April 19, 2004

the antipodean times, vol. 2, no. 2



Only 48 hours away from 60 hours of travel (but less than 2 calendar days; aren't time zones wonderful?) with the routing: Sydney-Auckland-LA-Miami-Lima. I do it for the love, yes, but mostly for the frequent-flier miles.

The Blue Mountains

Easter weekend was spent camping in the Blue Mountains, an hour west of Sydney (ok, 4 hours with Easter traffic), with two old friends of mine, who in order to protect their identities I shall call Chris & Chris, rather than Chong & Andrea. It was an uneventful weekend spent sleeping in tents and walking through peaceful verdant eucalyptus forest. Except for the eventful bits.

The driving pointer rotated to me on Saturday, and I was eager to drive, as I'd never driven a left-hand-side stick-shift before - in fact, had only driven a stick maybe 10 times total before. My travel companions were considerably less eager. I thought I might get some pointers from them, some benefit from their vast experience, but sadly they unhelpfully spent the whole time thinlipped and whiteknuckled, their only articulations an occasional gasp or devout expression of gratitude for their continued survival, which is very enlightened and all but not particularly useful. I hadn't noticed the previous day, or, come to think of it, either of the following days, but the car behaved shockingly, stalling and lurching all over the place. I intend to write a sharply worded letter of complaint to the Mitsubishi Corporation.

Saturday night, we went rattling down a gravel road into a national park, failed to pay for the park despite repeated attempts, went for a very pleasant waterfall hike and plateau hike, and found ourselves with an hour of daylight left. A quick discussion regarding whether two bottles of wine was sufficient for three people for one night quickly came to a unanimous No, and we hopped back in the car and rattled back up the gravel road towards what passes for civilization in remote Australia, and somewhere along the line, between lurches, punctured a tyre. ("got a flat tire", North American readers.) Eventually we even noticed, changed the tyre, and, muttering about what had become an errand to buy the most expensive six-pack ever, began to seek a new tyre somewhere in the Australian wilderness late on Easter Saturday, as we didn't want to risk a repeat performance without another viable spare tyre. (You know, I'm getting a real kick out of writing "tyre" instead of "tire". I feel like Chaucer.)

You might think that this would be challenging. You reckon without the almost pathological friendliness of rural Australians. "Well, mate, it's my mother's funeral right now...but, hell, sod the old bag, just wait up a tic while I go tap a rubber tree and make you a new tire by hand myself! No, wouldn't hear of taking any money." Phone calls flashed across the country on our behalf, already overworked employees dropped what they were doing to help us, and in the end Nick the Tyre Man whipped us up a brand-new tyre in eight minutes flat. (He did, however, charge us. By this point it was almost a surprise.)

Booze stocks repleted to sufficient levels, we rattled back to our campsite and promptly depleted them again. The next day, Sunday, we went on a lengthy five-hour hike down a trail, or rather, an alleged trail. On the map it was a bold dashed line; on the ground, however, it was more a hint or suggestion of a trail, trailesque, a trail that Aragorn himself would have had some trouble following without wandering the wrong way now and again. We lost and regained it a dozen times, doubling back, eyes peeled, knowing each time that if we failed we faced a whole night of being lost in the Blue Mountains, in the dark, surrounded by the usual assortment of lethal Australian creepy-crawlies, with no shelter, minimal food and water, and, most horrifying of all, no alcohol whatsoever. I think it was that last which sharpened our senses to the point that we made it back in one piece. We then rattled yet again to Oberon for beer and wine, rattled back, and proceeded to try very hard to burn down the entire national park. I am only half sorry to report that we failed. Eucalyptus bark is amazing stuff, burns like gunpowder. Fire! Fire good!...I digress.

On Monday, our return to Sydney was unremarkable except for being trafficky, but fortunately we were diverted by Triple M Radio's Easter countdown of The 100 Greatest Rock Songs Jesus Would Have Loved If He Were Alive Today. I couldn't make this stuff up. Sadly, I missed the top 10. Then a night at Collaroy beach, at another friend's place, who in order to reveal her identity I shall call Amanda. I very nearly maimed her friend Dave via overenthusiastic door slamming but somehow escaped prosecution.

