Archive | Australia RSS feed for this section

Touring the Great Alpine Road and the Bogong High Plains Road

17 Jun

After our excursion to Raymond Island, we embarked up the Great Alpine Road, starting in Bairnsdale. The Great Alpine Road was the main reason for our weekend away and touring that area was something we had both wanted to do for a while.

We had actually intended to do it over summer, but due to the bushfires near Harrietville, we didn’t go, as it’s not really safe to go driving through a bushfire and of course, parts of the road were closed. Unfortunately, the road is still sometimes closed while they work to repair it (if you’re going up that way, check VicRoads for the latest road closure information). Even though it is not closed on weekends, it is down to one lane and we decided that we would drive the Great Alpine Road as far as Omeo, detour to our bed & breakfast for the night, and the continue our trip along the Bogong High Plains Road to avoid the construction.

Now, Australia doesn’t really have true mountains, being such a geologically old landmass. But the Great Dividing Range is as good as you’re going to get in this country and there are some snow covered peaks up there. I love mountains, so I was excited to see it.

Don’t ask me why they call it “Alpine”. You’d think they could have come up with a more creative name instead of using one that was already taken. It doesn’t really look anything like the real Alps, but it is still very beautiful. I was so busy just enjoying the scenery that I didn’t take a ton of pictures, but I have a few that I would like to share with you.

One of my favourite kind of mountain or wilderness landscapes is the kind with a beautiful blue river and lots of trees.

One of my favourite kind of mountain or wilderness landscapes is the kind with a beautiful blue river and lots of trees.

Be prepared for lots of windy roads!

Be prepared for lots of windy roads! Our SUV got a great workout on this drive. I recommend trading drivers now and then, as it is challenging driving and it’s hard to enjoy the scenery when you are concentrating on the road.

The landscapes along the Great Alpine Road seem ever changing, from quiet woodland to rocky outcroppings to rolling hills and farmland.

The landscapes along the Great Alpine Road seem ever changing, from quiet woodland to rocky outcroppings to rolling hills and farmland.

We found a rest area and lookout point here. It's called Conner's Hill and is the first glimpse of real mountainous terrain.

We found a rest area and lookout point here. It’s called Conner’s Hill and is the first glimpse of real mountainous terrain.

One of the stopping points along the Great Alpine Road is a town called Omeo. I thought it would be bigger than it was, but it was a tiny, sleepy town with not much going on. We arrived there at about 4pm. Our bed & breakfast hosts had told us that for dinner, we could either bring our own food and cook it there, eat at the Blue Duck Inn “in town”, which we assumed was Omeo, or they could cook for us. We had figured on eating at the Blue Duck Inn, but couldn’t find it anywhere.

So we stopped at the cuckoo clock shop to look around while we decided what to do. My phone hadn’t had signal since leaving Bairnsdale, so my GPS wasn’t working and we weren’t even 100% sure how to get to our bed & breakfast.

The cuckoo clock shop was run by a sweet little old lady who told us all her clock were imported from Bavaria. She had SO many of them! They were all gorgeous and I would have loved to have gotten one, but as our budget for the weekend was a measly $500, we had to pass. We learned later that she had bought the shop as a business for her daughter to run, as she wanted her daughter to stay in Omeo, but the girl had met a man in Melbourne and moved there, leaving the shop for her mother to take care of. She sells maybe two or three clocks a year and the shop is propped up by the hardware store in town, which is run by her husband. How sad is that? We did buy some Christmas ornaments from her, though, since last Christmas I was very sad that we had left all our ornaments in America and didn’t have anything to decorate a tree with.

We then went to the Foodworks grocery store, which was one of the saddest grocery stores I’ve ever been to, and the lady working there told us that the Blue Duck Inn was actually in a town called Anglers Rest. She then proceeded to tell what a great restaurant it was and that she’d even had a customer that day who had eaten lunch there. Another customer chimed in that she knew someone who had eaten dinner there the night before. (Having grown up in a town not much bigger than Omeo, I can appreciate this sort of conversation.) With all the rave reviews from locals, we decided we’d try to find it and off we went.

It is here that we diverged from the Great Alpine Road and headed up Omeo Highway, which is even windier than the Great Alpine Road. I was glad we still had some daylight to drive that road.

We arrived at the Blue Duck Inn around 5pm, only to find they didn’t open for dinner until 6pm. So with a sigh, we continued to drive on to our bed & breakfast.

Now I’m going to take a commercial break to tell you about this bed & breakfast, because it is the worst accommodation I have ever stayed in. I’ve stayed in some $30 a night roach motels and some 5-star luxury hotels and everything in between, so I’ve pretty much seen it all, but this place takes the cake.

It’s called Payne’s Hut and it’s near Shannonvale, but really it’s in the middle of nowhere, which is why we picked it. If you’re going to get away from the city, you might as well go all the way and get as far away as you can.

I’ll start with the good bits to take the sting out of the rest of what I’m going to write. Our hosts had actually prepared supper for us. I had forgotten to call ahead and tell them our dinner plans, so they graciously cooked us a wonderful three course meal. (Yes, there is an extra charge for that!) They are very, very good cooks! And really, they are quite nice people, so I feel a bit mean talking bad about their place, especially because they built it themselves and are very proud of it.

