February 26, 2004

Planes, Macropods, and Automobiles

For our trip to Kangaroo Island, long awaited and drooled over by yours truly, we planned an itinerary that also included Victoria's Great Ocean Road, Grampians National Park, and Adelaide, in South Australia, in a six-day whirlwind.

Ok, truthfully, we planned the itinerary to maximize kangaroo-viewing.

The Great Ocean Road

The Great Ocean Road stretches from Torquay, an hour southwest of Melbourne, to Warnambool, about halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide to the west. The road was built as a project for World War I vets and is billed as one of the most spectacular coastal drives in the world. It is. The road twists and winds along dramatic cliffs that overlook "the Shipwreck Coast". The driving was really fun, if you're into that sort of thing, and the views were truly breathtaking. The most amazing - and wonderful - thing about the Great Ocean Road is how undeveloped it is. Aside from a few towns dotting the coast, most of the shoreline and its beaches are pristine and untouched. No tacky bungalow developments, view-ruining skyscraper hotels, or neon restaurant signs. Lovely. Part of it must be the inaccessibility of the water, as well as the protection of several national parks along the way.

   

Country Club Kangaroos

Our first stop along the GOR was Anglesea, a small community past Torquay that features the world-famous Anglesea golf course. The golf course is famous for the fact that kangaroos graze along the fairways. Our Ottawa sublettor first informed us of this fact, and our Lonely Planet guide and the Torquay Visitors Centre backed him up. Unfortunately, we arrived to find that the golf course's management had become a little bit paranoid. So, being law-abiding citizens eager to do Canada proud, we ignored the warning, snuck onto the golf course, and saw our first kangaroo (a baby!).

The "Submarine Apostle"

We stopped for picnics and two short walks in beautiful Otway National Park (a coastal temperate rainforest) further along the GOR en route to our destination for the evening - Port Campbell National Park and The Twelve Apostles. These Apostles are rock formations left when the waves erode soft sandstone rock and leave a hardier pillar stranded in the ocean. The Apostles were great, although Miriam liked the next day's rock formations even better -- The Arch, the Grotto, and the London Bridge (pictured alongside the Apostles below). A section of the London Bridge collapsed in 1990, stranding two bewildered (but unharmed) tourists.

           

I think I got a little bit too into the rock-naming game, because I ended up dubbing another formation, located in the "Bay of Islands", the "Submarine Apostle" (can you spot it in this picture?).

Grampians National Park and Tourism par excellence

The GOR ends at Warnambool, and at that point we headed straight north into Grampians National Park. Our experience at the Visitors Centre at the southern gateway to the park was ... something special. We've noticed that Visitors Centres here in Australia, especially those that are more "out of the way," are, as could be expected, staffed by volunteers. These volunteers have, as could also be expected from people so giving of their time, hearts of gold. Unfortunately, the training they are provided with seems to be more in the nickel range as far as precious metals go, and they tend to be less invested in the subject of their work (parks, ecosystems, etc.) than their hired counterparts - rangers and the like - at the larger centres.

So picture this scene. We're standing in the Grampians National Park Visitors Centre at about 3:30 p.m. We are young, look reasonably fit, and are decked out in the latest "technical" gear (hiking boots, Gor-Tex jackets, etc.) from MEC. We are surrounded by informational pamphlets about the park. Sunset is at least four hours away.

So we ask the friendly staffer if there are any good 2-3 hour hikes we could do before heading to Hall's Gap (the Grampians' main town) for the evening. He hems and haws, notes the late hour, sizes us up and ... suggests that we do a loop walk around his town's arboretum. Now, don't get me wrong. I like arboretums as much as the next guy. Ottawa has a lovely arboretum. Trees rock my world. But here we are in a park famous for its wildlife, hiking, and spectacular rock formations, surrounded by pamphlets which this gentleman, bless his soul and his generosity with time, has clearly neglected to peruse, and he's recommending the town's arboretum. After several minutes of his trying to convince us to do this walk (and drawing, in excruciating detail, the loop), I interjected to thank him for his help, bought the two maps that appeared to be most relevant to the area we wanted to hike, and we fled. It may be the best $6 we've spent during our visit to Australia.

