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Australian Adventures, Part IX - Night In Cairns

Feb. 5th, 2009 | 07:21 am

Following a most amazing seafaring adventure, I was now very much ready to partake in some much needed culinary diversions in order to celebrate this most momentous of days. I already had something in mind, but as it was still early afternoon, I sought some alternative modes of relaxation. I mixed myself some of the scotch from the duty free with orange and mango juice (surprisingly tasty mixture), and set about for a long, much needed cooling off in the pool (complete with my horrendous sunburn).

As I lay about in the water like a stuffed grape soon to become raisin-like, the birds overhead began to complain amongst themselves rather noisily. I tried to just ignore them. Besides, colorful rainbow lorikeets are just pests in Australia, right? I kept drifting, albeit in a space out of range of bird poo.

The birds kept on chattering away, the non-native palm fronds overhead rustling with their antics. It was then that I noticed a colored splotch moving about in the brush out of the corner of my eye. I quietly swam over to the edge of the pool and looked out. A tiny rainbow lorikeet was madly hopping around the large potted trees in the pool courtyard, inspecting this and that as he went. When he noticed me, he hid behind one of the pots and jumped a little further out of sight.

Hmmm, what was wrong with this little guy?

He spied my glass of juice (or maybe it was the scotch) and started hopping closer to me with curiosity. The bright blue head with its florescent orange beak cocked to the side and bounced in and out, as if unsure of whether to trust me or not. He ended up climbing up a large rock next to the pool, and playing with an empty food dish. I got out of the pool and tried for a time to coax him up to my hand. He was surprisingly tame, so I figured he wasn't a wild bird, but at the same time, what was he doing around here, and why couldn't he fly?

It turned out that the flightless lorikeet in question was a charge of the guesthouse matron as well. Apparently in her spare time, she doubled as a caretaker for rescued birds, having been training by veterinarians and licensed by the Australian government. Any time a bird was hit by a care or some other such accident, she would nurse them back to health, and then help to return them to the wild, or failing that, provide adequate and humane housing in the interim.

Now the connection with the escaping finch made sense. She also had another lorikeet who had contracted a disease that caused him to develop deformed wings and tail. There was a beautiful tropical crested dove who flew in one evening who apparently would spend her time out in the forests, but returned every evening for her supper. Which her nurse was trying to wean her off of in the hopes she could sustain herself in the wild. It was quite an amazing thing to be able to see up close all these amazing birds, and help out a little in their rehabilitation. Definitely not something I expected to find on my Australian vacation.

After bidding the birds adieu, I went off for a much suggested dinner at the Red Ochre (pronounced "ocker" in Australian). I was fortunate to find it more or less empty, although the view was still pleasant - reminded me of a sleepy street-side cafe, with exquisite landscaping, and apparently the view was one-way. The service was impeccable, to a point that I almost wondered if the place really was empty. But despite appearances, I thought the food spoke for itself. I started off with a garden salad and a small appetizer of kangaroo strips marinated in a delectable hoisin sauce. I polished it off with an emu brisket, which was quite incredible. The wine I actually made a goof on. I was planning on a pinot noir, but ended up asking for a pinot gregio from Tasmania by mistake. It tasted awful at first (I'm not a fan of whites) but I was amazed at how well it blended with the meal. It ended up tasting very sweet in relation, and actually complemented better than most wines I've had with meals in the past. I was amazed.

The food was incredibly fresh, and tasted wonderful. Definitely one of the best dining experiences I've had period, let alone in the Australia. It was also nice to hear that the restaurant bought either locally grown or organic foods from the area, and had a very environmentally responsible mind-set, even for upper level dining. I left very happy.

For an evening collation, I stopped by the Sapphire Tapas bar and enjoyed some of the local company at a very posh watering hole. Despite that, the drinks were reasonably priced, and the clientele was actually pretty diverse, both locals and tourists, and it seemed like one of those places that not many folks even know about, being out of the way of the larger and more ostentatious joints on the strip. I made friends with the bartender, who made a strong gin and tonic, and some other mean mixers. The music selection was good, but unfortunately, the DJ was pretty bad. No two tracks were really blended well, and the rhythm was offbeat numerous times. It was still a good night, despite.

On my way back to the house, I took a walk down the esplanade. The cool night air was punctuated by a waxing moon overlooking the still waters of the bay. In the faint light, I could still make out the silhouettes of the surrounding mountains that protected the shore. Compared with other places I've been, the scant few lights along the peaks seemed surreal to one more familiar with the light pollution of crowded cities. Overhead, there were swarms of bats (I suppose there's a more appropo term), flying fox fruit bats in particular, as big as small dogs, but with wings. They made a racket, were too numerous to count, and seemed very surreal in the light of the upscale hotels and gawking tourists. There were also a plethora of large birds about the size of geese, but shaped more like lapwings, with long legs and wading bird features. They made an eerie call, which was there namesake, the cooee. Apparently, the indigenous local tribes considered them to be harbingers of ill tidings, and considered them bad luck. They certainly were otherworldly, and like most Australian animals, they had no problem biting unsuspecting humans that wandered too close.

But, evading giant bats and evil bird spirits, I found my way home unperturbed, and slept soundly, glad for quite an eventful day and night I will remember all my life.

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Australian Adventures, Part VIII - The Great Barrier Reef

Feb. 4th, 2009 | 06:57 am

Following my spectacular day at the rainforest, the following day was more or less anti-climactic. I pretty much slept in, and spent the day catching up with friends and family back home, while enjoying the sunny weather and tropical clime. I neglected to mention that the previous day, after returning from our rainforest excursion, we found that the entirety of Cairns and the coastline surrounding was without power. Our plucky tour guide/bus driver managed to weave his way through the rush hour traffic, that despite lacking all mechanical means of guiding the intersection, was not resulting in any serious accidents. I wasn't sure about dinner after I got to my hotel. I was torn between diving in for a cheap deal, as the power failure was no doubt going to be resulting in quite a few specials at the various restaurants, or foregoing the fare that would undoubtedly lack the freshness required following the demise of the refrigeration systems. Despite all events, I managed to start my journey in to culinary nourishment right as the power returned. Scoring a table with a gorgeous view of the Ocean at the Villa Romano, I supped on a delicious Cabernet Sauvignon while gorging myself on their appertif medley - a combination of various fruits, cheeses, meats, vegetables, and breads that was perfect to sate my untimely hunger. The chicken linguini alfredo that followed was incredible. It had a zesty tomato cream addition so addictive I wanted to lick the bowl. I did anyway (I left a decent tip in apology).

The next day's dinner was at a tasty japanese restaurant downtown. I once again decided to feast on the culinary opportunities. One was a japanese entree made from local meats - crocodile, kangaroo, and emu. It was an obvious tourist trap, but the kangaroo steak strips were marinated so well, they alone made it worthwhile. And the whole composition was contained in a bowl made out of fried cheese. They know me too well.

I got a bento box to gorge on a little tempura (I can't seem to get enough of prawns dipper in batter and deep fried). As well, an addition of various sushi delicacies. I was actually surprised at the sushi, it wasn't quite as fresh as I'd expected, and I was non-plussed at the preparation. I found out later that part of the problem is due to the fact that Cairns receives almost all its food shipments from Sydney, not directly in to its own port. In fact, a good portion of good produced in the Northern Queensland area are shipped South, and then sent back up by the shipping lanes that delicately weave around the Great Barrier Reef. Hmmm, I'll have to make note of this in the next order, for sure. Later in the evening, I also had the chance to check out the Casino. These places are always kind of a mystery to me. I'm not a gambler by any ambition (I don't believe in getting money for free) but it was quite the facility. Australia's gambling industry accounts for a significant portion of its revenue. In fact, you can't go in to most clubs in Sydney without walking through a lounge full of slot machines. Fortunately they don't really inundate you, most of them are fairly tastefully contained, not swarming all over the airports like in Reno. All the same, they remind me too much of the over-commercialization of the US, so, I passed.

The next day was the real treat, the whole purpose of my voyage: an expedition to the largest and most famous coral reef in the world - the Great Barrier Reef. I was fortunate in that due to errors in planning (on my part) I had to find a tour at the last minute. My gracious hostess once again proved my salvation and booked a locally owned tour at the last minute, and the next morning, I was off to the oceans beyond.

The Pacific is truly an incredible place. Its probably the singularly largest area on the surface of the earth in terms of sheer area. It could swallow up Asia whole, and its vast wings hold a whole range of trenches and island ridges respectively. The diversity within this Ocean is also legendary, and one of the more incredible things I've always wondered at are the coral reefs.

