Saturday, November 29, 2008

Another day off

Ian on the Bayshore, at high tide, just south of SFO.

I haven't had a Saturday off in probably two years (not counting vacations, Comic-cons and other special circumstances where I was away from home), so today Ian and I had a boy's day out.

Ian's been a little bit clingy since I got back, and generally very happy to see me. The feeling's reciprocated, especially since I half expected him to be a little standoffish -- like a cat that reacts poorly when an owner returns from vacation.

So the little guy and I had Cocoa Pebbles for breakfast, got dressed and then piled in the Mitsubishi. We drove to the Burlingame/Millbrae border, where the Bayside Trail provides great views of San Francisco International Airport. I used to take Ian there when he was much smaller and was excited by the noise. Now that he knows about airplanes and their ability to take people places (and bring Daddy back from Australia), he has a more nuanced view.

We walked/jogged/chased each other down the trail to the Elephant Bar, where he had a corn dog and I had a burger. Ian put on his tiger mask (below), cut out from the children's menu, then insisted that I fill back in the popped-out eyeholes.

Following that, we drove to San Bruno's Commodore Park, where Ian finally was able to proudly scale the climbing rock on his own. He had a great time, and right before we left, I again encountered the dirty talking Scottish man walking his dog. His contribution today was:

Like my dog? It's a shih tzu. You know what it'd be if it was mixed with a pit bull? "B*ll Sh*t."

We grabbed ice cream from a rover pushing a cart, then headed home. After which Ian was Claire's problem.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happy Birthday Claire!

Mikey, more than two years younger than Ian, can push him around.

Getting back into the swing of things is taking no time at all -- thanks to everything happening all at once.

No sooner do I exhaust the gift-giving neurons of my brain than it was time to buy gifts again, for today is Claire's 31st birthday (but she's still young and perky!). I didn't have much time to shop Sunday or Monday with all the reunions, but I got Ian after school today and then popped over to Serramonte Mall. Despite being waylaid into Dairy Queen for ice cream and into Mervyns for the going-out-of business sale, Ian and I finally got into Macy's and got Claire a nice assortment of old-style games.

At the same time, my sister was on her way down from visiting my mom in Oregon with a friend of hers and her son Mikey (who turns three in January). They arrived in the late afternoon and Ian and Mike got along swimmingly. The kids are about the same size despite Ian having two years on his younger cousin. They took turns pushing each other around in Ian's trike.

Luckily, but disappointingly, I haven't gone back to work yet. Despite my reminding my "superiors" at Guardsmark regarding my return date, they hadn't yet put me back on the schedule. Not surprising that they dropped the ball, as this company doesn't yet have e-mail or direct deposit. So I have to essentially take a week of unpaid leave. Grrr. At least it's a holiday.

I haven't finalized the return of my iPhone left, but arrangements are still being made.

No real jet lag, although I have been going to bed a little later, which I might have done anyway had I not been working ...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Good news, bad news

I got a call about 7 p.m. tonight from the United Airlines representative for the Air New Zealand lounge, and it seems a cleaner found an iPhone in a black leather case under one of the chairs overnight! From all description, it appears my iPhone has been found! Thanks to my calling ahead and giving a "BOL" (A "be on the lookout" from my dispatch days), I may have just lucked out.

Now, here's the not so good part. The representative asked how I wanted to handle it. I suggested I send some money to have it shipped back to the States. "We can't ship. When are you coming back to Australia?" was the reply.

As much as I'd love to come back, it might have to wait -- especially since Ian is insisting that he come with me "next time."

So I've made inquiries with a friend in Adelaide, and she might know someone in Sydney who can help but she's waiting to hear from her. A happy ending may be in the cards, but we've still got a few pages to go in this book ...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Perfect, until the last 15 minutes

AIRBORNE BETWEEN NEW CALEDONIA AND THE SOLOMON ISLANDS — So the trip was spectacular, beyond my wildest expectations (alright, maybe not my wildest) and possibly one of the top-ten moments of my life.

Until it all came crashing down right before takeoff.

After getting to the airport and checking in with plenty of time, I retreated to the Air New Zealand lounge at the Sydney airport, enjoying free food and drink and taking advantage of the opportunity to charge my laptop and iPhone. They announced my flight was boarding and I hurriedly disconnected all the cables and packed things up. Maybe too hurriedly.

