Friday, March 20, 2009

The Great Ocean Road Bids Us Farewell

Australia is indeed blessed. Here is an immense island rimmed by thousands of miles of sandstone headlands, bays with azure waters and golden sand beaches. Living with the sea is an integral part of being an Aussie. Our last two days before returning to Canada were spent, appropriately, driving from Adelaide to Melbourne which, happily, includes the famous Great Ocean Road, probably the most beautiful coastal drive in the world.
The first day was mostly inland with some glimpses of the coast. We stayed overnight at Robe in South Australia, an attractive town with dozens of historic buildings of buff sandstone blocks and dating to the early 1800s. An obelisk (a cheap version of a lighthouse) built in 1855 stands guard on a cliff with turquoise waves pounding against the rocks below.
The second day we were immersed in the incredible beauty of the Great Ocean Road. Viewpoints were many, but the best was the Twelve Apostles (OK, perhaps only 9 and a half), large jagged stacks of rock that have been separated from the mainland by erosion. Mist swirled, waves rolled in from far out in the Southern Ocean and they stood impassively like giant sentinels.
The narrow winding road, often marked with "Drive on the left in Australia" signs led us to a broad white sand beach where we stripped down to our bathers for a final bit of sun.
Then the road turned inland and all too soon we were in Geelong and then Melbourne. Next day a giant metal box with wings carried us back to the tail-end of a Canadian winter.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Barossa Valley and Other Vinophilic Temptations

As my dearest and I discovered after many a blurry morning, Australia is a wine lover’s (vinophile’s?) paradise. Everywhere we went we saw rows of vineyards, often draped in netting, marching up and down rolling hills: in Tasmania, on Kangaroo Island, and in hundreds of places in South Australia and Victoria. It is clear that wine is one of Australia’s main industries.
Furthermore, it’s easy and inexpensive to purchase wine. In Canada, liquor stores are government-run, over-priced and inconvenient. In Australia, Bottle Shops, as they are called, are ubiquitous and, get this, many of them are drive-through. Best of all, the prices are very reasonable, starting at $5 Australian per bottle; boxed wines are even more of a bargain. Of course, some wines such as the famous Penfolds Grange can exceed a thousand dollars per bottle.
One day we made a pilgrimage to the Mecca of wine, the Barossa Valley north of Adelaide in South Australia, where world-class wines have been produced since 1850. We wended our way through gentle arid hills dotted with eucalyptus trees. The vineyards, which spread everywhere, were turning golden and the harvest had just passed. With 73 wineries to visit (another 50 don’t have visitor’s centres) we selected three that sell widely in Canada: Jacobs Creek, Penfolds and Wolf Blass. The size of these operations was impressive and far larger than anything we have seen in Niagara or the Okanagan. The drive through the beautiful valley was grand and the tastings were wonderful. It was a delightful day ... as we can best remember.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Moorunde Wildlife Reserve: Saving a Hairy-Nosed Critter

South Australia is an amazing place. One day we were hedonists in the vibrant, cosmopolitan city of Adelaide, the next day we were encamped in the dry, sparse landscape of the outback. My dearest and I were invited to Moorunde Wildlife Reserve, established in 1968 to help save the endangered Southern Hairy Nosed Wombat.
We drove many kilometres of dirt track with our windows open to catch the breeze and with a long plume of dust trailing behind us. We opened gates and closed them behind us. This is mallee country, named for a scrawny eucalyptus tree, but which is mostly barren ground, yet, as we were to learn, is remarkably alive with strange creatures and plants. Once we closed the last gate and entered Moorunde, the landscape was frequently like the surface of Mars with craters of warrens dug by the wombats who live underground.
The reserve, which consists of an enormous 6900 hectares but only gets about 13 cm of rain a year, was created in 1968, an amazing achievement, especially since it was done entirely by volunteers, the Natural History Society of South Australia, who continue to maintain the property. Not only have the number of hairy-nosed creatures increased by fencing out sheep, but the scientific understanding of these and other creatures has been advanced.
We stayed overnight in an old caravan without running water or electricity. Essentials consisted of a nearby roof-rain-tank that supplied remarkably tasty water and a long-drop toilet. It was grand, and the stars were better than an IMAX theatre.
Dr. Peter Clements took us for long walks and showed us that the soil consists of a delicate crust full of lichens, spider holes, ant hills and hardy plants. I loved the bird life, so bright and colourful including pink and gray galahs, brilliant green parakeets and, of course, not-so-tiny emus. Wildlife was everywhere consisting of kangaroos, wombats, emus, lizards and echidnas.
The focal points of the reserve are two water stations, where large sheets of horizontal, corrugated iron catch rain water and divert it into tanks. The tanks trickle water to small water holes that attract animals like a magnet. The water hole we visited was easy to find for animal trails led to it like the roads that lead to Rome.
We left, overwhelmed by the incredible adaptability of life and the bizarre yet beautiful forms it can take. Just as impressive is what volunteers can achieve. We all need to pitch in and help preserve the environment.
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Friday, March 13, 2009

