Digressions of a Traveling Housewife.
Monday, July 15, 2002
 
And now, Goodnight
This will be the last of my letters from Oz. Tomorrow, Jon and I head back to Sydney, to our outgoing flight. After our 13.5 hours to LA, and 4.5 hours to DC, we'll land at about 8 pm... the same day.

That Date Line thing makes no sense to me still.

Anyhow, as Jon and I will be busy packing, sleeping, and driving between now and then, we won't have time to visit our email until Wednesday evening.

Today was our last full day, and our last chance to squeeze in some sightseeing. Still in the Blue Mountains, Jon and I planned a full day last night, over dinner at Papa Dino's. We had to nix my horseback riding plans, as the only locales were too far away to sensibly fit into any one-day plan.

Oh, well. I sacrificed riding provided a. we actually got to do *all* the other things on our list (we did), and b. we go horseback riding within the next 12 months, Stateside. Jon figured that was fair.

We began our day with breakfast at Lurline House, our lovely B&B base of operations. Check it out here. The Indian couple who owns it does a great job. I heartily recommend it to anyone headed this way.

Then, it was off early to the spot farthest from our base, Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens. Originally an extension of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, Mt. Tomah now stands on its own feet (roots?) as a fantastic collection of gardens covering 28 hectares of the Blue Mountains. Home to both imported and native plants, the Garden emphasizes cold-weather plants, such as pines; european imports including french and english roses, heather(!) and weeping mulberry; and the omnipresent Eucalypt varieties, (at least two dozen).

Did you know ash is a eucalypt? Check out more about this garden here.

The truly amazing thing about Mt. Tomah's Botanic Garden, however, is the Wollemi Pine. A "living fossil," the Wollemi Pine is found in the fossil record, dating back to the time of the dinosaurs, at least 65 million years ago. In 1994, a stand of the living trees were found in a narrow gorge in Wollemi National Park by some bushwalkers (adventure-seeking hikers). It is amazing to think that there are parts of wild Australia as yet untouched by humans.

A second stand was discovered shortly thereafter. Most exciting, at least to botanists. A THIRD stand was found in 2000, in a different location in Wollemi park, in a different gorge, and appears to be much younger than the others. All three locales are kept secret.

Very exciting. At least if you like trees.

Jon wanted to see this Wollemi pine, some of which have been transplanted to the Botanic Garden. You may recall that I saw one in the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden. Protected by a barbed wire fence, the pines are hard to find at first. Then you spot a tiny one. Then another. The tallest we saw was about 11 feet tall. In the wild, they grow much taller, over 100 feet.

It looks like a cross between a pine tree and a fern. See truly great images here.

If you've no plans to see Oz soon, and want to see a Wollemi, a couple were gifted to the UK's Royal Garden in 1998. I couldn't find if they planted them or not. Apparently, however, you can also buy them. (Anyone interested in getting me a Birthday gift, please note.)

Next, we were off to some hiking and overlooks at Govett's leap. We took the short hike, from the first overlook to the Bridal Veil Falls. It wore me out.
Though the NP service has graciously provided steps, there are a LOT of steps to get down, not to mention back up. I've attached a picture from the web.

Then it was off to lunch at Echo Point, next to our third destination, The Three Sisters. Unfortunately, we were frustrated in our attempts to get "bush food." The cafe no longer served Kangaroo filets, nor crocodile burgers, and hasn't for the last few years. Our information was out-of date. We settled for fish-and-chips, and breaded chicken. Awful, really, but we were too hungry to care after our morning of walking.

Lastly, we went to the final day's showing of The Edge movie. A giant-screen (IMAX-type) film of wild Australia, this film features... the Wollemi Pine. Hmm. It was very interesting to see and hear the whole story, and see the original stand of pines on screen. As I mentioned, the location is secret, and therefore you probably couldn't find it. Even if you could, the film warns that four rock climbers died trying to get to this particular gorge. (Perhaps, however, that is just a method of warning people off.) I'm not sure how it is protected, other than by its natural position in a deep gorge between two sheer mountain faces.

Unfortunately, I won't have time to find out.

So, after some relaxation and a last letter home, Jon and I are heading for a late dinner before packing up. I've missed all of you, and look forward to seeing you soon.
Sunday, July 14, 2002
 
On the road again...
reetings once more from Australia. Sorry to disappoint, but I didn't make it to Bondi on Friday. I made it on Saturday, with Jon, but after discovering that the roundtrip by bus, which only goes in a loop, takes two hours, I canned it.