But the fact that they built it themselves sort of shows. The entire place is off the grid and powered by solar panels and generators. We were staying in the hut and, as it turns out, the hut isn’t connected to the generator. We were asked not to use the lights because they hadn’t had much sunlight in a while. The room had about four single watt light bulbs and it was so dark in there that it was hard to find anything in our suitcase. There was also no place for us to put our suitcase, except on the lone chair we were provided. We were told there was a flashlight in the room… and there was. But it didn’t work!

It was FREEZING cold inside. There was a gas heater in the corner and even turned on full blast, it could not heat the space. All night long, we shivered, despite being dressed in layers and the blankets piled high. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep.

But the real sticking point for me was our inability to have a shower. The water appears to be gravity fed, which means there is no water pressure. Might be okay for someone with short hair, but when you have long hair, you can’t rinse anything out of your hair without water pressure. And because it was so cold, there was no hot water. Who wants to have a cold shower when you’re already freezing cold? No one!

Then there was the issue of the power outlets. THERE WERE NO POWER OUTLETS! Not a one. So even if I had showered, I still would have died of hypothermia from being stuck with wet hair and unable to use a blow dryer.

We hoped that maybe a nice, hot breakfast would make up for it and had high hopes, given our lovely dinner the night before. But it was not to be. Breakfast was bread and jam and there was not even a real toaster. To toast the bread, you had to do it over a flame. A flame has two settings: off and on. Hope you like burnt toast!

For the privilege of staying in accommodations that were the equivalent of if we had slept in a tent in the wilderness for free, they charged us $230. I wasn’t expecting the Hilton, for Pete’s sake, but even a roach motel comes with power outlets! We left there in a terrible mood, feeling ripped off and like they had grossly misrepresented their property on their website.

Anyway… on to a happier subject. From there, we went up the Bogong High Plains Road. And for the first time since coming to Australia, I saw SNOW!!!! Yay!!!!

Yay, snow!

Yay, snow!

So beautiful!

So beautiful!

Partway through our drive along the Bogong High Plains Road, we came upon a town called Bogong. And there was a sign saying there was a hydroelectric plant there with an information center. H said he just HAD to go see this. I thought it would be boring, but it was actually very interesting.

The power plant is owned by AGL and is part of the Kiewa Hydroelectric Scheme. The water in the photos above is part of the first reservoir in the system of damns. The Bogong plant is about halfway through it and has two huge turbines that are powered by what looks like a rather small creek outside. What I thought was neat is that they have a system whereby they pump water back up to the top and reuse it again.

This creek produces massive amounts of electricity.

This creek produces massive amounts of electricity.

The lady working there told us how they worked and we had a long chat with her about renewable energy sources and such. She told us the plant actually didn’t run on Sundays because Victoria generates more electricity than it needs. With the shrinking of the manufacturing industry, there is far less need for electricity. And as for solar panels, it’s great if you want to use them to generate your own electricity, but they don’t really want you feeding it back into the grid because they already have too much. It was very informative and if you are ever in the area, it’s worth stopping in for a visit.

From there, we drove to the town of Mount Beauty, which lies beneath Mount Bogong, the one of the highest peaks in Australia.

Mount Bogong

Mount Bogong- I love the ring of clouds around the peak.

Mount Beauty is the town down below the mountain. I bet it's a really nice place to live!

Mount Beauty is the town down below the mountain. I bet it’s a really nice place to live!

From Mount Beauty, the drive to Wangaratta- the end (or start, if you come from the other direction) of the Great Alpine Road- it is not too far. We stopped and bought some HUE chestnuts from a roadside stand on the way.

As our long weekend away came to a close, we drove back to Melbourne feeling sad to leave it all behind.

I know I criticise Australia a lot, but mostly I criticise the people and the cities. When it comes to Australia’s natural beauty, it’s hard to think of any other place that could beat it.

Getting out of the city and away from stupid city people and city traffic and city noise reminded me how much I do like this country. It made me realise that I should stop trying to make myself like city living and just start working towards building a future where we will be able to move away from big cities. As a city, Melbourne has some good things going for it, but it’s just not for me. I’d much rather be living on Raymond Island or up in the mountains- somewhere small, quiet, and peaceful. And Australia has plenty of amazing places like that. I hope that soon we can go discover more of them.

Raymond Island

15 Jun

I know I haven’t been updating my blog very regularly. Life is sort of getting in the way, so I don’t have as much free time for blogging as I used to. Eventually, though, I will get all my posts up about our recent trip (well, okay, it was about three weeks ago, now, so not so “recent” anymore).

After Walhalla, we stayed the night at a great bed and breakfast in Bairnsdale, the Dalfruin Bed & Breakfast. We had the BallyVista suite and it was one of the nicest, coziest rooms we have ever had the pleasure of staying in. And by cozy, I don’t mean small. It is a very large suite. This bed and breakfast has a self serve breakfast, which helps keep the price down and is kind of nice because we could just eat in our pajamas and not have to wait to be served. Also, they have a beautiful back garden, with a Canadian maple. I really liked that maple tree, since it reminded me of home and you don’t often see them here.

We debated about whether to go to the Buchan Caves or to Raymond Island. Since we did have to make some headway up the Great Alpine Road to get to our next overnight stop, we could only do one. Raymond Island won out on account of it being less out of our way and because they have KOALAS! And anyone who has read my past posts knows that I am NUTS about koalas! Besides, we’ve seen caves before and once you’ve seen one, you’ve kinda seen them all.

