Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ok, promise, Sydney will be the last distraction in this blog before the action returns to Asia. I arrived in the early afternoon and had time for a walk around Sydney Harbor.

Sydney Opera's roof is every bit as extravagant as it looks on the postcards. It's different from every angle. The waterfront between the opera and the ferry poiers in the middle of Sydney Harbor houses numerous cafes with outdoor seating, and various speedboat operators. The opposite side has green spaces, street musicians on the waterfront promenade, and great views of the opera. Behind the promenade, there is an old district called The Rock with old brick warehouses that have been converted to trendy restaurants and hotels. It's all very inviting.

Sydney Harbor Bridge is a massive structure looming from the western side of the harbor. There is a walkway on the eastern side with fantastuic views of the harbor. Unlike Melbourne and Hobart, Sydney is an outdoor place where people enjoy sitting out in the sun. It's already my favorite Australian city of the few I have seen so far.

It's very strange to be here while summer is coming up, people go out to the beaches and enjoy the warm weather, and prepare for Christmas.
Took a tour to Mt. Field because there is no other good way of getting there. The driver proudly pointed out attractions on the way there: a zinc smelter, a paper mill, and most importantly, a Cadbury chocolate factory. The first stop in the Mt. Field National Park was Russell Falls, a large waterfall at the end of a nature trail through dense rain forest. We saw several pademelons, which are small furry animals that look like stubby pocket-sized kangaroos with dark fur.

They have a private wildlife sanctuary there where injured and orphaned animals are raised and later released into the wild. This is my chance to see all the weird fauna Australia is famous for because they can't hide from my camera here. The menu included:

  • Kangaroos watch idly from a distance. Can't have a wildlife sanctuary without kangaroos.
  • Wallabies are like kangaroos but smaller.
  • Tasmanian devils are cute black furry creatures that don't move a whole lot.
  • Quolls look like black cats with white spots.
  • Platypuses look like beavers with flippers and a soft gray duck bill, but it took a long time to see it. They are mammals that lay eggs.
  • Possums are beautiful golden creatures that look like a cross between a cat and a rabbit.
  • Koalas are the same impractical slow-moving teddy bears with big noses that I have seen the day before.
  • Wombats (picture) are a sleeker variant of teddy bear with long claws, but the baby wombat we saw was just cuddly.
  • Corellas look like parakeets and could impeccably enunciate "hello".

And no, I didn't make any of these up. We concluded the day on Mt. Wellington, with a fantastic view of a few slices of Hobart through gaps in the clouds.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Did Hobart's museum circuit during the short time window when things open here. The Maritime Museum has all sorts of models and items used during Australia's colonization; the Penitentiary Chapel is a church on the upper floor and solitary confinement cells - some only a little larger than coffins - for British convicts, and the Tasmanian Museum shows aborigine art, animals, and various galleries. They are all very well done. Whenever the subject of history comes up in Australia, it's all about the aborigine genocide and abuse of convicts. Australia is doing its best to educate and atone.

Also went to Richmond, a historic village north of Hobart. I managed to find a tourist bus that goes there because there is virtually no public transport in Tasmania; you really can't properly visit this place without a car. Richmond is very small, and everything there is cute. Cute little wooden houses in cute gardens overflowing with colorful fragrant flowers, cute little souvenir shops and cafes, even a cute little colonial penitentiary. If they hadn't poured four lanes of asphalt through town it would look like a toy city. Which they have there, too: a scale model of Hobart. The bus goes through green fields, hills, and a few vineyards.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The plane from Melbourne to Hobart on the island of Tasmania takes a little over an hour. I am staying at Battery Point Manor in a huge room with a view of the ocean. It's in a quiet neighborhood where people frame their driveways with flower beds, right above Salamanca Square at Princes Wharf, a row of nice restaurants and galleries in a curving row of old houses. It's all very pleasant and relaxed, and spring is in the air with birds singing and fragrant flowers blooming.

