Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Two Weeks In Australia

It's a commentary of some sort or the other, of me or the times, that I have become used to fifteen hour plane rides. It was a free one on American Airlines airplane miles, but it was on Qantas, a classier operation than AA. What's more, it was on an A380, the new jumbo Airbus that's 50% bigger than a 747. They didn't let me upstairs to see how the rich people flew, and the seating itself was kind of jammed, but the whole look and feel of the plane made every other plane now flying obsolete. Not to mention that it was so big that they had only sold half the seats, so that I had 2+ to sleep in and Maureen had a whole row to lay down on.

The flight started at night and continued following the night until the sun rose just as we approached Sydney. Now began those few hours of excitement between the time when the joyful anticipation of arriving at a place one had only thought of their whole lives is replaced by the dull realization that it is basically just like every other place one has been.

But for now we deplaned at the pleasant enough modern airport, waited in line while they confiscated the sandwiches that Maureen had just bought in LA, took an hour getting a SIM card for some Aussie phone minutes, and hung around for the shuttle van to leave. Then a drive through nondescript streets that sort of reminded me of Vancouver in the Seventies, except updated for the Nineties. Finally we ended up on a leafy residential/business street and were deposited at our hotel.

My research had already taught me that Australia had become about the most expensive country in the world. Something about selling coal and iron ore to the Chinese. And this was the only $110 a night hotel in the city that hadn't been rated as thoroughly vermin infested. Bathroom down the hall and a tiny room. That we couldn't exactly occupy until 3 pm.

Since it wasn't yet quite 11, we headed into the city. Which wasn't really all that far. A walk down a long flight of steps, a stroll around an inlet, the crossing of a botanical gardens, and there it was: the Sydney Opera House. After all those pictures, such places almost always look smaller in person. But it was about the size of 2000 seat theater with a lot of large white sea shells attached. And once you got used to the idea that it was not larger than life, it kind of lived up to its iconic reputation.

As we walked around it to the other side, ahead of us now was the almost equally iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. No Golden Gate. Not even a Bay Bridge. But nice enough.

Two icons are about it for Sydney. Between them was an indentation of water and at the end of that was an area called the Circular Quay. This is where all the myriad municipal ferries leave from. Plus a little tourist promenade/shop area. And then behind that was the CBD, a clever AA (Australian Acronym) for Central Business District. A skyline of modern office buildings with roofs shaped in various polygons interchangeable with any other CBD OFW (of the world).

I have an eepmeter which goes off whenever prices are just too damn high. Which happens in most of the world. I had made sure to turn it off and unplug it before I had left for AUS, But now it was going off anyway. $4 for a can of Coke! $8 for a tiny sandwich! For someone as cheap as I, the next two weeks would be traumatic.

For right now though, we had kind of run out of icons to see. So, since it was a beautiful sunny blue, but with a few cheerful clouds, 70 degree kind of day, we decided to take one of those ferries to wherever it was going. Which in this instance happened to be meandering along the south side of Sydney Harbour for about eight miles until it reached its eastern end. There we walked a few hundred yards across a narrow point of land and were able to stare out at the Pacific from its opposite side.

Some quick points about the natural history of OZ. The 'cliffs' along the ocean were tired brown stratigraphic rock. A few strange animals in the botanical gardens. I could already tell that the birds here were easiest the coolest ones in the world. The blue in the sky was above average but not amazing. And the harbour...

Years ago I had read a list of the seven cities in the world with the most amazing geographic settings. They were: San Francisco, Vancouver, Rio, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Capetown, and Sydney. I had now finally been to all seven, and it was clear that the harbour was nice and all, and that Sydney should probably make the list, but that it was easily in seventh place. Because the other places had equal or far superior harbours, they all had much more impressive hills/mountains, and the only halfway interesting man made structures in Sydney were the, er, Opera House and bridge.

In fact, I wouldn't even call Sydney a World City. London, New York, LA, Paris, Moscow, Hong Kong, (I could name about ten others), they are world cities. Sydney, on the other hand, is more like a really nice provincial city. Kind of on the level of Boston or Chicago. Except that it doesn't even have their museums or educational institutions, etc.

Which isn't to say that it isn't a nice place. Just that there isn't all that much to it.

This was readily apparent after night fell and we walked the few blocks from our hotel to King's Cross, heavily advertised as Sydney's Sin District, sort of a cross between the East Village and Melrose Avenue. But it's hard to appear all that down and dirty when your major landmark is a giant neon Coca Cola sign. And the most happenin' business is a 24 hour McDonald's.

The next morning we had an all day transit pass, so we hopped on a bus back over to the Circular Quay, where we boarded the Manly Ferry, touted as the most amazing ferry ride ever to the most offbeat, different artsy town possible. The ride wasn't nearly as interesting as the one the day before. And maybe Manly was an out there bohemian place 40 years ago, but now it was all modern apartment buildings and somewhat tacky boardwalk pharmacies and felafel stands.

