Saturday, May 12, 2012

Tahiti And Out

Two more days at sea. Vainly imagining that my body would reach a sort of equilibrium, and weight would stop gaining. Accomplishing nothing, and not really caring about it one way or another.

Sunday morning found us moored in the lagoon at Bora Bora. Well, so they said. I couldn't see anything through the fog and the ongoing rain. That's not allowed to happen in the tropics, is it? Slowly the rain slowed and the mist began to clear a bit. Before me arose the shape of an interesting but not incredible little mountain.

Before I continue, let me throw in the caveat that much of Bora Bora's renown lies in all the variegated shades of brilliant blue that supposedly fill its lagoon. And the reason I say supposedly is that the sky never really cleared all day, so that the lagoon never got any bluer than gray. So I'm sure that I missed out on something.

So I can't really comment on that. But I can report that the island itself isn't all that. Not a fraction as beautiful as American Samoa. Renting a car for 4 hours would have cost $150, so we took a two hour bus tour of the perimeter for $20 pp. Not much to see. And the only beach on the entire place was less than a hundred yards long and ten feet wide. Once again, as on Fiji, the real sand and romance action is supposedly on the islets surrounding the fabled (gray today) lagoon.

Then we were back at the tiny main town and looking for some action. We signed up with a guy trying to get people together for a snorkel tour, but, given the blah nature of the weather and visibility, so far we were the only takers. I wandered away from the pier area and stood in an empty parking area, spacing out and taking in the island's lone mountain.

Then I got hit by a giant van.

Later another passenger told me that he couldn't believe how hard the guy backed into me, with my knees buckling, etc. As for me, I immediately cursed in my angriest voice possible, which got the French (naturally) guy to stop. Even apologize. I walked around, trying to check out what, if anything, was broken. Fortunately the major force had been squarely on my upper back. Seemed like I was all right. Besides, if I went to the doctor (on a Sunday) I'd probably miss the tender ride back.

Nothing much else happened the rest of the afternoon. The snorkel guy never got any more sign ups. Nor did his boat ever show up. We wandered around for a while more. Took the tender back. As the ship powered up the fog and the heavy rain descended once more.

My conclusion is that Bora Bora got famous because Marlon Brando moved there. And then all the other Hollywood types showed up and made it more famous for being famous. But if Gene Shalit had ever asked for a review, I would have said, 'Boring, Boring'.

The guidebooks had prepared me for Tahiti. Don't expect the native women of Gaugain paintings. Moreover, once again those pictures of palm fringed beaches come from the outlying islands, not from Tahiti itself. And Papeete, its capital city, was forewarned to be the most dreadful of rundown places.

But when we debarked from the ship in the middle of downtown, the overall mood seemed no worse than that of an everyday sort of commercial space. No way near a paradise, but almost refreshing in its normality and lack of touristic hoopla.

Indeed, if one were going to make an observation about the situation, it would be that France, as with its Caribbean departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe, had achieved the neat trick of making an island both outrageously expensive and relatively poor. In other words, they had recreated a part of France. Just not the quaint, Impressionistic, or chic part. Rather the poor immigrant labor one.

My plan for the day was to circle the island by public transport, a distance of about a hundred miles. Up until a few years ago, this would have meant the funky combo truck/bus deals like they have on American Samoa, only here called Le Truck. Now these have been 'upgraded' to regular old city buses. We asked around until we found one going west and south out of Papeete.

A half an hour later we were waiting outside of a Carrefour hypermarket for a bus going further. About forty five minutes after that one arrived we were on a small paved road in a rural area with the central, not too elegant but then not too shabby, jungled volcanic mountain mass of Tahiti on the inside. And the calm placid ocean (all of these islands have coral reefs which break the waves further out, which means that there seems to be no tidal difference on shore) lapping on the outside. Visibility was okay, but the sky was gray and overcast. Rain would come and go throughout the day. We stood there for a long while with no continuing bus arriving.

So I stuck out my thumb. After about 20 minutes of futility, just as Maureen started complaining about my inability in getting us anywhere, someone pulled over and took us the rest of the way to the small town at the end of the island. There we had a panini at the McDonald's at the far point of paradise while we waited for the gendarmes to come back from lunch.

When they did they confirmed what my bad French had been picking up from prior conversations. That the road around the eastern half was blocked by a landslide and that you couldn't get there from here. So we went back across the road and waited for a bus to go back the way we had come. Which it did sooner or later. And then, as rush hour headed away from Papeete, we re-entered it.

And walked around town some more. I had had low expectations of Tahiti, and it had fulfilled them admirably. Though not remotely exotic, it wasn't that bad a place at all. And once again the warmth and ease of the Polynesian inhabitants trumped the French nation that had enveloped them.

But once we were back on the ship, there really wasn't any desire for a night back out on the town. It was way too drab for that.

You might have inferred by now that I hadn't been too impressed so far with French Polynesia. But when we woke up Tuesday morning the ship was moored in one of the blue bays of northern Moorea. Blue sky above us. Incredible, totally verdant, needle shaped mountains arrayed in front of us. Finally something was living up to its Bali Hai-pe.