Coral reefs, for those unfamiliar with their biology, are basically the Oceanic equivalent of rainforests. Even more so, they are like oases within vast oceanic deserts. A reef begins when an area of land or other such obstruction is present at a very particular depth within the ocean. Despite tidal activity changing the depth around the reef over the course of the days, the depth is always at a temperature neither too hot, nor too cold - very much a "Goldilocks" scale. Not only that, but the reef also lies within some area that does not contain an overabundance of nutrients (which can lead to algal blooms that choke out the sealife). Add suitable light conditions (preferably near or within the tropics) that aren't too harsh, but adequate over the course of the year, and also oxygen levels high enough to sustain life, and voila! You have the conditions perfect for coral reefs. Coral themselves are small animals that live in a community of others like themselves. Growing as filter feeders, they slough off a calcified skeleton as they grow over the course of hundreds of years. This growth is what continues to build up the reef, and the skeleton is what sustains the ecology of the reef, providing material to house other oceanic wildlife, and also a structure for more corals to grow on. The corals themselves also contain algal cells that grow symbiotically within them. The two energy sources inherited by this arrangement, the photosynthesis of the algae and the filtration of the coral is what allows the coral to grow so quickly in an otherwise dead area of the ocean. The area around the reef is largely devoid of life - the open ocean. The scant nutrients and detritus mean that the only things out there are types of life that can scour for long distances across the ocean. The coral that find themselves in these rare, but highly beneficial environments quickly set up building real-estate, and before long, an entire community has grown around them full of fascinating and incredible oceanic wildlife.

But what is it exactly that makes the coral reefs so "amazing" in a visceral sense? Its something that must be seen to be understood, and frankly, this whole trip is full of things that I realize could only be seen to be truly appreciated.

That morning, I boarded a moderately sized tourist vessel. It had two decks, one for most of the passengers, with a bar for snacks and lunch, and an aft platform for all the diving gear. The upper deck was for the crew and an open area for observation and sunning (roasting). All in all, it was a full group, but not crowded, and there was a very large crew in ratio to size of the tour.

I must admit, I was very apprehensive about the tour at the start. I should give a little background in order to explain. When I was a kid, I had the once-in-a-kid's-lifetime opportunity to go to Disney World in Orlando. Well, at the park, there was a saltwater aquarium that had a section you could snorkel (it was overpriced, of course, and you only had about 2 minutes to swim the length of the section). At the time, I think I was still wearing glasses, so in the process, I couldn't really see much of the reef, and my glasses were getting in the way, not to mention I couldn't breathe well through my snorkel. All in all, I think I ended up thrashing around like a blind, flightless, recently extinct avian drowning in an inch of water. Not a pretty sight. To say the least, this was the first reason for my concern with how I'd do paying for an expensive tour to do a task I had yet to complete successfully in my lifetime.

The second reasons was a paranoia that had developed more recently in my adult life. When I was a kid, I'd loved playing in the Ocean. I'd go out in to the tide and play around with my brother and friends like it wasn't no thing. While staying at my grandparents' cove in Maine, I'd even take a boat out rowing in the cove, or even swam the length of it a few times, in the chilly and murky northern water. Never had a problem with it. But as I grew older (and more aware of the Jaws movies) I started to develop a paranoia of deep water, particularly ocean water, or any water I couldn't see the bottom of. Sometimes, when I was on swim team, I'd have moments of panic where I'd think something was in the pool with me, even though I could see the entire length of it.

For these reasons, I wasn't exactly sure how I'd react to swimming over a reef full of plentiful sea creatures in the Open Ocean. Particularly when this very Ocean was full of large, nasty things that would have no problem taking at least a small bite out of me, if not contemplating veritably swallowing me whole. Normally, at any other point in my life, I would have wussed out. But a part of me (the military part) kept punching me in the arm saying "dude! You've had way worse things to be afraid of, why the heck are you going to miss this opportunity? Because you're scared???" Needless to say, I went through with it.

Firstly, I got a set of prescription goggles so I could actually see clearly (the tour group was very accommodating with this). Then I practiced breathing in and out of my snorkel. I looked like a total tourist dweeb, walking around the boat with the mask on, bumping in to everybody in the way. I meekly made my way to the platform, donned my swimming fins, and sat on the edge of it, trying to calmly breath in and out while making the proper swishing technique with the fins (years of competitive swimming were coming in handy right about now).

Most of the other swimmers had already taken off snorkeling, particularly the group of rambunctious teenagers, followed by the couples, and then the group of elderly retirees. Finally, when the 90-year-old grandmother dove in, I realized I was about to be outdone. One of the crew came up to me at that time.

"Are you ready to get in?" she said.

"Yep, just can't see the bottom. Is anything down there?" I asked.

"Yeah, a big shark!"

(expression of sheer terror)

"I'm just kidding, you'll be very lucky to see a shark," she said, attempting to be reassuring.

Despite that, her words did indeed help to put it to the back of my mind later on. So, I just dove in. Literally.

I started paddling towards the group, always trying to keep my head up a bit to make sure I had my bearings. The water was very clear, but the area I was in was so deep that I couldn't see the bottom, just blue all the way down. At first I got very very nervous, but I just tried to keep breathing, figuring out how to breath through a snorkel and swim with fins at the same time. I took to it pretty quickly, and it felt surprisingly natural. Soon I was able to calm to down my heart rate, and by then, the ocean floor came in to view...

I have to say, that there are many things in my life that I have seen that are singularly beautiful or miraculous. I've seen television programs and documentaries on the coral reefs numerous times and have been fascinated by all the types of creatures living there. But this reef, this first site of the Great Barrier Reef was singularly one of the most amazing, most miraculous, most glorious sights I have ever had the fortune to experience in my brief existence on this Earth. It was incredible, there are no words to properly describe it. But I'll give it a go anyway.

It was like playing in a dream from my childhood. The water around me was warm like a bath, but cool when it welled up from the bottom. I could splash around naturally like a seal, and once I figured out how to regulate the pressure (by holding my nose and blowing out as I rose), and to hold my breath and blow out the excess water, I was able to dive down and get up close to all the things I saw. The colors were incredible, as if the entire rainbow had scattered itself upon the surface of some ancient sea-monster's bones. Not just the coral, but all the fish that swam upon it as well. Every shape and pattern imaginable flowed organically upon those rocks, these living rocks, and dappled in a way that I could never have imagined on my own.

I saw many varieties of fish I knew, like angelfish, parrotfish in blues and pinks, enormous wrasses almost as big as me, and schools of minnows that filled the upper surfaces and shimmered in the sun. The coral was also just as incredible. Luminous brain corals with almost electric hues. Sharp spider corals in bright blues and greens reaching over the yellowing skeleton coverings. The fan corals and many other varieties just added such a breath-taking variety. I couldn't begin to describe the hundreds of varieties found within a small section I just passed over, I barely had time to take it all in. The same with the fish, I saw literally hundreds of different species that day. Not to mention many other types of sea life. Sea cucumbers like enormous black slugs lay in the deep sandbars on the floor. Giant clams large enough to snap off my feet lay open, filtering the water as they nestled in the coral beds. Nudabranchs of bright orange and fuschias crawled over crevasses where tiny goby fish hid from outside predators, eyeing me suspiciously. I even saw a family of clownfish with white stripes so bright they were glowed blue floating in the drifting arms of a huge anemone.

We stopped at two different sections over the course of the day, and both times, I didn't get out of the water once for hours on end. I just keep swimming and diving over the whole spot. Some areas were like enormous mounds of coral that you could swim around and around before skimming the top. Other layers were vast beds so shallow you had to spread out wide to keep from touching anything, as the ocean waves overhead carried you and fish in its current. Some of the fish were big enough to give me a scare, especially when they would swim towards me angrily as if to say "out of my backyard, freak!" I saw whole schools of tasty looking snapper. One the return trip there were two butterflyfish that were as big as my torso, incredible! The whole time, I was just in awe and wonder, it was like I was under some magical spell.

To be safe, I would always make sure I swam within sight of other snorkelers, and in sight of the boat. There was even a "lifeguard" who made sure nobody swam too far out or was thrashing too hard in the reef. Despite all the caution, I didn't once feel the apprehension or anxieties as before. It was as if any thoughts of shark or other nasty denizens was pushed deep in to the back of my mind. It was just spectacular.

But, like all things, it finally came to an end. Lunch was delightful, I realized how much energy you burn in the water and swimming after I came up again. I devoured whole plates of meat and salad. They even had vegemite sandwiches, which I thought were delicious. Yes! I am an american who loves the taste of vegemite, I'm a freak, I know. But I can understand why the aussies love it. Its salty and bitter, but that makes it quite good on bread, especially when you're feeling ravenous and dehydrated, needing to drink copious amounts of water. I mean, if you like salt and vinegar potato chips, why not? I also realized that I had gotten an atrocious sunburn (I mean, I even had blisters it was so bad. Normally I'm dark enough that I don't easily burn, but I suppose the side effects of my meds contributed to the burn. Plus, even though I had applied copious amounts of sunscreen of the highest grade (I'm not a complete idiot here now...), it seemed like I had sweated off a good portion of it before I got in the water, making it fairly useless. But I don't care, it was well worth it. On the way back, I just sat on the top deck, relishing the view, and reveling in the beauty of the Pacific all around. On the way out, the Ocean had been incredible, the sun had sparkled so magically on the surface, and the sky was full of bright blue and clouds. It made the water and sky merge at the horizon so that it seemed like one vast golden and blue void all around. One the return, the deep blue of the sea contrasted with the bright blue horizon. And still being an Australian summer, we got back in time to have a few more hours to relax before dinner.