Adelaide: Warmth and Great Eats

Adelaide is a warm city, hot even. It’s early fall and today was 33 deg. C. Known as the city of churches, Adelaide is unusual because its downtown is laid out with geometric precision. The “square mile” was designed in 1836 with broad north-south and east-west boulevards and symmetrically-located parks. This inner core is surrounded by a ring of green space and only then do the suburbs begin.

North Terrace, along the northern edge of the square mile, is the cultural area. We walked slowly from one shady patch to another, stopping at park benches to sip water as we visited the old and new parliament buildings, the art gallery, the state museum, the University of South Australia, the Adelaide Botanic Gardens (established in 1855), Government House and other historic dwellings. A few hundred metres to the north, the river Torrens flows along.

The Hilton Adelaide, our home for several days, is located almost in the exact centre of the square mile and conveniently is next door to the bustling Central Market, which is crammed with shops and booths selling every conceivable item produced by mankind. It also has a fabulous selection of Asian food outlets.

Happily, a stop for trams, which are free in the square mile, lies directly in front of our hotel. Yesterday we took the tram westward to historic Glenelg on the coast. Tall palm trees, a broad beach, old sandstone buildings and hundreds of restaurants, cafes and shops greeted us. In contrast to the brash vibrancy of Sydney’s surf beaches, Glenelg has a genteel and charming dignity.

Best of all, Adelaide is surrounded by world-class vineyards including the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the Clare Valley. Wines and good food are a way of Aussie life, a wonderful gastronomic hedonism. Gouger and Rundle streets are non-stop rows of restaurants and cafes and in the evenings my dearest and I jostled with happy crowds to find empty spots amongst the tables that spill onto the sidewalks. Ah, it’s bliss to dine al fresco in the warm air with a good bottle of Aussie wine.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

White Man on a Walkabout

On Kangaroo Island I had a glimpse deep inside the treasure chest of human culture. I met Karno Walker, who traces his lineage to the first black man seen by explorers in South Australia. In a strong Australian accent he explained how he is fighting a court case to get his tribe, the Ramindjeri, recognized as the original occupants of Kangaroo Island and the adjoining mainland.

He took me on a walkabout through the dry landscape. We passed an ant mound with an eagle skull on it, which Karno had left for his brothers, the ants. Picking up a feather from the ground, he did an elaborate ceremony, almost a dance, whirling the feather about and presenting it to me. “The bird is welcoming you to his land,” he said.

Approaching a large solitary eucalyptus tree, Karno told a story of a giant kangaroo bigger than the tree. The men wanted to hunt it but had only one spear. They cooperated and some men herded it toward the spear thrower. Others threw rocks. They were successful and cut up the body at the joints. There was food for everyone across the land. The rocks strewn about the landscape represented all the pieces of meat. The men then hunted a giant emu. Karno pointed at rocks that were the perfect shape of an emu footprint.

He held up his left hand with the fingers spread. “When I bring young aboriginal fellers here, I explain that my fingers show their way of life: drugs and addiction, flashy cars, loud music, bright lights and bullshit.” Then he did a broad sweep with his right hand, “and this is what you’re giving up. This is what’s really important,” I tell them. “The environment is essential to life, not the dole.”