Tender to shore. Then a scooter rental. Not cheap at $75 a day, but then Moorea seemed a perfect place for one. Only about ten miles from Tahiti, but the furthest thing from industrialized. Yes, a tourist destination, but—especially for these parts—not necessarily high end. A 36 mile road around the place that you can putter around at 25 mph.

Thus followed a few hours of uninterrupted enjoyment. On top of the ever changing backdrop of exotically eroded volcanic outcroppings and foreground of variegated light to deep blue ocean, we had lucked out on the weather, since the rain of the past two days was now long gone. Not to mention that it was also May Day, and thus a French official carefree holiday.

In all too short a time we were back to Cook's Bay. There was one road on the island into the interior, and I took the unpaved portion from here. For about four miles we jounced along a deeply rutted near mud morass, with Maureen holding on for dear life. Then we got to the paved part and went up and up and up to the Belvedere, the official lookout point. There, with the people who had come up on the tour buses, we gazed out at the tropical splendor of mountain and jungle and serene bays before us. Sorry, American Samoa, but there is a good chance that Moorea actually is the most beautiful island in the world.

Then it was down the mountain, back around the bay headlands, gas up, and return to one of the few sandy beaches. There we finally had our tropical swim, along with Polynesian and French families who had come over on the ferry from Tahiti for the day. The Sea Princess sat in all its monstrosity about a mile or so out in the water.

For at least a brief moment, we had made it to Paradise.

You might think that the next five days of open ocean would drive a person nuts. Both Maureen and I were under the impression that it would be an open ended time of deep contemplation and personal fulfillment. But strangely it seemed over before it began.

And I won't bother you with detailed descriptions of Hawaii. You've probably already been there.

Though, if not, here's a brief rundown: Oahu is like a giant theme park, what with Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, totally populated roadways, and Polynesian Life centers. But as theme parks go it is a very enjoyable and well done one. And it would be hard to totally deface its fantastalistic landforms, from the steep corrugated green cliffs to the broad white sandy beaches.

Nonetheless, after our day's circumnavigation of the place, neither one of us thought that we ever had to see it again.

Maui, on the other hand, was another matter. I had last been there in 1989, and back then it had already become deeply imbued with the La Jolla chi chi vibe. I was now expecting the whole place to feel like Orange County, but thank Godfully it didn't. Sure, Lahaina had crept up the mountain, high rise condos now occupied the shore north of it, and the area around the airport looked totally modern suburban. But the rest of the island was just as beautiful as ever. In fact, if I had to live among stupid rich people, I would much rather do it here than most other stupid rich people places I've been.

We drove around the northwestern bulge of the island, on a road that had been unpaved 23 years ago, which was now paved, but still only about one lane wide. Beautiful. Then across the flattish middle (By the way, if you haven't been to Hawaii, then you need to be reminded that much/most of the place is relatively dry and grassy/sugar caney, and not tropical jungle.) Then up to the 10,000 foot top of the volcano National Park. Above the clouds and breathing crystal clear air.

Then a race down the mountain and over to Lahaina, so as to catch the last 3:30 tender back to the ship.

The open sea again. Four days that would sail by without even saying Hello. Today we both have really bad colds. And Maureen needs to sing tonight to become the Princess Pop Star.

Yes, cruises are abominations in many ways. The very idea of building ships larger than aircraft carriers just to carry people around on vacation. The fact that most of the people being carried will at best only vaguely appreciate the stops along the way. And the need for most of them to fritter their days away with cards, trivia contests, and the like.

On the other hand, you could contemplate the ocean for every waking minute and still not get to the, er, bottom of it. It just goes on and on and you are a silly little dot upon it. If we took the average height of land above the ocean and that beneath it, the entire Earth would be covered by it. If that were the situation life would have still started, but it would have stayed watery, just as it had been for the first 80% of its existence.

Well, dry land is on the near horizon. With all the reality that I have ducked for 47 days. Not to mention the stuff that's piled up on top of that. Although, considering the conditions that enclose most other people's lives, I'm hardly in a position to complain.

I don't think that I would care to go on another cruise. After all, once you've crossed the entire Pacific Ocean, what can top that? Maybe Spitzbergen and Greenland. Or the Antarctic. But who can afford a trip like that? Certainly not me. I've just spent all our money on this one.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fiji Samoa

I guess one shouldn't complain when one has the opportunity to cross an entire wide ocean for such a reasonable price. But most everyone I talked to claimed to have got their ticket for less than I paid, so I suppose that that's a start.

Then there's the food. As opposed to our last cruise, this time there is often virtually nothing vegetarian to eat. Even the peas and carrots will have ham thrown in. Or you'll be eating the 'Cauliflower Curry' soup and all of a sudden bite into a scallop. Sure, Peter the cook will whip something up for you, but one can only eat deep fried tofu and potatoes so many days in a row.

And the entertainment. Featured singers hitting big notes that are also flat. Absolutely no one performing with any personality. The only half decent movies being shown at inopportune times. Even the karaoke list is dreadful.