It’s about a 20 minute drive from Bairnsdale to Paynesville. The island is accessible only by ferry. It’s free to cross as a pedestrian or $10 to take your car across. If you’re going to do the koala walk, leave your car in Paynesville (plenty of parking near the ferry), because the koala walk starts in the park right by where you get off the ferry. We took our car across, though, and I’ll tell you why it came in handy later.

The marina as seen from Paynesville.

The marina as seen from Paynesville.

The koala walk takes about 20 minutes on the near side of the island. You can buy a little guide from the honesty box in the park for $2, which I did, because the money goes to help sick and injured koalas. Then you just start walking and follow the signs.

Of course, koalas sleep for something like 22 hours a day, so most of the ones you see will be curled up in a tree, dreaming of eucalyptus leaves. We did find a couple that were just waking up for breakfast though. 🙂 In all, we saw about two dozen koalas.

This fella was wide awake and didn't seem to mind being photographed.

This fella was wide awake and didn’t seem to mind being photographed.

This one was so busy chowing down that it didn't even seem to notice us staring and pointing and telling it how cute it is.

This one was so busy chowing down that it didn’t even seem to notice us staring and pointing and telling it how cute it is.

I tried to convince this one to come down and let me hug and pet him, but he was more interested in scratching himself.

I tried to convince this one to come down and let me hug and pet him, but he was more interested in scratching himself.

We also saw tons of bird life, mostly noisy squawking parrots.

The lorikeets were making a terrible racket! There must have been dozens of them on this person's house and in their yard. I guess they probably have a hard time sleeping in.

The lorikeets were making a terrible racket! There must have been dozens of them on this person’s house and in their yard. I guess they probably have a hard time sleeping in.

The two birdies were cuddling each other. So cute!

The two birdies were cuddling each other. So cute!

I don't think I have ever seen this particular species before, so I don't know what it is, but he was soooo pretty!

I don’t think I have ever seen this particular species before, so I don’t know what it is, but it was soooo pretty!

But we didn’t see very many people, which was nice. The island seemed very peaceful and calm and it was just what we needed on our getaway from the city. No people, no cars, just plants and animals and a cool sea breeze.

Sometimes I wonder if these birds think humans build piers for their convenience.

Sometimes I wonder if these birds think humans build piers for their convenience.

After our koala walk, we wandered around the town a bit and then decided that, since we had brought the car across, it might be nice to drive to the other side of the island. The striking thing about the island is that most of the roads are just dirt. I’m sure that’s fun in the rain! But it does give it a very secluded feel. We drove through large stands of eucalypts and reached the far end of the island, where there were only a few houses.

If this were my commute every day, I don't think I'd mind a bit!

If this were my commute every day, I don’t think I’d mind a bit!

On the Paynesville side of the island, it is quite busy with people coming and going by ferry and all the boats going through the marina. Even though both Raymond Island and Paynesville are small towns, they are sort of holiday towns for retirees and being a weekend, there was a bit of hustle and bustle.

On the far side, there is a quiet beach and nothing else. We saw one sailboat far off near the horizon and that was it. We ended up spending nearly two hours on this beach and it was honestly the best, most perfect part of the trip. I’m not usually one for beaches, but this was nice. It really made us not want to go back home. So when we got back to Paynesville, we went straight to a realtor’s office to look at what sort of properties are for sale out there!

How cool would it be to have this for your backyard?

How cool would it be to have this for your backyard?

And yes, we’re still thinking about moving there!

 

Edit: I couldn’t figure out why this post was getting so many hits and then I found out it has been mentioned on RaymondIsland.net. So hello to all the Raymond Islanders who are stopping by! I am insanely jealous that you get to live there and I don’t. If the day ever comes when my husband and I don’t need our jobs anymore, we’ll be packing up and moving out there straight away! Until then, your little sanctuary will remain one of our favourite getaway spots. 🙂

Walhalla – An Australian Gold Mining Town

7 Jun

For the first time in what seems like forever, we were able to go away for the weekend and explore a new part of Victoria that neither of us had been to before. Woohoo! I’m a bit delayed in writing about it, but better late than never!

We spent the first day of our long weekend at Walhalla, which was once a major gold mining town, but is now largely abandoned. Only 16 people currently live there. However, the town is set up as a holiday destination, with plenty of accommodation from bed and breakfasts to campgrounds.

We didn’t stay overnight, but we did spend a very pleasant afternoon there. Being a Friday and non-peak season, many of the shops were closed and there were very few people around the town.

The highlight of our visit was the tour of the gold mine. Walhalla isn’t like crappy, rip-off Sovereign Hill with all its tourist traps and fakery. Walhalla is the real deal. It’s not a living history museum. It’s a genuine ghost town. And for that reason, I think it is a far better place to visit than Sovereign Hill, not to mention a better value for money.

The Long Tunnel Extension

The Long Tunnel Extension

It took the miners several years, but they finally intercepted a gold containing reef.

It took the miners several years, but they finally intercepted a gold containing reef.

That over there would be the teeny rest area where the miners could eat their lunch.

That over there would be the teeny rest area where the miners could eat their lunch.

Our guide, Sue, had all kinds of stories about people getting killed in the mines and how long it took to dig the mine. Here she was explaining that they had cleared all the trees within 30km of the town to provide fuel for the boilers.

Our guide, Sue, had all kinds of stories about people getting killed in the mines and how long it took to dig the mine. Here she was explaining that they had cleared all the trees within 30km of the town to provide fuel for the boilers.

