling on a cruise ship even though we only had a limited time on shore to experience some of the culture of the places we visited. I am totally aware that we received just a glimpse of life in the places we were shown. At least, though, we now know what areas might be worth some deeper or longer visits. I look at it as window shopping. You never know what is in the store until you visit it. If something was found that I like, I can always come back to 'buy' it later.
So the dilemma is now between cost of excursions with the security of not missing the ship and not being able to see all of what is being offered in each respective port. Adventure only goes so far. Foolishness is very close to Adventure. If something foolish turns out ok after all, we call it an Adventure. Planning is important, so is the cost of things. To play it safe and not take any chances is also not my cup of tea.
I guess there are no real answers to the questions I pose here for myself. I just have to live with this dilemma and make my choice whenever I am faced with options.
Hubert Kriegel (ten years on the road) proclaims we should take a chance each day. Should I listen to him?

Cruises

Cruises
When I travel I never look for the most expensive hotel. I just do not need the "comforts" those hotels offer. A good bed, clean room, sanitary bathroom facilities that are well thought out and work well, a restaurant near by that serves great food is what I look for. I like a quiet, spacious room. I do like cool rooms, not hot rooms. I way prefer air conditioning over a whirling fan. Yes, like most people I am a spoiled human that just likes to live with a certain level of civilization. A view, while nice does not seem that important to me. I do like natural, happy and smiling service. I do not like, grumpy, unhappy or miserable, thieving individuals around me. When I have to pay for an overnight stay, I like to find the best I can get for the least money I must spend. I have met people that do not think the way I think. Some just want a bed in any condition and will make do with noise, dirt or inconveniences. Others seem to need pampering more than anything else and will pay any price to be made to feel 'special'.
Cruising is a floating hotel. Firstly you pick a hotel when you go for a cruise. There are certain ways a Reeder runs his ships. You need to know what kind of clientele he pursues and how he looks at activities during the days spent on board. I have been on exactly two cruises before I took the Oceania cruise. Yes, I have talked to people that cruised more than I did, but picking your cruise line, the one that fits you best, is difficult and akin to picking a hotel chain. Is Hilton your choice or Best Western? Or will Motel 6 do? All your choice.
We, Carol and I, opted to give Oceania a try. Oceania sort of fits the criteria we learned makes for a better cruise in our age group. No water slides or activities targeted for children. I do not like to be surrounded by noisy, bratty and undisciplined children even in the best of circumstances. Certainly not while being on a ship in the middle of an ocean, unable to walk away from their shenanigans. We looked at Oceania because it has rooms that are quite large for on board facilities. The program the cruise director worked out is targeting our age group. No rap music parties, no raves or spring break kind of behaviors. Yes, I know, some think this is too boring, but those were our choices. For folks who love more 'action' let them try the Carnival cruise line. I for one did not want a carnival atmosphere while on vacation. I do love quiet surroundings and an intellectual approach. I loved the university type lectures without having to take a test or write a report. We were aware of the Holland American reeder and also of the Princess line but finally leaned towards Oceania because their ships are very new, their ratio passengers to crew is an astonishing 1.53 to 1 and their dress code is club casual, rather than formal. All good points in our estimation. The food on all cruise ships is good yet I believe Oceania's food delivery is outstanding. We never had a bad meal, we never waited for service, we never ran out of anything. Meals do play a substantial role during one's voyage.
I liked the idea, too that the tips were all included in the price. No tipping anytime just makes life easier. We never, ever had the feeling that the service lacked in anything because of the 'no tips' policy. We were in fact surprised as to how friendly the whole crew was at any time, day or night. Almost like they were drilled behind the scenes to be extra friendly and extra polite to all passengers. No differences were made as to folks who were kind of slow in getting about with walkers or canes. For sure the training program the cruise line installed and invested in was working. This is especially astonishing since the crew on our ship came from 56 different countries. Everybody spoke English, all could communicate well with us and each other.
Our cruise had 1170 passengers, almost the maximum capacity of 1200. The crew was a total of 796. The ship, the Marina, was inaugurated in 2011. All the latest technical innovations were built in, everything was run and guided with the help of computers. I can not think of anything that needed changing yet I did hear that some single ladies on board were not too happy. They just missed companionship. Maybe a better social program where singles could get together could be added.
Others preferred the idea of a 'permanent' dinner table to eat with the same folks all the time. Carol and I were just fine with the way it was, however. For every meal you find your table and eat your food. If you wanted company, just ask someone if you could sit with them. People never said no to us. If you prefer to 'dine' then you have had the option to visit 6 different on board restaurants specializing in different foods from different countries. We had Chez Jacques for French cuisine, Toscana for Northern Italian food, the Polo Grill for an American Steakhouse, Red Ginger for an Asian Fusion experience and others. Plenty to chose from. At any and all restaurants the choice was yours to eat as just a couple or share a meal with others. Yes, you did not sit with the exact same people all the time, but I see that as a plus. We had the experience that some people are just not compatible and I was glad not to be stuck with those folks for a whole cruise. One can not please all the people all the time, some concessions have to be made.
The gym on board was great, unfortunately I did not visit too often. I was plainly too busy attending all the lectures given, and reading all the books I had saved for this voyage. I never thought it possible, yet there was just too much to do. The nightly shows in the main theater featured a variety of performers that changed from port to port. While some artists left at a certain port, others came on. We experienced something new each night. While not world class, the performances certainly were first class. No complaints on my part.
With a lot of extra money to spend one could come off the ship a new person. A spa would strip off the old layers of skin, give you treatments that at least would make you feel younger. Add to that a daily gym session, cooking classes and eating different foods and in no time at all you would be a different you. At least that is what is promised. I will never know, I did not want to spend the extra dollars nor did I want to sweat in the gym for hours on end. But, I think I might do it some other time. I would certainly enjoy cooking classes. Or does that not count? A cruise can be a lot of things, one is given a lot of choices. It is always like Yogi Berra said: " you come to a fork in the road, take it!". When given the choice to cruise or not we took the cruise. Looking back it was a good choice. Let's see what other choices I will have to make, so far, so good.
More cruises? We will have to see when we come to the fork in the road !