Deciding instead to stay closer to "home," I opted for a visit to the AMP tower, which I could literally see from the hotel room. The tallest "public" building in the southern hemisphere, the AMP tower reminded me a good bit of Toronto's space needle, complete with revolving restaurant level. The view was magnificent, as all the views in and around Sydney.

I was getting tired of the monotonous beauty. In fact, I was glad of rain this morning, to sort of break things up, but then had to watch the mist burn off the Blue Mountains... beautifully.

Also included in the price of admission to AMP's Sky tower was a Themepark-style "ride" giving the history and sights in Oz, including those you might not get a chance to see. First, an audio tour, followed by what can only be described as a revolving multimedia film. (What Multimedia means to Sydneysiders obviously differs from the rest of the world.)

Picture if you will... a donut-shaped room, with separating walls in an X shape, cutting the room into four. Now, put some chair in, facing out of the donut. Glaze the outer donut with screens, fill with people. Now, show each group of people a short film projected onto a diorama (cityscape, desert landscape, etc.). As the films finish, rotate the people counter clockwise, keeping the "screens" set. Now show the film again.

In this way, we all saw the same four 5-minute films, but not in the same order. Truly weird was the diorama, into which was projected a miniature figure of our host ("Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You may remember me from such thinly disguised travel ads as 'Virginia is for Lovers,' or 'Maryland is for Crabs'"). Think Star Wars' R2D2 projecting mini versions of people into blank space. Seriously odd.

But fun.

Next, and last, we were ushered into a large room with spaceship-like seats, four to a set, in front of a large screen. The screen showed us all the lovely sites in Oz, from historical times through the present, all from a bird's eye (or fish-eye) view, including underwater. Meanwhile, our seats jerked, glided, or dipped along, making you feel as if you are right there. At least, the experience would let you pass for sending a postcard from the different sites and not feel guilty about it.

I'd bought two tickets to the symphony that day, and made reservations at Lillipilli (a restaurant in The Rocks). I dragged Jon to his first symphony performance ever, and was very glad to know the conductor was a guest host, Sir William Southgate, from New Zealand, and that rather than playing a whole symphony the Sydney SO was playing a sampler of British songs, including "The Three Elizabeth's", written in WWII for the late Queen Mother (as well as the first two), and Rule Britannia. I felt that this was a good introduction to symphonic experience for Jon, in that it was shorter, the short pieces broke up the potential monotony of a full-length symphony, and it was far less formal, more playful. At the end of Rule Britannia, many pro-Britain fans threw red, white, or blue streamers right at the soprano, Rachelle Durkin.

My personal favorite was either Three Elizabeths, or Fantasia on Greensleves, or Elgar's Enigma Variations. I'm having trouble narrowing it down because I enjoyed myself so much.

Jon, asked for a quote for this piece, volunteers that this was the "Best Symphony I've been to all year." Humph. You TRY to broaden somebody's horizons, and what do you get? Sarcasm....

Oh, well. He did seem to enjoy the pre-symphony dinner at Lillipilli. Named for a native peach, Lillipilli is the ONLY restaurant in Sydney to have native, aboriginal food. The owner host, a lovely if bossy lady, was nonetheless proud of her year-old establishment, and offered information on the poetry readings and native dance shows held there. We were there too early for even a crowd, unfortunately.

Still, the food was good. A carafe of local wine (Shiraz) was presented with our chosen appetizer, Emu triangles: ground Emu wrapped in phyllo-like pastry dough and lightly browned. Tastes like turkey.

Next, a salad and our main courses. I had Kangaroo roast. Tough, tasty, not too gamey. Jon had Barramundi fish baked in a Eucalyptus bark, served complete. Side salad included. The fish was flaky, and served with a lemon garlic sauce. Jon says "Tasty."

Finally, since we had plenty of time to kill before walking round the Quay to the Opera House, we indulged in desert. I had Riberry Cheesecake. Jon, Lillipilli ice cream. Riberry is a small, tart berry reminiscent of ... nothing I can think of. It's totally original. The Lillipilli is a soft, peachy vanilla flavor, which came with riberry sauce. Truly the best meal I had in Sydney. Jon agrees.