A neat cross section map of the mine. If you worked at a level about halfway down, it might take you over an hour to reach your post.

A neat cross section map of the mine. If you worked at a level about halfway down, it might take you over an hour to reach your post.

Some interesting factoids from the mining tour:

Ned Stringer, a former convict, was the first to register a gold claim in the area, but he died from tuberculosis before he could return to Stringer’s Creek to profit from his find. However, his find generated over 50 years of intense mining activity.

A boy could start work in the mines at age 16. If he made it to the ripe old age of 24 without being killed, he was considered lucky. If he made it to age 30, they pulled him out to do topside work.

If a miner was killed on the job, the other miners would pool their days wages (£3.10 a day, which was a lot of money back then, especially compared to the national average wage of 50 schillings a day) and give the money to the widow. The widow could use the money for a funeral (there are a lot of very big headstones in the town cemetery- probably not cheap!) or use it to leave town and set up a new life somewhere else. She might stay if she had a son old enough to send into the mines or if she could remarry.

The quartz reef in the mine yielded over 42 tons of gold by 1900. The entire Walhalla goldfield produced 70 tons of gold

The gold found in Walhalla largely funded the building of Collins Street in Melbourne.

The last death in the mines was in 1986 when a company wanted to try to reopen the mine. A man was killed when a section of rock collapsed on him and it took 6 months and $3 million to recover his body. After that, plans to reopen the mine were abandoned.

After the mine tour, we explored the town a bit. One of the coffee shops was open and we had a snack there and I got some postcards in the post office.

The Walhalla Fire Station is actually built over the creek, due to lack of flat ground in the area. The original station burned down in a bush fire, ironically.

The Walhalla Fire Station is actually built over the creek, due to lack of flat ground in the area. The original station burned down in a bush fire, ironically.

Stringer's Creek. Supposedly contaminated with arsenic. I did notice that there were signs warning that the tap water was not suitable for drinking.

Stringer’s Creek. Supposedly contaminated with arsenic. I did notice that there were signs warning that the tap water was not suitable for drinking.

A pretty crimson rosella, doing bird things.

A pretty crimson rosella, doing bird things.

Not sure what kind of parrot this is, but there was a lot of very colourful, noisy bird life around.

Not sure what kind of parrot this is, but there was a lot of very colourful, noisy bird life around.

Peaceful. So nice to be away from the city!

Peaceful. So nice to be away from the city!

This is the former bank vault. The rest of the bank was moved to Moe and the vault was left behind. Naturally, the bank closed when the mines closed.

This is the former bank vault. The rest of the bank was moved to Moe and the vault was left behind. Naturally, the bank closed when the mines closed.

I also wanted to see the cemetery. I don’t know why, but I always like seeing old cemeteries. They do run a ghost tour of the town on weekends, but as we weren’t staying the night, we figured we’d just go visit the ghosts ourselves before leaving.

The cemetery is set on a very steep hillside and doesn’t seem to be very well maintained. The footing is pretty treacherous and we both tripped and slipped a few times.

Many of the headstones are made of wood and the names have worn away long ago. Others are crumbling stone. But a few seem to be cared for on a regular basis and some old graves have had the headstones replaced with new ones in recent years. I always wonder about the forgotten, neglected graves- who those people were, what happened to their families. I suppose it’s not very nice to be lying cold and forgotten in the ground where no one remembers that you ever existed and I always spend a bit of extra time at the forgotten graves, in case no one else does.

Most of the graves are from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. The rest are from the 1980s, probably from when people were drawn back to the town by the prospect of the mines reopening. Some graves contain entire families, including several where none of the children lived to see adulthood and many with teenaged boys who likely died in the mines. It’s quite sad to think of all the families that lost their sons, husbands, and fathers to the mines, all so that other people could get rich.

I have always found cemeteries to be hauntingly beautiful and the cool, autumn day, with the sun already dipping below the tree line, made the cemetery a very peaceful place to be. I suppose if you have to die and be buried, there are much worse places to seek eternal rest than in a quiet, abandoned mountain town.

The path up to the cemetery is lined with all the prehistoric looking plants that are so common in Australia. I love them and half expect to see a dinosaur crossing the path in front of us.

The path up to the cemetery is lined with all the prehistoric looking plants that are so common in Australia. I love them and half expect to see a dinosaur crossing the path in front of us.

This kookaburra didn't seem to mind at all that his constant laughter was disturbing the peace!

This kookaburra didn’t seem to mind at all that his constant laughter was disturbing the peace!

This lonely grave was tucked away into a far corner of the cemetery and was completely inaccessible, due to all the overgrown flora.

This lonely grave was tucked away into a far corner of the cemetery and was completely inaccessible, due to all the overgrown flora.

As you can see, the ground is very steep. There are lots of roots and prickly things just waiting to snare an unwary visitor.

As you can see, the ground is very steep. There are lots of roots and prickly things just waiting to snare an unwary visitor.

We left Walhalla after our visit to the cemetery, as everything was closing up and we still had to make our way to Bairnsdale for the night. On the drive down the mountain, we saw numerous lyrebirds running around, which I have never seen before in the wild. If you’ve never seen one and want to, this is apparently the area to go to!

I definitely recommend Walhalla for anyone interested in gold mining history or anyone who just wants to get away from the city and go somewhere peaceful for a while (like us). There is a lot more to do during peak season and on the weekends, but going on a Friday and being some of the few people there was really nice and relaxing. It’s a place I’d love to go back to.

http://www.visitwalhalla.com/

Good night, LaTrobe Valley!