Ah, but we came here for the ocean. Which was still going on all around us. And no matter how much time I try to take just looking at it, it's never enough. Especially now that we had headed north and in two days had gone from 60 degrees to 85.

And Wednesday morning we arrived at Suva, the capital of Fiji, our first exotic port of call. From my research I already knew that the main island, at 4000 square miles the same size as the big island of Hawaii, was not the one that tourists went to for white sand beaches and laid back ambiance Those were some of the 330 other islands in the group. In fact, from my research I kind of expected Suva to be rundown and maybe even scary.

Wrong on both counts. A friendly band greeted us on our way down the gangplank. When we became lost due to the rental agency listing the wrong address on the internet, a friendly Fijian policewoman told us where the Budget office really was. Then a friendly Indian cab driver didn't overcharge us in driving us there. Then a friendly Indian woman processed our rental paper work and we were on our friendly way.

About half of the population of Fiji is East Indian, descendants of people brought there 120 years ago to work the sugar plantations. They're still the ones doing all the work and owning all the businesses. The other half, of Polynesian stock, own all of the land, but still don't like work jobs all that much. Thus there is great political tension. This, however, does not translate to any weirdness or animosity in everyday life.

The initial impression was that Suva and Fiji were neither particularly rich nor poor. Kind of like at the level of the Dominican Republic that we had just visited, only English speaking and a lot more rural. As we headed west along the main route on the southern coast, road quality was way poorer than NZ, but certainly drivable.

The palm trees, rugged hills in the near distance, alternating agricultural fields and wilder land, all was pleasing on the eyes. Traffic was relatively civilized and light. A beautiful day, which was another stroke of luck, since apparently the last two days had been dreadful. Indeed, a couple of weeks earlier severe floods had pretty much destroyed the infrastructure of the western part of the island.

But we weren't going that far. Just to where we had to turn around to be able to get back in time. After 45 minutes I stopped for a Coke Zero. The cute little store in the middle of nowhere had thick wire mesh between the customer and the clerk with the merchandise and the money. Maybe things weren't as peaceful as I had been imagining.

But it still felt that way as we continued on down the road, past the hills and fields and palms. After another half hour or so, though, we started to realize that this wasn't exactly, er, spectacular. Never to mind. The guidebooks had said to expect that, but they also said to just wait until you hit the Coral Coast, because that's where the scenic grandeur really takes over.

Except that at some point I looked on the map and realized that we were well over halfway along said Coral Coast. And all that was on our left was about ten feet of muddy beach. And on our right was the same sort of nondescript tropical foliage and background hills. No drama or particular beauty whatsoever. The Coral Coast was yet another figment of someone's imagination.

Although why wreck a beautiful day with regret? We stopped for about twenty minutes at the best beach/viewpoint we could find. Then it was time to go back the way we had come. We had enough minutes left over to cruise Nagua, the only (small) town on the way, which was poor and ramshackle but friendly. We particularly liked the 24 hour kava (a semi-addictive depressant) shops.

When we got back we still had time to be dropped off downtown to cruise the semi-modern shopping mall that had been built next to the cruise ship pier area. Some great samosas, a couple of scoops of NZ ice cream, then it was time to return to the ship.

Except that I still had ten Fiji dollars to spend. And all the trinket sellers had already packed up and gone for the day. After a few desperate minutes of running around, I finally had the brilliant idea of buying three bottles of Fiji water. Direct from the source!

We were the last people back on the ship.

Since we crossed the International Date Line the next morning I got to relive Wednesday. The third time I've done that. And I wish that I had done something memorable on that extra day of life. But I didn't.

I was fully expecting American Samoa to be the low point throwaway part of the trip. From what I'd read over the years, it was a culture destroyed by the glop of America, filled with drunk unemployed men living off of their welfare checks and beating up their wives and children. And old junked cars and refrigerators in the yards of their rundown shacks.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

First off, the harbor area of Pago Pago is indeed one of the most beautiful inlets imaginable. Lush, jungly, strangely shaped jagged peaks frame it, and they continue up and down the island's thin, fifteen mile long length. It would be exceedingly difficult for even the worst of governments to muck this up.

And it turns out that our social safety net, which is quite meager by First World standards, is pretty nifty if your alternative is Third World squalor. Sure, the Sunkist tuna plant pays less than minimum wage, but then things don't cost that much, either. Certainly in comparison to AUS & NZ.

Moreover, as I'd already observed in Fiji, the Polynesian culture of laid back friendliness seems to trump whatever country that has colonized them. On the whole, the Samoans were simple, warm and gracious. (Not to mention extremely patriotic Americans.) And while certainly no longer a South Sea paradise, in this day and age I thought that they were doing pretty well.

Transportation here consists of open air truck-buses, and the maximum fare anywhere is about $2. First we took one to the eastern end of the island. It was refreshingly unpopulated and peaceful, and I spent 20 minutes walking down the road thinking about how this might me one of the quietest, lushest places in America.

But I also knew that there were 66,000 Samoans for 66 square miles, and that at least 90% of those square miles were impenetrable jungle mountains. We found many of these people on our trip to the western half. Although nothing ever felt remotely claustrophobically crowded. And a McDonald's and a Carl's Jr. were the only fast food pollutants that I encountered. And even the most crowded that it got didn't interfere with the sheer tropical beauty of the place.