Saturday was time to check out of the excellent Hilton, which, BTW, is being refurbished, and may be under construction for the next few years. They've kicked out almost all the vendors in the lower floors. The remaining three have "Must Go" sale signs, though one is a 24-hour pharmacy and may stay a long while yet.

Next, it was off to Bondi with Jonny, which we enjoyed, but wondered at. As beaches go, it's small, no longer than two city blocks.

Back through the city, with me behind the wheel, and it was off to the city of Parramatta. First used as a farm, the township provided most of old Sydney's food. Once called Rose Hill, the town took it's former aboriginal name back in 1791. Of course, it was an anglicized corruption of "Barramatta Gal", or "Place where eels lie down." No joke. The river used to be a haven for spawning eels.

First stopping at the ubiquitous information centre, Jon and I found an interesting museum-quality display in the basement, in addition to the usual gift shop and brochure stand. It was informative and somewhat fun, particularly to discover that John MacArthur and his self-sufficient wife Elizabeth were some of the first to begin breeding Merino wool, and the first to push others to do so. (Note: Merino Wool now provides A$4billion of Aussie's GNP.)

Elizabeth, after whom the main attraction, Elizabeth Farm is named, was self-sufficient because she had to be. Her husband was once exiled from Oz to England for several years (a neat trick -- for most, it worked the other way). Another time, he got into a heated political debate that may have ended in a duel, I don't clearly recall, but he imposed another several year-long exile on himself. On returning, he found his farm in better shape than he left it.

I've really enjoyed learning about these excellent Aussie women.

Once larger than Sydney, it was a nice small town by now. Reminds me a bit of Annapolis. We stopped by a Kebab shop and bought some very flavourful "take away" food, which we took away to the town square. A small semi-circle of sunken steps serve as the town's amphitheater, where three guitarists were coordinating, playing their own special songs. A bright blue sky, good eats, nice music, and seated next to my Jonny. A perfect afternoon.

On to Oberon, and the Big Trout Motor Inn. Yes, in Oz they make everything bigger. So far, we've photographed this big trout, a big Banana, and a big prawn. The Big Fish got away from us, as did the big Pineapple. Large as a house, these tacky tourist attractions grab your attention, at least.

We spent a restful night, and ate brunch/lunch at Rumors Cafe in Oberon proper. I remember the name clearly because I accidentally stole their bathroom key. Jon keeps making fun of me for it, promising to stop only when I put it in the Post tomorrow. Next, we drove to Jenolan Caves, on the western part of the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains, BTW, really are blue. The Eucalyptus trees emit oils that turn the mist blue. Really.

The Jenolan caves are interesting for being the FIRST caves, worldwide, to be lit by electricity. In fact, some of the original lightbulbs are still in service there (they don't make them like they used to). Also the first spot on Oz to be electrified, so to speak, the simple lightbulbs and hydro-electric plant drew Sydneysiders from town. Lovely caves. Interesting tour. Bitter cold. We only had time to tour one cave, which is fine because they charge by the cave.

ext, onto our ultimate, literally final, stop in Oz. Katoomba, in the center of the Blue Mountains, and Lurline house (that's Lur - Line, rhymes with Whine, not lurleene, a la southern speak). It's a lovely, historic federation home (dating from the time of federated Australia, about 1901), built in 1910. Rooms come complete with spa baths (Jacuzzi), and antique furniture. Very comfy. Tres toasty. Here, it's sub-freezing at night, and they put electric blankets
UNDER the sheets.

Dinner was at the excellent Papa Dino's Pizza, run by a real Italian and his several overworked daughters. Good pizza, though Jon opted to get his own small personal pizza when he heard of my preference for a topping: tuna. You know, every country I've ever been in, and I've been to several, has tuna pizza except the US. Brazil. Mexico. Canada. England. Now Australia. I admit to strange tastes.

I realize a large portion of my postings have concerned where we ate. But hey, when you're traveling, and have no home base from which to cook, foraging for food is a big concern.

:)

Now we're at the only Internet cafe in the place. Funny how we've a knack for finding them. (OK, we asked our hostess). Still, I've an idea for a new guidebook: The I-Cafe Guide.

You know, I'll miss driving on the wrong side of the road; I'll miss the "Kangaroo crossing" and "Koala Crossing," and, heaven help us, "Wombat Crossing" signs. But not the very large roadkill.

I'm looking forward to a long hot bath and a toasty bed.