Good night, LaTrobe Valley!

How to Drive Like an Australian

14 Mar

The sign is supposed to read “Don’t drive like a wanker.” Get it? W + anchor = wanker. Only in Australia!

You may think that driving is the same no matter where you go in the world, but you would be wrong. Every place has its own unique driving culture, including Australia. Here’s how you can fit in if you’d like to drive in Australia.

Australian driving tends to be based around two premises. The first is that any car you are driving is too big for the road. The second is that the road is made solely for you. When in doubt, default to either or both of these assumptions.

One of the trademarks of Australian driving is treating lane markings as suggestions, rather than hard and fast rules about where you car should be on the road.

Always let your passenger side wheels ride right on or just over the line. Not only does this convey to other drivers that you believe your car to be too big to fit on the road, but also that you are selfish. After all, you wouldn’t want anybody to be able pass you and beat you to that red light.

A common Australian tactic to prevent other drivers from "budging" in front of you (or "passing", as it is known in the civilised world), is to take up more than one lane, as seen here.

A common Australian tactic to prevent other drivers from “budging” in front of you (or “passing”, as it is known in the civilised world), is to take up more than one lane, as seen here.

In the same vein, you should never let other people get around a tram. When passing a tram, be sure to drive slowly, right next to the tram until the absolute last possible moment you have to actually pass it. Then quickly cut around in front of it and laugh because all the fools behind you cannot pass the tram and must bottleneck into a single file line behind it. Meanwhile, you are home free and have an open stretch of road to yourself. And heck, you can take it a step further by applying this passing etiquette to pretty much any other road situation. Like on the motorway.

On the motorway, if you are going slower than most people, be sure to hog the right lanes so that people are forced to pass you on the left. You can make this even more fun by ignoring the lane markings (see above) and taking up two lanes.

Another thing you can do is when you see that someone is trying to merge on, refuse to move over for them, even if the lane next to you is completely clear. It’s always fun to try to cause an accident and what better way to do it than by playing chicken with someone whose entrance lane is merging into yours?

Where you are from originally, it might be common practice to move your vehicle completely into the near lane to make a turn. That’s just simply not how it’s done in Australia. You must never move more than halfway into the near lane, even if it is a dedicated turn lane (which are very rare) to make a turn. Remember: your car is SO BIG that you can’t possible make that turn without swinging out and also, it’s perfectly acceptable to make everyone behind you slam on your brakes while you slowly negotiate that dangerous street corner with your oversized sedan. If you want to make it convincing, try to manage to hit the curb anyway, despite having made an overly wide turn.

These decorative signs add so much character to the street!

Also, those signs saying “no right turn”? Yeah, just feel free to ignore those. They are only there for decoration.

Then there’s the use of turn signals. In Australia, signalling your intent is incorrect. It’s always better to leave other drivers guessing for as long as possible. You must wait to put on your signal until after you have begun whatever move you are wanting to do.

Please remember that the road was made just for you. Be as selfish as you like and pay no attention to other drivers. A good way to do this is to intend to make a right turn and pull up to a red light in the right lane (which will usually be demarcated for right turners and for those going straight). Then wait until a bunch of cars get behind you and let them think you will be going straight. When the light turns green, THEN you can put on your right blinker and block the entire intersection for the duration of the green light and cackle with insane glee at all the poor sops behind you who can’t get around.

How a “keep clear” zone is theoretically supposed to work. (Click to view larger image.)

Often in Australia, you will find that certain intersections are marked as “keep clear” zones, indicating that drivers should not block the intersection if they need to stop. This is so that people can continue to make right turns in or out of said intersection. Believe it or not, most Aussies are pretty good about following the “keep clear” rule when they come to a stop. (Don’t ask me why this is the one road rule they choose to obey- I really don’t know.) The problem here comes from people who are turning onto the main road from a side street.

Here’s what you should do if you are ever trying to turn left onto a main road from a side street and find that the other drivers have conveniently left the “keep clear” box open: Pull into the box just enough to claim your place in line, but not so much that anyone behind you wanting to turn right can get through. When the line starts moving, pull forward so slowly that the right turner behind you doesn’t have a chance to sneak through the line before the other cars start to close in. After all, he’s probably not in any hurry to get anywhere.

Yeah, that sign for a bike lane? That’s just for decoration, too. Notice how skillfully this driver manages to block the cycling lane to get revenge on any cyclist who might try to pass him. Well done, sir!

There are often a lot of bicycles and motorcycles sharing the road. This can cause some Aussie drivers to become very angry in heavy traffic when they see that someone on a pushbike is moving faster than they are. Try to be a true-blue Aussie yourself by sharing in the communal rage of your fellow drivers and cooperating with them to block the offending two-wheeled vehicle. Do this by once again ignoring your lane marking and drifting into the bicycle or parking lane so that the offender either can’t get through safely at all or must slow way down to avoid hitting your mirror. After all, if you have to sit in traffic, so should everyone else! Take it up a notch by driving onto the sidewalk to block pedestrians. The only thing more insulting than a cyclist moving faster than your car is a pedestrian moving faster than your car!

Lastly, when driving in Australia, pretend every day is a lazy Sunday and you have nowhere important to be. Drive slowly, leisurely. Spend more time looking at your surrounding than at traffic or road hazards. Expect people to be forgiving of your mistakes while being completely intolerant of theirs. In general, adopt a laid-back attitude to driving. If you are never in a rush, you won’t mind the traffic so much and you’ll find it’s easier to ignore the honking behind you.

