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Flying Home

First of all, an admission. We are flying home in style—business class. If we’d had any money left after the stock market crash, this would have have zeroed out our accounts, but in truth, our ticket was a negotiation over cancelled flights. The plane is nearly full, but we are lucky to be flying Virgin Australia, where the ticket counter lines were much shorter than those of Delta and United and the departure closer to on-time. A side benefit was access to an airport lounge where we were greeted with table-cloth dining service. When was the last time anyone experienced that level of service? Too bad it was too early for wine.

The proportion of those wearing masks was higher in Sydney’s international airport terminal than we’d seen to date with, for the first time, a few non-Asians wearing them. On board the plane, though, no one in our area is donning them. As I write this, I am wondering what will be greeting us in LAX...

We must be on one of the last trains out of town. Qantas has shut down international flights and Virgin Australia will soon follow. 

Not too long before we left on this trip, Frances had purchased the usual mega-package of toilet paper from Costco, so unless one of our neighbors gets wind of this, our closet should be well stocked when we get home. On the other hand, the refrigerator is empty of everything but hot sauce and mustard and the pantry contains but a few boxes of pasta. I wonder how pasta and hot sauce tastes? Maybe we can trade toilet paper for food.

LAX

The Los Angeles airport was more crowded than I expected and while the percent of staff and travelers with masks was higher than in Australia, they are still a minority. I just wish they would cover their mouths when they remove the masks to cough. Really.

LAX is not as sad as the New York airports, but it’s close. After a month of enjoying six Australian airports, large and small, experiencing LAX feels like a third world country. (I still can’t get over the fact that for none of the Australian domestic flights were we ever asked for an ID.) Immigration at LAX, though, went smoothly and we were not checked for temperature as we had been warned we would. 

Frances in her Virgin Australia “pod”. And do you recognize the shapes of the plane’s salt and pepper shakers? On the right: Have you ever seen airports so empty? This is the arrivals area in Austin.

Our Delta flight from LAX to Austin flew almost empty. There is no way the airlines can keep this up. As bad as the pandemic will become, the health catastrophe will pale in comparison to the coming damage to the economy and to tens of millions of lives and livelihoods. IRA’s, including ours, are devastated. Public employees will be OK, of course. They will be paid whether they work or not. But everyone else? I hate to think about it.

Our adventure in Australia was an enjoyable substitute for the original 60-day, ten-country itinerary of Sydney to Dubai. But our future trips I presume are also in jeopardy. We were to go to France at the end of June and to Uzbekistan and the three countries of the Caucasus in August and September. Odds are the pandemic will still be raging. All the actions we are taking from government bans and closures, to association cancellations, to individual social distancing will only slow the virus, “flattening the curve”. Brave new world.

A final word on Australia. We could live there. The country is beautiful and the people friendly. I can almost understand them. Well, sometimes. The country has the vitality of a younger America. Even the music is out of the 60’s and 70’s and country fans would feel right at home with the music of the Outback. I think Melbourne and Adelaide would be our preferred home base, with trips to the tropics of Northern Queensland for a change.

This is all amusing rumination, of course. We’ll be happy to get back to Texas.

Home

Good friend Lee Saage picked us up at the airport and delivered us to our home. And Kathi Saage left a supper in our refrigerator. What a gift. Otherwise, the pantry is as empty as we had imagined—but the wine supply is adequate, so we’re in good shape. I hope all the readers of this blog are too. You all know I like to throw a little humor in my postings, but it’s difficult now. So “hunker down”, be safe, and keep in touch.  And the Dallen’s? We’ll be back on the road as soon as we can.

 

Canberra

 Canberra

On our way to the Cairns airport the taxi driver asked “Where are you going?”

“To Canberra,” I responded.

He turned to me with a puzzled looked and asked “Why?”

Well, we are here and our first, and second, reaction is that it certainly is different from elsewhere we have visited in Australia. It’s the capital, of course, and a city born because Melbourne and Sydney, in their great rivalry, would not let one or the other be named the capital. The compromise? A new city founded in 1913, located between the two. (Canberra is twice as far from Melbourne as from Sydney. Was Sydney already the more dominant?) 

But what makes Canberra different for the tourist is that it is a sprawling city with wide streets and boulevards, filled with trees and parks, and as far as we can determine, no downtown. There are clusters of village-like enclaves with shops, restaurants, and services. We are in a hotel in the center of the city—and close to nothing. It took us a half hour to walk to our selected restaurant our first night and a full hour to walk to our first destination the next morning. For our second evening’s dinner, the four of us gave in and called a taxi. (The meal was at an Indian restaurant and outstanding. There were few other customers.) If one’s idea of a visit is to lodge oneself in a city hotel and enjoy the ambience of cafes and nearby excursions, this is not that place. Designed in the twenties, it was built for cars.

But first, a thought. Paraphrasing a note Frances sent to the kids, it’s almost surreal for us. We flew from Cairns to Canberra via Brisbane in a fairly full plane, we have eaten out “normally” in several excellent (albeit, nearly empty) restaurants, and we have visited Australia’s outstanding War Memorial, all as if nothing important is going on in the rest of the world. That comfortable bubble is about to burst, I suppose, as we are increasingly focused on our return trip. Pegging down the last details of our return flights, such as seat assignments, has been akin to pushing through mud, a slow and at times exasperating process. But it’s done.

Let’s focus on our short stay in Canberra now. For a full day our one excursion was the aforementioned War Memorial. Full day is relative, of course. We rose late and took the long walk to the venue. When we got there we were well rewarded. One could spend several days visiting the separate sections of the museum, divided into exhibits of all the wars In which Australia has been a willing or unwilling participant—from the Boer War to Afghanistan. Australia, you should recall, has been America’s most consistent ally since World War I, supporting us even when England, Canada and Britain would not. Naturally, there was some Australian pride displayed, such as the exhibit that described how the Australians taught the Americans how to repair a severed Huey tail. We had a full, informative, at times quite somber visit. Yes, it was worth visiting Canberra to experience. 

Top left: Walking to the restaurant our first night. Middle right: A long view of the parliament building, which we visited our last morning. Excuse all the bird pictures. I can’t help it. Australia’s birds are an attraction. Even their bats look more like cute foxes than vampires.

Exhibits and sculptures along the boulevard leading to the War Memorial.

Top left: The War Memorial was established after WWI, but even before that war was over, a far-sighted team were collecting items for display in the proposed memorial. The WWI dioramas, mostly constructed in the 1920’s, are still quite effective. Artifacts from all Australia’s wars fill the exhibits but the stories accompanying them would have taken days to read. Bottom right: Exhibits such as this Huey were supplemented with short sound and light simulations, in this case of a combat assault in Vietnam.

More from the exhibits, inside and out. Lower right: Australia’s tomb of the unknown soldier is in the Memorial and in the walls are engraved the names of the over 100,000 Australians known to have been killed in its wars.

