"" Writer's Wanderings: March 2010

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Australia - Kangaroo Island

We began the last week of our Australian adventure with a visit to Kangaroo Island. It was a twenty minute flight between Adelaide and Kingscote on the island. Ferries also run between the mainland and Penneshaw and take 40 minutes but it was more convenient and I believe just as costly to take the plane since we were not driving. We were greeted at the Kingscote airport by our hostess, Dale, who stood there with a placard that read “Robbins,” already making us feel special. The drive between the airport and the Sea Dragon Lodge at Pink Bay was about 45 minutes ending with a detour through a field to see the kangaroos that were our welcoming committee.

Dale was excited to see an echidna and stopped the SUV so we could get out and get a better look. I thought it was a porcupine at first since it has spiky coat but it is actually an egg-laying mammal that uses its tough long nose and long sticky tongue to forage for ants.

After a quick look at our wonderful accommodations which included a bedroom, a sitting room and private bath, and an appreciative look at the beautiful sunset, we met with another couple staying at the lodge and had a wonderful dinner of roast lamb, salad, and vegetables. Quentin, Dale’s husband, was our cook for the evening and to my delight, we discovered he is also a writer (Australia’s Wild Islands).

We slept well in a nice comfortable bed that didn’t bounce like a pickup truck all night (see our Ghan Train experience) and awoke to a sky colored in pinks as the sun rose. Dale and Quentin had only been managers of Sea Dragon Lodge since December and Dale was still working on getting her tour guide license for the island so they arranged with a friend, Malcolm who is licensed and runs a B&B on the island (The Lookout), to be our tour guide for our two days on the island.

Kangaroo Island is an absolute delight for any visitor. It was much larger than we imagined it—155 km long. Our first stop was at Baudin Conservation Park where we strolled among the trees called Drooping Sheoak and encountered all sorts of wallabies as well as the Glossy Black Cockatoo. Four of them were in a tree feasting on the nuts of the Sheoak there. The wallabies were curious enough to stop and watch us. They subscribe to the same theory as deer—if I don’t move, they won’t know I’m here. Makes picture taking a little easier.

From there we drove through the little town of Penneshaw where Malcolm stopped for a few moments to vote. It was election day in Australia and voting is mandatory or you are fined.

For our morning tea, Malcolm took us to a lagoon area where we strolled along a path lined with eucalyptus trees and found a few koalas looking down on us. There are over 400 species of eucalyptus trees but the koalas only feed off of a few species. Bob and I watched water fowl in the lagoon as our guide spread out a morning snack on a small checkered tablecloth on a picnic bench.

Seal Bay was our next stop. It is home to Australian sea-lions. These amazing creatures were all sprawled out in the warm sunshine on the beach (reminded me of a few resort beaches I’ve seen). A few were surfing and some of the little ones were snuggling up to mom for lunch. We watched one little guy as he lumbered along the beach calling for his mother who finally came in from the water to satisfy him. Even a seal mom can’t get a few minutes to herself.

Lunch, packed earlier by Quentin, was served at a picnic shelter in Vivonne Bay. Malcolm again sent us off to explore the river and beach area as he prepared our meal. The coast line of the island was dramatic from every vantage point we stopped at or passed. Vivonne Bay had a huge sandy beach.

As we neared the end of our first day of touring, we stopped at Little Sahara which is a huge sand dune that for some reason does not get covered with plant life. Malcolm challenged us to climb it but we preferred to watch from below as the younger generation went sand surfing. It reminded me of snow sledding back home.

We had quite a long ride back to the lodge. Many of the roads on the island are not sealed meaning they are hard packed gravel and sand. We passed lots of sheep and cattle farms. Little did I know that a cattle farm would be one of the highlights of our next day’s outing.

Our dinner featured King George Whiting, a fish from the area. It was light tasting and deliciously prepared. The evening passed quickly with good conversation around the table as Quentin and Dale joined the four of us and talked of the island and its treasures.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Worship Thought

It’s Palm Sunday. This is the beginning of Easter Week. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it is a celebration of the coming of Spring as well. Our Easter traditions and stories of the resurrection of Jesus will be tied into the ideas of new birth, new life, regeneration, new beginnings—all those things associated with leaving the dead things of Winter behind and enjoying the new birth of plants and animals. Hopefully all of that will be evident as we see the green tips of daffodils and crocus poke through the leftover snow and then break out in splendid colors that celebrate the return of spring and summer.

It’s a little more difficult to tie in the resurrection story of Jesus with the change of the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere. As Easter approaches, so does their Autumn and Winter. While many places do not experience the harsh winters of the north, they still enter their drearier rainy season.