On the plane, I reached into my sweater pocket (my sweater was hanging loose) to switch my phone to “airplane mode” and to my horror, couldn’t find it. I quickly looked around my seat area, in my carry on bag and the bin. No joy. I paged the flight attendant to ask if she could call the lounge, but she regretfully told me they had already closed the doors and no communication was possible.

A more thorough check of my bag and belongings didn’t reveal any trace, so I’m therefore forced to conclude it was lost. Most likely it was in the lounge by the TV (where I unplugged it and thought I repacked it), but possibly also in the lounge bathroom. Either place gives me a decent chance to get it back, as the folks who work the lounge are professionals and those who patronize it are generally businesspeople who will hopefully be less desperate (and maybe a bit more understanding) than your average traveler.

Of course, if I lost it in the general pathway between the lounge and gate 60, all bets are off.

The worst part is the helplessness I feel right now. If they had been able to reach the lounge before we departed, we might have made that “golden hour” where the lounge staff could have checked for — and possibly found the phone. Alternatively, while I’m on the plane, I can’t do things I would otherwise do in this situation: call the phone or text it. Crap.

I can’t even check if my credit card’s purchase protection will reimburse me for the phone, or what the terms are. (I think it might have 30-day coverage, the phone is 36 days old).

I’ve fallen for the iPhone as much as one could fall for a small electronic device. I’ve used it to store docs, text my family, look at stars, find my way about town with its GPS, convert currency, etc. It’ll be horrible if I can’t get reunited with the iPhone and — what’s worse — I’m out beaucoup bucks. At least the phone’s password-protected, so no one can call around on it. But of course, that also means they can’t access the address book and contact me. Sigh.

And now that I’m in L.A., I can’t find a number for the Air New Zealand lounge and United Customer Service only works Monday through Friday. Arrggh!

Update: 4 p.m. (PST) SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — I finally got in touch with the Sydney lounge, but ... the iPhone has NOT been turned in. :-( I left my contact details in case it was, but I'm not hopeful. They gave me a general number for the airport lost and found, but I'm sure that's a madhouse, and it's not open Sundays. Hrrm. I did try calling (no answer) and texting the phone (it should display a preview without password) but it's a longshot.

I can't find any details about my credit card's purchase protection plan, and I'm scanning my travel insurance plan to see if it can help. Otherwise, I might need to buy a new, UN-subsidized phone!

Friday, November 21, 2008

One last time from Oz

Goodbye Sydney, goodbye Australia!

SYDNEY -- This is my last night in Australia and my mind's in turmoil. I've half a mind to "miss" my flight tomorrow, use my rail pass (still good for five months) and head off to Perth or Alice Springs.

On the other hand, I miss Claire and Ian terribly. Maybe if I sent them plane tickets ...

Oh well, I guess I've got get back to work. Damn me for not retiring when I got to 35!

Save for yesterday's side trip to Canberra, I've been exploring Sydney the last couple days in an effort to expand my experiances beyond just the Opera House and Harbour Bridge (although I've spent time there each of the past few days as well). For example, Wednesday night I attended a show of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical."

My one word review: "Faaa-bul-oussss!"

A scene from "Priscilla, the Musical." Apologies for the quality (or lack there of).

Manly-man I may be, I appreciate a little musical theater now and then and "Priscilla" did not disappoint. This wasn't some cheap, thrown-together production designed to remind tourists of one of the few Aussie films they remember. This was instead a well-acted, well-sung and well-danced polished, professional extravaganza, which expanded and updated the movie with new material (including good-natured Kylie Minogue and Bindi Irwin jokes)

Todd McKenney stole the show as Tick, finding a fine line between showing the character’s general acceptance of who he his now combined with worries about his past and what his son would think of him. Tony Sheldon also did well as Bernadette, but no one could take the role from Terence Stamp — whose fame from telling Superman to “Kneel before Zod” made his role in the “Priscilla” movie feel even more poignant.

But the highlight of the show for me was Bill Hunter, reprising his role from the film version. Hunter for a while seemed like he was in every Australian movie. Besides his Priscilla role, he was the father in "Muriel's Wedding," Barry Fife in "Strictly Ballroom" and the voice of the dentist in "Finding Nemo." He also has a role in Baz Luhrman’s upcoming “Australia.”

After my Canberra trip Thursday, I had a late (very late thanks to the air delay) at a restaurant at Circular Quay (which the locals pronounce “Circular Key”) with a nice view of the harbor and Harbour Bridge.