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Australian Adventures, Part VII - the Daintree Rainforest

Feb. 3rd, 2009 | 07:03 am

Normally, one would think that part of being on vacation is being able to sleep in whenever you like. Unfortunately, the price for sleeping in is missing out on the expensive tours that you've already booked. Wasn't about to let anything like that happen on this trip. So, I crawled out of bed at 6:30 in the morning (far later than some wake-ups I've had in my military career) and waited at the street for a bus to take me on the tour of the Daintree Rainforest.

The Wet Tropics are one of Australia's numerous World Heritage Sights, as identified by the United Nations (something that ceases to impress many Americans, but works for the rest of the world). It is a vast rainforest contained within Australia's northeastern peninsula, although much of the land was cleared for crops of fruit trees and sugarcane, some of it has been preserved in numerous of Australia's enormous national parks, and through efforts of the local people to preserve this incredible natural splendor for future generations, and future generations of tourists. For once, the ornery hordes of sight-seers seem to be doing something good by miraculous coincidence.

I was fortunate enough to have a quite amiable guide who was well versed in both the ecology and cultural history of the area, being a local raised in Cairns. I think I laughed to pretty much every joke, which is something I'm prone to do with any subtle and sarcastic humor, especially if done at my expense. I hope I wasn't too annoying to the others on the trip.

The group was fairly small, just two small buses of around 12 people each. In an environmentally conscious effort, the tours have tried to reduce carbon load and fuel usage by using fewer vehicles, as they used to have enough 4x4s for each person on the tour. Also, most of tour was done within identified track, no bushwhacking here. I'm kind of glad for it, though. The rainforest was quite foreboding deep within its recesses. Apparently, even the indigenous peoples of the areas wouldn't live in the forest proper, preferring the open areas outside of it for their communities, and the forest itself for sustenance and resources. Now, of course, you can buy real estate in this precious environment. Despite World Heritage status allowing the government to stop the logging and agricultural industries from raping and pillaging the land and forest, you can still buy the land for residential development. In another (and I must admit, clever) government bureaucratic move, there's so many building codes and regulations that must be completed in order to put a house in this area (there's no power, all water and sewage must be self-contained in special units, and all the materials allowed in follow strict guidelines), that few people even get past the red-tape to even develop. For this reason, many conservation groups are trying to buy up the surrounding land and return it to the state to be added to the existing Daintree National Park. I could get behind an effort like that, despite it seeming like great fun to live in a jungle (I imagine its not quite as fun in reality).

We spent part of the time driving through the highway built through the Daintree itself. The highway is sealed, but also littered with Cassowary crossing warnings. Despite this effort, there are still accidents (see previous note on cassowaries). We hoped to see a Dad leading his offspring through the woods, but were not so fortunate. Alas, the only I've seen have been in captivity. Though I did have the thrill of seeing other wildlife, such as a variety of smaller lizards, spiders, tropical birds, insects, snakes, and even some crocodiles. The latter were sunning themselves on the banks of the Daintree River which we did a boat tour through while waiting for our vehicles to cross the ferry. We also got a close up look at the mangrove forests. Interestingly enough, this rainforest is most particularly interesting in that the mangrove forests blend in with the more inland vegetation as the close proximity causes a varying flooding of fresh water from inland, to saltwater tides from the Pacific.

We had a few opportunities for lookouts over the forest valley as it spread up to the Ocean and the coves. We also got to hike through some of the boardwalks in the forest itself. It wasn't quite as magical as if we were the first ones there, but there are longer camping tours you can take deeper in to the forest itself (I might have to try one of those some day). I was fortunate to meet a fellow traveler, a young Canadian from Vancouver who described his own treks across Australia. In meeting alot of young people like him, I'm inclined to realize its alot easier to just pick up and go across the country, working and living as you can, than I had assumed previously. I know there are plenty of folks in the States who'd love to be able to do that, but it doesn't seem as possible as it once did. Here, though, there's certainly quite a lot of people who are having a go at it.

The tour's highlight was a brief stop at a local watering hole in a forest stream (not too far from the crocodile warning signs, but still at the assurance of our guides. Note that I wasn't the first one in). The water was warm, crystal clear, and the forest was absolutely beautiful. We were treated to a snack of various fruits grown locally, some exotic, and others native. Everything from familiar mango and papaya, to avocado relatives that were sweeter, to organic bananas that were sweet and absolutely delicious - I'm only ever buying organic fruit from now on. Mmmm, so good, and good for you! We also had some of the famous Australian "damper," a bread made from just flour and water, and lots and lots of butter. Ours had enough additional ingredients to make it much more tasty - although damper was originally made over hot coals by bush pioneers who lacked such rustic supplies as convection ovens. There was also "billy tea." A tasty tea brewed on an open fire, and was actually quite tasty, though our guide had a funny way of separating the water and the leaves - involving swinging an open metal pot of boiling water in a circle over his head. If I wasn't so confident in the laws of physics, I would think it was just a stunt to amuse tourists. Ah, to be free of such a label. Such is life.

We also had a great buffet lunch including grilled meats and steak. All in all, it was a tour in style, but I was most glad for the guide. He made the trip well worth it, and I learned a great deal, aside from the jokes. One thing I was fortunate in was that my hostess at the guesthouse only booked with tour groups that were original. That is, the owners and guides were all locals who started their businesses before Cairns became a tourism hotspot, and consequently inundated by more "professional" commercial groups that began edging in on the market, for higher costs and I daresay, more fluff. I was glad to have the experience I did. And just to check, I found out that numerous other more eco-friendly and responsibly managed travel groups also recommended them. Score bonus.

I can't really describe the emotional feeling though. I've always been fascinated by tropical rainforests since I was a kid. They're just full of so much mystery and magic, a natural wonder with a diversity of wildlife at your fingertips, but found nowhere else in the world. Such oases of biodiversity in the world are rare indeed, but to be able to actually see one is a rare experience. I was very glad for it, and I can honestly say it was something I'd do over and over again, for longer and with more rustic means. Hope to get the chance again.

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Australian Adventures, Part VI - Cairns

Feb. 3rd, 2009 | 05:51 am

From January 27th

I'd stayed up late the night before watching the Presidential Inauguration. More for the sake of actually making sure the momentous occasion in history actually had opportunity to pass than anything else. I really enjoyed the quartet music, it was simply beautiful. Sure "Air and Simple Gifts" by John Williams was pre-recorded, but honestly, if I was Yo-yo Ma, I sure as heck wouldn't want to play my cello sub-par for the world either. And its not like it was a recording of someone else either, come on. Aretha's hat was awesome, its even making waves on the web now! (Just google "Aretha's Hat is Everywhere") Though I felt like the sound set up didn't do her voice justice, it was not her best performance, but it wasn't me singing in below freezing temperatures either. She's still outstanding in my book. And the slip-up with the oath of office? Ouch! A more ominous omen there could not have been. But I was glad to hear they re-did it, if nothing else to continue with tradition, the same problem has happened to two Presidents before, and neither was a disaster in office (compared with the "eloquence" of our last President, I'm not worried). The speech was great, though. I loved it, loved hearing it, and am very glad to have Obama finally in office. I don't expect him to do an incredible job, I'd be happy with just a good job.

So I slept in, and enjoyed waking up to a new world in the morning. Took the train through the wall-graffiti of Brisbane. Slums are hard to come by in Australia, which I'm not sure is a testament to quality economic policy and urban planning, or just a convenient social experiment. The government certainly did a good job of hiding the native Aboriginal Australians. I'd never really heard of the horrific genocide of Tasmania (there are no surviving native Tasmanians to this day). But then again, speaking from another country that practiced vibrant colonialism through human extermination, I'm not exactly in a place to lecture. Sure my family history were some of the least of these, but having grown up for generations on soil stolen from other people, I fear for my karma. At least here there appears to be a significant effort to increase awareness of indigenous culture in the broader public mind.

I took a flight on Qantas from Brisbane up to Cairns. The view of the tropical coast was incredible, the inner mountains lush and green. I should take a moment to comment on the formulation of some of Australians land and ecosystems, its really quite intriguing.