More soon, I hope, but probably not until Tuesday/Wednesday. Possibly not until I get home.

Take care to all, and thanks for reading.
Thursday, July 11, 2002
 
Greetings from Down Under!
I know I've been remiss in posting letters this week, but I've been bustling around Sydney, getting lots of material for a nice, long letter (if you know me, you know what to expect).

Let's see if I can distill it for you. Last post was Monday, so I'll start from there.


Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax

I've almost completely destroyed a pair of Keds I bought the day we left. They've seen sand, wind, and city streets during my stay, mountain passes and National Parks. The inner linings are tearing away from the soles.

We've also killed one camera, purchased another at a pawn shop. A nice little Olympus autofocus, for less than half what we'd pay for a new one. Granted this is one model older than current, but it takes nicer photos than disposables.

Mostly, I've been bumming around Sydney's harbour. Though usually referred to as one harbour, it's actually a large inlet from the Pacific, with several bays and small natural harbours flanking the shores. Sydneysiders' lives revolve around the harbour, and have since before Captain Cook landed at the heads in 1770. Aboriginal life began here far before that, up to 50,000 years earlier, when aborigines were thought to have settled the north shores of Australia.

Today, however, aboriginal life in Sydney proper is restricted to several art galleries and "official" shops where Aboriginals sell their paintings, didgeridoo, and hand-crafted boomerangs. There are also some examples of cave paintings and rock paintings, mostly on the outskirts of town, and in odd locations, such as Sydney's golf course. Another proof of the Aboriginal life here in the dreamtime is found in large shell middens, mounds of bivalve shells discarded after feasts, or perhaps representing a tribes total oyster and mussel consumption during one of their stays before heading off again, nomadic, into the outlying country.

I've found myself drawn again and again to the same harbours, the Circular Quay (which was once semi-circular, but was deeply gouged out of the land to make way for a long, skinny port for ferries), and Darling Harbour, where the Aquarium, Maritime Museum, and other amusements draw tourists from their quarters. But the Quay draws us more often.

Three days out of three, Jon and I ended up at Circular Quay seeking dinner. Monday, We went to the Italian Place for dinner, a lovely shop on the wharf with an outdoor seating area and view of both the Opera House and the moored HMAS Bounty, a reproduction ship built for the Mel Gibson feature in 1984. The ship now runs two-hour cruises around the harbour.

Tuesday drew me back to Darling harbour, and the Aquarium. I've as much a fascination for aquariums as Rachel does zoos, or Janie does open markets. To date, I've visited several, including the excellent ones in New Orleans and Baltimore, and the small but fervently kept mini aquarium in DC. I've always enjoyed Baltimore's best. Until now.

Yes, Sydney's aquarium has supplanted my favorite. In terms of size, biodiversity, design, and flow, it's simply put the very best. Aquarium celebrities include the playful platypus, a surprisingly small animal about the size of a cat; I'd always pictured them larger. Sharks of every size and description live here. Long, pauses or breathing spaces between exhibits keep the sights from overwhelming you. Two well-placed petting tanks allow you a breath between the excellent main exhibit and the Seal tank, or the shark tanks and Great Barrier Reef exhibit. A long, boring walk down winding gangplanks leads you to the underwater tunnels where you can view nurse sharks, hammerheads, tigers, and my personal favorite: the Port Jackson Shark. The PJ looks like a cross between a Stingray and a catfish, with a shark's head. Truly amazing are the PJ's spiral egg casings. Very Weird. Pictures below.






Other stars include the seals, seen via a bridge completely submersed in water, completely made of Plexiglas. Seals to the right of you. Seals to the left of you. Seals under your feet. Very disorienting, but fun.

The aquarium also features: an albino eel "Banana Peel"; Penguins; giant crabs; cuttlefish; and other fish from the Pacific and Antarctic.

Next, I was off to the Maritime Museum, which has both indoor exhibits and several moored ships, including the HMAS Vampire submarine, which I toured briefly. I also visited the HMAS James Craig, one of only four 19th century barques still in service, and the only one in the southern hemisphere. They take it out twice a month for 8-hour cruises. I just toured the ship and learned a lot about 19th century barques. This one's first trip from England, 1874, hosted only one passenger on the two-year trip down under, but two on the way back. The captain brought his new wife onboard, and she had a son on the trip! The kid was two before they got back to England. It always strikes my fancy to hear of these adventuring women, relegated to such a small role, but still out there, still exploring right alongside men, even if it was "only" as a wife.