There are more restaurants at the piers and docks further west, and the main part of town begins right behind them. I had very fresh fish and chips there. Downtown is much busier, but Hobart has a population of only 200,000 so it still has a small-town feel. Most buildings are low and old, with only a few ugly blocky highrises marring the skyline. They have several beautifully landscaped little parks too.

Like in Melbourne, the world comes to an end every day at 18:00. Everything except a few restaurants on Salamanca closes, Hobart becomes a ghost town, and the Internet goes to sleep for another Australian night.
After a final look at the Twelve Apostels in the morning, we went to Otway, Australia's westernmost rain forest. They have a nature trail through the forest, dense with underbrush, huge ferns, tall trees covered in moss, and fire hoses. It's so dense that it would be impossible to move away from the path. Birds were singing. I let two chattering Japanese girls pass who had no ears or eyes for the forest, and had the place mostly to myself. They have a 600m steel canopy walkway, with a long cantilever section and a viewtower with a spiral staircase winding around a tall concrete pole. The walkway is wide and one can look through the steel lattice of the floor. The forest is intensely vertical from up there.

After several more viewpoints we left the Great Ocean Road. (They pronounce it like Gradation Road.) At one point we turned off into a small eucalyptus forest to see Koalas. They live high up in the trees, and eat only eucalyptus leaves, and only those of 10 of 600 eucalyptus species. Eucalyptus trees are Mother Nature's way of placing barrels of gasoline in the forest: they shed their fuzzy bark in the winter, not their leaves, and their leaves are oily and quite flammable too. Their seeds require forest fires to germinate. But they aren't very nutritious so the Koalas move very little and sleep 20 hours per day. Saw a Koala mother with her baby. It's very sunny and warm, 32 degrees C.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Great Ocean Road is Victoria's main attraction. The coastline is very rugged and consists of steep limestone cliffs, washed out by the ocean so that a number of tiny islands and pillars have remained standing out in the ocean. The deep blue ocean and sky, the yellow limestone cliffs, the white surf, and the green low vegetation on top make it very beautiful. Lookouts with little parking lots are strategically placed along the shore. Since I was on a tourist bus we stopped at all of them.

The coast is called Shipwreck Coast, some 600 ships have sunk here over the past 200 years. It appears that most sailors died in part because they couldn't be bothered to learn to swim. The bays with the lookouts have names like Bay of Islands, Bay of Martyrs (aborigines killed by colonists), and London Bridge, a double rock bridge that has, alas, collapsed a few years back. We also went to a beautiful secluded beach ringed by steep sandstone cliffs. The sand is hot but the water is very cold. In the evening we went to the Twelve Apostles, a set of eight tall rocks in the sea. Very beautiful. The sunset was just a gradual darkening though, the rocks lost their definition and mist rolled in.
The Grampian Mountains are west of Melbourne, just past the Pyrenees. Australia is almost completely flat so they have to economize - anything you can't throw a tennis ball over is a mountain, and the Grampians peak at 1167 meters. The road there is green farmland, site of Australia's Gold Rush in the 1850s. The road passes through the town of Ararat, made the home of the criminally insane by a big prison, now closed. Otherwise it's famous for a pedestrian crossing that leads from one pub to the other; fame is relative. And they play a special kind of football, a mixture of rugby (kick a lemon-shaped ball), Irish football (kick a soccer ball), and an aborigine ball game (kick a possum, now endangered).

The bus passes by a number of lookouts with views over the valleys, lakes, and surrounding farmland. Also followed a trail to the McKenzie waterfall. There is a cultural center with excellent displays describing how the British colonists killed virtually all aborigines. Saw many kangaroos hopping through the fields and forests. At one point on the trail, a kangaroo was looking at me from behind a bush, waiting for me to pass, then hopped up to the trail. Kangaroos are big animals, you can see the muscles working hard when it's thumping along on the trail. It's not especially graceful. They also have a couple of little extinct volcanos, now overgrown with trees. No hot acid lakes and boiling sulphur here, like on Java.