The first step on our return to the U.S. was the short flight from Canberra to Sydney, scheduled the afternoon before our longer Sydney to LAX to Austin ones. That left us the morning and early afternoon for one more tourist experience. We choose the Australia Parliament House, a short (for Canberra) walk from the hotel. Google Maps showed a relatively straight path along the boulevard and a little zig-zap. Apparently google doesn’t distinguish between highways and sidewalks in its path planning. (We failed to learn this lesson the day before when we crossed streams and highways to get to and from the War Memorial.) Confronted with a four lane highway and no discernible paths, we dashed across the highway and entered a woods. After a short walk we came across a grassy hill, OK, a steep grassy hill, up to the parliament building. We’d found the back side, likely by a route rarely used by tourists. (I hope you appreciate the, shall we say, adventurous spirit this group of seventy year olds continue to show. Our wives might react to this description with an eye roll.)  We joined a tour of the building, led by a pleasant young man who can only be described as loquacious—and boring. In fact, when we went to the roof of the Parliament after the tour, we encountered a guard (a federal policeman) who gave us a much more engaging tour and narrative. We walked back to our hotel by a much saner, safer route.

Top left: The hill on the backside of the Parliament House. It’s steeper than it looks, our wives reminded us. Top right: The proper main entrance to the Parliament. Bottom: Atop the Parliament House.

Top: The house and the senate chambers. Representation is modeled after the U.S. Congress, with representation in the house based on population and the senate with an equal number of senators per state. Rarely are both houses controlled by the same party, and when that has happened and the party in power gets too ambitious, the dominance is undone in the next election. Bottom left: View toward the War Memortal from the roof of the Parliament House. Bottom right: Our group with the guards who befriended us.

At the hotel, we said our goodbyes to the McKennas, who will be starting back to Tucson a day later and via Singapore. We’re hoping to see them again late June in France, should the world be traveling again.

Top left: The tapestry in the Great Hall of the Parliament, 20 meters by 9 meters. Top right: Croquet goes on in the world of the Coronavirus. Bottom left: This sign in toilet stalls is ubiquitous throughout Australia. Bottom middle and right: We’re at the airport. Note the lack of crowds.

Our plane for the puddle jump is arriving at the gate. If all goes well, you’ll next hear from us from Texas in two days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef

It seems so surreal to be writing a travel blog when much of the world is on lockdown. We have just received word that all facilities in Sun City are now closed for a month, including even the tennis courts. Now the Coronavirus problem is getting personal, mutters Frances. 

I don’t wish to ignore the suffering of those who have been infected and the likely millions more that will be, but we are in a relatively remote area  of a country that is a few weeks behind in reacting to the virus. Except for the effect on tourism, the troubles of the world seem far removed from here. We are in Cairns, in the far northeast corner of Australia.

It’s quiet here. The majority of the tourists are Asian but the number of tourists is a small fraction of the normal flow of visitors, who we understand are mostly Chinese. No cruise ships have stopped in Cairns in several weeks.The large majority of restaurants have few patrons, even on a Saturday night. (A couple of Indian restaurants we passed were the exception. We can’t explain this.) Good for us, I suppose, but I think of the millions and millions of men and women world wide who can’t make a living during this crisis. But let’s put aside these thoughts for the moment and continue with more positive comments. After all, it’s beautiful here in Cairns.

Cairns

This is a laid-back tropical resort town of 160,000 souls, almost 2/3rds the population of Northern Queensland. The city is steadily growing as a place for tourists and retirees. Our view when we first landed was that the area looked and felt like one of the more mountainous Caribbean islands.

As in Cairns, we lodged ourselves in a complex that is a mix of residences and rentable apartments. Once again we have a large, multi-room apartment with a kitchen (which we don’t use), a washer and dryer (which we, er, Frances uses), and two and a half baths. There are also two TVs, but we have yet to turn on a TV in all the time we have been in Australia. There is a toilet in the laundry room, which is as strange as it sounds. There is no housekeeping service here but that is more than made up for by the affordable price and spacious accommodation.

Our first night we dragged the McKenna’s to a seafood restaurant. They looked away while we ate our oysters and mussels. Brian and Karen’s preferences are for Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisine. Frances and I, as you all know, are true omnivores. Our only aversion is to (most) fast food restaurants. So many great foods, so growing my waistline.

Top left: View from our apartment. Top right: This is a single tree! Bottom left: We have watched the bats, or “flying foxes”, leave town for their night feeding then return at sunrise. (We had to be up early for our boat ride.) Bottom right: The harbor, or more properly in Australia, the harbour. There were scores of tour boats. I don’t believe most of them went to sea this day.

For our first full day in Cairns we opted for a sailboat cruise to Green Island and that area’s sampling of the Great Barrier Reef. (The McKenna’s chose to explore the city.) If we had a true bucket list, for me the Great Barrier Reef would be on it. We got our wish. Our ship was a schooner, with the rear mast taller. The captain was an English-born Australian, the divemaster American, and the third crewman a young woman raised in Cooktown, a city even further north and more remote in Queensland. There were 19 guests, but only a few Germans on board chose to SCUBA dive. The rest of us settled for snorkeling. After snorkeling, we were greeted with a wonderful on-board lunch. (All effective tourist venues know to keep their clientele sedated with continuous flows of food and beverages.) After lunch we were transported to Green Island on the ship’s Zodiac and dropped off on the beach. Half of the island is a Chinese-owned, operated and frequented complex. We visited that half only to seek out (successfully) our daily dosage of gelato/ice cream. The remainder of the island is a national park, with a well-built walkway leading through an island rainforest to the far side.

Top left: Our ship. This schooner was one of the few single-hull ships providing tours, which is why we chose it. Top right: The bottom half of our captain. Yes, he is steering the ship with his feet. Bottom left: Frances in her jellyfish suit, which we all wore. There were no jellyfish, but the suits saved the use of a lot of sunscreen. Much to my pleasant surprise, I was provided with a prescription mask for my snorkeling. Bottom right: Not having an underwater camera, we could get no pictures of the coral and fish we saw while snorkeling. According to the crew, the area’s coral is coming back.


I tried to find pictures on the internet of the fluorescent blue coral and delicate pink coral we saw. I couldn’t find anything close to what we viewed. The blue coral’s fluorescence was at the tips. The pink coral was small and well-shaped. We also saw green coral and flat coral, both new to me.


Top left: The lunch was excellent. Despite having a fair number of younger passengers on board, we hardly dented the feast. The shame? All the uneaten food (except the shrimp; explanation deferred) must be thrown away. It can’t even be given away for liability reasons. Remainder of pictures: We’re in the Green Island National Park.


Top: More on Green Island. That’s a humpback whale skull on the right. The island also hosts a crocodile “zoo” (which we skipped) that is nicknamed “croc jail”, as aggressive crocodiles, even man eaters, are sent here rather than be killed. Bottom left: The one unwasted food was the shrimp. These are thrown to the fish, where most (all?) are fought over and eaten by four-foot long tuna-like fish whose name I did not catch. Fortunately, while swimming amongst them, we were not mistaken for shrimp, for some reason.

The return trip to Cairns was a wonderful. For the trip out the ship motored, with one notional sail set. For most of the way back, we were under sail only. The breeze was good. It’s a joyful way to travel through the water.

It’s only fair I show the top half of our captain.

At dinner, we traded tales of the day’s adventures with the McKenna’s in a small restaurant in which we were the only customers for much of the evening. Small restaurant but huge portions. Each couple shared a salad. (Recall that we had been eating all day.) We probably all could have shared one salad. But the salads were delicious. Ours was a lamb tenderloin salad with avocado, feta cheese, kalamata olives and a half dozen other ingredients. Happy sigh here.

To Kuranda and Back

For our second full day in Northern Queensland, we made a round trip to the village of Kuranda, high in the hills, 15 or so miles northwest of Cairns. What was most interesting was our mode of transport to and from. To get to Kuranda we took the Skyrail gondola, actually a sequence of two gondola rides, one with an intermediate stop. That stop was to be our first view of Barron Gorge, with its waterfall drop of 800 feet. While rising in the gondola we could catch site of Green Island, miles away in the Pacific.