Friday, continuing with my manly theme I took a ferry to Manly Beach, a famous surfers’ beach on the north Pacific shore. While the water itself was closed due to “dangerous surf conditions” (it was indeed rolling), that didn’t stop me and numerous others from wading shin deep in the warm surf. A brief sunbathe (with lots of sunscreen) and a kangaroo burger later, I was back on the ferry to Sydney. Manly Beach.

I recommend a ferry ride to any Sydney visitors, with the Manly ferry being just $6.40 AUD (other ferries are cheaper) it’s the best way to get amazing views.

In the evening time, I took the bus to Sydney’s Kings Cross area, which probably has more restaurants per square meter along Oxford Street than anywhere on the planet. I eventually settled at an Italian place off Darlinghurst named “Fellini’s on Victoria.” My fettuccine gamberetti with a side of garlic bread was great!

Well, it’s now Saturday morning and my time in Sydney is sadly running down. I have some light packing left, have to score the Internet to finish some economics homework and actually have to drag my sorry butt to the airport. This has been a wonderful trip, both what I anticipated and needed, but it’s time to go.

Next, a 14-hour flight to Los Angeles, followed by an hour’s flight to San Luis Obispo, a short layover and then a short flight to San Francisco, then BART home.

Thanks to Australia for a great time and thanks to my readers for following, John.
Ah, Australia. I'll miss you.

Amusing Aussie Signage

As the trip winds down, there are a number of things about Australia that I could list as "amusing." One of the best visuals, however, is some of the funny signage I've seen about. Here's some examples:

Sydney, Nov. 1, 2008. Remind the tourists that cars come from different directions here, because we can't take their money if they're hit by a car coming from an unexpected direction.

Adelaide, Nov. 2. Four-and-a-half years later and we're still waiting.

Adelaide, Nov. 2. "Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio?" To sell athletic gear in Australia! Funny because I doubt five people in Australia outside of visiting Americans could ID Joltin' Joe.

Cook, SA, Nov. 3. If's there any problem in this town, population 5, gather by the rock.

Perth, Nov. 5. Does the transit agency really think a window scratcher is going to understand the implicit irony?

Perth, Nov. 5. Of course, every bus but the one you want stops here.

Perth, Nov. 5. Barrack Street is modified in "honour" of the new president elect.

Perth, Nov. 6. When building namers working for the University of Western Australia got lazy ...

Albany, WA, Nov. 7. Just how low do these airplanes go that you can't stand on the highway?

Fremantle, WA, Nov. 8. A rail safety sign with a little bite.

Perth, Nov. 9. Let's hope somebody does something important so we can fill this spot on the train station platform with an interesting plaque.

(Right) Kings Canyon, NT, Nov. 13. An "only in central Australia" sign.

(Below left)Yulara, NT, Nov. 13. Matches don't cause fires, dickheads do (look at the label).

(Below right)Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, NT, Nov. 14. A sign wouldn't do in the States. You'd need to sign a triplicate waiver to make this climb in our sue-happy country.

Alice Springs, Nov. 14. You think a bar connected to a hostel would have more tourist-friendly signage.

Alice Springs, Nov, 16. This sounds more like a plea for litter.

Sydney, Nov. 20. Australians don't dream of White Christmases, they just hope not to roast.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A quickie in Canberra

Parliament House in Canberra.

CANBERRA — As I start this blog, from the gallery of the Australian House of Representatives (Parliament is not is session at the moment), I’m stricken by a number of things. My previously attested dislike of the Westminster System, for example.

But mostly, I’m stricken by the Australian parliament house’s lack of flair. Compared to the Capitol in Washington, or even Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canberra in general and Parliament House in particular, seems a simplistic contrast to its fellow capitals. Aside from a few pictures of old PMs (I couldn’t find Harold Holt’s — it seems to have disappeared) and notable MPs, there are only a few static displays in the building commemorating Australia’s history. Granted, the Parliament House was only occupied within the past 20 years, so it’s not very surprising. (One thing that is surprising is that former Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett, right, is Australia's culture minister! My high school friend Eric Russell could do a decent Peter Garrett impression.)

Washington and Ottawa (the other national capitals I’ve been to) owe a lot of their grandeur to past ages. The American Capitol brings back visions of Greco-Roman style, the Canadian Parliament reminds visitors of old London-town. Canberra — and the Parliament House in particular — seems to have started out new, with architecture that doesn’t remind one of anywhere else and perhaps suffers for it. (Right, the Australian House chamber.)

