Halls Gap, June 8, 2001
Being in Australia is like a whole different trip - insane evolution notwithstanding, it's a lot like home (wherever that is). In fact, it's eerily like an English America. People are friendly and helpful, and yet they also have a sense of humor. And you can easily get all kinds of dreadful English food, things I sometimes spend a guilty fortune on at Myer's of Keswick (Hudson Street), times when I feel I just can't live without Branston Pickle. In fact we've been having such a good time that neither of us has bothered writing anything for these web pages. So as it's raining today, I thought I'd upload a few pictures - and jot down a few words before dispensing larger pearls of wisdom in a few day's time.
Australia's wildlife really is quite extraordinary, and encouragingly abundant. And there's just something perversely brilliant about watching animals bounce instead of run. They are often quite tame, which is handy for those of us without zoom lenses, and may help to prevent eyestrain on your part.
We flew into Darwin, which was a good way to enter the first world. It's sort of like Australia's Alaska - isolated and strangely cosmopolitan. We spent a few days at the nearby Kakadu national park, where the firstpart of the first Crocodile Dundee was filmed. (The fact that several minutes were also filmed in our then local in New York has nothing to do with anything, but was a handy counter in banter with the locals when they started acting rough-hewn).
After Darwin, we stopped in Alice Springs for a few days, the only city in the most unpopulated part of the world. (Apart from Antarctica, or so it says here). Then we took another entertaining twenty hour Greyhound ride to Adelaide, a really nice city that we could easily have spent more time exploring - but we had to hire a car and drive off to the Grampians in search of birds. As usual.
One strange thing about coming to Australia from the north is that we initially saw the parts of the country which still have large Aboriginal populations - down south, you hardly see any of this continent's original inhabitants. The north inevitably shares certain depressing elements with the high southwest's Navaho reservations, but it's also very different. Everywhere you look, white people are moving around like some kind of perpetual motion machine, juxtaposed with static groups of Aboriginals sitting down in city parks and road verges, as if they're patiently waiting for us to go away. As if the towns just sprung up around them, overnight. Which they did.
Cairns, July 31, 2001
Here we are then - day 78 in Australia. The time has just zipped by, which you may have deduced by our embarrassing lack of updates. Tomorrow we bid farewell to the only continent that's also a country, and head off to the Antipodes part two - New Zealand. Which will be the last chapter in this year-long adventure.
Our itinerary was somewhat inadvertently designed to minimize culture shock upon our return. After jumping several centuries back in time to Nepal, we've gradually moved forward to the present day. In Thailand we rediscovered supermarkets and in Australia we overcame the language barrier (more or less, Cobbler). America shouldn't be too weird after this, or at least no weirder than it already is.
The peculiar thing about being in Australia is that it's been so easy, so comfortable and so enjoyable, that it feels like there's not much to say. Yes, the scenery and the wildlife are spectacular - we can hardly believe the numbers of animals and birds we've seen - but after experiencing such radically different cultures as Nepal, India and Thailand, it all seems a bit ordinary. Not to say that we're not having the time of our lives, because we are. We're probably having more fun here than anywhere else - we've had the freedom of having a car and speaking the language, and the birding has been magnificent. It's just a lot easier to write postcards when you're looking at the Himalayas than when you're watching Seinfeld. Would you really be interested to hear that yesterday we saw a Little Bittern then went out for Mexican food and watched American Beauty?
Another strange thing: we've been here so long, and driven around so much, that when we watch the news we've nearly always been to wherever they're talking about. It's a big country with a small population, and we've passed through every largish community with the exception of Broome and Perth. Not that we haven't spent a considerable amount of time lurking around Australia's impressive collection of national parks. But you have to stock up on baked beans somewhere. (Thanks to our amazing ability to happily subsist on baked beans and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, we've managed to keep our Australian budget well below expectations. We're still enjoying a romance with supermarkets, partly because they're still a novelty to us. One element of New York's unique charm is that all the supermarkets there are crap.)
So: The itinerary, then.