Top left: View of the rainforest from the Skyrail. Top right: A rainforest walk at one of the gondola stops. Bottom left: One wonders how the explorers and surveyors got through this jungle. Bottom right: A view of the falls of Barrons Gorge.

The destination, Kuranda, is known as a market place, but that held little interest for us, so we settled for an enjoyable lunch and the obligatory ice cream.

Top left: Before the falls. Top right and bottom left: In Kuranda. Bottom right: Reused rails. I’ll bet the benches aren’t often relocated.

Our return trip was by railroad. The Kuranda Scenic Railway runs on a historic route and is said to be an engineering marvel of the time. There are 15 hand-dug tunnels, 55 bridges, and 98 curves, a couple quite sharp. The coach we rode in was nearly one hundred years old. On that return trip, we stopped at another viewpoint to see the Barron Falls. (Barron Gorge is a National Park.) We returned in time to see the bats fly again. All in all a most enjoyable day.

Top left: Our train at a stop. Top right: Another view of Barrons Gorge. Bottom left: Stoney Creek Falls, falls which come very close to the train tracks. Bottom right: Frances in our train carriage.

I’ll finish as I started, with a story concerning COVID-19 and it’s effect on individuals. While waiting in a nearby hotel lobby for the bus to pick us up for our tour this morning, we observed a couple being briefed by some representative of their tour group. The couple were elderly Americans, or perhaps Canadians. They had just arrived in Australia. The couple were told they must begin a fourteen-day quarantine. They looked confused, stricken, then resigned. Likely they had long planned this trip and saved for it. It’s not just the sick who are suffering.

For us, we are hopeful our current plans for returning to the States on Thursday will go as scheduled. But we’ll slip in one more visit before this—to Australia’s capital, Canberra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brisbane

Brisbane 

What comes to mind when you think of Brisbane. That’s what I thought. I didn’t have any idea either. It’s the capital of the northeastern Australia state of Queensland and the third largest city in Australia. OK, that’s not much help. Well, as we discovered, it’s a bustling metropolis. A picture of the skyline in 1965 shows a town with the city hall clock tower as the tallest building. Now that tower is dwarfed by dozens of skyscrapers. It reminds me of a modern version of San Gimignano. We are lodging in the tallest of those skyscrapers, a place called Meriton, with 74 floors. We’re on floor 23, as the hotel only goes to the 24th. It’s all residences above. Sadly, we couldn’t get to the top floor; that’s a private floor, presumably penthouses.

For our first day and a half in Brisbane, Frances and I conducted a walking self-tour. (For some reason, not virus related, the free walking tour normally organized by the tourist information center was canceled that day.) Brian and Karen went their own way, as has been our normal procedure except when purchasing formal tours. (We then rendezvous for dinner and relate our respective experiences.) Despite being a city of two million people, we ran into them twice throughout the day. I’ll let a few pictures describe our day.


Top left: This is embarrassing. We toured the Brisbane City Hall and the only external picture I took was a blurry one I snapped the evening before. Top right: The top of the clock tower still provides a good view, this of the Wesley Church below. Visitors are not allowed in the tower while the massive bells are tolling. Bottom left: The elevator in the clock tower is still manually controlled. Bottom right: The impressive auditorium, with an equally impressive organ, in the city hall.

Monuments and artwork galore throughout the city.

The Queensland Parliament. As photos were forbidden in most of the building, the right two pictures are “borrowed”. Queensland is the only Australian state to have only one chamber. The story as to how the government (in 1922) eliminated the Upper Chamber against its will and contrary to the results of a referendum is a study in political intrigue.

We took the free water taxi across the river. That other side, South Bank, was once an unattractive industrial waterfront. It’s now a beautiful park with museums, a rainforest walk, even a beach. We presume the head-down elephant is an art piece.

More scenes around Brisbane

Top left: Even the construction cranes are lit to make the evening attractive. The town is still under major construction. Top right: The Aussies still have a sense of humor. Bottom left: Our hotel, the Meriton. Bottom right: The view of the river from our room.

Two National Parks and More

For our second full day we signed on for an all-day tour of two National Parks. There were ten of us in the tour van, with a good cross-section of the Queen’s colonies (Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US), plus three Italians. We didn’t ask the Italians if they could go home yet. We could all communicate except with one of the New Zealanders, whose accent stymied all the Americans. That didn’t phase the friendly New Zealander, who was willing to rattle on regardless of our incomprehension.

The weather wasn’t too bad at the beginning of the trip, but we ducked varying levels of rain much of the day. Except for minimizing the view from and of Mt. Tamborine and for some iffy footing on some of the paths, we did fine on the trip. Again, I’ll let pictures tell most of the story.

Springbrook National Park: Top left: A waterfall from within a cave and under the Natural Bridge. Top right: The Strangler Fig will eventually surround and kill the tree beneath. We last saw this species (or something quite similar) in Central America. Bottom left: The falls from the top—or at least I think it’s the same falls. Bottom right: Our trail through the park.

Tamborine National Park: Top left and bottom right: Walking through a rainforest park trail. Top right: Our guide showing us how to enter the tree trunk to listen to the beehive far above. He did not get stuck. Bottom left: A most interesting root structure.

Curtis Falls and trails in the park. The blurry bottom-left picture is of bats, large and noisy.

Top left: A calm kookaburra. Top right: Cheese shop sign in the town of North Tamborine. Bottom left: We saw several dozen gray kangaroos on our way back from the parks. Bottom: Rear end of a koala art piece in North Tamborine.

One stop I could not photograph was the cave of glow worms, for I assume obvious reasons. Their life cycle and life “style” is fascinating. They are voracious cannibals as well as sneaky predators, using their lit “bums” to attract insects.

Our flight home is now set. It’s a week from now. In some ways it feels like a defeat—the ten countries we won’t visit (at least yet), the places we won’t see, the experiences we won’t enjoy. But our time in Australia has been an enjoyable substitute and we still have two more cities to visit. It’s hard to tell from the news, but the Australians seem to be taking the Coronavirus pandemic in stride. There are few wearing masks in the streets, and those that do are Asian and perhaps in no greater proportion than before the virus. Being in a country that still does not check ID’s at the airport and allows water bottles is a joy. And there is still plenty of toilet paper to go around.

Tomorrow we’re off to Cairns, in the far northeast of Australia. Frances and I have booked a journey (weather willing) on a sailboat to visit the Great Barrier Reef and, hopefully, do some snorkeling.

 

Adelaide and Wine Country

Adelaide

I could live here. It helps that the weather is perfect at the moment, but mostly it has the feel and look of California, particularly the countryside—without most of the downsides.

We had modest goals for touring Adelaide and we undershot them. After all, we have been here before, ho hum. Actually, our first visit to Adelaide was a whirlwind excursion when our cruise ship stopped here two years ago. I remember double timing through the South Australian Museum and then having to wait outside forty five minutes for the tour bus to return. (This was the same tour where the local guide took the bus microphone on our group walk through the botanical gardens and couldn’t  figure out why it wasn’t working. We still smile thinking about that one.)