Though the ship is a fully functioning sailing ship, it also received many "Mod Cons" to conform to present maritime law. Two 400-HP engines run the propellers, hidden belowship, and which help guide it in and out of port. Apparently, it's very hard to guide a ship to port under sails alone. It also has a satellite positioning system, so they can't get lost. Such niceties are required of ships taking passengers out to sea.

Do The Loop-de-loop
After lunch, I wandered the harbourside shops, and ended up buying a Monorail ticket to save my aching feet. I swear they hurt clear up to my waist. For A$8, I got an all-day pass and several coupons. I rode the short rail around the city center a couple of times. It only takes 20 minutes. The funny thing about the monorail is its specificity to tourists. It's not really useful to commuters, as it has such a small boundary and only goes in one direction. It also has a funny jingle which they play every few minutes: "Do the loop-de-loop, Do the loop-de-loop, it's a grand way to go..." and so on. Sounds like it belongs on Barney. (Note: I don't like Barney). Jon overheard one Aussie say of the song, "it's a national embarrassment".

After a brief rest at the hotel, I ventured back out and saw some statuary before meeting Jon for dinner. We went to the Rocks near Circular Quay for dinner, at a nice pub restaurant, and went back to sleep early.

Wednesday was my day to spend with Jon. Unfortunately, he was sick, and we only saw the Powerhouse Museum before heading back to the hotel so he could sleep off his cold.

The PH is Smithsonian-like in that it has exhibits on several subjects, from engines to art. We were particularly in the bush tucker art exhibit, and in the Australian textiles, though we made some time to see the Harley aerial show. A man on a Harley drives out on a high wire. Hanging from the Harley is a trapeze on which sits a VERY flexible biker chick. (No, this is not the beginning of a dirty joke.) It was part of their Harley Davidson exhibit. It was fun.

Dinner Wednesday was farther afield. Jon and I went to the Circular Quay to catch a Sydney ferry to Manly, a community near the heads of the inlet. After a half-hour trip, we walked around the very fashionable, mod area until we found the U-Turn cafe, one of the few locales still serving. Either the food has grown on me, or we're finding better places to eat. The Butternut Pumpkin Pizza with Goat cheese was very good, as was Jon's Quesadilla. The desert, however, was divine. Best I've had in months, literally. The Passionfruit Torte with chocolate and mango sauces was truly worth the trip.

Of Cabbages and Kings
Thursday I was on my own again. I made good use of the day by heading east of the Hotel, toward Hyde Park and the Convict Barracks. They've made a museum of this site, designed by Frances Greenway and built by convicts. Greenway, a convict himself, was an able architect (but poor forger), who designed about 40 buildings in and around Sydney. Only 11 survive today. Interesting bloke.

I then saw the Royal Mint, not a museum but no longer a mint, either. The Mint has only a small display on the history of it, from the time before it was built through the 200 renovation (everything was redone for the Olympic Games). Most interesting about the mint is that it was the first Royal Mint outside England, and was built in response to the Aussie gold rush of the 1850's.

I also saw the Sydney Hospital, still functioning today. Originally it was called the Rum hospital, because the contract was given in exchange for exclusive rights to the rum trade in Sydney. There were rum wars and rum fights and rum everything; it was an important resource in the early days, particularly for keeping the Aboriginals complacent.

I took a brief tour of the New South Wales Parliament house, which is decked out for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Also Saw St. Mary's church, and anglican church.

I also read about Australia's first (and thus far, only) Catholic Saint. A vocal advocate of the poor, Mary MacKillop opened Australia's first free Catholic school, and began the convent order "The Sisters of St. Joseph." was actually excommunicated by the Bishop of Adelaide, with whom she often butted heads, though she was readmitted within the year. Overall, she opened 17 schools, and by the time she died, in 1909, there were dozens of St. Jo's across Australia.
She was formally beatified in 1995, and has one recorded miracle. She needs two more to formally become a saint. Very interesting.

Next, I bummed around the Royal Botanic Garden, where I saw dozens of Flying Foxes, VERY BIG bats that ruin trees in which they nest. Royal Botanic also has one Wollemi Pine tree, one of the rarest trees on earth. Thought to be extinct, and prevalent in the fossil record, someone discovered a small stand of them in the Blue Mountains. The one at the Royal Botanic Gardens is the first one to ever be planted. It's guarded by a heavy metal cylinder screen, so you can't really get a good look at it. We hope to see some more in the Blue Mountains.