Darwin

The next day I flew off to sweltering Darwin, at the northern tip of Oz, a weird amalgam of small town and big city, populated by only 70 kilopeople but the nearest larger city is at least 24 hours' drive away, making Darwin the hub of a vast area and hence the home of lots of stuff you wouldn't normally find in a town of that size. It's also a weird mix of 1970s architecture and tropical overgrowth. The latter is due to its latitude; the former, thanks to the cyclone that smashed the town flat 40 years ago, razing nearly every building and resulting in the evacuation of 85% of its population before the place was rebuilt from scratch.

I intended to get a day of diving in, but unbeknownst to me, for complicated tidal and climatological reasons dive days are few and far between in Darwin's autumn, and all the dive trips were sold out. Instead I did, er, nothing; sat around, worked on my web site, read a couple of books. I know what you're thinking: ", you travelled all the way to remote Australia to do nothing? You can do nothing at home!" To which I reply: a) I don't have a home b) it's, um, a different kind of nothing. Seriously, long days off every couple of weeks are called for when you travel. Well, when I travel, anyhow.

Kakadu

Thence to a very cool 3-day/2-night camping tour of Kakadu National Park, a vast and magical place. Endless savannah and tropical forest, pockets of outright jungle, beasts (dingos, wallabies, wild donkeys, etc.) and birds and spiders and snakes, 20,000-year-old aboriginal rock art, and just extraordinary views, huge ridges and escarpments of tumbling knobbled limestone surrounding enormous green flood plains surrounding luminously blue pools and rivers, flocks of birds calling and circling as far as the eye can see.

The park's Mary and Alligator River systems have the highest density of crocodiles anywhere on the planet. Signs everywhere warned us: "estuarine crocodiles are known to move into this area undetected. Freshwater crocodiles inhabit this area. Enter the water at your own risk." So naturally we spent a plurality of the time swimming.

To interrupt myself: Estuarine or saltwater crocodiles are the dangerous ones, growing to 8m/26ft in length, munching on anything that moves (including, every couple of years, a tourist or two), undoubtedly the most dangerous land-based predator on earth, so perfectly evolved for slaughter that they haven't changed in about 60 million years. Australians, of course, call them "salties" in their comically laconic way. Similarly, chironex fleckeri, the box jellyfish, with a sting so painful that its victims usually lose control of their limbs and promptly drown, and even if they survive their are reports of them still screaming after they have been KOed with morphine, is a "stinger". A plant in the Daintree with tendrils so fine and barbed they lodge in human skin on touch and cannot be removed until they naturally fall out in 3-6 months, during which they release a constant stream of an neurotoxin so agonizing it has been known to drive victims insane, is the "stinger plant". Pseudonaja textilis, the most dangerous snake in Australia, with venom 12 times more deadly than a cobra's, of which "once symptoms emerge they proceed with terrifying rapidity with death being sudden and unexpected", happens to be brown, and so is called the "brown snake". It takes a lot to get an Aussie to wax poetic.

Anyhow, we saw a few freshwater crocs on a boat cruise, but no salties, and it didn't take long before I was blase enough about the possibility to start jumping into plunge pools ahead of the guide. "plunge pools" are the pools at the base of a waterfalls, of which there are many in Kakadu; they could practically rename it Waterfall Playground National Park. Overall the tour was sort of a really cool wilderness safari through a very fun water park, with a minor added frisson of crocodile danger. Highly recommended.

A fun group, too, two Aussies and the usual motley lot of Europeans. Amusing misperception: one of them was a man so stylishly dressed, carefully groomed, and extremely buff, that on first encounter I jumped to the stereotypical assumption he was gay. It turned out he was a (straight) Italian kickboxer...

I'm now back in Sydney, and I must go buy shoes, because my Sauconys are near disintegration and I fear they will never make it to the Inca Trail. More later, from South America. Don't touch that dial.