Friday, February 28, 2014

Opals

Opals
There are boutiques on every cruise ship. I even venture to say there are jewelry shops on every cruise ship. With plenty of time to browse, most ladies on a cruise will visit those businesses. Oceania cruise ships have specialty jewelers as guest speakers to explain the finer points of each stone, setting or design. In Tahiti, for example, black pearls were explained and naturally sold, too. A collection of the finest pearls were offered. The color, the size, the roundness all add up to give each particular pearl it's value. On each island around Tahiti and as far away as Fiji black pearls are offered for sale. Yet, once aware of the subtle points one can easily see the better pearls. Carol opted to buy her black pearl in Tahiti before the cruise since she had asked lots of questions and studied what she liked for some time. Her purchase, I must say, is a great pearl. I had little to nothing to do with her final choice. She asked me of course what I thought of her buy, but it was really her who did the choosing. She did a great job and I believe she got a great product for the money she finally paid.
Near the end of our cruise, on the leg from Brisbane to Sydney, a jeweler gave a seminar on opals. The stone that shimmers in all kinds of colors when light hits it, but might look like a plain "rock" at the wrong angle. I did not know it but Carol has always wanted an opal. As a young woman she was given the opal of her grandmother. One day, during her almost daily ice skating practices, she discovered the stone had fallen out of the ring. No more opal. Of course she was upset then, so was her mother who also loved that stone. Opals do that to you, I am told. You get hooked on the display of the mufti colors one can see when studying the light reflected off the surface. So, years ago Carol said to herself that one day she will buy a new opal. And here she is on this cruise and the jeweler is explaining the finer points of this gem stone.
The best opals, the black opals, come from just one small area in Australia, a region known as Lightning Ridge. I am not sure if those 'lightings' had anything to do with the creations of these opals, but the stones found in that region are one of the rarest stones on earth. They are much, much rarer than diamonds for example. There are many opals; some look milky, some green. The whole description of the opal is a science. In addition, there are double or even triple "plated" opals that all add to the confusion created, no doubt, to fool the buyers or the uneducated. So it is important to deal with a reputable, trustworthy source before buying an opal. The jeweler invited by Oceania cruises is a member of the Australian Opal Society and this guy, Alex, knew his stuff. He owns his own business and is a 3rd generation stone cutter. Alex designed, manufactured and presented a special brooch to Lady Camilla, Prince Charles' latest wife. His reputation is impeccable. The examples he showed were outstandingly beautiful. So were his prices. Out of Carol's league. Or so we thought! Well, let me tell you a story that only providence can match.
The whole basis of our story is Macedonia, the birth place of Alexander the Great. Pun intended! Our Alex was born in a town near Zagorice, the town we visited while doing our Balkan trip in 2011. He was so happy that we visited his home county that he took some time out to explain in even more detail how opals are processed, polished and fabricated into jewelry. He even donned his apron, worked some sample rocks, polished the found opals within, etc. One story lead to another, one connection lead to others and we all had a great time at Alex's business on the 3rd floor of a building in Sydney. You see, we did not stop Alex and his sales pitch on the ship, we promised to see him in Sydney. We wanted to see what else he had to offer besides the very exclusive merchandise he had on the ship. Carol was intrigued and by now, so was I. There was just no other way anyhow, because once Carol's mind is set on something she pursues it with a vengeance. Carol wanted to find an opal to make up for the lost one she once had. Nothing was stopping Carol this time. I talked her out of buying an opal in Mexico a few years back, I did not know then the grandmother story, but this time, Carol's mind was made up. The two of them, Alex and Carol hit it off well. After some difficult choosing, after some alterations to the ring size on the spot, after much grinning and smiles Carol now has a black opal; the rarest gem in the word, certified to be from the Lighting Ridge Mine area. A fantastic, small wonder of the natural world. Congratulations Carol!