Further along he told a story of paddling a canoe with a young man. It was a story-dance as he made the motions of paddling first a large canoe, then a small canoe and got out and back in.

He told more stories and explained that he was only scratching the surface, that each had many more layers. He also explained the enormous importance of such stories and dances to his people. They belong to individuals and telling someone else’s story is stealing.

I left with my head whirling at the richness and meaning of aboriginal stories.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kangaroo Island: Bountiful Nature Preserve

Floating in the deep blue sea south of Adelaide is a magical place called Kangaroo Island, a nature preserve without fences. My dearest and I were introduced to the unusual antipodean wildlife at the Pelican Lagoon Research Centre where Dr. Peggy Rismiller studies echidnas (she is the world’s expert), tiger snakes and goannas. Accompanied by a visiting scientist from Germany we wandered through a dry but rich terrain of termite hills, stunted eucalpyt trees, ant mounds and the odd hopping kangaroo. A metre-long Rosenberg goanna was snared, a transmitter inserted and a big H painted on its back for Hal (Hans and Ally). Lunch was a feast including tasty kangaroo-tail stew, roo burgers, feral olives, wild lettuce, marinated kunzia berry and pickled samphire seaweed.. Ah, living off the land!

The island (much bigger than we anticipated at 150-km long) is ringed by glorious beaches where a hot sun beats down and huge waves pound onto wide swathes of soft, pure sand. Although a long weekend, usually we were the only people in the entire cove. At Duck Lagoon (dry) we saw many “fuzzy butts” or koalas sleeping in the tall eucalypt tree. Koalas are an introduced species whose exploding population is killing gum trees, which in turn affects the water table (not good in this 17-year-long drought). Each morning we rushed from breakfast at the Kangaroo Island Lodge to watch as a flock of Australian pelicans and sea gulls were fed on the foreshore. The enormous birds lumbered along on their large webbed feet and fought for and gulped down the thrown fish.

One afternoon we visited Seal Bay, an incredible refuge for about 700 Australian sea lions who live here year-around. We watched from a boardwalk as mothers nursed little pups and giant bulls roared and fought amongst themselves for sexual supremacy. Then we visited a rookery for little penguins. Trails led from the ocean to numerous burrows were the penguins rest during the night.

All too soon we were on the ferry returning to the concrete canyons of the city.
& & (for ferry service)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ultimate Luxury Down Under

It was in Hobart, the charming capital of Tasmania, that we fell into the lap of luxury. As a travel writer, my dearest and I often stay at fairly decent digs, but the Henry Jones Art Hotel was over the top. It’s a 5-star hotel built in a historic jam factory (circa 1859) on the waterfront. The architects lovingly preserved every possible historic relic including beams, window casings and even pieces of old machinery. Shortly after opening in 2004, a guest complained of blood dripping from the ceiling. But it was only the melting of strawberry jam that had crystallized into the beams over a century. Our room is luxuriously appointed with, for example, a huge glass enclosed bathroom with gigantic walk-in shower and soaker tub - all with ultra-modern fittings that somehow mesh with the old parts of the building. The king-sized bed has a silk coverlet.

The owners also turned the hotel into a working art gallery showcasing the best artists in Tasmania. Shortly after checking in there was a guided tour. Carrying glasses of champagne, we followed Matt Casey (general manager) and Christine Scott (curator) who described the history of the hotel and the artistic merits of the 360 paintings that are found in every wall throughout the hotel. What a glorious place! The Henry Jones has won over 60 awards since it opened in 2004, including the best hotel in Australia.

As though that wasn’t enough, our window faced onto the wharf where, by chance, the black Sea Shepherd ship (they call themselves eco-pirates) was docked proudly bearing a long gash from its recent anti-whaling campaign. I was in heaven!
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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Port Arthur: A World-Class Monument to Humanity’s Cruelty

The huge popularity of the Port Arthur Historic Site, the former penal settlement in Tasmania, is due to our dark side ... and we all have one. We’re drawn to the horror stories about the hardened men and boys who were incarcerated here. It is also a key part of Australia’s unique history as a convict colony.