April 08, 2004

the antipodean times, vol. 2, no. 1

Aotearoa

I spent all of 72 hours in New Zealand, which is long enough to realize that the whole country is clearly some kind of elaborate scam. The people are too friendly, the landscapes too beautiful, the atmosphere too agreeable. Actually I think they're overdoing it. I mean, who hears bus passenger after passenger call out "Goodbye, thank you," to the driver when exiting - during rush hour, no less - without getting a little suspicious? I don't know whether they're trying to lure settlers in order to sacrifice them in some kind of Shirley-Jackson-esque unholy blood rite, or if the body snatchers have taken over, but there's clearly some kind of catch.

A three-day stopover in NZ is a bit like taking a single sip from a single bottle from one of the world's great wine cellars. All I really had time for was a quick rentacar drive to the to the Coromandel Peninsula, where I took an increasingly narrow and windy road north, ocean to my left, Mirkwood to my right. The road shrank from two wide lanes, to two narrow lanes, and repeatedly to single-lane bridges and, during one especally exciting bit, to a single lane shared by both directions around several blind turns. Thence up into the hills, where occasional SCENIC VIEW signs were completely unnecessary. New Zealand is so insanely picturesque that my return to the standard-issue urban blight of downtown Auckland was actually something of a relief, like a pimple on Gisele Bundchen.

It's an interesting mix of two worlds. Large portions of what I saw were verdant rolling hills, farms and grazing fields and trees and sheep and cattle that wouldn't have looked out of place in northern England, but every so often - particularly in steep, difficult-to-cultivate places - I encountered pockets of the country's original vegetation, straight-out-of-Gondwanaland giant ferns and palm trees in which a munching brontosaurus would not look out of place. My hike down to majestic Cathedral Cove repeatedly took me in and out of each ecosystem. It felt a bit like I was flickering between parallel dimensions.

Sydney

My 48 hours in Sydney were spent engaged in extremely alcoholized reunions with old friends; for reasons of brevity, (and as per the advice of my lawyers) I won't bore you with the details. I escaped while I could still walk. And I do mean escaped. Monday morning, I entered into my hosts' bathroom, only to find upon attempting to exit that, while the doorknob rotated just fine, said rotation no longer had any effect on the latch. And my hosts, hereafter referred to as "my attempted kidnappers," had long since gone to work. Fortunately I foiled their cunning plan by dint of their failure to realize that the bathroom windows were big enough for me to squeeze through. Just. There was one bad teetering moment where I feared I was going to fall and destroy their barbeque, their garden plants, and my entire spinal column, but I managed to land catlike (that is to say, on all four limbs) and limp my way to the airport.

Melbourne

...reminds me a lot of Vancouver. I don't want to praise it too much for fear of offending my Sydneysider friends (there is an intense Melburnian-Sydneysider rivalry) but I liked it a great deal, very laid-back and neighbourhoody. Spent a night and a whole day just about walking my feet off wandering around, and yesterday took a one-day Great Ocean Road tour.

The tour itself was terrific, down one of the world's most gorgeous highways (though personally I still give the overall crown to the stark remoteness of California's Highway 1 near Big Sur) with stopovers to watch koalas, hike down to incredibly dramatic gorges and beaches near the Twelve Apostles, travel a circuit path through temperate rainforest, wade on the beach and play with local canines, and so forth.

It also exemplified what I like about travelling in Oz: not only is it cheap, and easy, but it's amazingly social if you want it to be. There's such a critical mass of backpackers that on any given day you have a choice of a half-dozen one-day trips (and dozens of longer ones) you can take, all of which stuff twenty or so people in ones and twos in the back of a van and drive you around to the sights and hikes and events for not much money, and by the end of the day, inevitably, you've got a few - or many - new friends to go for a few beers with when you finally return home. I'm getting a little old for the backpacker scene, but not, I am pleased to report, quite over that hill yet. (In large part because the scene itself is advancing in age. There's going to be an interesting "post-backpacker" travel demographic in about five or ten years, for people who don't want lager-soaked party places, but are equally repelled by the Holiday Inn.)

Anyway. Tomorrow I'm off camping in the Blue Mountains for a few days with a couple of old friends; Monday night I stay with another friend on Collary beach; and Tuesday I fly off to the Top End for some diving and a three-day camping trek through Kakadu. If you haven't heard from me in two weeks' time, it probably means the crocodile won.