We’re visiting this city during the annual Adelaide Fringe, advertised as the second largest art festival in the world (after Edinburgh, for the curious). My artist friends will be appalled, I fear (forgive us, William), but we did not enter the festival venues. Instead, we visited the more “traditional” sites. This included a revisit to the South Australian Museum. This time, at a more leisurely pace. The artist works displayed in the Fringe would have a hard time competing with the beauty of the mineral displays in the top floor of the museum.

Our impression of Adelaide, at least the CBD (“Central Business District”, Australian for the downtowns of cities), is that the city is vibrant and active, like the other Aussie cities we have visited. It helps that the weather is absolutely perfect, sunny and mid-70’s in the day, high 60’s in the evening. Australians everywhere are friendly and Adelaide is no exception. While smart phones are ubiquitous as elsewhere in the world, in restaurants and on the streets, only a minority are fixated on them while eating or walking. May it stay this way for awhile more. There is a touch too much litter, especially in the areas frequented by the local Aborigines, but this is a minor complaint.

As I pronounced in the first paragraph, we set modest goals for our first afternoon in Adelaide and the next full day. The following full day will be devoted to an all-day tour of the McLaren Vale wine region about twenty miles south of Adelaide. But that write-up must wait.

Our hotel in Adelaide is the Mayfair. It’s centrally located in the CBD (see above, for the text skimmers) and our room? Well, the shower is about the size of our cabin on the Khan. The minibar contents are free, less the wine, but we’ll miss the unlimited wine on the Khan. There are scores and scores of restaurants within an easy walk.

What have we visited besides the South Australian Museum? Mostly we walked and enjoyed the architecture of the area. We did tour the Library, with its impressive Mortlock room, and ducked inside a few other places such as the Saint Frances Xavier Cathedral and the Adelaide Train Station. It’s the weekend, so both the Parliament building and the Government House were closed to visitors.

Top: There are monuments aplenty in this area of town. Bottom: As close as we got to South Australia’s Government House and Parliament Building. We also passed the City Hall, which we toured our last visit.

Scenes from Rundle Street, a long pedestrian mall near our hotel. It’s busy during the day and busier at night. Top right: During the day, the doll house had a long line of families waiting to enter it, every family including at least one young girl.

Top: Outside the South Australia Museum. I took a similar picture of the fountains two years ago. The dog is new. (There is a temporary exhibit on dogs going on in the museum.) The Museum is a very eclectic mix of exhibits, from geology to Aboriginal art and artifacts to Australia’s unique flora and fauna. Australia’s land contains fossils of the earliest life on earth and art from a people that may have come to the island 70,000 years ago and, perhaps, changed little until the arrival of Europeans.

Inside the library, the cathedral and the train station. This is as close as we got to the Adelaide Fringe.

McLaren Vale

Our goal was to test enough wine to justify the tour cost. We succeeded, if one was considering a really, really expensive bottle.

The four of us were picked up at our hotel at 9:00 a.m. We were the only ones on this tour this day, so our transport, a customized VW van was comfortable and roomy. Our destination was McLaren Vale, one of the three major wine regions of this area of South Australia.

Our tour included five wineries, with a lunch stop between the third and fourth wineries. They were all close together and ordered, roughly, boutique sized to large scale. We arrived at the first winery, Oliver’s,  just before the tasting room opened. After all, 10:00 a.m. is an early start for drinking. The tasting pours were generous and the wines excellent, so we were reluctant to pour the excess into the spittoons. Alas, we knew we had to pace ourselves.

In route to McLaren Vale, a forty-five minute trip. Top left: Doesn’t this remind you of California wine country? Top right: The only way to ride to the hills. Bottom left: If  I understood correctly, these are Shiraz grapes, ready for harvest. Some picking is by hand, some by machine. Our hostess at Oliver’s. It was not long before other customers arrived.

Top left: Brian checking the “legs” on this Cabernet. Even in a picture, one can see the wine passed the test. Top right: The second winery visited, Coriole, offered our least favorite wines of the day but wins an award for having an extensive and beautiful garden. Lower left: Frances picking figs for a late morning snack. They were large and sweet. Bottom right: No toilet paper panic here. The name on the label, by the way, is really the brand name.

Top left: The third winery we visited was Samuel’s Gorge, a truly small operation. These grapes may need additional stomping but we were not asked to help. Top right: The reason I took this picture was to remember the grape (Mourvèdre), a varietal we liked with which we were not familiar. What the keen-eyed observer will note, though, is the corked bottle. This winery was the only one we visited that used corks instead of screw caps on their bottles. In fact, this is the only time we have come across cork-bottled Australian wines since we arrived. Bottom left: Pomegranates. We didn’t pick any. Bottom right: Proof we were still upright after three or four wineries—although leaning against each other helped.

We stopped for lunch at the Salopian Inn. The food was excellent. What was more amazing was that Brian and Karen ordered a glass of wine with their meals. We bow to their chutzpah. The next winery, Molly Dooker, was the most challenging. We tasted fifteen wines, ranging from an undrinkable (to us, of course) sparkling concoction to several outstanding ones. Our final stop was at Serafino’s, both a major winery (meaning worldwide distribution) and an attractive resort. Our host was a delightful young man of Colombian origin, working to be a permanent resident of Australia. He explained the process of achieving that goal. It’s long, hard and expensive. (Immigrants must pay for their health insurance, for instance.) Australia will gain by his success. The US could benefit from having as rational a process. Perhaps our mutual friendliness (characteristic of almost all Australians we have encountered) led him offer a few extra tasting pours, followed by a port chaser. Life is good.

About this time I was glad I was not driving that MG back to Adelaide.

Top left: All the wineries had interesting and fun labels on their bottles. Here, the color of the woman’s cloak is a rough code as to the type and taste of the grape. Top right: But you said I could buy one bottle. Bottom: A last evening in Adelaide.

So it’s on to Brisbane.

An update on our future plans. With the cancellation of our cruise, we made the decision to visit many places in Australia we had not visited before and, as with Adelaide, a few we had. We have been planning only a few days ahead, hesitating to make longer commitments until we knew when and how we would be returning to the US. For awhile we seriously considered flying to New Zealand and continuing our adventure there. We came close to doing so, finding a tour we liked very much and with dates that would work. Oddly and frustratingly enough, the tour was not open to American (and perhaps all non-Aussie) citizens. Another tour, nearly as acceptable and open to citizens of the US, ended up having a tour cost that was 40% more than that being charged to Australians. Go figure. We decided not to sign on. That means the end of the trip is in sight…but not quite yet! There is Brisbane and Cairns and Canberra and ….

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ghan

Ghan, a contraction of Afghan, the handle for all camel drivers in Australia regardless of their Middle Eastern heritage, is now the name of the train that travels between Darwin, the northern most point of Australia, through the vast Outback to Adelaide on the southern coast. Interestingly enough, the northern half of the line was not completed until 2004, almost a hundred years after the line was promised to Darwin by the government. I guess governments are the same world wide. Along with its east-west complement, the Indian Pacific, the Ghan is considered one of the world’s great train travel experiences. We’re on it. And it’s an experience. 

It turns out we are on the first trip of the season. I presume this is because prior to this it’s the wet season in the north (Darwin) and hot, hot summer in the Outback.

Our train is over 900 meters long, over one half mile long for the metric impaired. We are in carriage Q, which is a long way back in the train, for the alphabetically impaired. The train travels through some of the most open and unpopulated areas of the world, which means no cell phone and no internet. We are totally disconnected from the world. We likely will not have any idea how “Super Tuesday” went until our arrival in Adelaide on Saturday. We were told there was and will be internet access at the stops, but as our carriage is so far from whatever LAN is operating at the depots, access is not an expectation. And I’m not sure I want to know who “won” Super Tuesday.