As my dearest and I entered, our first impression was of Port Arthur’s vast size. After its founding in 1833 it grew into a major penal and industrial centre with over 200 buildings and many trades before it was closed in 1877. Today about 30 buildings in various states of rehabilitation sprawl over a large site, which was magnificent, even in the light rain we encountered.

We started with a short cruise. The guide noted that Port Arthur had been completely serviced via the sea. We circled the Island of the Dead where free people were buried with gravestones on the high land and convicts in unmarked graves on the low ground. Back on land we wandered in intermittent rain through the sandstone ruins of the penitentiary, the hospital (all operations were conducted without anaesthetic), the guard tower, servants’ quarters and the restored Commandant’s house, whose palatial elegance contrasted with the miserable conditions of the prisoners. We wandered through the flagellation area to the Separate Prison, probably the saddest display, where the convicts were kept in solitary confinement and silence. They had to wear hoods and slippers for the one hour a day they were allowed out of their cells. As we were leaving, a group of young students set up an enormous wailing as they were "locked"in to the prison by their teachers. Next we wandered through the pleasant cottages of the free people like the chaplain and doctor to the ruins of the church.

As we left we wondered why people are so intrigued by this penal colony. Because it’s Australia’s heritage? Because we could so easily cross the line and find ourselves in a place like this? Because we are naturally drawn to horror stories? Whatever, it’s a fabulous place.
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Thursday, March 5, 2009

East Coast of Tasmania is Stunning, Even in Inclement Weather

We arrived in Freycinet National Park – a cluster of hills surrounded by stunning bays and beaches – on Tasmania’s east coast, together with rainy weather. After checking into Freycinet Lodge we drove to the Cape Tourville Lighthouse, passing through eucalyptus forests with tea trees covered in delicate white blossoms. The stark white lighthouse is perched high above reddish granite cliffs that fall down to the sea. The steep terrain and nearby rocky islands were softened by mist and dark clouds.
Next morning my dearest and I set out for Wineglass Bay in spite of rain and winds predicted to reach gale force. We hiked through a pinkish granite landscape enveloped in blowing mist and cloud. Within minutes we were soaked, but it was a warm rain. We passed enormous falls of rounded granite boulders some as big as houses and some balancing on each other in a worrisome manner. The smell of eucalyptus was all around and a few tree trunks were embroidered with delicate insect tracks like calligraphy.
We reached the pass, and far below, Wineglass Bay, the most beautiful beach in the world, was barely visible in the cloud. The bay looks like a wine glass and in the 1800s when the bay was a whaling station it often seemed full of red wine from the blood of the slaughtered whales. We slogged downward to the bay. It was exquisite with perfect white sand and turquoise water. The wind was blowing hard with large waves crashing and swirling.
We didn’t linger and started the uphill climb, drenched and bedraggled. A friendly kookaburra posed on a branch. We reached the pass and soon were back at the carpark. A small ‘roo sat in the rain beside our car.
That evening, the rain having relented, we sat on our deck with a bottle of wine and watched the moon come out. Surprise, a possum joined us. She climbed onto my leg and gently bit my finger. Finding it inedible, she then nipped my dearest’s toe. Bewildered by this strange country, we called it a night.
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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Friend of the Devil is a Friend of Mine

The drive from Lauceston to Freycinet National Park on the east coast follows a harrowingly narrow, shoulderless national highway. En route the landscape turns from dry parched-yellow savannah to green pastures and with forest cover on the hills. The road corkscrewed across Elephant Pass with mist enshrouding the eucalypt trees and ferns as though we were in Middle Earth. On the coast we visit East Coast Natureworld and have the pleasure of meeting one of the rare people who are making a difference, Bruce Englefield, the owner. The preserve is a large rambling place where kangaroos bounce, pelicans and black swans float on the lagoon, and wombats, tiger snakes, koalas, emus and, most importantly, Tasmanian Devils live in large enclosures. The aviary is alive with the brilliant foliage of technicolour parakeets. My dearest and I spent the afternoon meeting animals and birds wholly strange to our home country.
Englefield is about 70, thin and tall, and his bespectacled face is alive with enthusiasm as he describes the plight of the Devil, who only live in Tasmania. Over 60% have been wiped out by the facial tumour disease, a rare cancer that is transmitted by biting. Given the lack of success in finding solutions to human cancer, the outlook for Devils is not good. We watched as Englefield, an animal behaviour expert, placed a large male Devil in a pen with a female in heat. An ear-splitting screeching and growling ensue, but Englefield ensured us it’s only part of the mating game. He then climbed into a neighbouring pen and pulled a young Devil from a tree by her tail and firmly held her while he spoke soothingly to calm her. He explained how here and at a near-by island he is breeding Devils for a tumour-free "insurance" population. We wished him luck and drove on.
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Monday, March 2, 2009