Finally, I saw the Art Gallery of NSW, a nice relief from paying for entries into everything. It had a truly excellent exhibit on modern Aussie artists, called "Parallel Visions". Check it out here.

Lastly, I joined Jon for his conference dinner, held at the Women's college of Sydney, in a very nice dining hall. Actually, the dining hall put me in mind of Hogwarts, which I suppose is more like Eaton's. Seriously. Dark wood tables, high-backed chairs and all. It was a nice buffet dinner, and a funny roast of the guest of honor, a mathematician who studies...something I couldn't understand.

Today, I'm off to Bondi Beach by bus, before trying to get to the symphony at the Opera House tonite.

Wish me luck!
Sunday, July 07, 2002
 
It must've been a beautiful harbour...
...before everything was built up and commercialized. Now, it reminds me strongly of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, with its shore-side attractions, shops, and brick walkways that go right to the water's edge. It's still lovely, though completely devoid of littoral forest or shore that was present in 1788 when the first penal colony was established here.

Of course, the harbour here is much larger than the small area I've explored -- the Circle Quay (pronounced "key") where the Opera House is located, and Darling Harbour, an area filled with shops, a small amusement park, a Chinese Garden walk, and an IMAX theater. I think I'll drag Jon down there tonite for dinner and a movie....

Jon's ANTS conference started, so I won't be seeing much of him over the next five days (Mon - Fri.) But I've lined up several interesting evening activities (minds out of the gutter, please), including an evening tour of the Botanic Gardens, and a Skytour Expedition, which is apparently a 3D show/ride such as you might find at Universal Studios theme park. It runs until 10pm, and is held at the tallest building in Sydney, a space needle AMP Tower which we can see from our hotel room.

Speaking of hotels... we are staying at the excellent Sydney Hilton. Though our accommodations are much smaller than those we encountered on the drive up and down the coast, the amenities make up for it. Clear some closet space, Rachel, I've got some hotel soaps for ya! Seriously, I love a hotel that gives you shampoo and conditioner in separate bottles. Not to mention all the other niceties, including terry robes.

I love hotel living.

Except for the food. There is something rather... bland about Aussie food. I've figured out part of it: they don't use many spices, and those they do are unfamiliar to my palate. Now, most of you know I consider myself quite the gourmand. I'll try anything, and am open to new flavors. But they use way too much rosemary and cilantro here -- the taste is too "bright" for me; it tastes a bit soapy. Plus they water down their juices, and cook the veggies to mush. At least they don't pepper everything to death. I'm hoping that Jon and I will find some suitable dining this evening.

Well, I'm off to "Half-Tix" (a half-price last minute ticket place that sounds a bit like legalized scalping to me) to see about some symphony or opera tickets. And yes, I'm dragging Jon along, but have told him he can nod off so long as he doesn't snore. Alternatively, I may take pity on his modernized tastes and let him drag me to Art Garfunkel's show.

Friday, July 05, 2002
 
Tomorrow's News... Today
After a fun-filled two-day adventure on Lady Elliot Island, I'm back in civilisation and logged on. So, if you're interested, here's another diary of Jon and my antipodean adventures (with apologies for the "British" spellings; I've gone local.).

It's tomorrow here already. That is, I'm sending this email at 11:00 am on July 6th, 2002, and for most of you, it's about 9 pm (EDT) on the 5th just now. I'm not sure I'll get used to the whole dateline thing. There are two ways to calculate it, Jon tells me. Either the East Coast US is ten hours ahead, but yesterday, or you can just subtract 14 hours from the current Aussie Time. I find it fascinating, personally, though a little hard to get my brain around.

Another note on Aussie life -- it's kind of weird to watch the water flow down in reverse. It's like, anti-world down under.

We spent most of the day Tuesday continuing our drive up the East Coast, bypassing the Gold Coast in favour of some shortcuts up the coast. Even so, and with only one stop at Budjalung National Park, we were on the road until after 9:30 pm.