There is a place of genuine emotion in Canberra, the Australian War Memorial. I’ve previously noted the predominance of small war memorials in several towns, but the national memorial here in Canberra is a huge step above them. Not only is it an effective memorial, with the requisite marble, poppies and names of the honored dead, but it contains a great museum as well.

Australia lost a higher proportion of its fighting men to World War I than any other nation, even France. It’s a common finding down here that the Australian identity was forged on the shores of Gallipoli and in the trenches of France, and the Australian War Memorial reflects the impact that the “Great War” had on the nation’s psyche.

Besides the requisite uniforms, letters, planes and guns common in all such museums, this museum added an effective extra: the diorama. Huge models of the Somme, Paschendale, Gallipoli and other major battles give a sense of the scale and drama that governed the conflict and adequately reflect the difficulties the “Diggers” faced. (Australia's "Tomb of the Unknown," left.)

I had hoped to do more than the two sites in Canberra, but I had to get back to the airport for my 5 p.m. flight. So I rushed to catch my bus to the airport (or rather near the airport, as Canberra’s Action Bus stops in a business park about a five-minute walk away). I got to the Virgin Blue counter and tried to check in, but couldn’t — my flight was canceled due to flow-control restrictions in Sydney.

Virgin booked my on the next flight, two hours later, so just a little problem there. I would’ve bused back to the city on my day-tripper pass, but the last public bus back to the airport area is at 4:35 p.m. for some reason! Oh well, Richard Branson’s crew gave me a $6 voucher to use in the airport café (not quite enough to buy a meal of course, but it was $6 more than any other airline would’ve given me) and at least there’s free wireless Internet here (hence my post …).

Now, I just need to wait and hope for good weather on Australia's east coast …

Update: 6:47 p.m. (Canberra time). My flight has just been pushed back another 15 minutes and Canberra airport is not a place to get stuck. One café with actual food (outside security) and not much to do at all. It's a good thing I don't have anything planned for tonight -- I had originally considered trying a get seats to a show tonight.
Looking back toward Parliament through the pillars of the Australian War Memorial.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Through the Red Centre, Part III

My Red Centre tour group.

The last time I arose at 4 a.m., it was 1989 and I was a poor student working at a McDonalds in La Crescenta, Calif., and needed to warm up the grill before the restaurant opened. Thus it was with some difficulty that I arose Saturday so we could see Uluru at sunrise. It was even more difficult as the rain had continued most of the night and I knew it was still cloudy.

An additional source of disappointment stemming from the clouds was the inability to see the stars. From the time I was 11 years old, I had always hoped to examine the southern skies, and seeing a whole new set of constellations that can’t be seen from the Northern Hemisphere (in fact, I had usually imagined seeing them from central Australia).

For example, I had hoped to see the Southern Cross — which features prominently in the Australian flag. I had also hoped to see the constellation Centaurus, which features Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth.

But the clouds were being frustrating. Moreover, the moon was nearly full — spoiling the view in the few clear patches. Luckily, I had a clear night the week previous (although also partially spoiled by moonlight) on my drive from Albany and had seen the unseen-from-the-north bright star Canopus and had gotten a glimpse at the amusing site of seeing familiar constellations (specifically Orion and Taurus) upside-down.

While I never did get to see the Southern Cross, the clouds finally parted enough to give me a glimpse of Alpha Centauri — my favorite star since reading an old Isaac Asimov book in 1983.

After a quick brekky consisting of muesli flakes, we drove to the sunrise viewing area at Uluru and, thanks to the clouds, saw the sight of the dark blob of Uluru become the bright blob of Uluru. A bit deflated, we drove to the Rock itself, and began a foot trek halfway around.

As I wrote before, it’s difficult to gauge the enormity of Uluru from pictures. When you’re up close, the former Ayers Rock presents a much more massive profile than you might expect. While I hadn’t planned to climb Uluru, I was a bit gratified to see that the climb was closed that day because of the storms in the area (it apparently gets very slippy when wet), frustrating some of the rather insensitive European boys in the group who very much wanted to climb. Below: A detail of some of the cracks on Uluru.
There were a number of sites around Uluru’s perimeter where one could walk up to the rock and lay hands on it. A surprising number of gullies went down the side, but the rain had broken briefly and there was no water flowing down. We found some more Aboriginal art sites, a water hole and — in a rare concession to Aboriginal beliefs — a couple areas of the rock where photography was absolutely forbidden (left), and enforced by a $5,000 fine, because those areas were considered sacred by the Aborigines.