Launceston and Tasmania’s North

We drove into Launceston, Tasmania’s second largest city (about 100,000), the capital of the north and the gateway to the Tamar Valley wine region. Founded in 1806 the city is full of gracious Victorian homes decorated with the distinctive Australian wrought iron. Our Peppers Seaport Hotel is superbly located on the river front with a tall ship, a fishing boat and a host of pleasure boats moored under our balcony. In the morning we ambled off to Cascade Gorge, a 16-ha wilderness park in the heart of the city with dramatic cliffs and rushing waters .
The Tamar Valley beckoned so my dearest and I drove northwest. Vineyards, most of them covered in netting, tumble down the valley sides. We passed Legana and Exeter and pulled in to Beaconsfield, a pretty little town where gold mining started in 1881 and continues today. A tall mine shaft towers over lovely rose gardens, a museum, a coal miner’s cottage, a school house and other historic items.
Next we stopped at Beauty Point where Sunday fishermen were lined up on a large wharf that also contains Platypus House and Seahorse World. In the bay, sailboats were heeled over in the stiff breeze, their sails aglow in the sun. We motored on, enveloped in the soporific afternoon heat, to the Narawntapu National Park. For 20 km we rattled and bounced along a corrugated dirt road with a long plume of dust trailing behind. Once there, we wandered through bushy sand dunes, spotted a little wallaby, and stepped onto a long glorious beach with nary a person on it. After a refreshing dip into the waves we returned to Launceston. For dinner we wolfed down a pail of giant prawns, fish and chips and several bottles of Boags, reputed to be the best beer in Australia. We couldn’t argue.
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Touring Tasmania’s Convict Past

The plane banked downward and we landed in Tasmania. We admired the sea, the rolling hills and Georgian architecture that have made Hobart one of the most photogenic cities in the world. The population is much smaller (about 200,000) and the pace more relaxed than in Sydney. Settled in 1804 on the banks of the Derwent River where it joins the ocean, Hobart has a rich history based on convicts and sailors. After settling in at Wrest Point, Australia’s first casino, we drove to Battery Point, an historic area of narrow streets and terraced cottages with lovely wrought-iron filigree. We stumbled onto the Shipwright’s Arms, an old pub with stained glass windows and many a story to tell of ancient mariners.
Next morning (Saturday) we jostled through a crowd of several thousand at the sun-dappled Salamanca Market, where handicrafts, food, coffee and artisans’ stalls stretched for over a kilometre beside historic warehouses. On the other side fishing and sail boats bobbed in the harbour.
Then we motored northward into a glaring, hot sun nervously keeping to the left on the fast (110 kph) two-lane-only main highway through a landscape of rolling dry hills covered with sparse pale-yellow grass and dotted with gum trees in drab olive colours. We pulled into the historic town of Ross, a charming place and a living memory of the convict days. The sandstone bridge, which is beautifully decorated with 186 carved figures was built by two convict stonemasons and a convict workgang. The two stonemasons were freed on completing the bridge in 1836. Bucolic elm-lined avenues lead past convict-constructed sandstone buildings. The main intersection has four unique old buildings tagged Temptation (Man O’Ross Hotel), Salvation (Catholic church), Recreation (Town Hall) and Damnation (former jail). A hiking path leads along an old stone wall to a lonely rise where tombstones from the mid 1800s stand out against the dry hills. We passed the Ross Female Factory, the sad site of a jail for convict women, then a solid sandstone church and a few fat sheep and we’re back at the car.
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