We made it back to Pago Pago with several hours to spare. Freshen up and eat on the ship. Then a return to land to wander around, waste time, and do a little shopping with the friendly lady merchants. Not that it is generally my style, but I even bought a Hawaiian, er, American Samoan shirt.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Cruisin' N Z

We went on a cruise to the southern Caribbean a couple of years ago, and it wasn't nearly as dreadful as I had feared it would be. The food was delicious and constant, the staff courteous but not obsequious. Most important, each of the stops was long enough and each of the islands was small enough so that I could plan and exercise a sufficient adventure on each.

That didn't mean that I necessarily wanted to go on another cruise. But the idea of crossing the entire Pacific Ocean certainly had its pull. Plus it would be a relatively cheap way to check out places like Fiji and Tahiti. Plus it would be an excuse to see at least a portion of Australia and New Zealand. I had been putting off both of them for forever since I wanted to have sufficient time to do them properly. But now both of them had gotten so expensive that, forget about not having enough time, at this point I didn't have enough money to do them properly.

Anyway, my slice of Australia had been taken care of, and we were now on the Sea Princess. Our first assignment, the Ruby Princess had been 951 feet long, well over twice the volume of the Titanic. This one was listed as 851 feet, which one would think would make it pretty much the same size. But it wasn't. The saunter to our stateroom showed that whole sections of useless bars and useful eating opportunities had been excised. The Sea would turn out to be only about 70% of the size of the Ruby. Plus a bunch less new and shiny.

But these seemed niggly points as we sat there in Sydney Harbour, right next to the CBD. Lots of small ferries and tiny private boats scooted past, some of them waving happily up to us in our behemoth. And as the sun sank on Australia, we hoisted anchor.

The first mile of the voyage was the most dramatic. For we turned the corner in the quickening darkness and found ourselves on a collision course with the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It now became obvious why Princess didn't send bigger ships here. Because we made it under with less than six feet to spare. Being on the top of the giant ship as it went full steam under the giant bridge like that was one of the cooler experiences of my life.

First sailing past the lit up Opera House, it took more than an hour for us to make our way out of the length of Sydney Harbour Then we were through the narrow entrance, all the twinkling lights diminished to nothing, and we were surrounded by the dark, dark sea.

There are places to go on land where one can imagine that this is what the Earth looked like before Man arrived to move things around. The salient point of the ocean is that, once you are out in the middle of it, this is exactly what it looked like a billion years ago. When crossing the ocean it is important to try to remember this as often as possible.

Unfortunately most of the people who have the money and inclination to go on a cruise aren't the poetic sorts who appreciate these things. Indeed I had found most of my fellow passengers on the first cruise to be of the unsympatico persuasion. Foolish optimist that I always am, I had imagined that the type of person who would want to cross the Pacific Ocean might be slightly more interesting. And it would turn out that about 40% of the people hailed from western North America, primarily British Columbia and northern California. So at least some of them would prove to be of the level of a fellow hiker who might smile and say hello as you passed each other.

But let's face it. The Most Interesting Man In The World probably wouldn't be booking a Princess Cruise.

Of course, my purpose in cruising was to commune with The Great Ocean. And to get lots of that all important writing done. Which is why it was kind of disorienting after a couple of days of open ocean to find that I wasn't accomplishing any of that. Yes, I had a few times contemplated how the Tasman Sea trailed only Greenland and the Antarctic as an exotic watery locale. But any writing done? Or anything else remotely useful done? How can a day be effortlessly consumed by nothing more than watching a stupid movie, walking my hour around the promenade deck (three laps equals one mile), and transferring my body from one dining hall to another?

The Tasman Sea can get rough—after all, we were going to get to 50 degrees South latitude—but we experienced no more than moderate swells. More important, the sky Tuesday evening was clear ahead.

Yes it was, for when the ship pulled into Milford Sound at dawn there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Norway, BC/Alaska, Chile, and New Zealand are the only semi-civilized places in the world with fjords, and all of them are famously foggy, rainy, stormy, and otherwise gray. To arrive on a crisp clear Autumn day was something special.

The weather would hold all day, and for all day we would steam in and out of the various inlets and passageways on New Zealand's southwest coast. It is always awkward to be in such awesome situations. On the one hand, you feel foolish if you are not taking pictures. But once you start doing that you feel foolish that you are not just standing there taking it in. And how is a picture supposed to capture the 360 degree nature of it all anyway?

So I basically spent the entire day gawking at the rugged rock and grass and tree strewn cliffs, the ocean between, the blue sky, etc. At the end of the run I was hoping that the ship would turn back to Milford Sound and we could go on the ride one more time. But instead we continued on, rolling throug the night on those moderate swells around the southern tip of the South Island.

Thursday morning we were pulled up at the dock at Port Chalmers, about 8 miles from the small southern NZ city of Dunedin. Our first port of call. We trooped down the gangway and got on the shuttle bus for Dunedin. Friendly people these Kiwis, because after letting all the other people off downtown, the bus driver drove Maureen and me another mile or two to where our rental car was waiting.