We spent a couple hours at Uluru, where the flies were taking advantage of the refreshing rain to jump on anything resembling a spring flower — such as my bright yellow shirt (below). The group then headed off to nearby Kata Tjuta, about a half-hour away.
Kata Tjuta, also known as “The Olgas,” is a group of ancient giant rocks that have been eroded over the past 300-plus million years into an undulating series of hikable canyons, valleys and gullies. My tour group took the five-mile hike into the famous “Valley of the Winds,” where a sudden crack just below the summits of adjoining peaks creates a wind tunnel, difficult hike and amazing views of the valley below.
Exhausted, we hiked back to the van, had a short lunch back at the campsite, then began the long haul home. Most everyone, worn down by the two hikes and early rising, slept on the drive. I only awoke when Natalie swerved the van to avoid a kangaroo nonchalantly hopping across the road and when we stopped at a roadhouse to refuel.

Knowing that our group mainly consisted of poor university-age students, Natalie suggested that the group dine for the night at Annies Place, a hostel in Alice Springs that had a built-in restaurant where the meals were only $5. Sounded good to us. Arriving back into town, we were dropped at our respective lodgings. I checked in at my hostel, showered then walked across town, figuring I didn’t know anyone else within hundreds of miles so I might as well join them.

The restaurant was cozy, but served good food for $5 (I had the fish and chips). The deco consisted mainly of classic Italian movie posters and front pages of newspapers (below), usually highlighting some misfortune that happened to a tourist in the area — shoes melting on Uluru, dying of horrible diseases and pleas to “Help Bring Back Virgin” (Virgin Blue Airlines). With beer and tequila flowing amply, I learned a bit about my fellow travelers.
For example, Kirsten, the Scottish girl, did her thesis on geese counting on the Isle of Islay. Patricio, the Italian, drove a big fast motorcycle back home, but had to sell it. Matteo (one of the Swiss boys) and “Heidi” (aka blonde German) were in the process of “hooking up” (if you know what I mean … but why was I the one who felt pressured to let her wear my Montréal Expos jacket because she had decided to wear a white tube top in the rain?), etc.

After finishing dinner, we walked up the street to Alice’s most hopping nightclub, Bojangles, which seemed to hold everyone in town between 18 and 35. After a brief misunderstanding at the bar (I ordered “a midi of VB [Victoria Bitter]” but somehow ended up with both a VB and a Carlton Mid), we settled in front of the dance floor for some conversation.

I found a pair of off-duty Aussie soldiers next to us and (no doubt sounding buzzed as I was) thanked them for “helping us with (stuff) we couldn’t finish ourselves.” “We’re all in it together, brother,” was the kind reply, accompanied by a number for a cab company.

Returning to my travelling companions (right, at Bojangles), I ended up spending a lot of time with the Irish contingent of our group and found out two things: they considered all non-Guinness brew inferior and apparently Irish people have a secret hand signal or something, because my new friends from Cork were briefly joined by an unknown fellow from Dublin.

With the hour getting late (almost 2 a.m.) and my needing to catch a train the next day, I excused myself and exchanged very friendly goodbyes with folks I had known for less than 72 hours and would likely never hear from again, despite the sharing of a couple e-mail addresses.

That led to the surreal moment I mentioned in Part I of this tale — walking home at 2 a.m. in a residential area of Alice Springs in a driving rainstorm after a night of clubbing (all parts of that being atypical behavior for me).

The next day, after taking pictures of the rain-swollen Todd River (bone dry for something like 360 days per year), I caught the train to Adelaide, met my Internet friend Helen and slept at another hostel before catching the train on Tuesday to Sydney, upon which conveyance I write this entry.Me at Kata Tjuta.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Meeting old friends for the first time

Rundle Mall, Adelaide (my current location).

ADELAIDE, South Australia (Nov. 18, 2008) — A few years back, I joined a mailing list connected to a web camera focused on Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. The list brought folks together from all over the world. Though the official mailing list is now off line, a group of us continue to talk frequently off list. Taking advantage of my unique geographical circumstances Monday (Australia time), I scratched another I-Cammer off my "To-Meet" list as I had dinner with Helen Potiris and her family in Adelaide.

Helen (with Chris and Amelia in the back) picked me up in front of my hostel in downtown Adelaide at 6:30 p.m. sharp (Helen was coming back after picking up Chris at work) and drove me to their home in the southwestern suburbs where I also met Helen's dad, Jim, and Chris' brother Adrian.

