Monday, March 31, 2014

You Can't Get Good ________ in Australia

  • iced coffee: See previous posts about coffee-flavored milk. I think they just don't get the concept. It doesn't help that all their coffee is based on espresso, so anything that works better with a milder drip brew simply doesn't happen.
  • weather forecasts: I grew up in a place where the local Public Radio features a 20-minute weather discussion, and it's riveting. When I look up the weather for Australia, I literally get the weather for Australia. Can you narrow it to maybe one time zone?
  • bread and baked goods: No idea why, when most of the food is so good. They're all spongy. I finally found a good loaf of sourdough in Melbourne, but it was a rarity.
  • Mexican and Latin food: I can't pretend to be mystified on this one, but I didn't think about how much Latin flavors add to American cuisine until they weren't there: hot sauce, tortillas, cheap late-night burritos, etc. I had a mojito last night and I was like, it's nice that you tried. Speaking of which:
  • cocktails: Not part of the culture, generally. Australia doesn't have any "native" distilled spirits like American bourbon, while beer and wine are huge, so they don't bother. They do, however, have piles of canned and bottled "cocktail drinks," like pre-mixed Jack and Coke or vodka and lemonade. They look vile.
  • baked beans: I don't normally go for these, but I'm doing a lot camping, and it's no fun sleeping in a plastic envelope unless you've had a good dose of beans. Australians eat British-style beans, which I find watery and tomato-y compared to bacon-y, molasses-y Boston-style beans.
  • incandescent light bulbs: Screw you, planet. Compact fluorescents are flickery, buzzy, and mad unflattering.

Where To Next?

Now that the end of the trip is in sight, I'm realizing that I don't have as much time as I'd hoped. I booked a campsite on an island in the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland for next week, and after that, I have about ten days before I give Princess a bath and put her to bed.

The trouble is, Google Maps informs me that the drive between coastal Queensland and Darwin, where Princess is due, is a punishing four days through blank Outback.

I thought hard about changing things up. From where I'm staying in Canberra (motto: "It's not that bad. Come on, it's not!"), I was going to make a beeline to Queensland, and then drift back down the Sunshine Coast to end the trip in Sydney. I'd have to miss the Outback and the far north, but I'd give myself much more time to enjoy the journey. I wrote out a blog post that had a map and everything.

Then I called the rental agency. It turns out Princess has a very important date with her next suitor, and he's picking her up in Darwin. Darwin is right near Kakadu National Park, a massively popular 4WD destination, and it's the big Easter holiday weekend, so changing her plans is a no-go.

So I guess I'm driving to Darwin. I'm trying to look on the bright side--I'll see the Outback! I'll cross into the Tropics! I'll visit every state on the mainland! The Northern Territory has no speed limit! I'm going to Kakadu, too! --but four days of un-scenic driving is big chunk out of a trip that only has a few weeks left.

The other bad news is that I have to sacrifice at least one must-see to make it from here to Queensland to Darwin on time. I'll miss either the dunes and dingo-habitat of Fraser Island, or I'll miss Sydney. While I feel ridiculous having come all this way only to miss the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge, I'm leaning toward bypassing Sydney, or at least making only a whirlwind stop. I feel like I may have seen the best of urban Australia in Melbourne, and the north-eastern coast is rumored to be foreign and intriguing in a way that Australian cities, as charming as they are, simply are not.

Tomorrow morning, I'm getting up early and ditching Canberra (motto: "The city that's all suburbs and no city!") to drive to Sydney. It's a short hop (for Australia). Once there, I'll make a game-time decision whether to enjoy one more night in a city, or head out after afternoon tea to make the northern beaches in good time. Given the hard travel of the next two weeks, you may not know which I chose until I get back!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Snowy Mountains

The web site for Australia's largest ski resort beckons visitors to come and "touch your first snow." But there's no snow on the mountains this time of year. Gosh, too bad I missed it!

Now that we're rounding into April, I'm getting pressed for time. Instead of dawdling all the way around the coast from Melbourne to Sydney, I took an inland cutoff through the Great Dividing Range and Kosciuszko National Park (pronounced "Kozzy-osco").

Kosciuszko is the highest peak in Australia, and while it doesn't compare to the Rockies, it's got about 1,000 feet on Mt. Washington. The national park protects an enormous area of wooded highlands all around it. I found a great camping area on a meadowy flat by a pretty river. The place was just stuffed with kangaroos.

This is how they spend most of the day. They're as docile as livestock.
Lil joey
I also spotted a platypus swimming in the river, but they're extremely shy and too fast for photos, even with my new camera.

Unfortunately, it rained on and off through the two days I was there. I managed to get in a walk and some quality wildlife-watching, and the clouds cleared long enough for one spectacular sunset over the range.
Foggy dawn
Kookaburra near the river

A pair of crimson rosellas, ridiculously common parrots

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Do You Want Us to Take a Picture of You?"