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service

16 Jan

Today I want to talk about a really disgusting phenomenon I’ve noticed as the summer has settled in and the days have become reliably warm.

While by no means the majority of people are engaging in this, I’ve seen it often enough now that I can no longer classify it as an “exception”.

I’m talking about people who walk around in public barefoot. I’ve seen people walking along the sidewalk without shoes on, going into eating establishments without shoes on, riding their bikes without shoes on (ouch!), or doing their grocery shopping without shoes on. Yesterday, the girl in line in front of me at the OfficeWorks copy center was also barefoot.

I understand that Australia is pretty laid back and maybe a lot of people just want to bring their beach lifestyle into the city, but walking around barefoot is not only dangerous (I hear there are a lot of needles lying around in the vicinity of Victoria Street), but it’s GROSS.

Seriously, I don’t want to see your grody feet and I don’t want to think about what kind of foot fungus you’re sharing with all the people who walked on that floor barefoot before you did. Put some freaking shoes on! Even flip flops would suffice.

So anyway, I was remarking on this unhygienic habit to H and something occurred to me. In Australia, I have never, not once, seen one of those signs that say “no shirt, no shoes, no service”.

Americans, you know what I’m talking about. You see them everywhere in America. I remember the local gas station where I grew up put one of those signs up because so many kids came in barefoot or wearing swimsuits in the summer after having been playing in the sprinkler.

I asked H if such signs existed here and he said he didn’t think he had ever seen one. So now I’m going to be on the lookout for people who aren’t wearing shirts either.

In A Sunburned Country

9 Jan

Normally, travel books are not my thing, but my mom sent me a copy of Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country as a Christmas gift. And being that I’ve been sick in bed for quite a long time, I had nothing better to do than start reading it right away. I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be pretty good.

Bill Bryson is a humourous travel writer. While I haven’t read any of his other books, I hear they are all similarly filled with wit and cleverness. The book was published in 2000 and there are certain parts that may come across as a bit out of date (I could have done without the appendix on the Sydney Olympics), but for the most part, I still found it relevant.

Bryson made several trips to Australia, exploring both the usual tourist locales and places off the beaten track. Of each adventure, he gives an amusing account.

But this is not a travel guide. This book isn’t about what to see and do. Instead, it’s about Australia. It’s about the people, the places, the history, the culture. Bryson makes Australia come alive in a way that a travel guide doesn’t. If you want to know which five star hotel is the best in Sydney, look elsewhere. If you want to know what it’s like to stop in a dusty roadside pub in the middle of the Outback as the sun sets and kangaroos hop across the horizon, then this book is for you.

For example, Bryson visits the Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s biggest tourist attractions. But does he gush about how beautiful it is, how exotic and exciting? No… of course not. That would be boring. Instead he tells you about an American couple who got left behind when the boat departed without them and were never seen again. Probably eaten by sharks, he speculates.

Likewise, his account of the Great Ocean Road gives only a cursory nod to its beauty, before skipping ahead to the Mornington Peninsula where he tells you what none of the guide books do: that it’s filled with persistent, voracious, man-eating flies that WILL crawl up your nose and ears if they want to and there is nothing you can do about it. It is here that he perfects the “Aussie salute” on his way to pay homage to the spot (Cheviot Beach) where a prime minister, Harold Holt, mysteriously disappeared, swept out into the sea never to be seen again.

Here is what I’ve taken away from the book:

World’s most venomous snake – the inland taipan

1) Australia is dangerous.

Well, anybody who’s been here already knows that, but the armchair traveler might not. Yep, just about everything here is deadly and what’s not deadly will usually cause you intense pain. Snakes, insects, spiders, fish, sharks, jellyfish, crocodiles, you name it. Bryson relates several stories of dangerous animals, including an infestation of bluebottles (also known as the Portuguese Man O’ War) at a beach in Sydney, a swarm of box jellyfish at a beach near Cairns, and a few deadly but dead snakes in museums. Because he doesn’t mention any fatalities associated with them, I’m going to assume that sheep are at least relatively safe.

“You probably won’t see any redbacks out there,” Sonja reassured us. “Snakes are much more of a problem.”

This intelligence was received with four raised eyebrows and expressions that said, “Go on.”

She nodded. “Common brown, western taipan, western puff pastry, yellow-backed lockjaw, eastern groin groper, dodge viper…” I don’t remember what she said exactly, but it was a long list. “But don’t worry,” she continued. “Most snakes don’t want to hurt you. If you’re out in the bush and a snake comes along, just stop dead and let it slide over your shoes.”

This, I decided, was the least-likely-to-be-followed advice I have ever been given.

Canberra- a sprawling park with not much to do

2. Canberra is boring.

I haven’t personally been to Canberra, but I’ve always thought it would be a nice place to see until I read Bryson’s account. He describes it as one giant sprawling park, where you can walk a long way without seeing anything or anyone, with not much to see or do and even less to eat.

Downtown Canberra was primarily a series of plazas wandering between retail premises, and devoid of any sign of life but for a noise of slap and clatter that I recognized after a moment as the sound of skateboards. Having nothing better to do, I followed the sounds to an open square where half a dozen adolescents, all in backward-facing baseball caps and baggy shorts, were honing their modest and misguided skills on a metal railing.