Australia has been an island the size of a continent (all of which being somewhat subjective) for millions of years. It split off early on from the supercontinent of Gondwanaland back when mammals and birds were just forming, and as the dinosaurs were nearing their imminent demise. For this reason, it developed many of its own directions in animal species, notably the massive ratites (flightless birds of frightening size) and megafauna marsupials (as described earlier). During this time, Australia's climate was still warm and fairly lush. We can assume due to the fossil record that a variety of verdant forest covered the land, as the new soil was still fairly mineral rich. Over time, however, as Australia has moved to the position its in, this began to change. Our biggest question, why is Australia such a massive, red desert? Well, despite being a desert, its still fairly green. Unlike areas I've been such as Kuwait and Afghanistan, not all of the outback is tracks and tracks of waterless dust. There's still alot of plant life in some areas, possibly due to efforts to curb over-grazing, though this is still evident near some of the sheep and cattle stations, and anywhere that there are rabbits. Further to the coast, where water resources increase, this has changed to a more verdant, albeit scrubby, bush. Still, it has arguably been so inhospitable and waterless for longer than most deserts, giving much of its wildlife time to adapt to these conditions. Just how inhospitable? Well, geographically, Australia is positioned so that almost half of its land is in the tropics, meaning that sunshine and heat are year round. Also, a great boundary of Ocean separates it from the Antarctic polar ice. Even with moisture blowing North out of the continent, it passes over a large body of water, not land, which slows the process, preventing cold air from reaching most of the continent, even in their winter. This also strips alot of water from reaching the continent through cold fronts. North America is situated similarly, but our Canadian neighbors create an arctic wind tunnel that lets overland storms bury us in snow. Only southern florida escapes it entirely. Australia in its north and interior also lacks really any true seasons. The temperature and rains may change somewhat, but really, the rains just come whenever they can. For this reason, many of the wildlife in the outback have no particular mating period. Whenever there's a good rain, whether five times a year or once in five years, they go nuts and produce as much offspring as the resurgence in water and nutrient resources will allow. Over millions of years of time, this has resulted in a very very mineral poor topsoil layer. Even in areas that have decent water, the soil is very poor. Most other places in the world at least experience volcanic activity, mountain upwellings, or nutrient feeds from other areas. Australia has very little volcanic activity, so there's no new minerals pouring in from the earth's mantle. There's also no dust coming in from other land masses, or mountains uplifting from plate shifts. For the most part, Australia is lacking in these areas. The exception is the Great Dividing Range, a mountain system that runs right along the Eastern coast. This more recent volcanic range is what gave this region its better soil. Combine that with the eastern side of the mountains acting as a catch for all the rain water, and voila! You have the lush southern forests, and the tropical rainforests of the York Peninsula. The regular cyclones coming out of the Northeast in the Pacific also dump an immense amount of rain onto the Northeast part of the country around Darwin and Cairns. In March, Cairns regularly gets anywhere from 7 to 10 meters of rain alone. Holy cow! In turn, all this rain washes nutrients and minerals out of the volcanic mountains and down in to the valleys below, feeding the forests. Because of the short coastline, this region is also known as the land where the Rainforest meets the Reef. The short coastline means that many of the nutrients are not caught by the forests as the water flows out of the rivers, like the Daintree. Even at the coast, the numerous mangrove forests feed on a good portion of it as well, especially as they are usually in sheltered coves with almost no wave action. The remaining nutrients pour out to the Great Barrier Reef. The depth of the reefs is perfect in many ways. Not too shallow and not too deep, even with the tidal action, the reef is just the right height for coral. Combine that with all the fertilizer pouring in from the mountains and rainforests, and the coral and other reef animals are thriving. In turn, the barrier to the ocean that they create further aids the coastal lands by preventing storm surges from damaging the coastal forests, although the wind and rain of the cyclones can still get anywhere.

And I happened to be traveling just in that season.

Now, admittedly, when possible, you should travel according to the season. But when one is unable to choose the dates of travel, then the seasons become irrelevant, and it becomes more of a matter of choosing what rain gear to wear and disaster relief agency to bunk with. The weather report for the next 10 days in Cairns seemed to be some mutated amalgam of sun, rain, clouds, wind, hail, thunder, cyclones, plagues of frogs, and uncovered sunken ships from previous daily weather. I think "unpredictable" would be an understatement. Quite miraculously, though, my experience was very pleasant. It seems that most of my trip seemed to be me bringing good weather with me, and leaving the bad in my wake (sorry about that guys). In Cairns, the weather was not much different than home. It was hot and humid, sure, but also fairly sunny during the day, with periods of brief thunderstorms in the evening, cooling off with an ocean breeze.

Cairns is beautiful. That fact should also come with a clause. Here, let's try this:

Cairns is beautiful*.

* But beware of the over-abundance of tourism.

See, Cairns, once the home of sugar-cane farms and American service-men in the Pacific Theater, has found an entirely new industry that's resulted in a surge of development. Tourism.

In full recognition of the fact that I was buying in to it, I also realized that its alot harder to escape things such as that development, and consequently get off the beaten path, when you're in the thick of it. A future me will have to resolve to merely pass through, on to Port Stephens or even more interior areas where the amenities are fewer, more austere, but still just as bucolic. At the time, though, I had to make do. And it was still well worth it.

I had the good fortune to stay at a wonderful guesthouse right by the beach. My introduction to it was a bit unusual.

I was dropped off by the airport shuttle with my bags in hand, looking for the guesthouse, which seemed no where in sight. Finally, I realized that the entrance was obscured by an abundance of tropical foliage from the front courtyard, which blended so naturally it seemed more like a cottage than anything else. Quite delightful.

I wandered in to the place in the early afternoon, and just enjoying the scenery. There was a piano in the parlor room, as well as some tourist pamphlets. The furniture and decorations were something out of a movie, I couldn't quite believe where I was at. It had an almost magical quality, like I had stepped in to the same seaside accommodations of a naval officer on shore leave, or a singing duo from a 1930's musical. The concierge was no where in sight, but there was an abundant collection of hand bells at the counter, seeming to indicate prompt usage. I tried a few, but was somewhat reluctant to announce my presence as the short-tempered American, so I just meandered a bit. All of a sudden, I heard a commotion, as a venerable woman with silver hair, wrapped in a bright pink shawl burst through the door and ran past me. I followed as she spoke to herself, saying "oh dear, he's gotten out!" She looked at me and said quite naturally and familiarly, "could you help me a moment?"

Between the two of us, we managed to corner a most distressed young finch that had flown out of its cage and landed in a hibiscus bush in the courtyard by the street. The bird was hopping like mad, and falling through the leaves, when I managed to gently extract it, and held it delicately in my hands. Returning him to his caretaker, she expressed her thanks, and placed him back in his cage with the others.

The woman I had met was the one who ran the guesthouse. Despite our somewhat unexpected introduction, she was immensely gracious and hospitable, showing great courtesy and did a great deal to help smooth out my vacation plans. The guesthouse was incredible too. It had a lot of character, made me feel like I was staying with a dear relative and not in a cookie cutter or ostentatious hostel. The room was clean and neat, the bathroom enormous. I even had my own kitchenette, not to mention usage of the complete kitchen in the house. There was a great pool as well, nice and refreshing after a long run I decided to go for that evening. However, as nice and refreshing as it was, it was also unlit, and I wasn't too keen on diving in to a large, dark pool in crocodile country, as silly as that sounds. You had to see it, natural rocks, overhanging flora. Much more appealing in the day time.

I grabbed a nibble at the corner store, went for a quick evening run along the esplanade overlooking the bay. The water was an unusual color, more like a vast lake. There was also no wave action, as the reef pretty much slowed down all the water. Against the rosy sky it looked almost gray or purple. A host of birds flew overhead, or nested within the tropical trees in the park. A huge number of people were running, cycling, or playing rugby and soccer in the park. I had some trouble dodging them all, perhaps I should have stuck to the path and not ran directly through the match. No wonder they looked so angry. I suppose it would have helped if I gave the ball back.

For dinner I went to the Bay Leaf, a delightful and popular southeast asian restaurant with a combination of Thai, Indonesian, and Malay fare. I was just going to stick to main, a dish of sweet and spicy tomato/chili sauce over chicken and vegetables, but the waitress politely encouraged the entree of some skewered meats cooked with an absolutely incredible peanut sauce. I was extremely glad that I did. Also enjoyed a few cocktails of varying flavors, they were some good mixes, with a healthy dose of liquor. I was happy on the way home. I did a walk around the town for the evening, but being early in the week, and the off-season, the place was pretty dead. A late evening drizzle cooled the place off, though. I eventually found my way back, and made for an early sleep.

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Australian Adventures Part V - The Australia Zoo

Feb. 2nd, 2009 | 02:27 pm

Exploring Australia has been a unique experience in many ways. On some levels, the similarity in language, culture, and even shopping venues makes it all too easy to assimilate back in to something resembling home. At the same time, there's subtle details that remind me how far out I am, and even more glaring differences that present the fact that this continent is a world unto its own.

Flying in to Brisbane, I encountered a city that reminded me much of Nashville: the verdant green hills surrounding it, the buildings of the down town, the river that ran its course lazily through the center (though I daresay the Brisbane river is cleaner than the Cumberland). I was met at the airport by a local friend who was courteous enough to show me around the place. Being deeper up the coast than Sydney, Brisbane's climate resembles something more along the lines of Mexico, not quite tropical, but very very close. As in Sydney, lush plants grow in all the gardens, line the streets, and rise up out of the hills. Despite this, the dense population of the Eastern coasts has caused numerous water shortages in many of the regions. Further south in New South Wales and Victoria, over use of the massive Murray-Darling river has caused it to dry out, an event that was formerly seasonal, but has now become constant. There is even some concern that overuse of the watercourses could lead to a permanent drought in many areas within the divide between the desert outback and the lush coast.