I know that I'm always complaining about the Lonely Planet and its terrible write-ups and recommendations. And I shall try not to do so any more. Because I realize now that it has devolved into just another completely bs travel fantasy book, except this time for 'backpackers' who also yearn for gay and lesbian bars, $400 deluxe hotel rooms, and great wine lists. To be fair though, they have just come down to meet the world of today.

For instance, want to climb the Harbour Bridge? Sounded like fun to me. But not for $220 pp. So instead we walked across it for free. Then took the subway back to downtown, and the train and bus out to Bondi Beach. Sydney's iconic one. Where we would be stupefied by outasite surfers, buffed bodies, and Hollywood wannabes.

Except that it was just a relatively small and short beach crowded with families and teenagers on a late Saturday afternoon. It was nice, but hardly Malibu or Venice Beach or even Dana Point. In fact, it's hard to think of any American beach on the east or west coast which would be inferior.

Again, I don't mean to say that Sydney would be remotely a crappy place to live. It would beat the hell out of Akron. Assuming you could afford the rent, it would even beat out Albuquerque. It's perfectlyi pleasant and all. And there can only be so many Londons and Parises.

Come to think of it, it's about on the level of San Diego. Certainly worth a visit if you happen to be in the neighborhood. Problem is that its neighborhood pretty much consists of it.

So Sunday morning we were ready to split. I walked the twenty minutes over to where I had booked the rentacar and signed on all the dotted lines. Then I drove back to the hotel, where I had to double park in the narrow street whilst Maureen and I lugged all of our luggage out to the boot. Then I had to go crazy trying to drive on the left through Sydney's indecipherable maze of illogical one way streets. Then, with Maureen attempting to navigate, it was fifteen miles of surface road until we reached the freeway going west. And then it was figuring out foreign traffic mores at 110 kph heading out to the countryside.

Our goal for the day were the Blue Mountains, which one would think were very blue and very mountainous. Instead the area was dusky green from all the eucalyptus and gum trees, and there weren't any mountains at all. Rather the road climbed up to a plateau area about 2000 feet above sea level. From that plateau are areas that have eroded away to form light brown stratigraphic cliffs, much as in New Mexico. The main difference is that, unlike the desert conditions of New Mexico, here there were trees and other green things growing on the tops and bottoms, and the sides where they can, of the cliffs.

We stopped first at the Something Or Other Falls, part of the Something Or Other National Park. Australia has about 837 national parks, which would roughly correspond to state or provincial parks in North America. That is to say, the landforms they protect are interesting and worthy of protection, but hardly spectacular. On the plus side, they're almost all free. And the walks to the viewpoints are pretty pain free. Moreover, the cliffs that these particular falls fell over were kind of nice.

Back on the main road, past the principal tourist town of Katoomba, and to the turnoff for the Murungaree Valley. This was about the only road that actually goes to the floor beneath the plateau. (Note: Much of the main plateau is cut by narrow slot canyons—cf '127 Hours'--accessible only by guys hanging by ropes.) When we got to the bottom, having encountered on the way our first Australian tree ferns, there were some beautiful hidden valley farms. Then it started to rain.

The weather people had been threatening threatening skies for several days. Now the thunderstorm broke. Wipers flapping wildly, we slowly made our way back to Katoomba, a still relatively well preserved Victorian resort town. I found the cheapest motel deal, which was $115. We had some Indian food. (Every town of any size has innumerable noodle shops, Thai restaurants, Vietnamese, Indian, Sushi, even (ugh) their version of Mexican. Plus Subway, Domino's, McDonalds, and Hungry Jack's (Home of the Whopper))

Next morning I was looking forward to the view over the cliffs of Katoomba. That is to say, the reason the town was a huge resort a 130 years ago is that they built it along the edge of a Grand Canyon area, with several miles of cliffs looking out over Infinity. Unfortunately this morning Infinity was filled up with white fog to the horizon. Fog that lapped right up to the top lip of the cliff. Which, I must say, was pretty cool in its own right.

The Blue Mountains are not a large area, and we found the back road that leads back east, taking a couple of side trips off of it. Once you get used to the idea that there's nothing blue and there aren't any mountains, and once the weekend traffic is gone, it's actually can get rather picturesque. On some of the offshoot roads one could even fantasize about living there. If one could afford it.