I had never considered the difference before until we talked about it with our hostess on Kangaroo Island as she drove us to the airport on the day we left. Somehow celebrating Christmas in the middle of Summer did not seem so bad but, as Dale said, tying in the story of the resurrection with the new birth and the seasonal change becomes a challenge. Perhaps it’s a reminder that Jesus is for all seasons and His story should transcend the boundaries we often create.

[The picture above is of a blossom from a type of eucalyptus tree on Kangaroo Island. The blossoms smell like honey and the trees are a favorite of the Ligurian bees.]

Friday, March 26, 2010

Australia's Ghan Railway

Early in the morning we caught breakfast at McDonald’s or Mackie as the Aussie’s say. Then we explored the historic walkway that the rental car clerk said we would have to take to the train station where we would catch the Ghan Train to Adelaide. We decided it was too rough and too hot a walk to drag suitcases and backpacks later. But we did get to the station to learn that the train would be arriving in about 45 minutes. That was enough time to hustle back to the hotel, grab cameras and be there to see the train come in.

The Ghan Railway is very historic. The first Ghan train started out on August 4, 1929, as a connection between Adelaide and Alice Springs which was then called Stuart. The track was moved and modernized in the 1980s with termite proof concrete sleepers. In 2004 the rails were extended all the way north to Darwin. It’s a two-day train ride from Darwin to Adelaide. Our stretch was only one day which it turns out was enough.

We boarded the train about 20 minutes before it was due to leave and found our cabin with berths #11 and 12. The cabin was very small with about enough room to almost stretch your legs out completely from the seat to the wall. There were two very shallow closets that could hold a pair of pants and a shirt. We were only allowed a very small piece of carry-on luggage each which for us were our backpacks.

The bathroom was like a small square closet. The whole of it was a shower with a curtain that pulled all around the interior to keep towels and the small toiletries shelf dry. It worked well. The sink was above the toilet and both folded into the wall like a Murphey bed. They were stainless steel and I found them a little freaky to use on a moving train.

The train was quite long (34 cars) and had several levels of accommodation. Platinum was top with larger accommodations, then Gold which was ours, and from there it went to Red with a sleeping berth and Red with just a seat on the train. Meals were served in two shifts in our dining car section. Lunch was our first and it was very good. I had a quiche with a small salad. The other choice was chicken.

We watched the countryside roll by and change constantly from heavy vegetation to almost nothing but dirt and sand. The train did a lot more bumping and swaying than other trains we’ve been on and I wondered how I would sleep (on the top berth) with all the motion. After a dinner of kangaroo, which was delicious and tasted like a mild beef, I found out I would not sleep much at all.

The best way to describe our night aboard the Ghan is to say you would get the same effect sleeping in the bed of a pickup truck as it moved along country roads. The section of track we were on between Alice Springs and Adelaide was quite old and considering the range of temperatures it endures, was probably warped a bit.

Along the way, there were several taped commentaries on the places of interest that we passed through. And a morning tea with fresh fruits and pastries was almost like being on a cruise—well, maybe not.

We arrived in Adelaide about 1:30 in the afternoon and retrieved our luggage to head off to our next adventure on Kangaroo Island. Looking back at the train and its emblem with someone riding on a camel, a representation of how people traveled and goods were delivered in earlier times, I guess I counted myself lucky to have had a bed rather than a bumpy ornery camel to ride to Adelaide.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Australia - Alice Springs

Alice Springs is a small city in the middle of Australia’s desert center. But don’t look for skyscrapers. No, it is more like large town, kind of lazy in the hot afternoon sun but a vital area to the outlying cattle stations and Aborigine settlements. It has an airport and a train station where we connected with the Gahn Train to Adelaide.

Our extra day in Alice Springs due to the flooded road to Kings Canyon Resort that canceled our stay there gave us opportunity to fully explore this town. Our first stop after our walkabout through the pedestrian and indoor mall areas was the Royal Flying Doctor Service visitor center. This is the only connection some outlying areas have with medical service and emergency help.

The service was founded by Rev. John Flynn whose vision was to provide a Mantle of Safety for people who lived inland in the remote regions of Australia. His work began before World War I as an arm of the Presbyterian Church’s Australian Inland Mission. The Flying Doctor Service first known as the Aerial Medical Service became operational May 15, 1928.

From its first base at Cioncurry in western Queensland, it has grown to 21 bases with 51 aircraft serving a 7,150,000 square kilometer area. Many of the doctors hold clinics in the areas they serve using whatever facilities are available—sometimes a kitchen in a home—to care for patients that travel many kilometers to visit the “clinic.” It is an amazing and unique concept that has saved many lives and provided emergency care and peace of mind to those who brave the inland areas where they live.