Amelia's third birthday is coming up in about two weeks so I took the liberty of buying her a kid's digital camera along with a Snow White card (what little girl doesn't like princesses?) and I made the card out as being "From John on behalf of Mom's I-Cam friends." No one on the list minded my adding that part I trust. Amelia (left) is a real sweetheart, and although she regarded me with a wary eye at first she warmed up later in the evening and regaled me with tales of flowers, ponds and how their cat, Musket, had been sick as she played with her new camera.

Helen was making pasta for us all (along with an ambitious anti-pasta side plate) when we were all surprised by the unexpected visit of Chris' sister Hazel and her husband Harry from Perth -- making their first visit in several years. Needless to say it was quite busy in the Potiris/Goodhall household, but Helen handled it with the grace of an air traffic controller and no one felt left out.

Me with the Potiris/Goodhall family.

After dinner, the bulk of us went to the shore at Glenelg and took a nice walk, culminating in a trip to the ice cream parlor. I had something called Jaffa Orange, basically a chocolate-orange mix. Quite tasty. We retired back to the house for tea, put Amelia to sleep and spoke about the US southwest (among other topics) before we called it a night and Helen drove me back downtown.

Thanks again Helen for dinner and an overall wonderful time.

(Part III of through the Centre will post later from Sydney. I'm off to catch the train now for a 24-hour ride.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Through the Red Centre, Part II

Group assembled, we hit the road south out of the Alice Springs area. Natalie, the guide, told us we would need to “stop to pick up firewood” at some point. So I wasn’t surprised when about an hour into the journey we began slowing down and she announced it was time to get the wood. I was a bit surprised that we weren’t at a shop but were literally pulling over to “pick up firewood” directly from the dried bush on the side of the road. So the whole lot of us got out and picked at the chaparral until we had a reasonable quantity.

By the time we got into camp near Kings Canyon, it was getting on dinnertime so we got a fire going (I was disappointed we used a lighter, I was hoping for two sticks or a flint, ala Bear Grylls) and put our pot of spaghetti bolognaise on. The camp itself was modest but accommodating, with permanent tents, a kitchen/dining area and real toilets and showers — and signs reminding us not to feed the dingos (right), a few examples we saw as we were pulling in.

After dinner, I joined a game of Uno with the younger Swiss kids (younger in this case meant they were all in their early 20s), the Ukrainian and the Germans. You find out a bit about the world when Uno evolves into a drinking game. For example, Garoslav proudly boasts that he comes from a city near the Azov Sea that is the second-most polluted city in Ukraine. The Swiss girls were from German-speaking cantons and the Swiss boys were from an Italian-speaking canton and neither group was particularly kind in their words for the French-speaking cantons. And Luka, the English bloke, really does say “blimey!” on appropriate occasions.

I bunked with Patricio (the Italian), whose English skills were admirable for being entirely self-taught, if uneven. A couple evenings later, while we were having our unofficial farewell dinner (more on that later), Patricio asked how old I was. Not wanting to sound like the old fogey I was (turned out I was probably the oldest in the group), I subtracted a couple years and said “35.” He said, “You age well, I’m 35.” Patricio, kind-hearted soul he was, really looked about 40.

After an abbreviated night’s sleep, we awoke at 5 a.m., had some cereal and headed out to Kings Canyon. The canyon is probably most famous in the United Stated for the scene at the end of “The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,” when the drag queens hang out over the verdant edge and just “look fabulous.” Following a stern lecture to bring enough water for the hike, we began our quick ascent (which hit a 60-degree angle at one point) and climbed what felt like 1,000 feet before the trail evened out.

Circling around, we found the great view from “Priscilla,” where the canyon splits wide, a river making the undergrowth below a verdant green to contrast with the red desert. I don’t know who looked more fabulous hanging over the canyon — me (below) or Guy Pearce.
We continued our trek, this time to near the canyon floor, where we found what is euphemistically called the “Garden of Eden (right),” where the shaded, lower irrigated reaches make a small tropical zone, complete with 100-million year-old plant species and tropical birds in the middle of the Northern Territory desert. It was a refreshing stop after our hike and the Ukrainian even stripped to his underwear and took a brief swim in a river-created pool.

We completed the circle of the canyon, piled back into the bus and (after stopping at a picnic ground for sandwiches) headed off to Uluru — a three-hour drive, complete with a stop at a road house, where emus roamed free. After checking into our campground, we came into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, where we saw the monolith.