This was another fact that we were quickly learning about the OZ of today. About every third business in every town was a real estate office. And all of the prices were about 2-3 times more than one might expect to pay back home. The man at the motel last night had explained how the minimum wage here was $16 an hour, and that maids routinely made $28. So that explained some of the pricing. (Although the Aussies aren't any more virtuous than us in paying their working stiffs. They just don't have 150 million Hispanics next door who will do anything to lower our minimum wage.) But I've also been developing a theory that, even with sane banking and lending laws, real estate bubbles are an inescapable result of any halfway successful modern economy.

Enough on the academics, however. As we emerged back down on the flats, and started to work our way in the rural country southeast around Sydney metro, it was clear that Australia, prices notwithstanding, was a remarkably pleasant place to be. The pace, although in no way sleepy, was way less hectic than back home. The fields and farms and rolling hills were easy on the eyes. And there may indeed by a few grumpy Aussies. But they do well in hiding themselves among all their chipper, upbeat countrymen.

We stopped for lunch at a typical Australian town of 5,000-10,000 people. Mostly it contained the hardware stores and lunch counters of small towns everywhere in the modern world. But if you look up to the second floor, you notice that many of the buildings' facades have that typical kind-of-Wild-West-but-more-rectangular look seen in historical Aussie dramas.

Which brings me to one of the most salient points about this country. Because from watching movies you would think that the Outback started about ten miles west of Sydney. And that every Australian was either a hardscrabble sheep rancher or an injusticefied Aborigine. But in all of our 3600 mile journey over the next two weeks, along the coast and through what one could call the Inback, it never even got all that dry. Granted, this was at the end of a particularly rainy rainy season, but you can't really set up dairy farms in semi-arid areas...

The other salient point was illustrated perfectly when we entered Kangaroo Valley, touted as a slice of pure undifferentiated Eden. No it was more like a pleasant little valley you might find in western Oregon or Washington. And that's the thing about the Australian landscape. It's got green fields and grazing animals and rolling hills and Eucalyptus forests. One easily runs out of synonyms for 'nice', 'pleasant', and 'enjoyable'. But if you're looking for the amazing and the spectacular, I suppose that we who live in western North America have been pretty spoiled. This is an old, tired continent, and it's not jamming up against any tectonic plates. As for me, I was thankful that it was not nearly as flat and woebegone as those Aussie movies make it appear to be.

Having realized all that, I should have been ready for the coast when we reached it. But I had been seduced by the guidebooks into thinking that the 'wild southeast coast' would be reminiscent of Washington or Oregon. In particular I had been led to thinking that Jervis Bay would be a subtropical version of same, only with dolphins frolicking about. So we drove the slow 30 miles into said town, only to discover that said town didn't really exist, and that 'Jervis Bay' referred to a large, scenically humdrum indentation of the coast. Which consisted, mostly, of low stratigraphic rock being lapped by none too dramatic waves.

By the time we had wended our way back to the main road the sun was sinking, and about an hour or so later we made it to Batemans Bay, the major ocean resort for the bureaucrats in Canberra, the capital, 4-5 hours up in the hills. But it's the sort of place which would be easily eclipsed by the smallest town on the Jersey shore. We found the cheapest motel in town, this time @ $90. This would prove to be the lowest price we paid for accommodation.

But at least every motel room would prove to be consistently, er, pleasant. Comfortable beds, TV, fridge, toaster, electric tea kettle along with tea and milk, and hot water that would come on full blast within 3 seconds of turning the tap.

The town was so small that there wasn't really anywhere to eat. So we walked over to the mall next door. Besides the aforementioned fast food joints, every Australian town has a Cole's and/or a Woolworth supermarket. Plus a K-Mart and a Target (sorry, clothes only here). Some of the prices in these places can actually be quite reasonable. For instance, although a can of Coke can be up to $4 in a gas station mini-mart, you can get 1.25 liter bottles for $1.50. And, since K-Mart buys from the same Chinese factories for both its American and Aussie stores, the cheap crap in OZ cost just about the same.

Tuesday was spent continuing down the south coastal highway. Except that, once you looked closely at the map, you noticed that it hardly ever actually got within sight of the coast. There was a nice bay at Noora. And we did take one of those 20 mile twisty roads to Mallacoona, a flattish lagoony town of less than 1000. But mostly it was thick and endless forest. Eucalyptus and gum tree forest, to be sure. But otherwise kind of like Canada.

Another incisive observation: Both in terms of culture and general feel, Australia is pretty much like Canada would be if it had a different geography and climate. You know, a sunnier Canada with kangaroos.

Not that we had seen any of those yet. Needless to say, not even in Kangaroo Valley.

By the time that it was late afternoon I realized that we had covered more ground that I had planned to, and that it would be most efficient to keep on driving so that we would reach the home of the only Australian who I knew. Who, coincidentally, I had met back in 1975 when I was living in Canada. So we continued driving, through the thick smoke of a forest fire for about an hour, and then for about three more hours through the dark. Then about 30 minutes of stumbling around in his unlighted, unsignposted town trying to find his house.