Do not take a picture of me, kind fellow tourists. I know I'm alone, but really, it won't be pretty.

When I take a picture of myself, I have to take about 45 shots at varying lights and angles to get one that doesn't make me look like a half-done potato.

You are so nice. Don't do this to me.


Edit: See additional photos.

Melbourne is Australia's second-largest city, falling behind Sydney, but most Melbournians will defend their town as the cultural Number 1. It has a hip reputation on the order of San Francisco or Portland, while Sydney's flashy, mainstream wealth is more like L.A. or Dallas.

Melbourne actually reminds me of Brooklyn. It's the first town I've seen in Australia that has what I would call grit. The buildings are old; cafes and storefronts are stuffed into sticky alleyways; graffiti and street-art are somewhere between tolerated and actively encouraged.

This is just a small sample of the street art I found within a block or two of the place where I'm staying.
Similar to visiting Brooklyn, a local guide is a must. Luckily, all of my contacts in Australia (mostly friends of friends) are in Melbourne. I got together with another AirBnB host, a really nice New Zealander named Geoffrey. His place is in Fitzroy, the coolest of the main suburbs (not really a "suburb," just a neighborhood outside the city center, like Somerville). My room has a balcony overlooking one of the busiest, coolest streets, which is awesome--I've walked to every amazing meal. Geoffrey has been at work for much of my stay, but he's a big foodie and enthusiastic traveler, so he gave me tips on where to go. Plus he's got cats.
My view up Brunswick Street in hip Fitzroy
 An Amherst/Planworld acquaintance, who also happens to be a chef, has walked me around and given me tons of tips on where to find the best coffee, tastiest gelato, and most authentic Thai food. Tomorrow, I'm meeting with a friend of a family friend, who also promises more hidden coffee spots and eateries.

Cool light fixtures and ironwork in a hidden alleyway shopping area
Some old municipal building converted into residential housing
Street art and flannel-clad citizens.
Many Australian buildings, including the place where I'm staying, have lovely ornate ironwork balconies.
There's lots of cool signage, too. I don't know if you can see the "Extreme Gelato" sign down the block. It's made with liquid nitrogen, and it is awesome.
You're noticing a theme by now. Australian food is having a renaissance after its meat-pie dark ages. In most of the cities, especially Melbourne, there's a familiar emphasis on local produce, craft brews, and slow, authentic techniques. "Local produce" happens to include incredible seafood, passionfruit, avocados, and the biggest, juiciest mangoes grown in an English-speaking nation. Massive Asian immigration has resulted in a wide range of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese spots in every town. Despite having access to a real kitchen and a real fridge, I'm happy to eat out for pretty much every meal.

I'm in town for one more full day, so I'll probably update this post with more photos, especially if I stop stuffing my face and go get a new camera.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Great Ocean Road

I passed right by the cliffs of the Nullarbor Plain. But the Southern Ocean carves breathtaking shorelines all along the coast of Australia, so it's not like they were the last of the sweeping scenery. The Great Ocean Road runs between Adelaide and Melbourne, and it's a tourist trek on the order of Route 1 along the Pacific Coast of California.

A view from a random pulloff. Scenes of this caliber went on for miles.
I'd argue the GOR is even more beautiful. There are dramatic cliffs, sheltered coves, headlands, and many stunning beaches. While the road is windy and harrowing and crammed with Chinese tour buses, the stops are so plentiful and spaced-out that you can always find a perfect spot all to yourself.

The Twelve Apostles, the most famous sets of sea stacks
The Grotto
An unnamed collection of islands

Eventually, I had to give up stopping for scenery and just drive. If you got out at every dramatic overlook, at every pristine beach, at every adorable resort village, you'd never leave.

The GOR also winds its way through the rumpled Otway Mountains, which are covered in dense eucalyptus forest. I chose a camping spot in a crook of the mountains. On the way in, I had the place entirely to myself, including a beautiful "private" beach with some of the weirdest rock formations and best tidepools I've ever seen.

The campground filled up with Germans as evening came on. Australia is packed with German tourists.
Spooky-looking eucalyptus forests. Full of colorful parrots and cockatoos.
A rocky bay with beach

The honeycombed rocks were full of tiny snails.

Some of the best, most unusual, and most colorful seashells, too.
After setting up my tent, I was about to make my way down to the beach when another truck pulled up. A guy with a backpack hopped out and immediately disappeared down the path. There's a multi-day hiking trail all along the Great Ocean Road, so I figured he was headed off for a "bushwalk."

