Friday, September 18, 2015

General thoughts about Australia

I have been home for a couple of days, and have a handful of overall observations:

Everyone says "Beautiful" as an all purpose answer instead of "sure" or "thank you" or "okay."

It's just as hard to get ice in Australia as it is in Sweden. Beg, and you might get 2 cubes.

They have a really great no tipping system there where everyone gets paid a living wage, you order at the counter, and they bring your food to the table. It's really efficient and I can see why Australians who come to the U.S. think our way is crazy. On the other hand, try getting any water refilled at your table. Even the classiest restaurants think you're a pain if you ask more than once.

Baked beans are a staple for breakfast. Must hearken back to the bush days.

"Nah worries, Mate" is addictive and I think I'll just adopt it too, instead of "you're welcome."

All the Pizzas of Australia:

One thing that's different about traveling with a teenager is that they aren't really adventurous eaters. Rob was really good. He even had kangaroo, but every few days, he had to go back to the main ingredient of life; pizza.





Wow! Sydney!  It's amazing! It's the most beautiful city I've ever seen. Sparkling blue water, acres of stunning parks and gardens, exotic birds everywhere. Even the seagulls look different. Rob says they taught him in PE class that Sydney is the fittest city in the world and I believe it because, linking things like the parks and the water and the Opera House together is one thing, or, should I say, many things: Stairs! All parts of Sydney are connected by one steep, hellish staircase after another. 

The first day we walked out to Circular Quay and caught a ferry to Darling Harbor.  We'd bought a pass that allowed discounted admission to the aquarium, wildlife park, and wax museum. (True, we had just been to the aquarium in Melbourne, but this one had the one Australian animal on our list that we'd yet to see: the platypus!)

The aquarium was a HUGE disappointment. First of all, we entered right after a group of Chinese tourists numbering just under the total of population of Taiwan. Unable to see anything past the sea of camera-toting humanity, we squeezed on past, deciding to forego the other creatures for the platypus. Imagine our dismay at finding them moved out for the season. Dispirited and dismayed, we trudged through the sharks and penguins. Only when we emerged did I find an employee to whine to about the platypus betrayal. "Oi, did you miss her?" She swept us back in to a tiny tank that had been covered by tourists an hour before and we joyfully watched the bird/reptile/mammal cavorting in all her glory.

Faster than an iPhone Shutter

Mission accomplished, we now began the long trek and endless stairs back to our apartment, a distance roughly equivalent to the distance to the moon. Fortunately, we cut off at least 1/2 the distance by walking through the Botanical Gardens....which closed at 6 pm. We wandered in the dark to gate after locked gate, finally finding a turnstile through which to escape, returning to our apartment probably having walked as many miles as ever before in my life.

The next day we went to the wax museum and wildlife park and then to the Sydney Tower, all included in our tour package. This day was notable for 2 reasons:

1)  Spencer disappeared somewhere in the tower. Rob thinks he fell out of my pocket after we did his photo shoot. I think he decided to emigrate.

2)  They closed the botanical park before we got there, leaving us to try to hoof it the long way around. Mind you, my calves are already screaming from the stairs the day before and I'm limping down stairs backwards and up stairs at the speed of a dead wombat (see picture,) so you have no idea how much the extra miles terrified me. Suffice it so say that, by the time we found the taxi, I would have paid pretty much anything.

Aussie Gulls

Sydney Tower Elevator, very cool!

At least I did not have to climb a million stairs to get this view.

Kookaburra, not in the Gum Tree...

Tasmanian Devil

Tired Wombat

On our last day, we saw the play "Anything Goes" at the Sydney Opera House. I was excited to sit in the front row balcony and just drink it all in. But, to get there, well, have you ever seen the STAIRS at the Opera House? Let's just say we didn't do much else that day and we were darn sure to get there before the park closed…



The flight home was long but uneventful, except that they tried to give away our Skycouch (it's not much, but I paid for it!) and I was soooo glad I was still lugging my itinerary around instead of having checked it with the luggage, otherwise I'd have had yet another tale of woe. We return with lusty tales of adventure, a fondness for wallabies and a strong desire never to own a stair stepper.