We are not the last car on the train. There is another passenger carriage, then one devoted to a film crew that is traveling with us and shooting fashion shots at the various stops, then a crew carriage. Then a couple more of unknown purpose. Throw in the two engines, the three power cars, four restaurant cars, a few lounges and A to S sleeper carriages, and the full train is 38 or so cars long.

There are three stops between between Darwin and Adelaide, the second and third full day stops with all-day tours. The first stop however was for three hours in the afternoon after we departed from Darwin.

Katherine

The town of Katherine is 190 miles southeast of Darwin and on the border between the tropical north and more desert-like interior. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town, yet the fourth largest in the Northern Territory. It’s also near the Nitmiluk National Park. We opted for a cruise in the Nitmiluk Gorge. In fact, we cruised two separate sections of the gouge, with a short walk between. By the end of the dry season, the gorge’s Katherine River is reduced to thirteen separate pools, but as it’s the end of the wet season, there is plenty of water. (During deluges the gorge fills to nearly three-quarters of the rim, holding more water than Sydney Harbour.)

Train travel may be romantic to imagine but is an exercise in living in tight conditions. My sister Peggy and her husband Curtis, well-traveled in their beloved RV, Quivera, may love such conditions, but we’re having to adjust. “Platinum” class passengers get a double bed, but the trip is already a financial challenge for steerage, er, “Gold” class. There is also “Gold single”. We passed by a carriage with these arrangements. One seat wide and just long enough for a bed after conversion. No thanks.

Top left: Brian standing in front of our ½ mile long train. Top right: Our cabin, about six feet by eight feet. The beds are set up while we are at dinner. The one inconvenience is that there is nowhere to sit once the beds are lowered. Frances has the top bunk. Bottom right: The bathroom. Where is the shower? You’re looking at it. Bottom left: The food is good. Mixing with the other passengers better. Most are Aussies. There are few other Americans on the train. 

Scenes from the Nitmiluk Gorge. Bottom right: The fashion shoot by the crew traveling with us took place while we were cruising the gorge. How the models (there was also a male model, but I was less interested, for some reason) kept from sweating through the clothing in the heat is a mystery. Maybe her sweat glands are as passive as her expression.

More scenes from the gorge. Can you spot the crocodile’s head? In the rocks, not the water. There are two types of crocodile in the park. The more common fresh water crocodile is not a threat to humans as they will only bite at prey they can swallow. Salt water crocs are a different matter. They don’t mind going for prey of any size. We didn’t see any. It’s the wrong time of the year. Or the right time, for us.

Our first night on the train found us falling asleep quickly, but we woke whenever the train stopped. (For another freight train most often; the route is mostly a single track). Sleep after that was fitful. The sound of a moving train may put one to sleep, but it can keep you awake as well. Even though it was but our first night we have traveled nearly half way to our ultimate destination, which put us smack in the middle of the Outback—and Alice Springs.

Alice Springs

Is there a more iconic symbol of the Australian Outback than the town of Alice Springs? I imagined a dusty village surrounded by desert and red dirt roads disappearing into the horizon. In reality, town is now a city of 30,000, with 20,000 others nearby, about half Aborigine. It’s not a metropolis, but neither is it a frontier town. There are several low ranges of mountains nearby and recent rains have kept areas modestly green. Still, it’s the Outback and our tour for the day was a series of hikes in the West MacDonald National Park.

Top left: The Alice Springs train depot. The rest of the pictures were taken during our first walk, the Ghost Gum walk. Our guide was an expert on local flora and fauna, although until the end only flora was to be seen.

Our second hike was to the top of Cassia Hill. The top two pictures show the impressive view from the hilltop. In the middle picture you can see Simpson’s Gap, our destination for the third walk. The bottom picture? Our hiking group. The person with the head net is Frances. We were the envy of the group as we were the only ones who thought to bring along the nets. One can spot several people shooing the flies. These flies were horrendously annoying here in the Alice Springs area (and again at our next destination). In other words, throughout the Outback.

Top: Simpson’s Gap. No one knows who Simpson was. The gap was marked thus (actually “Simson” originally) on a map. On our return from the gap we spotted, barely, the rare black-footed wallaby, but too far away to get a clear photo with my iPhone. Bottom left: The flies made the outdoor dining adventure a torture until the sun went down. The dinner was held at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, an important link in the line from Darwin to Adelaide, linking Australia to the rest of the world in real time for the first time. (An undersea cable was laid between Darwin and the Dutch East Indies.) The station is now also a museum, displaying and explaining the unfortunate period when the Australians forcibly took away the children of Aborigines to “educate and civilize” them. Bottom right: When Frances and I were in the Wadi Rum in Jordan, by a miscommunication we were unable to ride camels for a modestly long stretch in that desert. To make up for it, we were led on these two camels in a short circle around the corral. This will have to do. Despite the head net disguise, that is us.

Coober Pedy

Our last full day was a visit to Coober Pedy, a unique and quirky town of 3,500 in the opal mining area of Australia. Coober Pedy is an anglicized version of the local Aborigine name for the place, which translates something like “White Man’s Hole”. I say quirky for good reasons. A majority of the town’s residents live in “dugouts”, homes excavated into the hillsides. Need a room? Dig it out. The other quirky characteristic about Coober Pedy is its economy and light-on-rules government (although this is apparently changing). All the opal mining is by private individuals and partnerships. There are no company mines. All transactions are in cash. Buyers are typically foreign, mainly Chinese (who export the opals for polishing and making into jewelry, then return many to Australia for final sale). One of our guides, an 85 year old who finally gave up opal mining twenty years ago (it’s hard work) kept (keeps?) his cash in a safe. Somehow I don’t believe all proceeds are reported to the government as revenue.

Top: The train “depot” is many miles from Coober Pedy and in the middle of nowhere. Of course Coober Pedy is in the middle of nowhere. Middle: The ant hill-like piles are tailings from test digs for opals. There are many square miles of such digs, including of course the active and successful mines. Bottom: The front of buildings dug into the hill. Most rooms have ventilators protruding from the hillside above.

Top left: Excavation of an opal mine. Top right and bottom left: The Serbian Orthodox Church, built into the rock. Lower right: A dugout living room.

Top left: A tunnel in an opal mine. Top right: A trace of opal in the mine wall. Bottom left: A fossil from the seabed that is now Australia. Bottom right: Our lunch, underground. The food on and off the Ghan (all prepared by Ghan personnel) was quite excellent. (I never know whether to use the present tense or the past when writing this blog. Fortunately, I have never condemned myself to consistency.)

Top row and bottom left: Scenes from the area called the Breakaways, the transition from the upper plateau and mesas that once were the bottom of the sea to the land eroded away below. Bottom right: the 5,500 km long dog fence, originally intended as a barrier to slow the spread of non-native rabbits, now used with mixed results to protect sheep from wild dingos. I don’t know which side is for sheep and which for dingos. Both sides look pretty desolate for ranching. 

Top: Two lost souls in the Outback. Bottom: The Ghan, all 902 meters of it. Our carriage is toward the far, far end. As the train is longer than most of the station platforms, we often would have to meander our way through a dozen or two cars before we reached an exit point. More than once the walk from the station to our carriage was our longest walk of the day.