Our next stop was the original telegraph station that was operational from 1895 to 1905. The temperatures were climbing but it was amazing how cool the insides of these buildings were with a breeze blowing through them. The telegraph station had quite a history and of course was a vital link to Adelaide and Darwin during those years. When its usefulness as a telegraph station was over, it was used for several years as a school compound for children of mixed races. Several of the stories portrayed on story boards were not pleasant as the children bore the brunt of the prejudice of the times.

Behind the blacksmith’s shop at the telegraph station was the original Alice Springs, a waterhole from which the station got its name. It really isn’t a spring. It’s a depression in the riverbed where water gets trapped in granite. William Whitfield Mills, a surveyor, discovered it and named it for Mrs. Alice Todd, the wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs. Perhaps earning points with the boss?

We tried on two days to visit the Ghan Train museum since we were taking the Ghan Train from Alice Springs to Adelaide but unfortunately it was closed both days due manager being ill. Instead we opted to drive out into the west MacDonnell range of mountains. We were glad we did. It was beautiful countryside.

About 25 km from Alice Springs, there was a turnoff for Simpson’s Gap which was just that—a gap in the mountains with a river running through it. This river actually had some water in it where it was sheltered between the cliffs. It was said there were rock wallabies in the area but we didn’t see any. It was probably still too early in the day for them to be out and about.

My birthday dinner was at the Bluegrass Restaurant where we sat outdoors, swatted a fly or two and ate a meal that could have fed six people or the two of us for a week. I ordered pork fillet and got the whole tenderloin! The cabbage and bacon that came with it were good but I only had enough room to taste the mashed potatoes. Bob’s meal was just as large—a mixed grill that had enough meat for at least four meals and a heaping pile of French fries. We both felt guilty leaving so much behind but there was no way to consume it all and walk away. Guess we’re not as hardy as the Aussies in Alice Springs.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Red Centre - Ayers Rock to Kings Canyon

As our day at Uluru progressed, so did the rain. Thankfully we had rented a 4WD and could return to the Rock at our leisure. As we approached we could see silvery streaks running down the creases of red rock and when we got closer, we could see that the small silver streaks were really large waterfalls from the afternoon downpour.

At a place we had visited in the morning with our tour, we parked and walked the path back to the waterhole that was quiet and serene only a few hours ago. It was now a raging waterfall that had already filled the reserve and was threatening to overflow onto the boardwalk where we stood. Two visitors who had been there for about twenty minutes said the water level had risen two inches in that short time. We took that as a cue to leave before our feet got wet.

We returned to the resort to find that our evening dinner in the desert to watch the sunset was canceled. Undaunted, we found the little grocery store in the shopping area and bought two ceasar chicken salads, some rolls, and fruit and went to the car park area that was for viewing the sunset. The clouds again obscured the sun as it set but we did watch the large monolithic rock disappear into the darkness before we returned to our room to convince ourselves that we were among the privileged few to have seen it rain in the desert. The next day we would truly find out just how “privileged” we were.

Up early the next day, we drove out to the Rock again just on the outside chance that the clouds might part a bit and give us a better sunrise. No luck. We packed up and began our trek to our next stop, Kings Canyon Resort. As we checked out, the desk clerks offered to confirm that the roads to the resort were open. The report was doubtful that we would get through even with our 4WD. But the weather report was calling for the rain to ease and the weather in that direction was said to be sunny so we headed out anyway.

About three and a half hours later, we came to a dead stop as three meters of sand and soil blocked the road. A bulldozer was trying to clean it up so we drove back to the Kings Creek Station and had lunch and hung out with others who were waiting news on the road. A couple hours later, there was a path through the red mud that we could navigate and we continued on. Unfortunately to find that there was a floodway only two kilometers from the resort that had two meters of water rapidly flowing over the road.

Undaunted again, we turned around and decided to visit Kings Canyon while we waited to see if the water level would go down. The canyon floor showed all sorts of damage from raging waters. The trail that walkers normally follow was underwater in several places and it didn’t take long for us to decide we’d seen enough. We did have a chance to scope out the trail that we had planned to take around the rim and decided there was no way we were going to attempt the steep climb at the beginning especially if it was still rainy.

