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.