Final destination for our journey on the Ghan? Adelaide 

  

Darwin

I believe I left you on our Qantas flight from Sydney to Darwin. It was a four and one-half ride on a fairly full plane, but again we had an unused seat in our row, so Frances and I could spread out. The McKenna’s were as lucky. What was remarkable about the flight was that, now wait for this, we were fed! The food was edible, which by U.S. airline standards, is high praise. Then later we each received a Mars ice cream bar. Then near the end of the flight we were each given a Lindt chocolate ball. All this in steerage. I should add that going through airport security, no shoe and belt removal, no ID check, little hassle. What a throwback in air travel.

Views of the Port of Darwin from our hotel in Darwin

Litchfield National Park

For our first full day on the northern tip of Australia, we booked a tour to Litchfield National Park, about 60 miles south of Darwin. It’s still the wet season in this area of Australia and the daily forecast is consistently “100% chance of rain”, but we were lucky (as we were for almost our entire stay in Darwin). Many of the tours don’t operate during this season (the reason we will not be getting to the Kimberleys, on the northwest coast of Australia). Thanks to a helpful hotel-based tour agent we booked a full day tour to the park. The good news is that as it is off-season, there were few others in the park. Rob, the tour guide and van driver, was excellent, as were the steaks he cooked us for lunch. Life can be so tough.

Left: a Magnetic Termite mound. These termites use the earth’s magnetic poles to orient there slender mounds precisely north-south, so that there is always a side in the shade. Right: this is a fifty year old Cathedral Termite mound, well named. 

Our tour of Litchfield National Park included three of the eight waterfalls in the park.

Top left: The fearless foursome with our guide, Rob. Top right: A nymph in the stream below Buley Rockhole Falls. Bottom: In a city park on our way back from the national park. The snake is not real.

This continues to be a trip with occasional challenges. On our return from the park and while walking around town that evening, my iPhone bulged and delaminated through the middle. My lithium battery had swollen. Not a good thing. Yet the phone still worked. Given that it could fail at any time and also could burst into flames, I was “slightly” worried. According to the internet, there was no Apple store in Darwin. Recall that my iPhone is my camera. What to do? Well, we walked into one of the several cell phone repair shops downtown and for $100 Aussie ($65 US) I have a new battery and a healthy phone—and can continue to inundate you with pictures.

Scenes from around Darwin, including an awesome-sized grasshopper

We decided to rent a car for our next two days in town. As I was the only one carrying a driver’s license at the time of the rental, I got to be the driver for the next two days. (OK, Frances had hers, but she opted to let me drive.) At one point I proudly parallel parked into a space and on the left side of the street—haughtily dissing the youngsters in the many states in the US that no longer require the parallel parking test to get their licenses. Of course, it helped that the car was tiny. We used shoehorns to get Frances and Karen into and out of the back seats.

For our second full day in Darwin we decided to concentrate on sites concerning Darwin’s military history—particularly its role and experience during World War II. On February 19, 1942 Darwin was attacked by 188 Japanese Navel aircraft (from the same fleet that bombed Pearl Harbor) and 54 land based Japanese Army bombers. The town was leveled, many ships in the harbor sunk, and 235 military and civilian personnel killed. The bombing raids over Darwin and other targets in Northern Australia lasted twenty months—nearly 100 in all.

Our first stop was the Darwin Military Museum, the site of gun emplacements protecting the harbor. One can argue that these installations caused the Japanese to stick with bombing rather than an invasion of northern Australia. (The Japanese Navy commanders wanted to invade; the Japanese Army did not. The army prevailed.)

Sights at in the Darwin Military Museum. The 9.2 inch guns (top left) are imitations. The originals from WWII were sold as scrap—to the Japanese. No irony there.

We next intended to enter the oil tunnels of Darwin, but this attraction was closed before we arrived (off-season hours), so we deferred this visit until the next day. Instead, we climbed the stairs to the government area on the heights above, so had the opportunity to visit both the Northern Territory’s royal court building and parliament. We looked into five different courtrooms that technically were in session (we could have entered) but none had judges on the bench.

Top left: The parliament building main hall contained the flags of all the Commonwealth nations. This was the first day of the display, Commonwealth Day. Top right: This mosaic, partly inspired by Aboriginal art and partly modern, contains over 700,000 pieces of Venetian glass and is on the main floor of the Supreme Court building. Lower left: The Northern Territory parliament hall, complete with crocodile skin. Lower right: The territory crest.

Our next destination was the  Charles Darwin National Park, just east of town. After that came the Aviation Museum. It was a full day, even before we returned to the waterfront for dinner. (Almost all our meals in Australia have been excellent, although service can be erratic.)

I don’t usually put captions above the pictures, but my app is getting finicky. Below are scenes from the Charles Darwin National Park. In the park are a series of WWII ammunition storage facilities, placed well out of town for obvious reasons. Top right: Are live munitions “ert”?

Pictures in the Aviation Museum. Top: A B-52. I didn’t remember that the B-52 once had a tail gun. Lower left: Remains of a Japanese ”Zero”. Bottom right: The Museum features the air race from England to Australia in 1919. Of the six teams, only two made it, two of the four unsuccessful teams crashing in route with all the crew lost. The winner took 30 days; the other finisher over three months.

Our last full day, well, was half a day. We finally got to the oil tunnels, built during WWII to provide protected fuel storage, but only partially complete by the war’s end and used only a few years after. They leaked badly—and still do. These tunnels were technically “secret” until the 1990’s, although during construction, with the excavated material piled up outside the tunnel openings during construction, one wonders how secret they could have been. 

Scenes in the Oil Tunnels of Darwin.

Our last major tourist attraction in Darwin was the “Darwin Tourist Facility” on Stokes Wharf. The facility features a variety of virtual reality, holographic, and physical exhibits, mostly well done. There were two primary points of focus: the WWII bombing of Darwin and the Royal Flying Doctors Service, which provides medical services to the Outback areas of Australia.

The rest of the day? Recall that we have planned only a few days ahead and, at least for Frances and me, we still don’t know how or when we’ll be getting home. With more and more places in the world threatening quarantines we have dropped our more exotic ideas. We have now planned out our next several weeks. Tomorrow we begin our next adventure, a four-day ride on the Ghan railroad from Darwin to Adelaide. Frances has agreed to take the top bunk.


 

Sydney and Beyond

Fun and Frustration

I’ll start with our frustration. When we boarded the airplane to Sydney, we knew our travel plans were about to change significantly. We had signed up for a cruise that was two legs of a Regent Seven Seas world cruise. As I recorded in the previous post, Coronavirus fears caused the itineraries for both legs to be drastically altered. Voyagers were offered a complete refund if they wished to cancel and 50% off the cruise fare if they accepted the changes. That seemed straightforward enough. It wasn’t. In our case, the combined cruise was a complication Regent systems and, apparently, Regent personnel could not accommodate. After some consideration we decided to cancel the first leg but board the ship (now at Perth and not Singapore) for the second leg, despite that leg starting with seven days at sea. After all, who would want to see the Great Barrier Reef, Bali, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Phuket and such places?

Alas, the only way Regent could handle our decision was to cancel the original two-leg cruise and rebook us on the second leg. For reasons that I cannot fathom, the quoted price for the revision was over 60% of the original total cruise cost and did not include the side trip to Agra and the Taj Mahal—which was a driving factor in deciding on this cruise in the first place. So we have cancelled the cruises entirely and will now fight to get at least a partial refund on our air reservations. (Anyone looking for two tickets from Dubai to Austin in April?)