OK, as I've said we landed in Darwin, which is a pretty cool city, way out in the remote central northern tropics (or the Top End as they like to call it). After being in Australia two and a half months, it's still one of my favorite places here, and I look forward to going back one day. We rented a car and drove to Kakadu national park, which was of course brilliant, and then drove further south to a town called Katherine before dropping the car off in Darwin again. We then took a twenty hour Greyhound bus ride to Alice Springs, passing through Katherine on the way - proving you can't plan your itinerary too carefully. The bus ride wasn't too bad, believe it or not. Darwin has a great second-hand book shop so we were fortified with Graham Greene, Bill Bryson, and a flask of screwdrivers. As twenty hour bus rides go, it was one of the best.
(This reminds me that we're in the middle of a media storm about a disappearing English tourist who was supposedly murdered and/or abducted when his car was flagged down on that very highway. It's a big story here and in Britain, but has probably gone unnoticed in America, where this kind of thing happens all the time. Some people have cast doubt on his girlfriend's version of events, but who knows? It's certainly freaked out the tourists in that area, and we're lucky we passed through there a while ago. We're also glad we opted for the bus over the car when we traveled through the big red centre.)
We enjoyed our time in Alice Springs - you could hike from town to many interesting locations where it's possible to see many interesting birds. We were still staying in hostels at this point, but soon discovered that you could get motel rooms for only slightly more than a hostel double - and upgrade to the wonderful world of the en suite.
The first hostel we stayed in, (Elke's in Darwin), was run by a very charismatic and energetic lady who, like all hostel managers, was keen to help book our trip for us. She persuaded us to buy VIP cards, which is sort of like joining the YHA - you get discounts at hostels and so on. It enabled us to get a substantial discount on our car rental, saving us a bundle, and is one of the main reasons for us being able to keep our budget so low. For this we are eternally grateful.
The bit we didn't like has to with the whole nature of tourism in Australia. A lot of tourists here seem to be English youngsters who lack the nerve to visit non-English speaking countries. They come to Australia to get drunk, have sex with strangers, and bungy jump - the sort of things young folks like to do the world over. They are also usually on limited budgets, and so there are millions of tour operators offering group excursions to all the tourist attractions. The term 'independent traveler' seems to mean something different here in that, if you can't afford a car, you're not really independent and are going to spend a lot of time in tour groups. Which probably works OK, and may well increase your chances of having sex with strangers, so it's win-win all round, if that's your cup of tea.
Due to all kinds of drop-off penalties and other restrictions, we decided not to rent a car continuously until we got to Adelaide, which meant getting a bus from Darwin to Alice, and then another one to Adelaide. The Greyhound to Alice was fine, filled with a fair mix of locals and backpackers, as it's the cheapest option available. The Alice to Adelaide Greyhound route is, for some reason, undercut by several tour operators who charge less for a trip that includes a night in the underground motels of Coober Pedy, a mining town exactly in the middle of nowhere and popular movie location. Well, whoop-de-doo. The activities on offer mainly involve ferrying you around gem dealers where you are no doubt encouraged to purchase many interesting trinkets. Hence the cheaper price, one might conclude.
At Elke's in Darwin, we'd booked one of these things without really thinking about it. The name of the operator - Groovy Grape - should have given us a small clue that it wasn't quite our scene. Once in Alice we began to visualize twenty hours in a bus full of university students singing Limp Bizkit songs, interrupted by a night's revelry in an underground dorm. Not for us, we felt, and so bailed, losing our deposit, but what the hell. Interestingly, the Greyhound ride wasn't much fun either. Since all the teeny-boppers were groovy graping it, the bus was full of the misfits, loonies and drug addicts that favor Greyhounds the world over.
Alice's bus station was quite impressive, however. It's crappiness whipped me right back in time to downtown Colchester in the early 80's, a place I spent far too much time in. A place which has never quite recovered its zest after being pipped by Londinium for the role of capital city.
We also arrived in Adelaide at five in the morning, and so had to wait for our motel to open up in the only establishment available at that time of day. I shudder at the memory, but we actually set foot in a MacDonald's, thereby helping to finance the forces of pure evil. We admit it - we gave them a couple of bucks for a couple of coffees, and observed the shitface army march in and try to order their burgers. It was quite entertaining to watch. The staff were bodhisattvas to a man, (apart from the part about working for Satan).