Sydney

Sydney
My amazement continues. Sydney as a city works well, all is very well organized and again, I did not see some obvious trash. Nor did I see beggars or derelicts. Carol and I spend 5 days in Sydney using only public transportation, we coved the neighborhoods and the touristy spots and travelled via ferry up and down the harbor. Sydney is clean and runs like a well oiled machine. The traffic connections worked well, the people are friendly and everybody works. I felt pride from some people in the work they did. There are two attendances on each ferry. The pilot or driver and then the person who ties the boat to the dock. I guess he is called a deck hand. It is team work, well rehearsed over many stops a day, the ferry approaches a stop at the right angle, the right speed and then the deck hand throws an arm thick rope over the bollocks imbedded in the wharf, and with practiced speed and accurate twists a stop knot is made over a similar bollock on the boat. The whole arrangement works like a slip knot that can be adjusted one way but will get tighter the other way. Ingenious but it works well. The Sydney harbor has many ferries, with many stops all over the spread out harbor. Ferries work like busses here. People get on and off. Ladies with baby carriages, business men, tourists with suitcases and even bicycle riders take their bikes from this end of the harbor to the next. We had our motel, the Neutral Bay Motor Lodge, in a neighborhood across from the main terminal, the circular quay. This motel really is in a very residential spot, on a busy road, but in a suburb of Sydney. Yet, a ferry runs every 20 minutes and after just three stops, or let's say 15 minutes we landed in the very center of Sydney, right next to the opera house. The whole of it never had a snafu. You can count on it to work to catch a train.
For $52,- a week, we bought an all inclusive ticket for bus, ferry, train and/or trolley. It is like hop on, hop off. Just swipe the card and all transportation is covered. For the few days we were in Sydney we did the tourist stuff. A guided tour of the famous opera house was great. The construction of this building is so unique and defies all practices of even today's architects. Four parts of a sphere were set on a flat surface to become the opera. The look from afar is of sails on a ship. But the construction is based on pure mathematics and a conceptualization of parts of that sphere in sections to give the structure this unique look.
The Danish architect Jorn Utzon, won an International design contest in the late 1950's and received the go ahead to start building his design concept. The original cost estimate was for 7 million dollars and a time span of 3 years. Because the building concept was so unique and the calculations still had to be made by hand, it took close to 16 years to finish the Opera House at a total cost of 107 million dollars. No one was very upset at the overages in costs since Australians understood that this building is a one of a kind. Also the cost of the building was paid off within a year after the inauguration by using a special lottery, similar to today's lotto.
The tour of the opera house was extensive and well done. We saw all three halls. The symphony hall, the actual opera hall and the theater. All were housed within this huge complex. Even though the style of the interior is now over 50 years old, it still looks ultra modern and chic. Carol and I were lucky, we were able to secure two seats for the Magic Flute Opera on Wednesday night. It was a full house when we attended the performance. The crowd was truly international. The design sets for the costumes were given to Sydney from the New York Metropolitan opera. It was an extraordinary performance using puppets as enhancements in relating the story line. The music, Mozart's masterpiece, was as divine as ever. I had fun. Naturally it rained buckets right after we stepped out of the theater but we dodged the raindrops and only got a little wet. We knew by now how to use all the overhangs and short cuts. We are becoming accustomed to Sydney. Sydney sure can grow on you and pull you into its intricate net of entertainment, fun and business life.
Darling harbor is part of the greater Sydney Harbour area. It is a planned section with tourist attractions and entertainment. Sections of the natural beauty of Australia have been recreated showing wild life unique to Australia along with a section of the great barrier reef. Of course there are tons of eateries. Everything conceivable could be had. There were museums, shopping, walking tours, sports, entertainment, food, nature, culture and history. Fun for the whole family. Carol and I just walked through the Aquarium section to see all the sea life around Australia and it took us a good 3 hours of walking. After a lunch to get our strength back, we were too spent to see more details, so we just sat and people watched nursing a lemonade.
Anybody could spend days here and not have seen it all. There are dinner cruises to be had, adventure walks, climbing the historic Harbor Bridge (a two hour upward climb to the top of the span for a stunning view of Sydney), exploring the old Queen Victoria Building and watching surfers at Bondi Beach. Come and do all of those things. Bring lots of money though because Sydney is not cheap. A cup of coffee is $4.95, a 500ml Nestea Iced Tea is $ 4.90. Bottle of plain water $ $2.50 to 3.00. You get the idea, I am sure.
The original settlement of Sydney, now called the 'Rocks' is a twisting laneway and roadway area near the Harbor Bridge. We spent Sunday walking the many small boutiques and flea market-like stalls and got lost on purpose in some back alleys. The name is apt, because huge boulders and rock formations are part of the house foundations. The old town was built in the style of good old England, about 1840 to 1890. One can make believe this is some town in Great Britain and not the more modern Australia one finds today. Sydney today is sky scrapers, office buildings, neon lights and well organized traffic. A totally modern, world class city. The hub of commerce, yet not the capital of Australia, which is Canberra, about five hours away from here. It is similar to Toronto in Canada, with Ottawa also that far away from the trading hub.
Sydney is worth a trip, you will not regret a visit. Lots to do, lots to learn, lots to see.