I should add that we also asked this kindly man about the beautiful white birds (cockatoos, it turns out) which were flying in large flocks around the town. He called them pests and made little "psheouw! psheouw!" noises as he fired at the birds through the window with a hastily produced finger-gun. Enough said.

To the Pinnacle!

As it turned out, of course, there were a multitude of hikes that fit the bill, including several which we later learned would have been obvious choices for their popularity with visitors to the park. We hiked to "the Pinnacle", one of the highlights of the park. It was a spectacular ascent to a lookout over a valley between two mountain ridges. We also did a shorter hike to Silverband Falls. We were done both by 7:30 p.m. and arrived in Hall's Gap before sunset.

       

The Local Kangaroo Motel

That night it was finally time to see some non-golfing kangaroos. We headed to a plain at the foot of the nearby hills and saw three Eastern Grey kangaroos grazing and - yes! - bounding across the plain. It is a thrilling thing to see a real kangaroo bound. Kangaroos look pretty odd to start with, if you're not used to them - but to see them jump ... well!

We thought this was a pretty successful kangaroo outing, but we decided to drive just a little further on. It was almost dusk at this point, and a kangaroo bounded along across the road in front of us. We didn't have to wait for long to figure out where it was coming from: the nearby motel, of course. About 40 kangaroos, including babies, were grazing on a motel lawn in Hall's Gap! We got out of the car and joined some of the motel's guests who were walking amongst the largely unperturbed kangaroos.

Now, seeing kangaroos is one thing. Seeing them bound across the plains in a manner clearly unbefitting most mammals is quite another. Seeing kangaroos at the local motel can make you scratch your head. But seeing kangaroos at the local motel boxing makes you wish somebody had gently suggested that you be sitting down first. Yes, kangaroos actually box. We've seen it. It looks just like humans boxing, except with less biting of ears (hi, Mr. Tyson!).

Top the evening off with a few more kangaroos grazing outside the restaurant we ate at, and I went to sleep a happy man indeed.

En route to South Australia

We got an unusually early start the next morning. We had a lot to see before leaving the park. We visited the Brambuk Aboriginal Living Cultural Centre in Hall's Gap and inquired about visiting rock art sites in the park. I don't know how we managed it, but we visited two rock art sites (several hundred years old) and did two more hikes (one to another rock formation called "the Balconies" and another to Mackenzie Falls) by mid-afternoon before hitting the highway en route to Adelaide, our launching pad for Kangaroo Island.

       

The drive to Adelaide was uneventful, although we had a lovely dinner at a pub in Bordertown, South Australia. It was not, oddly enough, on the border.

Kangaroo Island

The next morning we were up early again - headed to Kangaroo Island. The island separated from the continent some 10,000 years ago and has, as a result, become a bit of a wilderness paradise. It has avoided most of the onslaught of invasive species that have ravaged mainland Australia.

"The Emu's a Flightless Bird!"

We flew to Kangaroo Island on Regional Express or REX. This would not be interesting were it not for the fact that I had hoped to fly on Emu Airways. It may still not be interesting, but the story is brief. Lonely Planet names Emu Airways as an airline that flies from Adelaide to Kangaroo Island. When I visited Flight Centre to book tickets, I enjoyed the following conversation:

Anatole: "We wanted to fly from Adelaide to Kangaroo Island. I read that Emu Airways does the flight, although I'm not sure if others do as well."
FC#1: "Emu Airways? Regional Express flies to Kangaroo Island, but I don't know Emu Airways." "Have you heard of Emu Airways?"
FC#2: "Emu Airways? No."
FC#3: "Emu Airways?! The emu's a flightless bird!"