The Itinerary Part II
Adelaide was a genuinely beautiful city, as I've said, but we wasted no time in renting the cheapest car we could find and heading off in search of birds. From here on it all gets a bit blurry, as we dashed around the country in search of rare endemics. If I told you we eventually saw 356 species of bird in Australia, would you be impressed? I didn't think you would.
The next exciting thing that happened to us was the arrival of a new member of the team - the lovely Kirsten, Doreen's niece. Instead of having one Connecticut belle to lighten my days and offer interesting interpretations of the English language, I now had two, and my happiness was surely doubled. The three of us had a lot of fun together, and Kirsten dragged us into a few bars where her outgoing nature ensured some interesting encounters with the locals - how else could we have met publicans, firemen and people with staples in their heads?
We stayed in St. Kilda, a cool Melbourne suburb and location for a friend of ours' book - it'll be interesting to reread it when we get back. (The book in question is The Unexpected Salami by Laurie Gwen Shapiro - buy it now!) After this we drove up the coast to Sydney, stopping off a various fab national parks along the way, as is our wont. A highlight was Phillip Island on the south coast, where the nightly arrival of hundreds of penguins returning to their burrows has become a major tourist attraction. Understandably so - it's hard for us humans not to respond warmly to these tiny bipedal waiters as they waddle along. Being close enough to reach out and touch them was a very special experience.
Another highlight was a pelagic trip from lovely Wollongong, where we were able to witness the banding of albatrosses first hand - albatrosses! Just like in that poem by the guy who wrote the one in Citizen Kane! The one with the monkey from Porlock on his back! Anyway, it was pretty spectacular. We'd been looking forward to this trip for over a year. It's quite famous in birding circles, and only goes out once a month, so we were quite anxious about getting onboard, e-mailing one of the organizers for over a year. (It still didn't work - our names weren't on the list, but they let us on anyway. What a relief.)
Back in New York when we told an Australian friend about how much we were looking forward to the Wollongong trip, he laughed and laughed and laughed. Wollongong, he said, was the arsehole of the universe. Well, admittedly it's not Eton Wick, but it's not a bad place. Even if we were woken up at four in the morning by a drunken arsehole returning from the pub with a strong need for meat pies and full volume telly. We were back in the hostels again, you see. After this it was motels all the way.
Itinerary Part III - the odyssey continues.
Wollongong is just a short hop from Sydney, where we were able to celebrate my birthday with a slap-up Indian feast. Or two. Accommodations there, as in most cities, are expensive, but we were able to find a cheapish hotel that, like in some dystopian science fiction story, turned into a welfare hotel on its lower floors - right where the laundry was located, unfortunately. We had many interesting moments there, undecided as to whether it was more like a film by Fellini or David Lynch.
So we saw the opera house, the bridge, Bondi Beach, the whole bit. Sydney's OK for a big city that isn't New York, and has some pleasant neighborhoods like Paddington. This Paddo's a bit different from the one Dennis Potter used to like, more like a West Village made up of English two-up-two-downs. In fact, while I'm on the subject of architecture (sort of) I'd like to say how many nice buildings there are in that utilitarian 30's English Deco style that used to look so grey and depressing when I was little. With the passing of years they've started to look attractive - or is this just the insidious nature of the Tate Modern working on my mind?
After Sydney we drove up the coast, stopping off at various birding hotspots as usual. When we entered Queensland we passed through Surfer's Paradise, a endless strip of hotels and fast-food outlets that must be the tackiest place on earth. Outside of the USA, or course. We don't recommend it.
Around this time we lost Kirsten, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house as we bid her a sad farewell. We drowned our sorrows by searching out ever more exotic species of birds as we crossed the tropic of Capricorn and headed back into the tropics. (Bet you never realized that was why they called it the tropics, eh?) Above Townsville we entered the part of northern Queensland rather uncommercially known as the wet tropics, and discovered another part of Australia as wonderful as the Top End. Apparently we like the bits at the top the most.