My adventure for today was to drive as far southwest as I could before I had to turn around and come back. It turned out that Dunedin itself, even though tour books proclaimed it to be the best preserved Victorian city in the world, was just a pleasant small city of 100,000. Without much traffic, either. So this would prove to be one of the least traumatic entries to a foreign country ever.

After it had been assigned a more realistic billing, Australia had lived up to it splendidly. But how would New Zealand do? After all, people pretty much unanimously raved about the place. That's usually the sign of somewhere really sucking.

But it was immediately clear that the country was all that it was supposed to be. That is to say, a combination of England and Oregon: quaint, winding sheep strewn hills but with a bigger, wilder feel to it. I could easily imagine spending weeks meandering around it from one end to the other. And taking plenty of time out to tramp along the innumerable hiking/walking trails.

Just not today. Today it was about a hundred miles, past Nugget Point lighthouse, and to Papatowei. Some places like Point Reyes, some like Sussex, some like Eugene. All distinctly foreign but somehow familiar.

On the way back we had a little time to start out the Otago peninsula, a sort of cross between Scotland and Sonoma County that is right across the harbour from Dunedin. Then it was back to Ace Car Rental with minutes to spare, and a ride back to the ship.

Next day this cruise usually stops in Christchurch, New Zealand's second largest city. But last year they had four major earthquakes, the last two of which took out most of their downtown. And their port facilities. So the Sea Princess stopped about fifty miles away in the middle of a bay which is the middle of the caldera of an ancient volcano. And there are no car rental companies in the little town of Akaroa that we were tendered to. So I had to pay for overpriced bus tickets so that we could go see the ruins of Christchurch.

At least our bus driver was the sort of natural born ham who liked to endlessly regale us with colorful stories of Kiwi history. He needn't have, since the scenery for the first 25 miles was some of the best sea and hill and grass and tree stuff in the world. Then it got normal, but, hey, we were almost at New Zealand's Most English & Cultured City.

Uh, not really. In fact, the the totally uninspired 'modern' architecture of the CBD reminded me of Bridgeport, CT, after a fitful try at redevelopment. Nor was the earthquake damage all that memorable. Just some roped off buildings and bulldozers methodically rebuilding the $10-20 billion in damages. Not even a glimmer of the world class despair we had just witnessed in Haiti.

And, since almost all of the central shopping district was roped off/destroyed, as well as the cathedral and the museum, there really wasn't all that much to do in Christchurch. So we wandered over to the botanical gardens to kill a couple of hours until the bus went back.

Ah, but what a couple of hours! Because it turned out that their city park is hands down the best city park I have ever seen. Truly giant trees of all sorts, including fully grown redwoods and sequoias. Flowers. Mown grassy expanses. A tiny little river with boats punting down it. All with colors turning on a beautiful Autumn day. I could only admire how the city fathers had so presciently planned all this harmonious civility back around 1880, when southern New Zealand made the American West look tame and overcrowded in comparison.

Back on the bus and back to Akaroa, with the bus driver now telling us stirring tales of his youth spent as a helicopter deer poacher. Probably used to be an accountant. Then back to the boat and another day out at sea going up to the northernmost reaches of the North Island. The most memorable point of which was when three dolphins all leaped out of the sea in unison not fifty feet from the ship.

Early Sunday morning we were tied up to the dock in downtown Auckland. With a million people, it is easily NZ's largest city, but, despite the blurbs and the years of anticipation, it too turned out to be entirely unprepossessing. Sydney was starting to look much more dramatic in restrospect.

We walked the empty early morning streets for about 20 minutes to find the car rental place, and soon we were on a freeway, then off it on a byway. Once more it was Oregon England, this time with a touch of subtropical South Carolina thrown in. More dramatically cute birds. More sheep. We made it to the semi-coast, the Firth of Thames, and drove along its tame, bucolic edge. Around the corner to the town of Thames, lauded as one of those 'artistic' centers. But once again the only artistry was in the mind of whoever imagined it to have other than hardware stores and McDonaldses.

We were now, however, on the Coromandel Peninsula, a land of dramatic hills and rocky seascapes. The government of NZ (as had the govt of AUS) had provided us with umpteen helpful maps and other tourist info, so I knew to drive east over the hill, and past umpteen walking trails, to the real coast.

We stopped at the small town of Tairua, with as English Oregon a feel as you could get. We bought a couple of sandwiches at a small bakery and then had a little picnic by the Pacific. A romantic walk on the beach, and then it was time to head back.

Whilst driving back I could contemplate how nice it would be to have unlimited travel time here. Even to live here. If (once again) I could only afford it. Relatively cheap just ten years ago, the cost of NZ has soared up to near Aussie heights. As I've noted before, those who insist that the US is still a great power should try traveling to the rest of the world some time.