Budjalung was a fun though brief visit to one of the few littoral (sea-side) rain forests on earth. For the map-minded among you Budjalung National Park is near Iluka. We climbed a steep hill to the acme of the visitor's area, where the sea closed in around the front, but dense forest pushed us from behind. We also carefully made our way up a short nature hike (about a half-mile before turning back). The information station's half-faded posters and fliers warned us of a "shiny-leaved Stinging Tree" (Dendrocnide photinophylla) that could cause severe, protracted stinging pain that is only made worse by rubbing the wound. It would have been nice if the National Park had provided a picture to go with this warning, but they didn't. Part of me thinks it might be a ploy to keep human hands off the flora and fauna altogether, and it worked for me. I didn't touch a THING. Both Jon and I avoided any stinging pain.

Budjalung was the only fun thing we got to do that day. We drove into the night to make Hervey Bay, "Gateway to Fraser Island." Not that we were going to the sand island. Instead, we hopped a short flight the next morning (July 3) to Lady Elliot Island, a coral cay north of Fraser.

While Fraser Island is a continental sand island, created by a submerged mountain on Australia's continental shelf, Lady Elliot is a coral cay, an island outside of the continent, completely made up of dead coral, bones, and hardy vegetation.

First, a ribbon reef (circular) forms around a lagoon, and as bits of reef die, they are swept up by the current, winds, and cyclones and deposited at the reef's center. Bones of dead animals also contribute to the build-up, and eventually, marine birds, ahem, "bring" seeds from neighboring islands and "deposit" them on the island. Lady Elliot is a very old (about 5000 years) cay, and a small one -- only about 40 hectares. The entire Island can be walked around in less than one hour. I'm attaching a photo of Lady Elliot. You may be interested to know that there are two people buried on the island... both women.

More information and history here.

The plane was without a doubt the smallest I've ever been on. A 14-seater, plus 2 pilot seats, which we had to duck to get into. Jon and I, along with two other passengers, took the 35-minute flight, which "did me in." Should have taken more Dramamine.

The airstrip splits the island in two; identifying the airstrip itself is easy -- it's the grassy area with no trees on it. When we arrived, we were given a brief tour of the resort, a small set of buildings and trailer-like suites on one corner of the island. Our tour guide led us to the large, central building's education center and told us about all the things that could kill us, including Rock Fish and a conical-shaped snail.

After this cheery introduction, we were shown to our well-appointed room and bath sans phone, radio, clock, or TV. Absolute heaven.

Our first day, we went on the Glass-Bottom Boat tour of the coral lagoon surrounding Lady Elliot. While I slept off the vestiges of additional motion sickness, Jon went to the fish feed and wandered about. After my rest, we obtained snorkeling equipment and 3mm full-length wetsuits, and snorkeled for a couple of hours. This first snorkel remains one of my top two favorite activities Jon and I participated in during our stay. (The other was star-gazing).

After a decent buffet dinner (the fruit is still amazing, the broiled fish was tasty, but left me feeling guilty after snorkeling with their brethren earlier), Jon got out his star chart and we walked out to the beach.

Australia has some of the least amount of light pollution around. Lady Elliot, out in the sea and with so few lights, lets you see an amazing number of stars. The Milky Way was plainly visible, and, with the assistance of our trusty star map and little light, were able to locate several constellations, including Sagittarius, Scorpio, and Leo. We also saw Alpha and Beta Centauri, which you may recognize from a bunch of SciFi movies....

We crashed early and hard. The next morning, we were up early for a great fruit breakfast, and off to plan our day. Though the Morning Boat Snorkel was canceled due to choppy seas, the afternoon "Discover the Reef" beginner-SCUBA class and dive was on.

Jon and I both took the SCUBA class in the pool, learning to breathe, empty the water from our masks, and how to make the hand signals for "I'm ok," "I'm out of air," etc. (Later, I would wish for a hand signal for "I'm sorry I ran into you again."

It was fun, though disorienting. Jon opted to end his lesson at the pool, and go back to his newly acquired sport of Snorkeling. I decided to suppress my fears and commit to a 12-meter dive.

There were times I wish I'd bailed with Jon.

The first dive is ludicrously scary. I mean, those first minutes towing yourself underwater are frightening. Fortunately, my fear of embarrassment is stronger than my fear of death, apparently, because I kept going. Also, I didn't want to force Vanessa, my dive mate, to have to go back to the boat as well.

I did NOT enjoy the first half of our 30-minute dive. I was disoriented, nervous, and too unhappy to look around. I made the mistake of looking up, which gave me the same sense of vertigo as looking down from a great height.