The next day, Tuesday the 20th, we went for a drive out to Steve Irwin country - the much lauded Australian zoo. According to some of the travel literature and hearsay, the Australia zoo was a singularly dynamic event that required my attentions. If nothing else, the expensive ticket ($53 AUD) would at least be put to good use. The foundation set up by Steve and his american wife, Terri, has gone on to conservation efforts around the globe, including purchasing some of the last remnants of rainforest in Indonesia. These forests are particularly threatened, despite a government halt to logging, due to illegal efforts that are ignored due to corruption within the authorities normally charged with protecting the land. Considering the incredible diversity in the Southeast Asian rainforests, especially many of the islands which possess unique ecological biodiversity, these programs are well worth an exploratory expedition to the zoo of the famous "Crocodile Hunter."

The road enroute to the zoo (the Steve Irwin Highway) is quite a drive in and of itself. The area is home to much of the bush forest unique to coastal Australia, the tracts of land inhabited by Eucalyptus trees of varying species, that thrive in the warm climate and middle-ground of water content - not quite rainforest, but not yet desert. Evidence of this is in the volcanic plugs of the Glass House Mountains, and more on that later. Suffice to say, it was well worth the drive just to see the incredible scenery. There were groves of mangoes, papayas (pawpaws), and pineapple - which I didn't realize wasn't a tree crop, but a shrub that grew close to the ground. There were also stands of trees that had been planted after much of the native forest was cleared away by early settlers. The Caribbean and Slash pines native to my own country were grown here by farming/logging industries, some of them state-owned. Unfortunately, constant wildfires have cut away at much of the crop. Although I can't say I'm entirely displeased by that, the acres and acres of uniform pine groves are startlingly apparent in contrast to the native forests, living in tiny isolated islands in the higher ground of the Glass House Mountains.

Arriving at the Australia zoo, we pioneered amongst the throngs of parents and their innumerable progeny, and dove in to the experience formed by the late naturalist and animal planet tv show host. No disrespect intended to Steve Irwin. Many Australians loved him dearly, especially following his untimely death, though others still roll their eyes at his antics. According to my friend, it wasn't for show at all, he was the genuine article. He'd get so excited about everything that it drove the rest of the Australians batty. But it was this same enthusiasm that led to the creation of one of the most incredible zoological parks I have ever visited. It wasn't just the sheer expanse and plethora of animals, both Australian and international. But it was also the commitment to the Irwins' own ideals in the functioning of the park itself. Park staff were present around every corner to answer questions and even showcase different animals in the most accessible ways possible. Their entire goal was to help their conservation efforts through education. I couldn't agree more, many of the problems we face today in the world, of any subject, are caused simply by sheer ignorance. If you can help people to understand what you're trying to accomplish and why, then you can do much more good, even if they don't necessarily agree with you.

The zoo is designed in such a way as to make the animals available for public viewing, but also give them much needed privacy from the overexposure. All the enclosures are very open. So even if there's a double fence again the crocs, you could still get an unobstructed view, unlike some places with mile high bars surrounding them. Or, as in the case of some of the beautiful australian wading birds, the paths wind through the entirety of the enclosure. The area is so natural you sometimes could forget you're in an artificial environment. In other cases, the enclosures are only the temporary "day" paddocks for the animals. For example, the Indian elephants are taken out of their day habitat after the zoo encloses. But instead of smaller indoor pens, the elephants are allowed to free range in acres of land out back, then walked back to the zoo in the early morning. Now, at some points it does feel like a circus. The only real draw-back to the zoo is that many of the animals are also trained to interact with the public for the various shows used in the "education" process. Animal-rights activists would HATE to see that, considering their positions on captivity in general. At the same time, considering that the animals are in captivity anyway, the "games" that they are involved in actually do seem to enhance their psychology. Instead of just laying around in an enclosure, they have an opportunity to engage in stimuli, almost like animal exercise. This, of course, is not universal. Many of the animals in the zoo are actually rescues - animals that were brought in due to injury in the wild, and are only awaiting re-release. For example, a whole host of kookaburras (relatives of kingfishers) and frogmouths (look like owls, but aren't) live in one open enclosure where you could almost touch them! However, the reason the enclosure is open is because all of them were injured in collisions with cars, and have lost the ability to fly. Considering these efforts, I can overlook some of the comedy in the zoo's shows. And all the same, its these events that draw the large crowds, provide the educational opportunities, and rake in the cash for the conservation programs. I think alot of places would do well to consider the Australia Zoo for some tips.

At the zoo, I also had the chance to see many native Australian wildlife that I'd otherwise miss out on in my travels. The tasmanian devils were surprisingly active (despite being a little fierce in their crushing jaw-strength). I saw a whole host of crocodiles, which were no doubt sunning themselves after another thwarted effort at devouring their trainers in the public shows. The snake exhibit showed all of Australia's cute pythons and deadly venomous snakes (except the sea-snake). Of the worlds 25 most venomous snake species, 15 live in Australia. I saw the Jabiru - an Australian stork that has a blue head and neck, and the adorable wombats. I wanted one as a pet, they are probably the cutest of the Australian animals, more so than the wallabies. Kangaroos were present in force, as were the koalas, which were all resting from a hard night of drinking and partying, and looked one ear-twitch short of being a charlatan's taxidermy efforts. There were also emus (which make delicious sausage), Indian tigers, giant tortoises, american alligators, an aviary filled with incredible birds, and one of my favorites, the Cassowary.

The cassowary is a bizarre animal. A member of the ratites, large flightless birds found only in southern hemisphere continents, such as rheas of South America, ostriches of Africa, fellow Australian emus, and the now extinct Elephant birds of Madagascar and Moas of New Zealand, the cassowary is still a family unto itself. Its plumage is a glossy black, it has an enormous rock-like protrusion on its head, a blue and red skin coloring for its face and neck, and particularly nasty claws which it uses to pulverize intruders in to its hidden rainforest kingdom. In particularly fond note, the cassowary is a poster-bird for the modern elasticity of gender roles in parenting. In order to propagate the species as quickly as possible, the female lays not one, but three clutches of eggs a year. Now, she'd never accomplish that if she had to raise them all herself, so instead, she grows bigger than all the males and takes a different mate each time, having up to three boyfriends in one period. Her boyfriends, however, are stuck with the clutches. Each time finishes laying, she leaves the eggs with the mate, and the father is now responsible for incubating and hatching his progeny. Not only that, but for about 18 months he's now tied with rearing the youngsters until they're old enough to follow suit, the boys to being haggard fathers, the girls to having a wonderful time helping to sustain the survivability of a dwindling species. The cassowary is also a singularly important animal in its ecological role. It lives in a unique rainforest environment that has been around 125 million years. Thus, many of the species in this environment have co-evolved over time. Primary among them are the fruit trees. The trees of many of the forests in the tropical and wet northern York peninsula and the island of Papua New Guinea are possessed of enormous fruit similar to avocados or mangoes that have a massive central stone, but unlike their relatives, are not particularly nice to eat. Not only that, but a membrane encases the stone of these seeds that does not dissolve on its own. If the fruit falls and is left to rot, the seed won't propagate. However, if it passes through the digestive enzymes of a cassowary stomach, not only does is the stone now open to germination, it is also now buried in a nutritiously beneficial mound of cassowary poo. Unfortunately, this evolutionary advantage will be lost if the remaining 1500 cassowaries left in the wild die out (which they are dangerously close to doing, the cassowary population is still in decline, despite conservation of their rainforests. Despite pigs also eating their eggs, the cassowaries only natural predator is oncoming cars. This has led to a number of "cassowary crossing" signs going up all over northern Queensland. This is not enough, however. You see, cassowary collisions aren't due to the "bird brained" antics of the remarkably intelligent adult birds (they're smart enough to evade busloads of bush tourists, after-all). Apparently the deaths are all due to juveniles. You see, the young cassowaries devour gullets full of fruit just like their fathers taught them. But the sensitive chemistry of a cassowary metabolism takes some time to figure out the problem of alcohol. You see, if you filled your belly full of fruit, but didn't immediately digest it, alot of that sugar would just ferment, leading to a belly full of 80 proof Australian bush liquor. The younger cassowaries get drunk, need to find a nice place to lie down, and lo and behold, the middle of an asphalt road is a nice warm place to sit while recovering from a killer hang-over. Without time to react, they encounter another drunken Cane Toad (Australian nickname for Queenslanders) barreling down the highway at full tilt and BLAMMO, endangered roadkill. With an average of 10 cassowaries killed by this method every year, the females either need some major aphrodisiacs, or we're running in to an oncoming extinction. It doesn't help that captive breeding efforts have largely failed. Like me, the cassowary females are remarkably picky when presented with wonderful dating options, and their greater size and attitude doesn't help the smaller males in any courting dances. To make matters worse, the rainforest fruit trees mentioned earlier that depend on the cassowaries for propagation will likely die out as well, accounting for as many as 40 different species of trees. If all those tree species are gone, that will lead to the demise of countless epiphytes that depend on the trees for survival in rainforest canopy, which goes on and on. Its possible that a great portion of the rainforest biodiversity will be lost simply due to the death of one special bird. Will the rainforest still survive and adapt? Possibly. But it'll kill the tourism industry of Queensland. Not mention result a significant drop in the watershed for the region, which in turn will cause massive droughts countrywide, which pose big problems for Australians in general. So! My solution? Simple. If you're ever in Queensland 1) shoot a pig, shoot several pigs, and donate them to feed the homeless 2) don't drive drunk 3) visit the Australia zoo. And if you're a fan of Sex In the City, PLEASE help those female cassowaries in captivity find a few good fathers to do the job.