I supposed I was expecting I would have some sort of spiritual experience when I first saw the imposing monolith, but what I really felt was a sense of accomplishment in just getting there (and ticking off one of my “places to see before I die”). I also thought, “Dang, that’s an awfully big rock.” But mostly I was just happy I was there.
Because of the late hour (we would have much more time the next day), we just made a brief quarter-circle around Uluru, but that was enough time to get a sense of scale that a photograph just can’t impart. “Awfully big rock” is right. We also took in some Aboriginal art painted on the side. No one — neither Natalie nor the rangers — could tell us if the art was hundreds of years old or just painted on Wednesday.
Uluru at sunset is supposedly one of the most-inspiring sights in the world, as the red twilight accentuates the red sandstone monolith. Hundreds of tourists lined up with champagne in the viewing area, providing a spectacle in and of themselves.
But the same rain that would later inspire my “memorable thought” (as stated in part I) would cloud over the sunset — making the rock just turn dark instead of red. In compensation, we got the spectacular sight of a rare desert lightning storm.

Night two of our tour ended with a chicken stir fry in the campground kitchen followed by another few rounds of the Uno drinking game. I must say that my iPhone was a hit with the European kids, who admired both the technology and my eclectic music collection. There were complaints that I didn’t have enough Moby in my collection.

I turned into the four-man tent (I was the only person in it who couldn’t speak Italian) and fell asleep in the top bunk as wind and rain buffeted the sides of the tent into my sleeping area. Between the fact that I was extremely fatigued from my early arising that morning and that I had to get up at 4 a.m. the next day, I didn’t let it bother me.

To be concluded ...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Through the Red Centre, Part I

ALICE SPRINGS, NT, AUSTRALIA (Nov. 16, 2008) -- Every once in a while, one has a moment that -- even while experiencing it -- you know that you will remember it fondly in later years not because it was typical, but because it was so damn atypical that it stands out like a sore thumb.

To wit: the moment of zen I had earlier this morning:

"I'm walking home at 2 a.m. in a residential neighborhood in Alice Springs, Australia, in a driving rainstorm after a night of clubbing."

Let's dissect that statement. First, although I've been walking more recently, it's never at 2 a.m. -- I have a kid. Second, why would I be in a residential neighborhood in Alice Springs at 2 a.m.? Third, Isn't Alice Springs one of the driest places on the entire planet? Fourth, John? Going clubbing? Not since I was a teenager. But it all happened.

To understand all this, one has to regress three days when I got off the Ghan in Alice Springs. We arrived a couple hours early (easily making the one tight connection I had on this trip), so I had time to briefly tour Alice's downtown, go to a hostel and publish a blog entry.

Then at 11:15 a.m. sharp, Natalie from Adventure Tours grabbed me, a Scots woman (Kirsten) and four Irish "kids" (Paul,Sean, Eoin ["Owen"] and Ciara) to begin our "Just the Centre" tour. Already on the bus were an English couple (Luka [male] and Mieke [female]), a Swiss couple (blimey, forgot their names already) and Patricio (from Bologna). We filled out some paperwork, then stopped at the airport and picked up a couple German girls (Linda and ... I'll just say "Hannah"), a Brazilian girl (Joana), a Ukrainian (Garoslav) and a bunch more Swiss kids (Simone [male], Matteo, Angela and ... um ... "Heidi") before heading south out of Alice. A quick stop (two hours late) at the Mt. Ebenezer Roadhouse let us pick up two Japanese girls (er, "Team Japan") and our group was complete.

A lot of people think Uluru and Alice Springs are close to each other. Maybe in the grand, universal scheme of things, but it's a four-hour drive between the two and first we were going to camp at Kings Canyon. Going south along the Stuart Highway can be a long drag of brown dirt and scrub, and one might think it's even longer when one's stuck in a minibus' uncomfortable seats with about 20 strangers and a foul-mouthed guide who loves singing "Waltzing Matilda" out at the top of her lungs while driving. Not me, I was having the time of my life, sore butt and all.

(More to come -- it's time to turn in here. I've been up for 23 hours, minus a nap in the bus)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Trains, wallabies and buskers, oh my!

The Ghan, Australia's premier north-south train.

Wednesday morning I caught the Ghan, Australia's north-south counterpart to the east-west Indian Pacific, from Darwin. The Ghan was comprised of similar rolling stock as its sister train, but in a different paint scheme. There was also no video screen up to, which spared me from having to watch whatever "inoffensive" film the authorities on the train had to offer.