At Eungella national park we searched for the aptly named Eungella Honeyeater. This obscure park preserves a large section of rainforest that has been cut off for about thirty thousand years. All very Lost World. Consequently, it has a few species of animal and plant that are found nowhere else on earth - proving that Darwin has it over Conan-Doyle any day of the week. One of its rarities is the aforementioned honeyeater, which we were sadly unable to locate. The lady at the motel said that in a couple of months you'd have a hard time not tripping over them, but there you go. Such are the vagaries of the birdwatching game.
However, almost as exciting as the prospect of seeing a small yellow bird that looks a lot like a lot of other small yellow birds was the fact that Eungella is the best place in Australia to see the duck-billed platypus. This wonderful animal is one of only two monotremes in the world - egg-laying mammals with a limited selection of private parts. They are notoriously hard to see, being justifiably wary of humans, but at Eungella they are quite happy to cavort right in front of you. I was sort of expecting something like a beaver, but platypuses (platypi? platypussies?) are quite tiny. They root around in the mud looking for tasty morsels and then lazily float around on the surface for a while before starting off again. Although at night, when we watched some others at a different location, they were much more vivacious - as you'd expect from a primarily nocturnal animal.
After this, we headed to a remote cafe, mysteriously located high up a mountain. The unassuming Ivy Cottage tea rooms is yet another place well known on the global birder network - people travel thousands of miles to have a scone and photograph the exotic selection of birds making use of their bird feeder. While we were wandering around the tiny village, passing strangers would chat with us, and one couple insisted we bird in their back garden while we fended off offers of tea and coffee. This proved that we'd left the harsher urban zones of Victoria, New South Wales, and southern Queensland, and were back where people are friendly. Like in Dayton, Ohio, 1903.
Itinerary Part IV - journey's end (in Australia, anyway).
Next up was Mission Beach, another small place high on the birder's agenda. It's also a popular, unspoiled beach town, and we stayed at a nice motel run by a couple of ex-pat Kiwis. Could New Zealanders be even nicer than northern Australians? We'll find out soon.
Mission Beach is home to a large population of Southern Cassowaries, the third largest bird in the world, and by far the most aggressive. People are regularly done over by these beasts but, fortunately for us, that usually happens later in the year when they have young chicks in tow. Cassowaries are amazing looking creatures, with a bizarre bony crest on top of their heads. Anyone who entertains any doubts that birds and dinosaurs are one and the same should check one of these beauties out.
From here we moved on to the Atherton Tablelands, another remote area where we stayed at yet another birding hotspot - Kingfisher Park, a campsite and motel run by a wildlife rehabilitator. Here, a young red-legged pademelon (mini-kangaroo) would hop up for a cuddle while you enjoyed a coffee and watched a Red-necked Crake chasing off Emerald Doves. We liked it a lot.
Next on the itinerary was the tiny village of Daintree, a remote backwater which has become quite a big tourist draw on account of its impressive numbers of 'salties' - gert big crocodiles to you and me. It's also, guess what, another birding hotspot, and we took a dawn boat ride in the pouring rain in search of one of the world's rarest herons. Doreen though she was hallucinating when she saw one directly in front of the boat, to the apparent unconcern of everyone else. Basically, she was the only one who's eyes were keen enough to see it, and was hesitant about alerting everyone else in case she was misidentifying a very large gull, perhaps. Fortunately she managed to attract my attention with a number of Grommit like jabs, and everyone else eventually saw it too, much to the delight of the seasoned birders on board. (They called themselves the Geriatric Gerygones, sort of a Hell's Grannies of the birding world). She certainlymade their day for them. We were pleased as well, but seeing the Papuan Frogmouth was the pop of the cherry.
After this and many more adventures, we ended up in Cairns, the last city of any size before the wilderness of Cape York - a vast area we don't have the time or money to investigate. You have to fly in and either camp in the jungle or stay at a remote and super-expensive resort. Guess which option we'd have to take.
Cairns is OK, but characterless. It feels like an overgrown beach town, and seems to exist mainly to service the many tourists who want to explore the surrounding areas. But it's a good place to marshal our forces before setting of for New Zealand - our last hurrah before home and the grim realty of a New York winter. But we'll be glad to go back. Whether it's because we've been on the road long enough, or because Australia is too much like home, we find ourselves increasingly missing our family, friends, and most of all, our cats.