The Australia zoo was a great experience as a whole. I still think that the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro is a better facility, and presents a greater variety of animals. However, the NC park could learn from the Australian enclosures, and probably from their marketing techniques as well. Even the camp of the "Croc" show was worth it for the guy swimming in a pool with a giant python, the macaws and cockatoos flying through the crowd, and Albert, the friendly saltwater crocodile, ignoring the bits of chicken provided him and going straight for his hapless trainer. Its just not the same without Steve (who, by the way, has a bronze statue in tribute). I did enjoy my Australian burger. It was another unusual dining experience. The burger patty was a dense ball of meat. It held the requisite lettuce, tomato, and "special sauce," complete with a slice of beet (wtf??? when did BEETS become a popular vegetable?), fennel, ham, fried egg, and sprouts. It doesn't help either that their ketchup (excuse me, toe-MAHHH-toe sauce) tastes more like brown sugar. I found some packets of Heinz later on in the Cairns airport and dumped the bowl in my backpack. Despite the Aussie peculiarities, I do think Australian cuisine is divine. Now, what other kinds of bush tucker might I be able to discover?

On the drive back from the Australia zoo, we had the chance to check out the Glass House Mountains, a set of national parks nestled in the embrace of cleared land and farming. The Glass House Mountains are testaments to the ancient geology of Australia. They resemble Pilot Mountain, a famous peak near the I-40/I-85 stretch of North Carolina, though I don't know if they have the same rock history. The Glass House Mountains began as volcanos, about 25 million years ago, making them fairly young. Over time, the rain and wind of the region eroded them down to just the inner plugs, which are spectacular rock peaks that jut out of the ground in sheer cylindrical columns, showing an array of colorful stone, and even caves etched in to their faces. The name for the mountains doesn't have anything to do with the famous saying, though I wouldn't want to stand on the top of one and throw a bunch of stones down either, they're pretty precarious. It actually came from Our Dear Captain Cook, the explorer who named most of the Eastern Coast. While trekking further inland, he saw the mountains, though never climbed them. That was left to other explorers later on (they're sheer climbs, but not very high, all under 1km in height. Cook named them as such, because they resembled the glass making furnaces of England in their shape. You can even see smoke billowing out from them sometimes, though that's usually due to the brushfires in the area.

I had a good time hiking in the park, including all the beautiful scenery. The forests were full of eucalyptus and evergreen trees. At one point, I even saw a 3 foot goanna (an Australian monitor lizard) clambor up a nearby tree. We searched for koalas in the overhanging trees, but this only led us to walking in to spider webs. Lots of them. Normally I can live with spiders, but Australian orb weavers are much larger than the North American varieties, painted an angry orange and blue. One mother was bigger than my outstretched hand! Fortunately, they were decent enough to build most of their webs either off the path, or high enough up that I could walk under them. They didn't look too keen on jumping down on me either, so I walked in guarded security. There was an abundance of butterflies, and a few mosquitos, though not too many, and the weather was warm and sunny. A beautiful temperature for January, in my opinion. I really like spending winter in Australia.

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Australian Adventures, Part IV - Hyde Park and The Australia Museum

Jan. 26th, 2009 | 05:10 pm

Well, what else is there to describe in Sydney? Ha. What's there NOT to describe in Sydney?

I took a ferry to Manly and back. The view was incredible. The waters in the harbor were well-protected enough to keep the ride from getting choppy until we came out in to the open ocean. But the scene from behind was beautiful. The harbor bridge really is an enormous site, spanning the deep inlet to both sides of a district full of sky-scrapers and green trees. The Opera House is in a beautiful position along the bay, glowing in the sunlight. I think its best sight is definitely at night, when the muted tones of yellow make it glow an iridescent white. During the day, the sunlight reflects its architecture better, so you can see the scales that form the "sails," which are definitely out of the 1970s. Still, it is an incredible landmark, and beautifully positioned. Right behind it are the Royal Botanic Gardens, which I had a wonderful opportunity to run through. The gardens are filled with both native flora, and sections of well-maintained exotics. I had to ignore the hoard of fruit-bats (technically - flying foxes) that were hanging in the banana trees of one section. The gardens consider them a pest and are trying to remove them to prevent the guano from damaging the plants. Despite that, the gardens, like many parks in Australia, are very accessible. You can pretty much run anywhere on the place, touch any of the plants, and roll around on the lawn. Its a very friendly environment. In one of the public lawns just south of the park, there was even an outdoor concert. Apparently I lucked out with January being the Sydney Festival, where the city had events going on all over the place throughout the month. I tried going one night to see on of my favorite groups do a performance of Gypsy Music. The music was great, and the sight was incredible, but the hordes of people made it a bit uncomfortable to be there.

A few times I had a run through Hyde Park and up to the Botanical Gardens. The harbour views always made running by the water just beautiful, and its always nice to have a good iPod sound-track to assist in the beauty. On my way through Hyde park, I stopped for a bit and just walked, enjoying the canopy of over-arching live oaks that reached overhead. There was also a beautifully sculpted fountain at the center, designed with a Greek Mythology motif including Apollo, Theseus, and Artemis. There was a guy playing bag-pipes there, which made for another moment of picturesque beauty combined with sonorous melody. Turned out he was Canadian and collecting donations for his own world-tour. Seems like a fun way to get around, playing bagpipes in various cities of the world and traveling.

At Hyde Park I stopped by an Italian cafe for some tasty eats. Had a delicious chicken salad in vinaigrette with a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, perfect for the warm outdoor weather and sun. The main was home-made artichoke ravioli with sun-dried tomatoes and cheese. I was stuffed by the end of the affair, but so glad that I had courted it.

I ended up staying at another hotel for the last two days, the Paddington Hotel on Oxford St. The conditions were a little more austere, but it was still a good deal, and they were generous enough to upgrade my room with a view of the garden and free Wifi. The location was great as well, being right next to the scene on Oxford St. and some of the restaurants there. I became indulgent of a few of the late-night eateries that served take-away (Aussie for take-out/to-go) pizzas and falafel. The bars were pretty fun too, though the best night was by far the last Friday I had in Australia.

Near Hyde Park I visited the Australia Museum, a Natural History of sorts that included a wildlife photography exhibition. Their exhibits on Indigenous Australian culture were very enlightening, particularly for younger visitors who I think would learn alot from the exposure. The natural wildlife section was also pretty engaging, including a whole section on all the things in Australia that can main you, kill you, or otherwise torment you in utter agony. If its not the snakes, its the sharks, the crocodiles, the lizards, the fish, the spiders, the scorpions, the monotremes, the octopi, the birds, and yes, even the sea-shells. In Australia, picking up a sea-shell you find on the beach can result in being stung with a barb full of venom so vile that you'll end up writhing in convulsions reminiscent of green-vomit-spewing exorcisms. Despite this, I never really felt like I was in much danger during my travels. I noticed that the Australians have a similar view of Americans with our high-speed traffic accidents, gang/mafia-related violent crime, and tornados. For some reason, tornados are terrifying to some Australians, though many Americans have no problem just living in the wind-tunnel of the Mid-West. I suppose I would take leaving alone venomous sea-shells to vastly destructive funnel clouds.

The Australia Museum also contained a very engaging section on the Australian fossil record. Some of the Australian megafauna were truly impressive, though they died out not long after the first humans arrived on the continent 50,000 years ago. Included were birds the size of horses, wombats as big as mini-vans, and a 12-foot meat-eating kangaroo with fangs (of note, kangaroos are the only herbivores with canine teeth). For the ornithologist, you could also peruse the vivid sections on Australian bird life and the reptile section of the museum was also quite diverse. One of my favorites was an entire exhibit on the things living in your backyard at Sydney. They included everything from birds that were found to have a propensity for dive-bombing postal carriers, to one of the most venomous spiders in the world, the Sydney Funnel-Web Spider (though the crown still goes to the Brazilian Wandering Spider). You could also see the variety of exotic birds and marsupials that had taken to invading the city from the outside. One of these is the bald-headed ibis.

This native bird was once found almost exclusively along the banks of the Murray-Darling River, Australia's equivalent of the Amazon or Nile. However, its habitat has been slowly drained due to water-use and hydro-electric dams, on-top of a 20 year drought that threatens to permanently alter the watercourse. So, the ibis decided to fly off in search of greener pastures. That search led them directly to the verdant, and well-maintained gardens of Sydney. Unfortunately for the Sydneysiders, this meant that the native fauna became an endemic pest. The bald-ibis are now much the same as Canada geese in their incessant fertilizing, trash dissemination, and thievery of un-guarded sandwiches. I don't really think they were quite so obtrusive as some claim, and they technically have more of a right to be there than we do. In all honesty, there is some ironic justice in the invasion. Perhaps it could be better received, like the welcome resurgence in Peregrine falcon populations, that were threatened with extinction until they moved in to New York City and started feeding off the pigeons and nesting in sky-scraper alcoves. Only time, and the gracious Australian attitudes of acceptance and hospitality, will tell.