Once I forced myself to calm down, and got the hang of coordinating everything, it was much better. I saw a Giant Wrasse, two great sea turtles, clown fish hiding in anemones, tons of lovely coral, and other fish I've yet to identify.

Then it was back on the boat and to shore, where I met up with Jon. He'd enjoyed snorkeling on this side of the island, where he saw a greater variety of Giant clams and fish.

We finished up the daylight snorkeling in our favorite spot just outside our room, then headed to dinner. We crashed earlier and harder, and slept soundly until this morning, when we packed, ate a light breakfast, and unfortunately said goodbye to a most relaxing and beautiful stay.

Now, we're back in Hervey Bay, ready to head back to Sydney via an inland route, to see what can be seen.

Thanks for reading this far! Love to all, and thanks for your replies. I'll be checking in again soon, probably after our two-day drive.
Tuesday, July 02, 2002
 
Greetings from Australia!
Hello all!

Just a quick note to let you all know that Jon and I got to Sydney safely yesterday, and had a surprisingly easy trip. We managed to stay up most of the day yesterday, driving up the coast from Sydney to Coffs Harbour [Attention Russell Crowe Fans -- he has a ranch about 15 minutes north of here near Nana Glenn. Unfortunately, he's in Mexico shooting a film right now :( ]

Along the way, we stopped at Billabong Koala and Aussie Wildlife Park, a privately-owned petting-zoo/sanctuary where I petted and hand-fed a Wallabee (small kangaroo) and a baby Koala (7 months! so teeny!). Yes, I got pictures! Jon got a photo of himself under the sign for Hat Head National Park, for which he prepared by wearing his New Orleans JazzFest hat. Unfortunately, we were too tired to visit the park itself, as we were trying to make good time to our stopping point for the night, Coffs Harbour, before continuing today to the island resort by the Great Barrier Reef, another 375 miles or so north of where we are now.

So, we got a nice apartment suite by the beach, super-cheap because it's the off-season. It's winter here, about -2 degrees Celsius at night (30 F), warming up to about 20 Celsius during the day (70 F). We about froze last night without noticing the space heater in a closet until this morning. The suite was seriously bigger than my apartment -- four bedrooms with multiple beds in each, one bath, kitchen/dr/lr area. It was advertised as a "family unit" and would comfortably hold 10 people, but we got it for only US$35 for the two of us, and we were lucky to get it -- it was the last vacancy at several of the apartment-hotels on the strip. The hotel was right across from the beach, which was hidden by a stand of trees.

This morning we packed up and walked to the beach, stopping a nice Aussie Lander to take our picture in front of the Coffs Harbour Jetty, an artificial harbour constructed by the locals.

Then it was off to a nice breakfast of chicken, avocado, and asparagus on toast for me, and Quiche Lorraine for Jon. Doesn't sound like breakfast, I know, but it doesn't feel like breakfast time, either.

A few notes about Australia. It looks like Mexico, or Brazil, or South Carolina. Palm Trees grow next to massive Magnolias and Oaks. The air is clear, and the night sky is full of stars. Almost no light pollution obscures the sky, particularly out where we are, about 250 miles north of Sydney. You've never seen the Milky Way, not really....

The most frightening thing about the Island Continent is that it is the most poisonous place on earth. It has the most poisonous (and most OF the poisonous) animals and insects on the planet. I hope most of them are far, far inland, like the scorpions and rattlesnakes, but I'm still keeping an eye out when I put on my shoes.

The locals are extremely friendly, nice, and yes, they DO say "G'Day" and "No Worries Mate". It makes me giggle.

Today we will be driving further up the coast to Hervey Bay, and hope to get in some whale watching before we hop a prop plane to Lady Elliot Island, where we will stay at the resort and go SCUBA diving, with instruction. I hope to see some dolphins and whales, which are migrating north just now.

After Lady Elliot, we will drive back to Sydney via an inland road (as opposed to the Pacific Highway we are at now), and stay at the Sydney Hilton where Jon has a mathematics conference (Algorithmic Number Theory Symposium, or ANTS). While he reestablishes his friendships within the math community, I will be bumming about the city by myself (No worries, Mom, I'll be careful). After that... we're not sure. I'm trying to convince Jon we need to stay indefinitely.

More as soon as I can find another Internet Cafe....


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