For a brief time we considered spending the next month and a half finding our own way to Dubai. That would have been an experience. But Coronavirus quarantine fears prevailed so for now we’re going to bounce around Australia until we figure out how and when to come home. For the immediate future we will be traveling with the McKenna’s, who originally were going on the first leg only of the cruise and who also cancelled.

I’m told I have been even grumpier than usual these last few days. I know this is true, as I am well practiced with this condition. This despite a great visit to Ayers Rock and now Sydney. I’m done griping for a paragraph or two. On to the fun parts.

Sydney and Beyond

“Sydney and Beyond.” Reads like a fancy tour, does it not? It is, in fact, the name of the pre-cruise tour we were to be participants of after our return from Ayers Rock and before boarding the ship. That tour went the way of the cruise itself, so I’ll  borrow the name for our own time in and around Sydney.

The flight back to Sydney from Ayers Rock was as comfortable and uneventful as the flight up. The plane was even less crowded, maybe a third full, so Frances and I could spread to the window and aisle seats. Once again the pilot landed hard. The 737 MAX may be a problematic aircraft, but the rest of the 737 fleet can take a beating.

When we arrived at the airport, Frances and I reluctantly recovered our larger bags from baggage storage. As we had packed expecting most of our time to be on board a cruise ship, we did not pack with  compactness in mind. Hence the third pair of shoes, the sports jacket, and thermal cups for coffee, just for starters. We’ll have to check a bag for the coming flights.

Our hotel, the Shangri-La, is located in “The Rocks” area of Sydney and that is the area we explored on arrival. Australia does not have a long history (with apologies to the Aborigines, who for some reason think their 60,000 years here count for something) but The Rock is the most historical area of Sydney and a great area for wandering. In fact, we spent most of the next full day exploring the area. Frances and I followed a walking tour we downloaded, which took us to many of the more interesting sites. The directions were, shall we say, loosely descriptive, making for an entertaining search for streets and sites. (The really irritating thing about the tour description was the occasional overdone political correctness. For instance, the author of the tour write-up railed against one of Sydney’s early entrepreneurs for having slaughtered the whales and thought it a travesty that a state park had been named after him. No one is happier than I that whales are not hunted now (except by the Japanese, whose continuing “research” on whales somehow ends as entrees in Japanese sushi houses). But inflicting modern sensibilities on our forefathers is not just an American affliction.

The Rocks is not a misleading moniker, as the area includes frequent changes in elevations between the seafront and the cliffs and climbs. We got in our 10,000+ steps. Climbs up to the Sydney Observatory and one of the Sydney Bridge towers complemented the effort.

Left: Descending to The Rocks and a view from the stairs. We found by cutting through the neighboring Four Seasons hotel and using its elevator, we could cut the ascents and descents by a few floors. Right: Scenes from The Rocks area, including Sydney’s oldest pub.

Top left: We ate at this establishment along “Nurse’s Walk”. The meat pies were unexceptional but we ate in a pleasantly quiet setting—probably related events. Top right: The old police station is now a restaurant. The cells are the ultimate in private dining rooms. We passed on the opportunity. Bottom left: Atherden, Sydney’s shortest street. Bottom right: This inconspicuous and unmarked passageway has an address, 26 Argyle Terrace. Only, it’s on Playfair Street. We spent ten minutes looking for it.

Top right: The 26 Argyle passage led us to the Foundations Place Park, once the location of houses built into the cliff. Top left: The Sydney Observatory, once the highest point in Sydney. For tourists, the ball on the roof pole is still dropped once a day at one pm, originally for ships to synchronize their chronometers. We missed the event but the McKenna’s were there at one to witness the drop. I’m told it was 15 seconds late. Bottom: Atop one of the Harbour Bridge towers. That was enough climb for us. It’s not just the height, but the wind, that squelched any desire to join the arch climbers.

The next day, we joined the McKennas in the “... and beyond” part of our Sydney experience. We traveled with a day-tour group first to the Featherdale Sydney Wildlife Park, then on to the Blue Mountains National Park. The areas we passed through showed no signs of the recent wildfires that have plagued much of Australia. These mountains are called the Blue Mountains for similar reasons the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains are so named.  The trees (eucalyptus here in Australia) emit a volatile organic compound that create the vapors that become a blue mist. I know. TMI.

The Wildlife Park was more like a zoo in layout than the parks we visited farther west in Australia two years ago, so getting up close and personal was easy. The menagerie of birds was especially impressive. The horn on the Southern Cassowary I thought looked straight out of Jurassic Park.

Top: What was once a coal mining operation is now Scenic World. The inclination of the rail line is the steepest in the world. Even when still a mining operation, rides were given to paying tourists. Bottom left: Scenic World is located in the Blue Mountains National Park and this is one of the trails within the park. Bottom right: the dominant attraction of the area is the Three Sisters. According to Aborigine legend, a warrior turned the three sisters into these pillars to keep them safe from men of an enemy clan. Only the warrior was later killed and no one knew how to turn them a back into humans.

The last leg of the day tour included a ferry ride from the site of the Sydney Olympic Park to the Circular Quay (near where the larger cruise ships dock). On landing and while looking for a restaurant and apparently looking lost, a German lady offered help. She proceeded to give us a tour, describing the sites with tourist guide precision. I was sure she was angling for a tip. It turns out she was a professional tour guide and was just enjoyed being very helpful. It’s good to find an occasional counter to my cynicism.

Left: A view from our ferry. Right: Astrid, who adopted us as an impromptu tour group, to our good fortune.

It was more walking the next day. This time our primary destination was the Maritime Museum, with sights in between. We were unlucky in that the tall ships were either at sea or closed for repair, but we did get aboard a variety of other craft. As for the submarine, I was reminded why I would never have been a candidate for the Silent Service. Nearly nowhere on board was I able to stand straight. Even the bunks are only six feet long.

Top left: Our guide on the patrol boat HMAS Advance and again on the destroyer HMAS Vampire. Top right: The hatches on the submarine Onslow tested my mobility almost to its limit. Bottom left: A cabin on the sub where I could almost stand straight. Bottom right: The main museum building was filled with maritime history and artifacts, such as this light house Fresnel lens.

Top left: I build model ships, or try to, so I was awed by this model made by a French prisoner of war—from mutton bones! Top right: As close as we could get to one of the museums operational tall ships, in this case the Endeavour. The James Craig is at sea. Bottom left: Our walk back to the hotel took us through the Queen Victoria Building. Top right: A peek up at the Sydney Tower.

Day five found us walking the extensive botanical gardens plus a tour of Government House. We finished with our daily gelato break. And the evening? A night at the opera. We saw “Carmen” in the Sydney Opera House. This was a good excuse to wear the fancier clothing we are dragging along. We were in nosebleed seats, but the venue is intimate enough to make the location satisfactory. We enjoyed it. “Carmen” is the comfort food of operas, with its familiar music and story. The players for Don Jose (sung by a tenor of Korean heritage) and Micaela were excellent. Their duet in the first act was our favorite moment. The singers for Carmen and the Toreador were less impressive to us. And the acting and choreography? Meh. Aren’t we snobs?