Of all these sections, however, my favorite exhibit by far, was the artistry of the wildlife photography. The photographs were gorgeous and incredible in their positioning. I was impressed by the skill of many of the photographers in not just creating a beautiful image of the natural world, but also in their selection of color, pose, and even the relation of lines and shapes within the works. Some were very well done, and drew inspiration from their composition. Others were symbolic in presentation, such as the ferns growing the floor of an abandoned apartment building, or one of the winners, a scene of a lion attacking a giraffe while a herd of oryx looks on. I was also pleased to see so many people taking advantage of the opportunity to view the works. Even though it was early afternoon on a Wednesday, the place was packed!

The cap off a great week in Sydney, the grand finale was a dinner at the top restaurant in the city, Quay. Now, I should note that it wasn't my intention to be so flamboyant or indulgent in my selection of cuisine. A great deal of how the evening turned out was pretty much due to personal pride and chance. I found a restaurant that sounded good, and without really consulting the prices, ended up with an incredible meal. I'll suffice to dwell on the bill by saying that I won't be attempting a similar culinary excursion probably ever again for the next decade. Maybe two. However, the meal itself made it well worth it.

The four of us, rather than choosing similar selections decided to go for individual tastes, and in consequence, managed to sample pretty much the entire menu. The chef's were indeed world class, high marks not just for flavor, but for presentation and service. I mean, the meal looked like a work of art, let alone tasted like one. To start, still water and a sherbet-glace to cleanse the palate (I should note that I did have a gin and tonic to start off, mostly to calm my nerves and quiet the voice in my head that said "I can't believe I'm doing this!") Then the entree (Australian for appetizer). I think the award went to the salad on this one. One of my friends had a marvelous combination of fruit, cheese, greens, and flowers that were structured in an artful and extremely delicate display. Crisp, clean, and perfectly sweet to tartness. The next course I think went to the quail, which was graced by polenta and herb combination (corrections may be needed on that, I was too engrossed in it to think more clearly). Following, the next course was a superb lamb, gently braised on the outside, with another flavorful assistance by selected vegetables and cheeses. During the course we also enjoyed so warm baked breads and our wine. Oh the wine. Superb. Splendid. Spectacular. I don't think there's any appropriate way to describe it. My applause goes to my friend for the selection, as she did a marvelous job. A Shiraz of incredible flavor. Peppery, with the spice I enjoy along with a medley of flavors, I'm no kind of connaiseur to attempt to describe it with any justice. Just incredible. Though, to end an otherwise amazing dinner, was the dessert. While I enjoyed a cake/sauce/sorbet combination that was everything cherry, I think the award for best dish went to the eight layered chocolate cake. The waiter presented it by saying "oh, there's only seven layers, but with here's the last..." upon which he poured melted chocolate on it until it melted delicately in through the center. I about died, it was hilarious and just so wonderfully inventive, I give great credit to the dessert-chef for that one. And by far, one of the best tastes I've ever had, I don't think I'll ever experience anything quite like it again in my lifetime. Though the evening and meal were a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I think I should give alot of credit to the company. Australians are by far some of the most gracious, forgiving, brave, and accepting people I've ever met. I hope to have many more opportunities in the future.

More to come, Australian Adventures Part V...

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Australian Adventures, Part III - Chinatown and Bondi Beach

Jan. 25th, 2009 | 11:25 pm

Sydney made for quite an interesting trip. My first culinary diversion was into Chinatown. The place was packed to the gills with people, and absolutely gorgeous. Clean, well maintained, and full of shops, restaurants, and parks, it was a great place to check out. I looked for a noodle shop recommended by a travel guide, and the food was outstanding. I keep having the problem of my eyes being bigger than my stomach (and my wallet). I had a bowl of noodles and beef, some fried pork loin in sweet and sour sauce (JUST like in Beijing, the first authentic food I'd had that was sincerely authentic, outside of China), some steamed pork, egg, and chives dumplings, rice, and cups and cups of hot green tea. It was divine, I felt like I was back in China again (and eating the heck out of everything then too!) I waddled my way through the district (searching for some baijiu, I mean, come on, what's wrong with a good little bottle of erguotou after a good meal?) and stopped short when I heard a beautiful sound. This old man was on the street corner playing the erhu. I mean, its been forever since I saw ANYONE with an erhu (kind of like a cross between a cello and a sitar). I had to stop and just soak it in, looking at the white clouds and blue sky, out across the buildings of Sydney. I started to tear up again, it was so beautiful just to enjoy that sensation of beauty, peace, and freedom. On my way back, I also saw a woman playing violin on the corner, though she was making a killing, and pretty good at it too (does Sydney not pay its orchestra enough or something?)

After the crowds, I headed back to the hotel for a nap, and to change. I went off to the Darling Bay Harbor to see my cousins and have dinner overlooking the place. I had my first kangaroo steak, and got to talk with the local Aussies about the place. Their beer is pretty good, come to think of it. The 'roo was good too, and also environmentally conscious. The red kangaroo has done pretty well in the outback, despite encroachment from foreign invaders, and its numbers aren't dwindling, much like the white-tailed deer in the US. Not only that, but eating kangaroo also reduces carbon emissions. Well, in a weird way. You see, kangaroos are remarkably efficient creatures. They need very little water to survive, and don't eat as much as say, beef cattle, yet they're still quite meaty and taste delicious. If you reduced the numbers of cattle by encouraging people to eat 'roo instead, you'd actually reduce the load on resources required for the cattle. Plus, kangaroos are native, so they don't overgraze the way other ruminants do that aren't used to eating the native plants. Mmm, tasty!

After dinner, we had a walk around the place. The night was still warm, but pleasantly so, and the city was still incredible to walk through. Most of Sydney is pretty accessible, making it a great walking city. We went by the Circle Quay, where all ferries meet with the trains. We also saw the glowing Opera House and walked by the Harbor Bridge. Both looked incredible lit up at night, and all the lights across the Harbor shone through the groves of trees like a hidden jungle. Very beautiful.

Most of the rest of the week followed a similar pattern. I usually had one event to accomplish, followed by a fun dinner, and then sometimes an evening out to the bars and clubs, or relaxing back in the room. I went down to Bondi Junction to buy some clothes, which reminded me of any mall back home, despite having monopoly money to throw around. Because of the Australian exchange rate, its very easy to overspend. Although prices adjust for the difference, there are some things you can still get for a deal, like some food and clothing. So even though something may look high in dollars, its actually more reasonably priced in AUD. However, that's not always the case, so to avoid Monopoly Money Syndrome, try to always be shocked by the price values and spend accordingly. If you try to save that way (without being uncomfortable), you'll find that you've actually saved quite a bit of cash after the conversion.

Bondi Beach was another fun spot. The beach was like any other, pounding surf, happy beach-goers, and a deep blue ocean. Unfortunately it rained while I was there, but it cleared the beach out pretty quick, so there was plenty of room to dry out once the sun came back. The water was pretty cold, but warmed up after a little while. The surfers were out in force, which seemed surprising to me, since the waves weren't all that high. Probably just the popularity of surfing alone drives people to go out, and since they start further in from shore, its a bit easier to catch one before it pounds you in to the sand. I stopped by a restaurant called Nico's, on the esplanade, where it was out of the hot and wet. They had a great shiraz from the Barossa valley, and were really friendly. The staff even suggested a nice dining spot for the evening in the city. The food was great too, some salmon cakes and greek salad, was very filling and delicious.

By comparison, Manly Beach was much bigger, though I went on a weekend, so the place was flooded with beach-goers. There were a number of surfers out, and some dangerous looking waves, but otherwise it was pretty pleasant. The sun was out in force, and I ended up taking a nap for a few hours without even thinking about it. I also went down by a nice cafe on the beach called The Bower Room, which had a delicious wine selection and some scrumptious tempura prawns. I chowed down on those pretty quick. All the seafood I've had in Sydney has been fresh and scrumptious. Possibly the cleanliness of the Australian waters helps with that, so its very nice to be on an island. The walk down through the gardens along the beach was pleasant. The whole of Sydney seems to have been landscaped either exceedingly well, or not at all - the feeling is very natural. More hilarious is the fact that many of the wildlife that would be considered pests here are exotic back home - like rainbow lorikeets and myna birds. One night out I saw a possum climbing in the trees, and by a hotel in the desert, a blue-tongued fat-tailed skink was just hiding out in the shade, flicking its tongue out at me to try to scare me off as I came up to it.