Now, you can imagine my embarrassment at this point. She had the facts on her side. Here's the silly Canadian tourist who thinks he's heard of "Emu Airways." As if any businessperson in their right mind would name an airline after a flightless bird. Was this some sort of practical joke by Lonely Planet?

Well, sweet redemption. We arrived in Kangaroo Island and encountered an Emu Airways jet on the runway. Turns out they do the Adelaide-island roundtrip 84 times a week. Ha! Still, I wonder who's idea it was to call the airline "Emu Airways".

But I digress.

Holy cow - fauna everywhere!

Kangaroo Island was everything we had hoped for - pristine wilderness and a lot of wildlife. We started off our first day at Murray Lagoon on the south side of the island, taking in some very interesting marshlands and a lot of birdlife (including a swamp harrier circling over a dead goose!).

       

We then headed off to popular Seal Bay, where you can see one of the larger and more accessible populations of Australian sea-lions. The sea-lions were great and they had very cute babies. We were lucky to arrive in Australia at a time when most animals are showing off their newborns - penguins, koalas, kangaroos, seals and sea-lions, etc.

       

After Seal Bay we went to have lunch at nearby Vivonne Bay. A researcher at a Sydney university recently determined that Vivonne Bay beach was the "best beach in Australia." Personally, I quickly determined that that is the "best research topic ever." In any case, the beach, like most of the island, was surprisingly empty. We basically had the entire, enormous beach to ourselves. A walk along the beach after the picnic revealed cuttlefish skeletons, jellyfish, mussels, and two blowfish washed up on the shore.

       

"Run away! Run away!"

Next stop was Flinders Chase National Park, on the southwest corner of the island, where we had booked a night at the Postman's Cottage. We parked at the Visitors Centre and encountered several kangaroos, first cousins, 10,000 years removed of the mainland's Eastern Grey kangaroos.

These kangaroos, two of them, seemed quite tame, in that they were unafraid of the people or cars in the parking lot. Now, remember, we've seen countless signs telling us not to feed the wildlife in Australia. And now we are about to find out why.

These "parking lot kangaroos" amble about begging for food. So they begin to amble towards us, loping lazily on all fours rather than hopping.

Now, I'm no coward, but this animal that I have little experience with, with its beady, black, nocturnal-engineered eyes is ambling calmly towards me as if to say "You don't really believe those signs, do you? I mean, you will feed me. You'd better feed me." And I'm thinking to myself, "Now, I know kangaroos can kick like nobody's business. And I've seen them box. Clearly this is a well-disguised killing machine. Maybe that sign said ‘Don't feed yourself to the wildlife' ..."

And so, in true Monty Python "The Search for the Holy Grail" style, Miriam and I cried "run away! run away!" and fled to the car.

I'm not proud of this moment, but there you have it.

The story ends somewhat anticlimactically, as the kangaroos eventually got bored waiting for us and we managed to evade them to get to the Visitors Centre. We spent the rest of the day on the Platypus Waterholes Walk where we saw platypus bubbles and beak, but no entire platypus. On the way back we saw some wallabies and kangaroos, including more babies.

       

And on the second day, there were more kangaroos.

The Postman's Cottage was quite nice, and we woke up refreshed for a second day of exploring Kangaroo Island. I went for an early morning walk to see more kangaroos and wallabies (yes, I'm obsessed) while Miriam chatted with our cottagey neighbours who were on their honeymoon and spending a week in the national park.

       

We began the second day on the Snake Lagoon trail, a fantastic hike that follows the riverbed valley of the Rocky River all the way to the ocean and a beautiful beach. We saw a goanna on the trail, which was pretty cool (bonus points to anyone who knows or has the time to research any etymological links between the words "goanna" and "iguana").

       

After Snake Lagoon, we decided to hit the last few obvious tourist destinations in the southwest of the island - the Remarkable Rocks and Admiral's Arch.