**Last Known Images Of Spencer**

Monday, September 14, 2015

Poodles in the Outback

"It's the territories, Mate. You gotta toughen up."
            -Darwin taxi driver

Darwin is the capital of the Northern Territories, referred to as the Top End.  It's very jungley, though we arrived at the end of their dry season.  As I  understand it, it's pretty much always hot, but half the year it rains a lot and half the year it doesn't.  

The place we stayed in Darwin was really cool. The bedroom was indoors with air conditioning, which kept Rob alive, but the bathroom was a separate room outside and the kitchen and living area were also outdoors but under a high roof.  A great way to live outdoors in the tropics. Nights and mornings, I really enjoyed sitting outside reading while listening to owls, watching the birds (parrots and what looked like a  black chicken with a mohawk) and listening to the somewhat alarming rustling in the bushes which sounded like a large animal but which, I was informed, was probably a bandicoot.  It was a fair walk to get food, so we didn't eat as much while we were there, probably a good thing.   

Rob sleeping in jungle

Spencer and I waiting to be attacked by bandicoots

Spencer hiding from bandicoots

We took a taxi to our jungle house from the train but that was about $40 so the next day we braved the confusing bus system.  I had been chatting with a local man on the bus.  He told us where to get off to get to the museum but we immediately had our plans go astray because:

  1. It was the wrong stop and, 
  2. As soon as we got off the bus I realized that my phone must have fallen out of my pocket. 

Of course, my phone was the only one with an Australian calling plan on it, so we couldn't call for help. After dithering about with a fair bit of weeping and wailing and a few cutting remarks by Rob about checking pockets, we decided to just wait 40 minutes for the next bus.   When it arrived, I told my tale of woe and he called in to the station.  The phone had just been handed in, so now we had to get THERE.  We went into town to the stop we'd planned on, noticed that the stop was right by the library (so we could get back eventually) and then had fun walking all over town trying to find a taxi.  It was 96 degrees and very humid, so our tempers were fraying a bit before we finally found one.  He took us to the bus station to get my phone, so, in the end, my little mishap only cost us a couple of hours and $30 cab fare; it could have been worse.  

We then went on to our original destination, the Defense of Darwin Museum.  This very cool museum details the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese shortly after Pearl Harbor.  They had a lot of interesting material on Australia's role during WWII. When we were finally ready to venture back to the bus, we ran into another snag as signs pointed us to two libraries in two different directions.  One was the Darwin Library and the other the Northwest Territory Library.  To make a long story short, we chose the wrong library, took the wrong bus, got off at the wrong stop, and had a very very long trudge in the heat before we made it back to our beds that night.  Touristing -- it's great unless it just isn't.  

The next day we had a similar tale to tell of long walks and missed busses and sore feet in pursuit of adventure and souvenirs.  At the end of the day, we were through being intrepid.  We took a taxi back.  

For our last day in Darwin, I talked Rob into taking one last tour.  (At this point, Rob was getting REALLY tired of busses.)  Our tour bus picked us up close to our place and we headed off to the Adelaide River to see the crocodiles. You should have seen our guide. Bearded and wearing a knife worthy of Crocodile Dundee, Pat was the quintessential bushman.  He carried on at length, not only about crocs ("Soon as ya stop thinking about 'em, you're dead.”), but also about everything else. ("That sunscreen'll kill ya too. Don't know what's in it.") Pretty much talked non-stop the whole time.  Rob found him annoying but I think it was just part of the bush experience.  Loved all the parrots in the trees and crocodiles jumping out of the water, much cooler than a zoo.  Then we headed off for Litchefield Park where we swam in some water holes that they've chased the crocs out of.  We learned about the magnetic termites, who build their mounds exactly oriented East\West, and Cathedral Termites who build the tall mounds we've been seeing since we arrived, and wood-eating termites who eat sheep. Just kidding. I'm pretty sure they actually survive on tourists looking for a taxi. (I find that I experience psychosomatic itching as soon as someone says the word, “termite."  It did not help that the area was swarming with little black flies.  Hiking around in the sun, every extra pound I've gained screamed at me to pant like a dog, but I was afraid I'd be swallowing the little buggers next.) We saw lots of water buffalo, more crocs in the various waterholes, and a huge brush fire on the way back. In fact, all our clothes still smell like a campfire.  Tour munchies at sunset were giant termites. (They tried to tell us they were shrimp but I'm no dummy. Shrimp are golden brown and never far from their natural environment- cocktail sauce.) 