When I got down to the beach, I stumbled upon the same guy, now with headphones on, having a serious solo dance-off with the waves. At first, I backed off, knowing how I'd feel if someone walked in on me groovin' with the universe. But the dude waved and just kept on rockin' while I hopped around the rocks and watched the surf. Eventually, we said hello and had one of the easygoing, travel-story conversations that seem like second nature to Australians.

Australians are a well-traveled bunch. Just about everyone has been to the States, and usually through much of Asia as well. This guy, Cameron, had been to the Bay Area for a UFO convention (presumably, not of them), but he'd also worked in Papua New Guinea as a geologist, and now he lived in a little off-the-grid spot just outside the national park. He made the standard friendly Australian offer for me to stop by and visit. I thanked him, but I usually think of these invitations as hypothetical. I'm generally not the type to drop in on someone I don't know well.

The next day, I got up early and went on a short hike on a section of the GOR trail. What started as clouds and sprinkles eventually turned to a steady downpour. Eventually, I gave up, and went back to the Princess to dry off. Rain pounded down, and looked like it wasn't going to let up for the rest of the day. On about my third deal of solitaire, Cameron drove up again to check on me, and said he was about to light up his wood stove. This time, I was eager to take up the offer.

He had a cool little hippie joint in the hills, run on wind and solar, and covered in homemade art. He was a kook, but perfectly friendly, and we chatted about yoga and music and whatnot, and he gave me the address of a friend who had a guest house in an area I plan to pass through between Melbourne and Sidney. By evening, the rain quit, and I headed back to camp, grateful for the break.

The next day was nicer, though it had turned chilly, and I wandered to various spots in the national park. I went through one rainforest walk covered in moss and tree ferns.

I also took Princess on a tour along some mountain roads that my guidebook recommended. After a few kilometers, the dirt road became a track. In a few more, the track became a swamp, washed out by yesterday's rain. It was too narrow and forested to turn the Princess around. So for once, halfway through the trip, I actually put the gal in 4-wheel-drive, and we blazed through the mud, no problem. Now I can say I didn't waste the expense of the 4x4 rental.

After dark, I returned to another rainforest nature walk. Following signs by headlamp, people stopped at a spot where a trickling river carved steep banks into moss-covered rocks. We turned off our flashlights, and a constellation of blue glow-worms appeared. They looked like little fairies. (Far too dim for photographing, unfortunately.)

At some point, my camera got sand in the lens and gave up the ghost. Most of the above are cell-phone photos; I'll have to get a new (new) camera in Melbourne, where I am now. Melbourne is the Brooklyn of the Southern Hemisphere, vegan cronuts and all. I'll report from there next.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Adelaide Is Nice

I was thinking of visiting Adelaide merely as an overnight stop, since it doesn't have the "cool" rep of Melbourne. But after the Nullarbor, I was eager for a couple of days in a city hotel, so I parked here for a bit. I'm glad I did. Adelaide is one of the most pleasant places I've been to so far.

The city is small, just over 1 million people, and while it has sprawling suburbs, its center looks like this:

That entire green figure-8 is all parkland. Some of it is grassy and landscaped, while some is naturally scrubby and covered in eucalyptus. It's all criss-crossed with bike trails, waterways, and features like the beautiful Botanical Gardens and the Adelaide Zoo. It's also surrounded by low mountains, which makes for a more pleasing backdrop than the usual flat-as-a-plate Australian topography.
In the Botanical Gardens
A shady lane of fig trees

A fig tree in a nearby park
Bicycle for scale

My hotel was on Melbourne Street, in the heart of North Adelaide (the top part of the 8). I lucked out, landing on a street full of excellent cafes, restaurants, and shops.

Central Adelaide, about 10 minutes away by foot, is an easy-to walk grid, also full of restaurants and cafes and markets. Near the center are the Adelaide Central Markets, which are overflowing with vegetable stalls, bakeries, gourmet stores, and sweets shops, including the famous "Stinky Cheese Shop." I walked around for nearly 15 minutes just being overwhelmed before buying the next month's worth of cured meats, hard cheese, roasted nuts, and produce.

A mix of old and new architecture and parkland in downtown Adelaide.
The "Balls on the Mall," a public sculpture in one of the many pedestrian areas.
When you combine a small, green, prosperous city (in one of the world's great wine regions to boot) with friendly people who all go the speed limit, the result is an almost offensively pleasant place to hang out. I spent two long days just wandering around by foot and bicycle, visiting markets, restaurants, wine cellars, and coffee shops.

Plus, they got cool birds.
A punk pigeon

Rainbow lorikeets are everywhere, but they're fast and they stay in the treetops, so this was the first shot I caught. It's screaming. They do that. A lot.
 I greatly enjoyed my days in Adelaide. While not overly exciting, it was lovely and refreshing. Now, I'm off for about a week of relatively easy camping between here and Melbourne, where I'll have more urban adventures.