Obvious Pleasures: Where the Remarkable Rocks Turn Out to Be Remarkable and The Admiral's Arch is Indeed an Arch!

We were sceptical about the Remarkable Rocks - the name was, ironically enough, not very promising - but these oddly-shaped granite formations, covered here and there with orange lichen, were indeed remarkable. We had some fun taking goofy photos with the Remarkable Rocks before heading off to visit Cape de Couedic lighthouse and the New Zealand fur seals at Admiral's Arch. The seals were plentiful, noisy, and, well, smelly. Seals can be like that, I guess.

           

$24 Buys Us a Brief Lesson on Southern Hemisphere Astronomy

We left the southwest Cape to drive back towards Kingscote, where we would stay for the night before heading back to Adelaide. In Kingscote, I persuaded an exhausted Miriam to do the local penguin tour. Now, I'm not sure what I was thinking. Here's what I was up against: at the Penguin Parade on Phillip Island near Melbourne we had seen over 400 happy little penguins up close. I thought that the Kingscote experience, smaller and less touristy, might afford a more intimate penguin experience. I was wrong. Dead wrong. Unbelievably, abominably wrong. I'll skip over the pain of the informational presentation and go straight to the "grand finale", where a bubbly "penguin ranger" took us down to the beach where, she lamented, there were "only four birds" that night. She could barely find the penguins, despite having seen them just half an hour earlier, and she shone - briefly and shakily, I might add - a red-light flashlight on the cowering little penguins (the Penguin Parade people have done a number of clever things to make the penguins feel comfortable, including hiring a rather more elite troop of penguin rangers).

Fortunately, we had a good laugh at what is easily the worst $24 we have spent in Australia. And, to be fair, the experience wasn't a total loss. The ranger did show us how ancient sea-goers used the Southern Cross constellation and some nearby stars to locate - unfailingly, when there were no clouds - the true south pole. She also helped us locate our hostel.

A Conversation ... With Another Person!

Back in Adelaide, we briefly explored the city's downtown, including the market, central square, and pedestrian mall, before meeting up with an old family friend of a friend of Miriam's - got that? - for lunch. We walked around a little more after lunch, seeing the university and the nearby river, before heading to the airport for our evening flight back to Melbourne - home, sweet home, rather surreally.

NOTE
To see more pictures from this trip, check out the full photo galleries for the Great Ocean Road, Otway National Park, Grampians National Park, Kangaroo Island, and Adelaide.

Posted by anatole at 02:18 PM | Comments (3)

February 22, 2004

Lounging with the kangaroos

If you've been checking in regularly, you'll notice we've posted photos from our 6-day whirlwind tour of the Great Ocean Road, Grampians National Park, and Kangaroo Island (see gallery links to the left). We've also posted our first ongoing gallery -- this one is for funny and/or interesting signs that we come across -- which we'll update periodically.

The picture below, taken on Miriam's suggestion in the Visitors Centre parking lot at Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island, is our favourite to date. This is why they tell people not to feed the wildlife -- you end up with ludicrously tame kangaroos! The kangaroos even obliged by looking up at the blinking camera!


Posted by anatole at 11:09 AM | Comments (1)

February 21, 2004

Top Ten Great Things About Melbourne

10. The Design
Melbourne is one of those rare cities that has lots of interesting old buildings and lots of interesting new buildings. For example, across from the colourful and domed old train station are the new and funky glass and steel Federation Square buildings (leftmost picture below).

           

There are also a lot of (old and new) statues and public art. Makes for an interesting walk around town.

9. The Festivals
Besides the usual summer festivals that lots of cities have, like a jazz festival, Melbourne also has the Sustainable Living Festival and the St. Kilda Festival (they close off all the streets in St. Kilda neighbourhood, and there's tons of bands, food stands, and games by the beach). 40,000 people came out to the Sustainable Living Festival, and 300,000 in one day to the St. Kilda Festival. There are also a lot of events you can go to in Melbourne's many parks, like outdoor movies, astronomy lessons, Latin dancing, possum gazing, and orchestra concerts.