On the way to the botanical gardens we visited the Museum of Sydney. Top left: I couldn’t help myself and took a half dozen pictures of the models of Australia’s “First Fleet.” I’ll only subject you to one, the HMS Sirius. It’s anchor is displayed in a Sydney Park (top right). Bottom left (in the Gardens): The dogs seemed to be looking directly at us as we passed. Bottom right, back in the the Museum of Sydney: The museum is an eclectic one, with exhibits devoted to the Aborigines, early Sydney and portraits of modern architecture, such as shown here.

Scenes from the Botanical Gardens

Top left: The ballroom of Government House (and the only room we were allowed to photograph). This was once the Government House for all of Australia until Australian states were created. It’s now the residence of the governor of New South Wales. Governors even of states in a British Commonwealth country are nominally appointed by the Queen, but in actuality are chosen by local government and by law must be born in the nation they serve. The other pictures are of sights around the city core.

More random pictures. Bottom right: The view from our opera house seats. No pictures during the performance.

There’s much more to Sydney than the downtown area of course, but there was plenty to see and do in that area to fill our time. Food, too, was good, with an Indian restaurant and a Thai restaurant especially notable. Until we got to the Thai restaurant we were nearly 100% in having waiters of the same nationality as the food we were being served. It’s a very multicultural city. And at the Thai restaurant? Our waitress was Spanish.  We’ll call it a one-off.

The hotel at which we stayed, the Shangri-La, is well rated and the room we occupied was nice, with a good view of the Opera House. The McKenna’s has some problems with their room, so were upgraded to a “club room”, which included breakfast and afternoon snacks. Being gracious to their lessors, they brought apples for us to eat this morning. Alms for the poor. They also had a 2:30 a.m. intrusion by a porter who must have had the wrong room. For this the McKenna’s negotiated a significant reduction in their room rate. I asked that we be interrupted in the middle of the night, but no one seemed to respond. I’ll just grouse and nibble on the gift apple.

So we’re off to Darwin, this time via Qantas.

 

 

From Sydney to…uh oh

As some of you know, Frances and I were about to depart on a grand adventure starting in Australia and ending in Dubai, via Singapore, the Taj Mahal, and dozens of exotic locales in between. On Wednesday, February 19, we took the short hop from Austin to Houston and were about to board the flight to Sydney when I checked email one last time. Never check your email one last time.

In my inbox was a message from Regent, the cruise line we were to be patronizing starting a week after our arrival in Sydney. The Coronavirus had other plans for the ship. The cruise wasn’t quite canceled. Rather, we were offered the option to cancel with refund (some fine print here) or to accept a drastically altered cruise itinerary with a significant partial refund. A hasty call to Regent muddied the waters further. Our scheduled cruise was actually a back-to-back affair, two legs of a world cruise. (Two years ago we traveled on what was the preceding leg of Regent’s equivalent cruise—Los Angeles to Australia.) Our special complication was that we had made our own overseas air travel arrangements plus a week’s worth of lodging and travel in Australia preceding the cruise.

So we boarded the 787 for Sydney, deciding our luggage would be lonely without us.

I find it harder and harder to recover from jet lag. Nevertheless, after our arrival in Sydney and meeting up with the McKenna’s, we walked the area nearby our hotel. We spent the one night in Sydney then flew to the Australian outback.

Top: Scenes in Hyde Park. Bottom: Inside St. Mary’s Cathedral, a beautiful gothic-style cathedral bordering the park.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta

We are now at the Ayers Rock Resort, Yulara, in the middle of the Australian outback. Before my more politically correct readers raise a fuss, we really are at the Ayers Rock Resort, our lodging for our visits to Uluru and its sister formation, Kata Tjuta. We’ve viewed Uluru at sunset and Kata Tjuta at sunrise. We’ve hiked into the Walpa Gorge and tomorrow morning we will be hiking one of the trails around Uluru. It will be an early morning walk. It gets over a 100 degrees near midday. Unless one shops at the local IGA grocer, bottles of water sell for $3 to $4 each. Even with Australian dollars, that’s a heck of a mark-up. Maybe we should ask “Pocahontas” Warren to chide her aborigine brethren to back off on the capitalism. (I shouldn’t insult the aborigines by making a comparison to a modern American politician.)

That’s not the downside of this visit. Rather, it’s the flies. The viewing is fabulous. The fly infestation unfortunately degrades the experience. Virtually every tourist is wearing an insect head net. Heaven only knows how the locals get used to the flies. At least they don’t bite. Neither do the flies.

Uluru, in the Uluru-Tjuta National Park. We drove our rental car to a location to view “The Rock” at sunset. The head nets were a must.

Perhaps less well know to non-Australians than Uluru, a single monolithic chunk of geology, the Kata Tjuta is a large complex of domes and rock formations. We viewed Kata Tjuta at sunrise, a special experience.

Top left: The composite rock of the domes was interesting. Top right: We hiked a bit of the Walpa Gorge. Bottom left: The flies had a particular affection for red T-shirts, apparently. Bottom: We saw our first wild camel, and, earlier, our first camel-crossing sign. We also spotted a pair of dingos while driving through the park.

Our last morning we returned to Uluru and followed the Mala walk. It was a good choice as the walk took us to the base of Uluru and past fascinating geological formations and a series of Aboriginal religious and cultural sites, mostly tucked into the many caves along or just above the base. Top right: An Aborigine petroglyph. Bottom right: Two fly magnets.

Back to what’s coming up for us. We’re traveling with Brian and Karen McKenna, our frequent travel partners. The McKenna’s were to cruise with us from Sydney to Singapore, then disembark and after a few days in Singapore, head home. The cruise ship was to travel up the east coast of Australia (think the Great Barrier Reef), west to Darwin,  north through Indonesia, and finally Singapore. The revised itinerary would travel the southern coast of Australia and end in Perth. You may recall that is exactly the route our previous Regent cruise followed near its end. The McKenna’s flight home, of course, was out of Singapore, a month away. Ours was out of Dubai, nearly eight weeks away. So… the McKenna’s and the Dallen’s decided “see Australia”, at least many parts we have not yet visited. Now, if all goes as hoped, at the end of the month the McKenna’s will fly to Singapore to catch their flight home and the Dallen’s will get on the boat in Perth. All we have to do is make plans for the next four weeks in Australia. I’ll fill you in on those plans later, but we have a good outline of one and know where we will be staying and how we are traveling to get there at least for the immediate future. The plan already includes planes, trains, and an occasional blog posting.

 

Traveling with the Dallens

Followers of our original adventure, 160 Days on the Roads of Europe, were rudely trapped into postings for our more recent overseas trips, (I have spared you attempts to document most of our equally frequent road trips around the United States and  several other trips overseas.) As trips end, I convert the posts to pdf files and archive them. Should you be interested in reading--or re-reading--them, click on this link:

https://1drv.ms/f/s!AprxJyAB0jo5hIZKA_JIrBR9IGjaxQ

So what overseas travel do we have coming up? In February 2020, we travel to Australia for a ten-day visit, then board a ship out of Sydney for a cruise to Abu Dhabi via Singapore, the Taj Mahal and places between. In June and July we return to France, the middle of the trip including a cruise of the Rhône and Saône. Then in August we head to the Caucasus, with an extension in Uzbekistan. In December we travel to Antarctica, followed by some time in Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. That's not the end. We have signed up for a 2022 cruise of the Great Lakes (with a visit to Hudson Bay at the end). And in 2023 we will be traveling up the Amazon, all the way to Peru. Only limitations on stamina and savings will end these adventures.

John and Frances