Out on Oxford St, I had the opportunity to sample a wide variety of fare. At a thai place, had some of the best pad thai ever! Plus a duck in red curry sauce - was so delicious I was in a swoon, and reasonably priced too! There was a swank asian fusion place that had incredible japanese food. The prices were steep, but surprisingly, we were able to make it fairly affordable in the group. The sake was flavorful, and we had a variety of tempura and sushi dishes. All the catch was fresh, and done very well in terms of taste. One thing I have to say for Aussie cuisine is that they know how to blend. They do a great job of creating good combinations of ingredients without making them taste like a train-wreck. So far, I've always been pleased with the fare. And it helps that all the Australian wines taste incredible. The beer is also pretty good, even the dark Victoria Bitter is pretty tasty.

More in Part IV...

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Australian Adventures, Part II - Sydney

Jan. 25th, 2009 | 09:59 pm

My first day in Sydney was pretty fun. Off the airport in to the hot, humid weather, it felt like I was in Disneyworld. I took a shuttle up to my room at the Vibe Hotel, a swank place as hip as its name, right in the downtown center. I grabbed some Indian food as my first meal. Tandoori chicken just like home, it was a great way to break my long deployment fast. I also had my first beer, and I was surprised how fast it hit me. I'd have to be careful until I got my tolerance back.

I went for a walk downtown to pick up some much needed items, like cash, clothes, a plug adapter. The downtown was pretty busy, even for a work day. The crowds were pretty mixed too. A variety of locals and tourists, young and old, of a variety of nationalities. I suppose unsurprisingly, most were either of european ancestry, or from around the Indian Ocean. A lot of folks from China and Japan, southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and East Africa. I was surprised to find alot of signs, even outside of Chinatown, in Chinese or Japanese characters. The public transit was pretty nice too, with buses running everywhere, and a large train system, especially for the suburbs.

Sydney is a very cool city. I say this in full recognition of not really living there or being able to experience the full breadth of what it has to offer. However, it does have a lot of key details that I find incredible. The city is set on a deep harbor (contrary to popular belief, NOT Byron Bay). There's a ton of little bays and inlets all along the way, until you get to the massive Harbor Bridge, which spans the two sides of the downtown: business on the North shore, residences and night spots on the South side. Further in it becomes more suburbs all the way out. The outer sections of the bay are a host to beautiful sandy beaches surrounded by rocky headlands and the blue, blue Pacific Ocean. The city itself is inundated with beautiful green gardens, natural wildlife, well-maintained parks, and more rustic rural wilderness. You can actually just end up walking so far out you forget you're in the city. And the beaches cover so much of the coastline, you can walk for miles and always be on the water. Every view is stunning out there.

The city fades inward fairly easily as you head to some of the outer districts. There's also a decent amount of hills that give it character and topography, but some decent walking. One fun thing about Sydney is being able to experience a different and unique area depending on where you go in the city. The downtown is fairly cosmopolitan, or you can see the older architecture of The Rocks. For a more earthy, college town appeal, check out Newtown, which is full of restaurants of every character, and is an activist's paradise. The far eastern beach of Bondi is a regular surfer's haunt, with alot of easy living appeal. Paddington and Oxford Street are the party side for the more posh club go-ers and shopping fiends. And Manly beach is a great vacation spot for a more family-friendly air combined with its own relaxed Italian villas and tropical sights.

All in all, the Aussie character was friendly, engaging, and open-minded. I was surprised at how much the culture of Sydney had absorbed and taken to the Pacific world around it. There's more connection with the other Islands and Pacific Rim countries than I'd expected, and nothing of the American isolationism I was so prone to run against in conversations back home. Undoubtedly, that is a part of the city itself, but more and more of Australia as my trip goes on is making me think this isn't all and only the case.

More to come in Part III

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Adventures in Australia, Part I - Enroute

Jan. 18th, 2009 | 10:06 pm

I'm really not quite sure how to explain how I got here. I suppose it started off with a friend from last deployment taking a cruise to cage dive with great white sharks. Perhaps even before that with a social studies lesson of the country in 7th grade. And perhaps even earlier when some part of the roma blood that I claim (without complete assurance) decided to overcome the sedentary Polish bucolic upbringing, and urged me to search for things that are distant, unseen, and unknown.

And so it came to be, that after finishing Bill Bryson's In A Sunburned Country (which apparently is required reading in high schools in New South Wales) I made a decision to take up the Army's free plane ticket leave program, and travelled to Australia.

And here I am, getting delightfully, gloriously, stupendously sunburnt. In Australia.

So, yes! A new continent, a new country to tick off the list, and a new language (contrary to popular belief, Australian is a completely different language than English. I hold the same conviction about Appalachain dialect, though the rest of the South is questionable, depends on the ratio of y'all : yonder : ain't. Midwestern English is passable enough, despite the differences in common nouns. Don't even get me started on Boston (and you though Welsh was bad...). Its much more infectious of a dialect than most others. Somehow I managed to escape North Carolina without more than a dash of Southern flavor to some amalgam of Milwaukee and Ohio twang. Even around British or a thick Scotsman's slur I've held my own. But down here? I'm even starting to think in Australian. I can't explain it. It just feels... natural. Like saying Cairns (like the Cannes film festival) the right way is just so much easier. Perhaps I'll grow out of it. But at the moment, its taking over my tongue with a linguistic force of nature I've never before reckoned with.

But Australia has become more than a check in the box. Its vast reaches call like a incessant, but sonorous bell, demanding that I make my way in to its distant, dangerous, desert reaches, full of mystery and possibility. Its hazy forests and weathered rocky coastlines are too engaging to the imagination to pass up. And Sydney itself is a city that I could enjoy for each unique district and still never find myself having completely explored its reaches.

My journey began in the cold, winter snows of Afghanistan. Its hard to believe that a short time ago I was wrapped in the embrace of frigid winds, oncoming blizzards, and threat of frostbite. For days it seemed I was mired in transportation stagnation, waiting in one small base terminal or another. From Kabul to Qatar to Kuwait. And then finally I could leave my uniform behind and shoulder some semblance of normalcy.

Kuwait airport was astonishing, especially considering the culture shock I was in for. Even late at night, the place was teeming with people. Glittering stores and retail shops were catching at every corner, but the night paled in comparison to Dubai. Flying in to the UAE was stunning, especially considering the immense amount of build up going on around the city. I bought some Johnny Walker Black at the duty free (more to have something to celebrate with upon reaching Sydney). Then, a long flight across the Indian Ocean to Melbourne before a final hop up to Sydney.

Flying in to Australia literally took my breath away. Even the Persian Gulf was cool compared to the sweltering humidity and bright sun of Sydney. Before long I had changed in to shorts found myself lost in the crowds of the downtown business districts and the tranquil beauty of Hyde park.

more in Part II...

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A forest in the desert

Nov. 25th, 2008 | 11:17 pm

Unfortunately, I'm coming to realize more and more that few of my posts contain any complex or interesting plot. They are mostly subjective casts in to the pool of visual images I come across throughout my travels. I suppose there's nothing wrong with that, it just seems more like a lengthy rambling of a tired old man than the inspiring visions of a master storyteller.

Our journey finally ended a few weeks ago, and I found myself in an entirely new place, with entirely new goals before me. Before I had my own clinic to work out of. Now, I have to build one. I must order new supplies to refurbish it, and establish an entirely new system and daily schedule. Not that I don't have the experience to do so, but it is a bit daunting to find oneself in this position. But it is also refreshing. There is something appealing about having the freedom to start anew, and having the capacity to do it differently, to solve old problems, to prevent previous mistakes due to the benefit of past experience. But right now, its not so much about doing it better, its more about not doing it worse. I only hope I don't fall in to the latter category.

While I was cleaning off one of the trauma beds, one of the local kids who lives on the base with his father came in to help too. I had just taken a shiny new mop bucket out of a box, its bright yellow color no doubt appealing. All he wanted to do was play with it, rolling it back and forth across the room. He even grabbed his own rag and even mimicked my actions, having no qualms about turning the manual labor in to his own "game." I was touched by the child's view of things, but also saddened that what this kid saw as play was worlds apart from my own more sheltered and pampered upbringing. Forget video games, all this kid wanted was a bucket with wheels.

The scenery is a stark contrast to the flat, endless desert of before. Now, I am surrounded by ringed mountains, each peak spilling over with fir trees and evergreen shrubs. The dust clogs my nostrils and cakes upon my skin and clothing, but it just makes the winter snows that much more wanted. Anything to stop the onslaught of "moondust."

Hiking through the mountain valleys, I notice numerous differences in the desert mountains before. Here, the higher altitudes and northern climate yields billowing mountain streams, terraced farmlands, and even forests of deciduous and evergreen trees. At one point, our patrol drove over hilly, dirt roads, past compounds of stacked buildings, like stone huts clustered against a ridge, overlooking verdant green fields, even green in the dusty winter. It was simply beautiful. Probably the most pastoral and bucolic images I have ever seen in Afghanistan.

As the holidays begin to creep up on me, I notice that my time here is drawing to an end. There is still some time left to go, but I also do not yet feel the pull to return so quickly. There are still more tasks that I have yet to accomplish, and more work that can be done in my role in this intricate world before me. And only time will see it through for now.

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