Ah well. At least we were fortunate enough to be able to squeeze in at least a tiny nibble of the place.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Ten More Days In Australia

Australians, like Canadians, are pretty darn similar to Americans. But, unlike Canadians, Australians don't have any chip on their shoulders about the United States. Sure, their American cousins may be more and bigger than they, but Aussies feel every bit the friendly, egalitarian equal of us. And they have no compunction against admiring our muscle cars and our hyper-sized cities.

(Interestingly, Australia is the America of this part of the world. Poorer countries like Indonesia resent them. Their Canada is New Zealand, and Kiwis consider themselves more refined and culturally superior to the brash, loudmouthed Aussies.)

But whether or not the 'no rules' ever really existed, it doesn't seem to exist now. What with the draconian seat belt laws and the ever present speed cameras, not to mention the $6 a gallon gas, I felt about as constrained as could be. Especially with the great distances we had to cover.

We started the day by going 40 miles further west to the town of Port Fairy, which the tourist literature had painted as some sort of cross between Nantucket and Nova Scotia. But once again the ordinariness of the Australian landscape presented itself. A nice enough park by a nice enough ocean with small, nice enough waves. A nice enough small town, but without any historical or particularly amazing buildings, and virtually no hint of the Maritime. Why all the fuss? Why any fuss?

It was the same as we headed north towards the Grampians, the state of Victoria's number one tourist draw. We traveled through nice enough flat agricultural land under a nice enough blue sky when all of a sudden we were confronted with two mountainous chunks of strangely upthrusted sedimentary rock. But it turned out that this one view would be about it. The entire Grampian area was less than thirty miles long and ten miles wide. One road traversed the heights, and it certainly had nice enough viewpoints. And I'm sure it would have been nice enough to take walks in the area if you avoided the afternoon thundershower. And the thousands of people here for the Easter weekend. Bu the Black Hills of South Dakota, for instance, are also a mountainous upthrust in the middle of prairies, and they are way huger and more extensive.

(By the way, Australians themselves are refreshingly candid people. And those who have traveled the world—which is pretty much all of them—cheerfully admit that their continent is relatively tame. If only travel writers could be similarly honest.)

We now headed east through the interior towards the region of 19th Century gold mining towns. Gold was discovered here about ten years after California, and it had the same explosive effect on population and development. And when one sees the surviving examples of the incredibly baroque Victorian architecture, with the filigreed verandahs and the copulas and ornate siding and such, one can imagine a time when this place really was an otherworldly OZ at the end of the world.

But, unfortunately, there are only a few examples of same in each of the towns and cities of central Victoria. And mostly what you see are the Subways and the Woolworths of everyday life.

When we reached the town of Castelmaine at the end of the day, we found that all of those were boarded up tight on account of it being Good Friday. But we were fortunate in finding a hotel housed in one of those proud, funky, slightly freakish buildings. And there was one tiny hole in the wall Thai restaurant that was still open. So we slept well.

Melbourne, with a population of 4,000,000, is Victoria's largest city. Bendigo, with 75,000, is its second largest. We arrived there Saturday morning eagerly awaiting all the old timey Gold Rush era sights and monuments promised in the book. But there weren't any. Just a couple of those buildings scattered about.

So we continued north to Echuca, famed river port of the mighty Murray River, Australia's longest and most important. Which was brown and muddy and about a hundred feet wide. It did have a bunch of old, small paddle wheel steamers still tied up at the docks and plying up and down for the tourists. Of which there were many this holiday weekend. The nearby craft fair had less than ten booths.

I realize that I might well sound like I'm dissing the poor continent. I'm not. In fact, we were having a thoroughly enjoyable time, especially when I was able to put the money that we were spending out of my mind. It's just that this place had always been presented as AUSTRALIA, Land of XTREEM!!! And it's more like a continent sized version of Iowa By The Sea, with the same unpretentious friendly people, the same lowkey vibe, and the same sort of easy on the eyes but not really spectacular scenery.

I decided to give it one more chance though, and that afternoon we decided to try our luck with the Australian Alps. Their Great Dividing Range. And with towns with names like Bright and Mt. Beauty, how could we go wrong. We headed on up.

Although only the beginning of April (their October) the leaves were already turning, and it was quite loverly as we reached Bright. Best of all, we finally felt as though we were in actual mountains. Not the Alps, of course. Nor even the Black Hills. But kind of like a nice part of the Appalachians. The sort of landscapes and views that were actually inspirational. Too bad it was now late in the afternoon. Although there was still plenty of light to go over the hills to Mt. Beauty and then to wander back downhill towards the flats.

And then, given the course of things, it was dark and we had crossed back north into New South Wales. Although still we had to drive, because it was many kms to Wagga Wagga. And, given the opportunity, who wouldn't want to spend the night in a place named that?

Sunday morning we found ourselves thoroughly encircled by the Inback, a name coined by me to describe the vast interior which comes before the vast exterior. It's green (after the rains), mostly flattish but sometimes hillish. And we had a lot of it to traverse before we got up to Queensland.