   

8. The River
Melbourne also has a nice ocean beach, but it's a bit isolated from the rest of Melbourne. The Yarra River, though, goes right through downtown. It has grassy banks for sitting around, cafes, activity centres for kids, rowing teams, and funky footbridges going across.

   

7. The Trams
Melbourne is a great city for walking around, but it also has excellent public transit. To get around the city you take trams (kind of like streetcars in Toronto, but faster) and to get to the suburbs you take trains. I know it's kind of geeky to be into public transit, but it can really make or break a city. One of Melbourne's trams is even free - it goes in a circle around the city during the day (mainly for tourists, but anyone can take it).

6. The Food
Not only is the food really good, but there's also a lot of diversity. We haven't yet eaten much Nepalese, Argentinian, Indonesian, or "mod-Oz", but we're working on it.

5. The Parks.
Last week, Anatole and I thought we were very clever because he signed up for a tennis class and I signed up for a volleyball game in the same park. How convenient, we thought! Unfortunately, after getting off the tram and wandering around for a while, we realized that this park was about the size of downtown Melbourne. This is not because Melbourne's downtown is small, but because this park was HUGE! It even had a big lake in the middle of it. The thing is, Melbourne has a lot of parks like that - maybe about 6 enormous parks in the inner part of the city. (In case you're wondering, I made my volleyball game but Anatole missed his tennis class. Nice park though.) Besides the parks, there's lots of other public space like Federation Square and the boardwalks next to the Yarra River.

4. The Market
Queen Victoria Market is a huge, permanent outdoor market (7 hectares or roughly the size of 14 football fields) that sells fruits and vegetables, take-out food, clothes, and tons of other random things like hammocks and alpaca seat covers. Once a week in the summer they have a big party in the market at night with live music, drinks, and even more take-out food. Of course they also make a huge patio cafe for everyone to sit at. (And this is only one of at least four outdoor markets in Melbourne.)

3. The Neighbourhoods
Melbourne is one of those cities that has lots of different neighbourhoods with their own main streets. Each one has a distinct personality, so there's a good variety when you want to go out! St. Kilda (below) is beachy, Carlton is trendy, Fitzroy is hippie, South Yarra is yuppie. That kind of thing.

   

2. The Cafes
On the main drags of all of Melbourne's neighbourhoods, the streets are lined with patios, packed with people eating and drinking. In fact, going and sitting at cafes seems to be one of the main activities here. This is one of the reasons why people are always describing Melbourne as European. It's such a cafe culture that even McDonald's has a cafe (called - no joke - McCafe) where you can sip cappuccinos on their patio. I haven't ventured to try out the McCafe, but all the other cafes I've been to are great.

1. The Nightlife.
I just found out that the cafe I'm writing this at stays open 24 hours!

Posted by miriam at 02:42 PM | Comments (3)

February 20, 2004

Bula!

Fiji provided us with a lovely 4-day, 3-night stopover on the long haul across the Pacific. After a harrowing experience with Air Pacific in Los Angeles ("You want to take my bag back off the plane?"), we were quite delighted to arrive in what appeared to be paradise.

In many ways, it was everything we expected. Piercingly blue sunny skies; tall, impossibly bent palm trees; ubiquitous friendly smiles; and a cultural mix (largely Fijian and Indian with a hint of British colonial leftovers) balanced precariously somewhere between history, current reality, and tourists' expectations. Oh, and the fact that it was mango season didn't hurt!

We stayed at a hotel called Tambua Sands on the Coral Coast, the south coast of the main island, Viti Levu (Fiji has over 300 islands -- who knew?). It wasn't a huge resort -- we didn't really want one -- but it had a lovely sandy beach backed by a coconut palm grove, beautiful waters, delicious meals, cheeky mynah birds that tried to steal your breakfast, and abundantly friendly staff. We even had our own beachfront "bure" (traditionally a hut, but in our case more of a bungalow).