Rob thinking about joining termites

Searching for a bus stop in the bush

Rob LOVES Public Transportation

Magnetic Termite Mound

Termites heading for the barbie

Australian version of Eastern Washington and California

Rob swimming in certified croc-free water

Nants ingonyama! bagithi Baba. Sithi uhm ingonyama. Siyo Nqoba. Ingonyama nengw' enamabala. Whoops, sorry, that's the Lion King. This is sunset over Darwin.

Tomorrow, Sydney!

**Spencer did NOT enjoy any part of the Darwin Experience, and thus, did not travel with us anywhere.  He was convinced that the crocs would eat him.**

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Riding The Retro Rails

Today is the Big Day. We get to travel on ze train, Boss, ze train! Yes,

Rob and I have boarded the Ghan. Billed as the Last Transcontinental Railroad, it goes all the way across the continent from Civilized South Australia to the Untamed Northern Territory.  Basically, from the land of koalas to the land of crocodiles.  We board at 12:15 and have lunch at 1:30.  They have a private dining room for those of us in Gold Class and all of our meals and drinks are included. Rob had the safe option (the steak - and a mighty good steak it was) while I was trying to be adventurous (silly me) and ordered the "sampler plate."  You might have been fine with the calamari, goat cheese, and mushrooms, but I ended up eating mostly bread and butter.

Rob's ear infection is much better and he no longer resembles a character from The Walking Dead, but he was MOST distressed to find out that there is no wifi on the train. I was sure they would have it too, heck, even the busses have it here and we certainly paid enough but, when I look at the composition of the passengers, I can see why.  Grey hair, hearing aids, walkers and canes abound.  Our fellow guests shuffle by with a glass of champagne in the hand and a foot in the grave.  At my newly arrived age of 53, I feel juvenile. Rob is positively primeval.  One kindly woman lowered her bifocals to gaze at Rob:  "He'll find no chickens to keep him company here," she cackled, "only a lot of old chooks!"  The railway must be well aware of who travels in their Gold Class cabins, as the handbook in our cabin instructs: "We encourage all passengers to move about the train in order to avoid blood clots.  Sharpe containers are available from your hospitality agent.”

Rob And Geezers

Free Snacks!!

Cozy Sleeper Bunk

Younger passengers, perhaps, are in Red Class - where you get only your seat and bring your food or buy it from the snack bar.  In Gold Class, we have our own sleeper car, complete with tiny toilet, sink, and even a shower, so long as you don't mind sitting on said toilet to do it.  Our sleeper car is long enough for us both to recline and will make up into 2 bunk beds tonight.  As I type, I've watched the farmlands of Adelaide give way to African appearing grasslands - flat as a pancake and lacking only zebras and giraffes to fit right into the Lion King, to a tiny railway town called  Port Augusta, where we see the ocean, and it's inland sea.  All in all, it's way more fun being a bourgeoisie swine-pig than traveling with the plebes. 