Through the towns (10,000 each) of Coolamundra, Young & Cowra. Then an early afternoon stop at Canowindra, another of those 'artist' towns which were constantly being promised but never delivered. So I wasn't expecting much. True, it was suitably small and almost funky. But once we parked and walked to the main street we noticed something definitely distinctive. There were antique cars neatly lined up. Literally hundreds of them. Starting with strange Hillmans and Rovers from the early Sixties, then going way, way down the block to Stutz Bearcats and REO Speedwagons from the Twenties. Each one meticulously cared for and newly painted, so that you could examine every feature and knob of each strangely named and shaped vehicle.

Turns out that each Easter Sunday they drive here from all over Australia and strut their stuff. It was easily the most impressive car display that I have ever seen.

It would be hard to top that, but as we continued north I was hoping to surprise Maureen with our first kangaroo sighting. I had read about a state arboretum area that was supposed to contain them, it was now late afternoon, and the buggers only come out at twilight. So far we had only seen small dead ones littering the sides of the roads.

Soon we were in a forested area of the park as the sun was setting. Nothing. Then we realized that we had made a wrong turn, found the right road, and were now in a partly forested area of mostly wild fields. And there they were, about 400 yards away, hunched over and nibbling away like deer. Then they hopped closer, until only about 200 yards separated us. And we could look at their cuteness through our binoculars

But that's as close as we could get. Because they are extremely shy and skittish. And once they start hopping they are blindingly fast. No wonder there were no large indigenous carnivores here. Nothing can keep up with them.

That night we stayed at a caravan site 'cabin'. Not much cheaper than a motel room, but on the other hand it had all of the facilities of a motel room. And there weren't much else available.

The next day, Monday, was still Easter weekend. We went east to Gulgong, further east to Merriwa, then on a back road up to Willow Tree. Then further north to Tamworth, the country music capital of Australia. There were country music videos playing at the Hungry Jack's.

This area has been dubbed New England, since it supposedly contains quaint old towns and English countryside. But the countryside looked like only a slightly greener version of what we'd already been seeing, and its supposedly quintessential town Armidale, while containing a couple of nice churches, looked pretty much like every other town in the country. Pleasant but workaday.

Australia's roads are technically numbered, but in practice they are all called something, like the Newall Highway or the Western Highway. As the day was winding down we were now commencing the Waterfall Way. I'll have to say that the waterfalls in Australia are perfectly fine and dandy, although I don't know why tourists everywhere are supposed to drop everything they're doing just to see whatever waterfall is on their route.

It was dark and we were in the middle of nowhere when we found the Ebor Falls Motel. The motel owner was our first genuinely semi-grumpy Australian. But even he warmed up to me when he found out that I was an American. He wanted me to clear up for him that rumor that he had been hearing that Obama was a Muslim.

Next morning we checked out Ebor Falls, then headed down the hills to Dorrigo and its world famous Skywalk to the rainforest. Okay, it was a nice enough 100 foot walk out a cantilevered catwalk so that you were above a bunch of tall, overgrown trees. And you didn't have to do with the sheer terror of a poorly engineered tree canopy walk. But nobody pays any attention to all the forests that they care constantly passing. And a rainforest is just a forest where it rains a lot. So what's the big deal?

By now we were in northern NSW, though, and had entered Australia's lush zone. By the time we had reached the town of Casino we were in the land of sugar cane fields and big, broad lazy rivers. But we turned inland one last time and headed up into the hills on a small and winding road.

Nimbin is Australia's real, official hippie town. It consists of a block and a half of funky head shops and tie dye stores, with a few spaced out hippies and Aborigines and hippie Aborigines walking up and down the street offering all kinds of drugs. Genuinely friendly and laid back, however.

We stayed at Granny's Farm, went back into town for an organic wood fired pizza, then sat on our front porch seeing the local wallaby hopping around in the dark and looking up in the sky for the Southern Cross. We made friends with the people in the room next door and Maureen smoked some third rate Aussie dope. Woohoo.

Wednesday morning we were down the mountains and to the coast at Tweed Heads, the northernmost town in NSW. And back to the land of the freeway. Welcome to Queensland.

We were now at the start of the fabled Gold Coast, Australia's 30 mile long answer to South Florida. They even had towns named Palm Beach and Miami. And towards the northern end there was about five miles of genuine, packed together, tasteless high rise condominiums. It would have been the perfect time to take an Aussie dip in the ocean, except that a storm front had come through, the seas were frothy and choppy, and the wind was about as cold as it probably ever got here.

So back to the freeway for Brisbane. But we got off right before the city to check out a koala reserve. As usual, we couldn't see any hanging out in actual trees, but when we found their little visitor center there were 3 or 4 sitting on little fake trees there. Damnedest cutest things you ever saw, even when they're sleeping. Which they do about 18-20 hours every day.

Sydney and Melbourne may not be world class cities, but they each definitely do possess some zazz. Brisbane, on the other hand, turned out to be totally zazzless. The central park/cultural center area was tiny and absolutely impossible to park or stop near. The CBD and the entire city setting was less interesting than Jacksonville, and J'ville is a hell of a lot easier to find one's way out of. It took well over an hour and 20 miles of streets and roads before we were able to get to the freeway again.