[…] If there is anything more half-witted than asking six adolescents in backward-facing baseball caps for a dining recommendation, then it doesn’t occur to me just at the moment, but I’m afraid this is what I did now.

“Are you an American?” asked one of the kids in a tone of surprise that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected to encounter in a world capital.

I allowed that I was.

“There’s a Mcdonald’s just around the corner.”

Gently I explained that it was not actually a condition of citizenship that I eat the food of my nation. “I was thinking of maybe a nice Thai restaurant,” I suggested.

They looked at me with that flummoxed, dead-end expression that you have to be fourteen years old to produce with conviction.

“Or perhaps Indian?” I offered hopefully, and got the same no-one-home look. “Indonesian? Vietnamese? Lebanese? greek? Mexican? West Indian? Malaysian?”

As the list grew, they shifted uncomfortably […].

“Italian?” I said.

“There’s a Pizza Hut on Lonsdale Street,” piped up one with a look of triumph. “They do an all you can eat buffet on Tuesdays.”

“Thanks,” I said, realizing this was getting me nowhere […]. “It’s Friday today,” I pointed out.

“Yeah,” the kid agreed, nodding solemnly. “They don’t do it on Fridays.”

Painting by John Longstaff of Burke and Wills at the “Dig” tree

3. Most of the early explorers of Australia were really bad at their jobs.

I never knew much about the history of Australia, being an American. What American does? Or for that matter, what non-Australian does? As Bryson frequently points out, Australia isn’t really on most people’s radar, largely due in part to its geographical isolation. But he makes an effort to find out and share some unique points of Australian history, including the story of the most famous of Australian explorers, Burke and Wills. Burke and Wills are basically like the Lewis and Clark of Australia, except, well, they died and Lewis and Clark succeeded. They were sent on an expedition to find a passage through the interior of the continent by which a telegraph line could be built, but they unfortunately were not very qualified and did everything wrong.

They chose as leader an Irish police officer named Robert O’Hara Burke, who had never seen real Outback, was famous for his ability to get lost even in inhabited areas, and knew nothing of exploration or science. The surveyor was a young English doctor named William John Wills, whose principal qualifications seem to have been a respectable background and a willingness to go. On the plus side, however, they both had outstanding beards.

This kangaroo is definitely a true blue Australian.

4. Australians are a generally friendly people, except in Darwin.

Bryson’s book is full of examples of friendly Australians. In fact, right up until the chapter on his visit to Darwin, you’re led to believe that all Australians are cheerful, happy-go-lucky, and neighbourly. And really, this does sort of fit the stereotype. I think most people imagine that Australians don’t do much besides smile, surf, drink beer, and say “G’day, mate!” to everyone in the vicinity. But not in Darwin, especially where hotel staff are concerned. Visitors be warned!

Our troubles began when we went looking for our hotel. We were booked into a place called the All Seasons Frontier hotel, but no such establishment appeared to exist. […]

Eventually we stopped outside a large hotel on the seafront and Allan ordered me to go inside and seek professional guidance. At the front desk a young man who had evidently invested a recent paycheck in a very large tub of hair gel stood with his back to me regaling two female colleagues with some droll anecdote. I waited a long minute, then went “Ahem.”

He turned his head to give me a look that said, without warmth, “What?”

“Could you point me to the All Seasons Frontier Hotel?” I asked politely.

Without preamble, he reeled off a series of complex directions […] and I couldn’t begin to follow. On the counter was a pad of maps and I asked him if he could show me on that.

“It’s too far to walk,” he said dismissively and just a bit oddly.

“I don’t want to walk. I’ve got a car.”

“Then ask your driver to take you.” He rolled his eyes for the benefit of the girls, then continued with his story.

How I longed for a small firearm or perhaps a set of industrial tongs with which to clamp his reedy neck and draw his head close to me, the better to hear what I next had to say. It was: “Do you think if I had a driver, I would be asking directions of you? It’s a rental car, you snide, irksome, preposterously glossy little shit.” I may not have said the words precisely in that order, or indeed at all, but that was certainly the emotional gist of it.

[…] Ten minutes later we pulled up outside a hotel that announced itself, in large letters, as the Darwin City Frontier Hotel. […] I stalked through the front doors.

“Is this the All Seasons Frontier Hotel?” I barked from an unsocial distance.

The young woman behind the counter looked up and blinked. “Yes,” she said.

“Then” – I came much closer – “why don’t you put a sign up saying so?”

She regarded me levelly. “It says on the side of the building.”

“Well, it doesn’t.”

She favored me with a thin, knowing, supremely condescending smile. “Yes, it does.”

“Well, it doesn’t.”

Torn between her training in customer relations and her youthful certitude, she hesitated, and in a soft voice said, “Does.”

I held up a finger in a way that said, “Don’t move. Don’t go anywhere. I’m going to check this out and then come back and throttle someone. You actually.”

I went out and ranged around the building in the manner of a demented building inspector […] then came back in and announced, “It doesn’t say ‘All Seasons’ on it anywhere.”

She looked at me and said nothing, but I could see she was thinking, “Does.”

Kinda like baseball?

5. Cricket is an oddity among Australian sports.

Anyone who knows anything about Australia knows that Aussies are a very sporting people who excel in a wide range of different sporting activities, with special preference given towards anything dangerous, like surfing or Australian Rules football. It might therefore baffle the outsider to encounter cricket, quite possibly the most boring sport known to mankind, even more boring than golf or baseball. Cricket is a leftover from British culture and is, for some reason, quite a popular sport in Australia, to the bafflement of the rest of the world.