Stewart was the same jovial, upbeat guy I had last seen in 1977, although now strangely older and whiter. As we reminisced about old times on the spiritual path we had shared I was reminded to myself about how crappy and hypocritical so many of those people had been. No wonder the hippie dream had collapsed so completely.

But Stewart was going to continue being a simple and positive soul up until the end. Which, apparently, will be in a year or two, since he has a dreadful heart condition. But, good Aussie that he is, can't complain. Wouldn't be right, mate.

The next morning we spent hanging out, and I would have like to stay longer. But Melbourne was another three hours away, and I wanted to be past there by tonight, so at around one we had to leave. We were now in the state of Victoria, driving through flattish green farming country. Then we hit the freeway, and about an hour or so later we were desperately trying to find the last exit before the part where you have to pay, but it's impossible to pay (more on that later), began. Then surface streets towards Melbourne's version of King's Cross, St. Kilda. Which was kind of like a genteel re-creation of Melrose Avenue along a bay front.

Forget about Sydney's superficial resemblance to Vancouver. Melbourne really looks and feels like the place. Although, of course, different. For one thing, it has trams crisscrossing everywhere. For another, it's (along with the rest of the country's) old Victorian buildings have this grandiose and glorious rococo flair about them which is quite striking.

Unfortunately, once we had made our way downtown to see some of the grander ones (interspersed amongst your normal downtown crap) it was way too congested and getting dark. We did luck upon a 30 minute parking space, which gave us a chance to check out their Federation Square and a few other blocks. We weren't the only ones walking fast. The after work crowd was one of the densest, highest paced, caffeinated ones I had ever seen.

That's another point about Australia. Over half the population lives in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Throw in Perth, Adelaide, and a few other mid level places, and there's only about 5 million people left to populate the rest of the continent. Turns out that, excepting places like Singapore, Australia is the most urbanized country in the world.

Though that's not me, mate. I need enough room to throw my boomerang in. So we got on the freeway heading southwest around the giant bay that Melbourne is on, and eventually found ourselves in Torquay, the start of the Great Ocean Road. By the time that I had discovered that, contrary to previous experience and logical expectation, there was only one motel in town, it was nine o'clock, and past time for said motel's office (like motel offices all over the country) to close, I was ready for any deal the guy had to offer.

Which was about $50 less than it would be tomorrow night. Because we were now entering the dreaded period of Easter weekend, which is easily the busiest, most important Easter weekend in the entire world. Not because Aussies are particularly religious, because they definitely aren't. But because here in the Southern Hemisphere Easter is also Labor Day, as it were, the last big fling of summer. Not to mention that it's smack in the middle of school holidays. Anyway, he was already fully booked for tomorrow, Friday, Saturday & Sunday. As would be any other hotel remotely near to any touristic destination. Which would make it into an interesting weekend adventure for us.

But he still had a room for tonight, so we settled in. And while watching the telly we found out that also going on this weekend, about fifteen minutes down the beach, was a giant international surfing competition. Now where we live in Albuquerque the big local news story every night is some gruesome gang murder. In Australia it's either about someone drowning during a lifesaving competition, and/or someone else getting eaten by a shark. And pervading everything everywhere is this surfing culture.

So the next morning we were there, having paid our admission fee and having walked out to the point just as the heats had stopped for a couple of hours. But, standing there on the cliff, we were able to watch people off to the side curling and ripping and doing whatever the hell it is that surfers do. And these guys were the best in the world at it. All very sunny and windy and surfy and Aussie.

Now it was time for the Great Ocean Road, recently proclaimed by the New York Times as the Greatest Ocean Road in the world (even in the rain). Okay, it's a nice enough ocean road. There's a dramatic 500 foot cliff towards the end. And a cove near the beginning where you can see a koala sleeping in a tree. But over half of the distance is driving through forest.

And as for much nicer coastal areas: How about the entire North American Pacific coast between Ensenada and the Aleutians? Or the entire area between Maine and Newfoundland and Labrador? Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, England & Norway? All of southern France, Italy, Croatia, Greece & Turkey? You can add on your favorites.

We had to keep going after the official end of the road if we had any prayer of getting a room. I made it to Warrnambool, a city of around 30,000. It had at least 20 motels, all of about the same quality. The first one I stopped at was almost empty, but the lady there nonetheless had a special holiday rate of $170. A little more research produced a well appointed room for $105. Then a quick visit to the Safeway for some food for brekkies (their actual word) tomorrow and some biskies for tea tonight, a turning down of the Mexican restaurant's offer of enchiladas for $35 pp, then over to Hungry Jack's for a Veggie Whopper and fries.

We were now about as far west and about as far south as we were going to get.