Back at the floodway, the water had dropped some but not enough for us to get across. Many who had waited most of the day were turning around as the park ranger announced that more rain was on the way. With that, we turned our 4WD around and headed for Alice Springs, a four hour drive that got very dark as the sun set. And the darker it got, the bigger the bugs got. They sounded like rocks as they splat like juicy green tomatoes on the windshield. But we turned on the music from my phone (our radio had gone out on the 92,000+ km Nissan Patrol) and listened and sang to golden oldies from the 60s as we drove through the dark hearing bugs hit the windows. Ah, the making of another travel memory.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Red Centre - Ayers Rock

The area in the Northern Territory in the middle of Australia is called the Red Centre for good reason. The earth is the reddest I have seen anywhere. It is a mixture of red soil and sand and in the rain, the color deepens. We were able to experience that. Lucky us. As all the guides and people who worked at the Ayers Rock Resort, only about 3% of all visitors ever get to see it rain there.

Remembering my post of a few weeks ago about traveling with a good attitude, we strapped on our happy faces and our fly nets and set out for adventure beginning with the Desert Awakenings tour. Up at 5 a.m. (which was really 3:30 a.m. Perth time—the time changes 1 ½ hours to Ayers rock) we dressed quickly and waited in the hotel lobby for our ride out into the desert before sunrise.

Our 4WD van picked us up and whisked us out to an unpaved road where we bumped our way to a large sand dune with a flat top. A short hike up and we found ourselves at a little picnic area with chairs and a “buffet” table set with pastries, juice, coffee, and tea. Our cook, Zach, had been up even earlier and out at the “barbie” preparing our breakfast. As the sun began to streak the horizon with a strip of orange, we could make out the shadow of Ayers Rock in the distance.

Eventually, the horizon colored more with the glorious beginnings of a colorful sunrise and for an instant the sun actually appeared only to be lost quickly in the passing rain clouds in front of it. It was not the glorious sunrise that lights the Rock with reds and oranges and flames the sky with its fiery color but it was a quiet and reflective morning in the middle of the desert as the world around us was changing guard—night creatures burrowing in for the day and day critters coming out of their nighttime hideaways.

Zach and Emma our guide served us their version of McBush tucker—a breakfast sandwich of egg, crispy bacon, and lettuce. The real star though was the damper Zach cooked in aluminum foil. Damper is a round loaf of bread cooked over a campfire. It doesn’t have a lot of taste but has a nice heavy texture and served with a little maple syrup, went down quite well with a second cup of coffee.

Our tour continued with stops around Ayers Rock (Uluru as the Aborigines call it). The rain moved in as did the flies. We were grateful to have bought fly nets to go over our hats. The flies go for your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. They don’t bite but they are quite a nuisance. I don’t remember that problem when we visited years ago in July. It was probably the difference in seasons.

After a short stop at the cultural center where Bob and I watched a video of Aborigine women finding food in the bush, including the biggest fattest grubs I’ve ever seen, we returned to the resort to find something a little less intimidating to eat—a hamburger.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Worship Thought

Another Sunday on our Australian adventure found us out in the Red Centre at Ayers Rock. After our breakfast on a sand dune as the sun rose, we rode through the desert to the Rock as our guide explained the flora and fauna of the area.

I had been disappointed that we hadn’t had a more “spiritual” experience at the sunrise. I was sure that was where I would find my worship time. Instead it was while riding through the brush and bushes and sparse trees.

We stopped by one of the larger trees called a desert oak. The tree was said to be about 400 years old and on its softly needled branches, we could see small round pods a bit like pine cones except completely sealed. Our guide explained that fire was an integral part of the regeneration of the desert. These pods needed heat in order to pop open and release their seed. Other plants needed to go through a fire to regenerate as well. The fire gets rid of the old growth and the roots of the plants then give new life.

The scripture that speaks of fire refining us came to mind. While I’ve always thought of it in terms of making gold and precious metals pure, this brought a whole new meaning to it. We go through trials/fire and sometimes parts of us die (like pride) in the process and new parts are born (like deeper faith). Other times our trials release seeds that create new growth in others as they see us go through trial.

But God wasn’t done with his lesson yet that morning. Our guide continued to explain how the desert oak spends many years of its young life sending down a tap root to securely anchor itself with a source of water. Once that is accomplished, the tree can begin to concentrate growth on the branches above the ground.

How like us who need to tap into the Living Water and anchor ourselves there before we try to branch out in life. What a worshipful morning!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Perth - Laundry day and the Aquarium

While doing the laundry on a trip may sound mundane, it is actually quite an experience especially when you are in a foreign country. While Australia doesn’t seem all that foreign—they do speak English, the laudro-bar as it’s called down under, was in a way.

The lady running the place was a young Brazilian who graciously changed our paper money for the coins we needed for the machines and then explained about how long it would take for the clothes to dry. She was exactly right too. After we got the dirty clothes into the washer, we had some time to take in the rather eclectic d├ęcor.