About 50 miles north of Brissie was an interesting geological formation of strangely eroded volcanoes called the Glass Mountains. (Don't ask me how one has volcanoes on lazy dead continents.) Then about 20 miles north of there Australia's famed Something Else Coast began. Its southernmost town was Caloundra, where we stopped for the night. The ocean surf was even windier and unfriendlier than it had been earlier.

One of the reasons we had come so far north is because Maureen really wanted to see the Steve Irwin Zoo. For which I had been mocking her endlessly. And I certainly said 'Crikey!' when I saw the $60 pp entrance fee. But once inside I had to admit that we got our money's worth. What with all the Tasmanian Devils, the herds of tame-ish kangaroos that you could hang out with, the beaucoup de koalas that you could actually pet, and the friendly zoo attendants, it was actually quite enjoyable. The high point came at noon, when we happened upon the Crocoseum just as the Show was starting. The Show consisting of Steve's wife and kids carrying on his tradition of harassing crocodiles and then getting away from them just in time.

All of this took up most of Thursday, and now we were back on the freeway heading back south to where we had come from. But this meant crossing the Brisbane bypass bridge, which charges a toll. Which you can only pay electronically. Which if you are a tourist you can't do. But they do take a picture of your license plate, after which they send a giant bill to your car rental company.

Well, we'll deal with that tomorrow. For right now we kept driving until we were back in NSW, past Tweed Heads, and finally reached Byron Bay, Australia's much hyped New Age lotus eating laid back post yuppie Sedona By The Sea.

Except that it also seems to be the prime beach location for Australia's idiot drunken college age backpacker types. And after so many days of winding through the tranquil Inback, the noise and chaos almost freaked us out. That and the fact that there didn't seem to be any vacant rooms chased us out of town and down the coastal road.

But about five miles on we happened upon a quiet area with a quiet motel and a New Age pizza place that was still open. So, well rested the next morning, and after 40 minutes spent trying to pay our $4 bridge fare on line, we went back into Byron Bay again. The town wasn't nearly so scary in the daytime, and outside of it there was a famous lighthouse up on top of a point that was Australia's easternmost, so we got to look down at Australia's coast marching both north and south away from us.

Nothing much else to do except continue south, meandering off the main road every now and then to take in one of the coastal towns. As with the rest of the country, you couldn't call them remarkable. On the other hand, they were way better than unremarkable. So I guess you could call this the Markable Country.

Coff's Harbour, home of a giant concrete banana that wasn't all that big, for the evening. Nice little seaside/wharf development. Little strip of expensive ethnic restaurants next to it. Cheap (for AUS) motel on the outskirts. Rain overnight from the unsettled weather system that had been hanging around for the last four days.

Brekkies Saturday morning at another of the 'artsy' town, Bellingen. Really, I'm guessing that Akron has an area that has more artsy galleries and hole in the wall restaurants than any of these Aussie towns. But, again, it was nice enough. I got to gaze one last time at real estate offices with pictures of old, mediocre houses selling for $650,000.

Once again I feel the need one last time to point out that (assuming that I could afford it) I could very easily live in this country. In most ways it is run much better than is the U S of A. The people are really friendly and positive, if a bit garrulous. There are no slums or really ugly industrial developments (that I saw, at least). Lots of really enjoyable open space. And, for all our 5900 km of traveling, we had only seen a small part of it.

A stop in Port Macquarie, where, next to their pleasant seaside park, we found a Target in a shopping mall. Where we found a nice pair of flip flops to replace the ones that we had lost and proceeded to lose Maureen's favorite vest in the process. Somosas next to the McDonald's.

I thought that it would be romantic for us to spend our last Australian night in a small town by the seaside. So we went off the freeway and traveled 30 miles to Forster. All motels were full on a Saturday night. We tried a campground/caravan site just as it was closing up at 6 pm. Full up. We were told that there was one other campground which would have probably already closed. We drove past it and went in. A semi-funky cabin was still available for $125. Somehow fitting for our last Australian night. For the last time we sat in our room and watched an episode of one of those American shows like NCICSIS that we never see at home.

Sunday morning was an easy vehicular stroll down the coast to Sydney, stopping for our last early lunch at Hungry Jack's. Then wending our way through the North Sydney suburbs towards the Harbour Bridge, the only way to the CBD, the car rental office, and the pier where our cruise ship was docked. Plenty of time. No problema.

The first emergency sign said to avoid the CBD until 1:30 pm because of the Sydney Triathalon. Okay, merely a suggestion. The second sign said that the Harbour Bridge was closed due to the Sydney Triathalon. WHAT??? After a few moments of panic we passed another sign that said that the bridge closure was until 11:30 am. Oh, it was 11:43. No problema.

We made it safely over the bridge, drove to where the cruise ship was to make sure it was there, gave the nice men our baggage, then found our way back to the rental office. Since that was only about a mile and a half from the ship, we decided to take a nice, leisurely last-day-in-Australia stroll through downtown Sydney. Everyone was Sunday buzzingdoingnothing. We walked our way through the people and down the hill to where the giant ship sat. Passed through some gates and signed ourselves in.

Off the coast of Newfoundland right now it was 3 AM on April 15. Almost to the minute the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.