We had intended to take it very easy in Fiji, and succeeded in doing so. Our only excursions were to visit nearby Sigatoka town (twice) and Kula Ecopark. Sigatoka town is the main town on the Coral Coast. We visited the market, ate delicious Indian food (easy to find in Fiji!), and walked around the main city square and a residential neighbourhood.

The town was, not surprisingly, nothing like our hotel or the larger resorts. The woman at the front desk at Tambua Sands seemed genuinely concerned about what we might uncover if we wandered into the town. Sigatoka town was harmless, although on the residential side of Sigatoka river you could see that many Fijians did not, of course, live in resort-style conditions. At the edge of Sigatoka town you would find, jarringly, "Le Cafe." The cafe, which might as well have been in Europe and had "Under Swiss Management" emblazoned on its sign, was clearly designed as a buffer for unsuspecting tourists who happened upon the town.

Kula Ecopark exceeded our pamphlet-set expectations. It's hard not to swoon like a child when somebody puts a colourful little parrot in your hand and a crested iguana (or three) on your shoulders.

The staff clearly had their heart in their work. The centre, built on the support of an American philanthropist (the government "doesn't give us one cent", according to the staff), had a fabulous varying-altitude boardwalk and beautiful flora and fauna. It also had a parrot that had spent a year in an Australian pub and had picked up some colourful vocabulary. We were impressed and ended up sponsoring a visit for a Fijian school class.

Back at our hotel, the staff provided both intended and unintended entertainment. We went snorkelling with some Australians from Sydney and the hotel's "Entertainment Coordinator", Limo. The snorkelling was rewarding, scenery-wise, but also amusing, beginning with Limo's safety warning ("Just don't touch anything") and ending when his feet hurt too much because he brought the wrong flippers. Other entertainment at the hotel included climbing for coconuts, an "International Crab and Frog Race" (the name really says it all), and a night of allegedly authentic Fijian music and dancing (who knew the conga was Fijian?). Limo's favourite activity appeared to be providing informal, off-duty entertainment: playing pool and ping-pong with the guests in the evening.

Ultimately, the most remarkable thing about Fiji was the people. It is a stereotype for the residents of island nation retreats like Fiji to be friendly, but this was something else! Everywhere you walked, people would smile and say "Bula" (one of those all-purpose greeting and acknowledgement-of-presence words). This was not, as the cynical might suggest, simply people trying to convince you to part with some Fijian dollars. It was quite literally everyone -- from shop owners to random passers-by to four-year-old children playing in the residential side of Sigatoka town.

This friendliness extended beyond a simple "hello". We were at Kula Ecopark until the park closed, so the staff invited us to join them in a crowded van (about fifteen people piled in) on the ride into Sigatoka town. At the hotel, the job of one employee, Lemeki, appeared to be to sit by the beach, greet the guests, and ask how they were doing. Even our jaded taxi driver, "Bob the Builder" -- who would often mutter "Yeah, yeah, bula, bula, bula" in a sarcastic tone as we drove around and he exchanged greetings -- offered to cook us a "lomo"-style meal, which involved digging a pit in the ground and about three hours of work (stunned into sheepishness, we didn't take him up on his offer).

All in all, it was a stupendously relaxing four days. Next stop: Australia!

For more pictures, check out the Fiji Photo Gallery.

Posted by anatole at 10:53 AM | Comments (1)

February 10, 2004

G'day, mate!

Welcome to our travel blog, covering our travels in Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. Any day now we'll put heaps of content on here, but in the meantime please check out the photo galleries listed under "links" on the sidebar.

Thanks for checking in!

Cheers,
Anatole and Miriam

Posted by anatole at 10:05 PM | Comments (12)