I had stumbled onto the surreal and rewarding world of cricket on the radio.

After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn’t fix in a hurry. It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect.

I don’t wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of the awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players- more if they are moderately restless. It is the only competitive activity of any type, other than perhaps baking, in which you can dress in white from head to toe and be as clean at the of the day as you were at the beginning.

[…] Now imagine all this going on for so long that by the time the match concludes, autumn has crept in and all your library books are overdue. There you have cricket.

Seriously, who wouldn’t want to see these?!

6. There are lots of interesting things off the beaten path, if you take the time to look.

One thing that I particularly liked about the book was that Bryson makes a lot of stops in small towns in the middle of nowhere and manages to find something cool about each one of them. If you want to know what is interesting in the touristy places, there is no shortage of literature to advise you. And you can go and see the same things millions of other people have seen, if that’s your thing. Bryson does some of that, but he doesn’t spend much time talking about it. Instead, he’ll tell you about an amazing museum with a lifelike hologram in the some small forgotten town and he’ll visit the nowhere places where interesting bits of history occurred, like Lambing Flat, where a riot among gold miners broke out when the white miners became upset that the Chinese miners were finding better fortunes than they were, or Myall Creek, where in 1838, was the very first time any whites had ever been punished for the murder of Aborigines (seven were hanged). Or if history doesn’t interest you, there is always the Big Lobster.

The Big Lobster, you see, was something- or more properly a species of something- that I had longed to see ever since I had hit the road.

One of the more cherishable peculiarities of Australians is that they like to build big things in the shape of other things. Give them a bale of chicken wire, some fiberglass, and a couple of pots of paint and they will make you, say, an enormous pineapple or strawberry or, as here, a lobster. Then they put a cafe and gift shop inside, erect a big sign on the highway (for the benefit of people whose acuity does not evidently extend to spotting a fifty foot high piece of fruit standing beside an otherwise empty highway), then sit back and wait for the money to roll in.

Australia is home to Uluru, the world’s largest monolith.

7. Australia is a pretty amazing place.

Australia is truly unique in the world. The majority of its flora and fauna exist nowhere else on earth. It’s totally inhospitable to life, but has more biological diversity than anywhere else in the world. New species are being discovered all the time. It’s one of the few places on earth that still has vast amounts of uncharted territory. The history of its founding is unique and the Aboriginal inhabitants are an anthropological anomaly. It’s one of the best places in the world to live and possibly also the most beautiful.

Crocodiles would attack, bushfires would rage, ministers would depart in shame, amazing things would be found in the desert, and possibly lost again, and word of nine if this would reach my ears. Life in Australia would go on, and I would hear nothing, because once you leave Australia, Australia ceases to be. What a strange, sad thought that is.

I can understand, of course. Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t need watching, and so we don’t. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely ours.

You see, Australia is an interesting place. It truly is. And that really is all I’m saying.

This is the kind of book that will make you want to start packing your bags for an extended road trip around Australia. It will make you want to tempt fate by driving into the Outback to see if you could survive from drinking your own urine any better than the unfortunate souls who came before you or by taking a motorboat into crocodile territory just to see how many sets of chompers you can attract with the engine noise and then escape from unscathed.

Australia is generally not on most people’s radar, which is really an unfortunate thing, being such a beautiful and fascinating country. Bryson laments the fact that the rest of the world rarely takes notice of Australia and in his book, sets out to share why the country is so interesting and deserving of a closer look.

Bryson has a deft and sarcastic way of brilliantly poking fun at the country while simultaneously praising it. He really does love Australia. Naturally, he engages in a bit of hyperbole to tell his stories, which non-Australians will find amusing and Australians might not, but it’s all a matter of perspective. In any case, his affection for the country and its people shines through and by the end of the book, you will feel the same special place in your heart for Australia that Bryson has.

Aussie Christmas Cards

20 Dec

This year, I wanted to make some Christmas cards that would be a little different than the standard fare of snowflakes, angels, and trees. I found some really neat Australian Christmas scrapbooking papers by Feature Art that I thought would be perfect for making Christmas cards out of.  What could be cuter than koalas and wombats in Santa hats or a sleigh pulled by kangaroos? So I stocked up on their entire line of Christmas papers and some cardstock and went to work. Here are some of the finished cards:

023

020

011

014

013

017

008

004

005

012

003

001

009

016

018

015

002

It costs $1.60 to mail cards from Australia to the US and Europe. When I went to get some stamps for the cards, I was thrilled to find these super cool Christmas Island stamps that matched the theme of my cards perfectly. How cute are these???

The whole process of making the cards was pretty simple, as it was just a lot of cutting paper and gluing or taping it together. As much as I like the neat things you can do with rubber stamps, they are a major hassle and can be really messy. It’s much easier not to use them. So I saved quite a bit of time by avoiding stamps, other than the occasional “Merry Christmas” stamp. Most of the time, I just used the stickers, which I think look nicer, anyway.

I started out using Bazzill Basics cardstock because I liked the texture of it, but it really curled up badly when it got wet with glue (I prefer glue to double sided tape- it just seems easier to work with), so I switched to sturdier, non textured stuff for some of the cards.

Anyway, hope you like them! Let me know if you have a favourite. 😀