Mounted on the walls were collages, poems, artwork, lessons of life and philosophy, etc. that was all reminiscent of the 1960s era. Bright colors and paisley-like designs made me think of decorated Volkswagon buses but instead they were old ironing boards. It kept us entertained for a bit and then we sat on a fleece covered bench and waited for the clothes to be done. It was a fun way to spend the morning actually.

Wanting to stay out of the sun and heat (temps were reaching to about 102 F.) we opted to visit the aquarium in Hillary’s Harbor near us. We were pleasantly surprised at how extensive it was. There were specimens from all over the west and southwestern coast of Australia including the most beautiful sea dragons that look like seaweed when they float in the water. What a treat since we have never seen them while diving!

One of the most popular displays was the shipwreck reef area where there is a deep water tank of sharks, very large stingrays, a big loggerhead turtle, and other large fish I couldn’t readily identify. Visitors step on to a very slow moving track and let it carry them in a large circle around and through the tank as sharks and rays swim over their heads. We were also there in time to see divers feeding the sharks.

A favorite display of mine is the large circular tank holding graceful jelly fish that pulsate through the water that is blue-lighted. It is one of the most peaceful exhibits to watch. In the water as a diver it wouldn’t be so inviting since jellyfish have a nasty sting. But in this environment they are a beautiful sight to watch.

Dinner was on a terrace in front of a restaurant on one of the back streets off the main beach road. It was a pasta and pizza place with reasonable prices and delicious pasta, salad, and garlic bread. Prices for food in the restaurants have been a lot more expensive than we remembered from other trips over here. It makes it a challenge for the trip budget. When the going gets tough though, the hungry usually get to a grocery store where there’s a section with salads and/or sandwiches.

We spent our last evening in Perth/Trigg sitting on a park bench listening to the waves roll in until we were too sleepy to hold our heads up. Guess I should have taped some of those sounds to play at home when it’s hard to fall asleep.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Perth - The Mint and Swan Valley

Some of our planning for this trip fell a little short when we found that we had allotted more time for some activities that was necessary. The good part of the problem was that we were able to add a few last minute things to the list. One of them was the Perth Mint.

Like the USA, the west coast of Australia experienced its own gold rush. The mint was built in 1899 in response to the need for a place to refine and mint the gold from the prospector's finds. Today it still mints precious metals and during the tour, you can see some of the work being done.

The premiere attraction on the tour however is watching a worker pour a bar of gold. The gold is heated to thousands of degrees (I couldn't convert celsius to fahrenheit at that level). Amazingly it cools enough to be solid in just a few minutes. Then the bar is put in water to further cool it so it can be picked up in a bare hand. Unfortunately the demonstrator could not pass the $200,000 bar around for inspection but he apologized with a big Aussie grin. Unfortunately as well, we were not allowed to take pictures of anything inside.

As temperatures climbed into 38 C/101 F range, we struck out for the Swan River Valley area. It is one of the wine areas of Western Australia. We thought a good ride in an air conditioned car would beat the heat. And it did for a while.

Our first stop was in Guildford where we took a walkabout along a marked heritage trail and got a glimpse of a darling town that was built in the 1850-60s. Some of the houses and buildings are original. There was a stretch of downtown that was dedicated to antique stores and invited more exploration than we were able to give.
One of the reasons we like exploring on our own rather than with a tour group is that we often see things we wouldn't with a guided tour. For instance, when was the last time you passed a store that sells anything and everything you would want for prospecting? And then around the corner and down the street, we found a mobile dog wash. The Hydro Dog is a trailor pulled behind an SUV or a truck and is plugged into the dog owner's house electricity to operate all the nifty dog washing equipment. This dog's owner says his dog looks forward to his weekly wash.
The heat was rising now. We headed back to the car.
As we drove the circuit that was suggested by the information center in Guildford, we stopped at the Margaret River Chocolate Factory for a look-see and of course free samples. The dark chocolate was superb. For a bit we watched through the windows into the work area as caramel centers were showered with rich milk chocolate. Luckily there were free samples of those too. I think it kept the observers from drooling on the glass.

About two-thirds way around the loop, we stopped at a winery that had a large restaraunt. The Sittella's outdoor eating area on a large balcony overlooked grape vineyards and a grove of olive trees. It reminded me of our lunch in Italy in the Tuscany area except there was no medieval walled town in the distance.

After a short stop in Whiteman Park where we realized that we just weren't up to being out in the heat, we came back to our B&B and cranked on the A/C and began planning what we could do that was cool for the next day when temps were due to climb even higher.

Of course as always, the day ended with another glorious sunset. (Sigh).
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