Heading south, past the container terminal and its road train assembly points, we got into the bush. As a well-watered part of Australia, the northern part of the Northern Territory was quite green. But amidst the verdant flora, I saw red-mud colored chimneys sometimes going eight feet or more into the air. Were they eroded rock structures? Petrified trees? A few minutes of thinking helped me realize what they were -- giant termite mounds (a fact later confirmed by the inane commentary piped over the loudspeakers). There were literally thousands of them within a short stretch, indicating to me that Australia must be swarming with billions of termites.

The train ride was smooth and we got to our first stop after only 3.5 hours, the small town of Katherine. The problem with Katherine was that the Ghan stopped for four-and-a-half hours, but the train station was six miles out of town. That meant that you either sat extremely bored for a long time in a small train station in 100-degree heat or you anted up for one of the offered "whistle stop" tours, some of which weren't cheap.

Opting for the Katherine Gorge tour, I paid in the dining car then boarded a motorcoach in the train station parking lot. We drove for about a half-hour to the nearby national park, where we would catch a boat down the Katherine River. The river meanders its way through a natural gully formed by a giant fracture in the Earth?s sandstone crust, leaving a smooth-flowing waterway underneath sheer rock cliffs that go up to nearly 300 feet high.

The Katherine Gorge.

The water was crystal clear, almost like Lake Tahoe, and we could see fish from our flat-bottomed boat as they went near the surface. The tour guide was quick to point out that we were safe as only fresh-water crocodiles generally inhabited this particular river system, and then not in great numbers. So very reassuring.

With the river so shallow in this, the end of the "dry" season, we actually had to disembark our boats at one point, walk about a quarter-mile, then re-board a second boat because the river was so shallow. (It should be pointed out that the draft on our flat-bottomed boat was about a foot and you could lean out and touch the water if you so chose.)

As we were making our way back, the guide pointed out a steel-mesh tube along the shore in the approximate shape of a coffin. "That's a salt-water croc trap," he said (trap at right). The boaters, who had been calm to that point pointed out he said there were only "freshies" in the Gorge. "Infrequently," the guide said, "a young salty will get chased away from his home by a larger salty and come up the river. We've only caught two in the past 12 years here."

As our tour concluded, we made our way back to the bus and I saw some movement in the nearby picnic area. "A family of kangaroos," I thought, moving over to take some pictures. Like so much of my wildlife shooting camera work this trip, my luck was bad -- the batteries on my camera died at just that moment. Sacrificing the batteries in my GPS unit, I reloaded the camera and was able to get some nice shots.

Feeling proud that I had finally gotten a decent picture of a kangaroo, I boasted to the British man I was walking next to. "Sorry mate, that were actually wallabies," he said, putting me down gently.

Sigh. Ah well, it's a hopping marsupial -- close enough. I even saw a couple of the dreaded cane toads (an introduced species that's causing all sorts of trouble) for good measure. Below: Finally, a picture of a marsupial.

The bus took us to downtown Katherine (all three blocks of it) so we could load up supplies. There was a group of young Aboriginal men sitting in the grassy median of the road, having a chat and otherwise doing nothing. "Not meaning to sound racist," said the man from Melbourne sitting next to me (although he was sounding racist), "but that lot is taking over the country."

As I walked through the small shopping center, I saw the familiar sight of impoverished young men and women with no jobs and nothing to do that I'd seen in various parts of the United States. Only the facial features were different. In fact, in front of me in line at the supermarket was an older Aboriginal woman buying a modest amount of groceries. She swiped her EFT card (it looked quite similar to a California welfare card) through the machine several times and was declined each time. With a sullen look on her face, she eventually apologized to the cashier and walked off empty-handed.

If I hadn't been in a hurry to re-catch the bus to the train station (I literally had less than five minutes to do so) I might have had the thought to offer to buy her groceries for her. With the exchange rate, it would have been about $20 to feed her and her family. I actually feel really guilty as I write this for not thinking it at the time.

Darwin also had its share of poor indigenous people, but I'm happy to say that not one of them begged from me. In fact, although I hate buskers (Claire can attest to that) there was a Aboriginal man singing the blues on a guitar Tuesday in Darwin that actually was pretty darn good and elicited a $2 coin from me.

If anything, the poverty among Australia's Aborigines might help me understand it better at home, although it won't necessarily improve my ability to help.

I'm now in Alice Springs, and will soon head off on a guided adventure tour to Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) for two nights of camping away from all things Internet. See you on the other side.