Seating mixes around at meals and in the lounge car.  As nearly as I can tell, 99% of the train passenger list is made up of retired Aussies traveling on the Ghan as part of a bucket list trip. I tell Rob he should be delighted we're doing this because, by the time he has children, this train will probably not exist. All the long famous trains, like the Orient Express, are closing. This train is a remnant of a bygone era. Rob listens, mourning the loss of wifi, unimpressed by my eloquence.

I begin to wonder if Rob will survive the trip, not because of his ear infection, which seems to be waning, but because he has been rudely yanked away from his umbilical cord to modern life, his life's blood draining from his body, he suffers through the last stages of internetlessness.  No Pandora, no snapchat, no videos streaming from some Korean boy he's never met playing League of Legends.  Oh, the humanity!

With nothing to do but look out the window at the passing countryside or, worse, talk to his mother, the telltale signs emerge.  His thumbs twitch at random intervals, his eyelids quiver when they are assaulted by the unfamiliar unfiltered daylight, he flinches in pain as music from several decades ago is piped in from unseen speakers.  "On the day that you were born the angels got together, and decided to create a dream come true..." the singers croon.  I prepare to catch him if he swoons.

While we eat dinner, an attendant comes in to turn our lounge into a sleeper car. Sleeping as the train rocks along reminds me of curling up in the back of the old VW Squareback as a child on our way to Grandma's house for Christmas and I fall into contented slumber. At 6 am, the attendant knocks on our door. The train has stopped so that we may all go out and watch the sun rise over the Outback. I close my eyes for a few more minutes and there is another imperious knock. I throw on a sweatshirt and shoes, then decide there's time to wash my face and brush my teeth. How fast can these old people move, anyway? As Rob snores on, I emerge from our cabin to find... No one. I walk through 1,2,3,4,5 cars. The place is silent as the grave. I begin to wonder if this is like that Twilight Zone episode where there has been an accident and everybody on the train is dead, only they don't know it. Seven cars up I find the exit. Outside there are herds of seniors milling around several fires and being served coffee and breakfast sandwiches and busily clicking away at the lightening sky. I take a few pictures over the next 30 minutes or so, then it's time to roll onwards.

Geezers and Fire as the sky lightens

My first Outback Sunrise!!

Still a little early for this Vacation Girl

This afternoon our whistle stop tour is in Alice Springs. Rob and I are going for a camel ride in the desert!  The only 2 other people who have chosen this tour are a couple of adventurous old ladies from Adelaide. They have to be boosted into our jeep to be transported out to our beasties. I am interested to see that we sit behind the camel's hump. The hump feels turgid and quite unlike the rest of the animal. They pad docilely through the red dirt with a very unhorselike sway. Sadly, I am unable to talk the camel driver into a faster pace, so I still don't know what it's like to ride a running camel. Oh well. When we return, the camels kneel to let us off, then flatten their heads against the sand for a snooze.

Not precisely like the Grand Canyon Mules, eh, Rob??

Weirdest.  Ride.  Ever.

And, We are done.
Camel Sign

The second night, they serve kangaroo steak with a crocodile pâté. Rob loves the roo but not the croc. I have a vegetarian quinoa option but have to admit the bite I try of Rob's steak is very tender and tasty.


It does NOT taste like chicken.

The morning of the third day, our whistle stop tour is in Kathryn. We take a short cruise through the gorge to see 35,000 year old stone paintings; I'd rather be riding a camel.  <YAWN>

Ancient Aboriginal Art

Rob Pondering...Something.  Probably looking for a router.

At 5:00 pm, we will arrive in Darwin for the next to last part of our adventure.  I have loved these few days riding the rails. This was a great way to really SEE the land change as we travel from one end of the continent to the other. I've taken a few 5 second video clips as we've moved through different terrains.  Rob has had it with gourmet food and real scenery.  He wants  a hamburger and fries, preferably while downloading a video.

** Spencer Chronicles **

Spencer considering flagellate upgrade

Spencer Goofing off in the Ghan Shower

Spencer Claiming Train bunk

Spencer's first look at the Outback.  He needed a soda.