March 24, 2004

Went to the Prom

Another weekend, another national park. You might have the impression, in fact, that we're spending all our time in national parks. Actually we spend most of our time in the city, but we don't usually carry cameras around unless we're in vacation mode. For example, I just got back from a meeting in Sydney but I forgot to bring my camera there - oops. If we remember, maybe we'll post some city pictures any month now.

In the mean time, we've posted some pictures from this past weekend's trip to Wilson's Promontory National Park (aka "The Prom" - which was pretty confusing at first: "You think we should go to the prom this weekend?"). This week's featured animals are the wombat, the emu, and of course the ever-popular kangaroo!

Posted by miriam at 11:54 AM | Comments (7)

March 22, 2004

Tweet, tweet, buzzzz, click, tweet!

Two weeks ago -- on Labour Day weekend (in March!) -- we went to the Dandenong Ranges, about an hour outside of Melbourne. This day trip, as it turned out, was all about birds. Birds galore. I can't stress enough how many birds we saw.

And heard! The highlight of the day was hearing and seeing several Superb Lyrebirds.

The Superb Lyrebird is a highly accomplished mimick. Not only can it imitate other bird sounds, but it also does excellent impressions of camera shutter clicks, chainsaws, car alarms, and more. We didn't manage to get a picture of the lyrebird, sadly, because getting anywhere near one required some pretty patient and stealthy manoeuvering on our part. But luckily, as promised, you can hear one online! And hearing them was really the best part, the males' unbelievable plumage notwithstanding. Here are some good websites where you can listen to a Superb Lyrebird:

  • PBS has an interesting bird songs documentary with an impressive streaming RealAudio lyrebird call.
  • This page, kindly suggested by one of our readers, has links to lyrebird calls online as well as pictures. The page also features the PBS recording of the lyrebird, which loads and plays automatically if you're Real Audio-enabled (controls at bottom of page). Clicking on the lyrebird picture at the bottom right gets you this page with pictures of the lyrebird and more birdcall links.
  • The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Archives and library services has a huge number of birdcalls, including the lyrebird (haven't listened to this one myself, yet).

The hike we did ended at a picnic ground replete with -- you guessed it -- birds. Here the big excitement was that we saw our very first kookaburra, which allowed Miriam to finally sing the Kookaburra Song (harsher alternative endings here and here).

If you want to see some pictures of all of these birds, you can check out our Dandenong Ranges photo gallery.

Posted by anatole at 02:05 AM | Comments (3)

March 21, 2004

"No, I want to see a wild squirrel."

It's hard not to be excited about the wildlife here in Australia -- it's all so new and different. Lots of things that hop. Lots of things that carry their babies in little built-in pouches. Things that glide between trees. All manner of things that go bump in the night because they've come to feel that nocturnal's the way to go. Those sorts of things.

I often get pretty, er, enthusiastic. Every trip into any sort of wilderness means an opportunity to see an animal that, to me, at least, is still pretty novel. Now, I want to emphasize an important part of that last sentence: "to me, at least." It took me a while to catch on to that.

I should have realized it straight off, of course. Take the kangaroo, for instance, my number one obsession. The kangaroo is iconic for good reason. There are estimated to be between 50 and 100 million kangaroos in Australia. That's a whole lotta macropod. Leave the city and you can't help but see a kangaroo, if you put in a little effort. Lounging kangaroos, bouncing kangaroos, grazing kangaroos, golfing kangaroos -- you name it, they've got it.

So you can imagine that many Australians are rather blasé and nonplussed about the whole affair. Kangaroos? Been there, done that, got the "kangaroo crossing" road sign souvenir. Kangaroos? A dime a dozen. Kangaroos? Serve me up a nice little BBQed kangaroo fillet.

You tend to realize all of this when -- perpetually wide-eyed -- you ask "Where can I see some kangaroos?" a lot. Australians are a friendly bunch, so you typically get a helpful and friendly answer. Especially because you're usually asking this of park rangers and their ilk. But you can occasionally see that they're dying to respond: "What are you talking about? They're everywhere! We're practically surrounded! I've tripped over six of them in the time that it took me to answer your question!"

Now the real kicker is how I want to see kangaroos. I want to see them in the wild, because that's my idealized vision of where kangaroos ought to be hanging out. Not that there aren't wild kangaroos traipsing across the outback, of course. But the kangaroos really like what the humans have done with the place, if you will, with the place being the outer fringes of Australia. They like their outback motel lawns. They like their National Park Visitors Centre parking lots. They like their well-manicured golf courses. It's easy to see kangaroos in these places, but no! I want to see wild kangaroos. The kind that are harder to see. I want my kangaroos bouncing on wild grasses, not concrete and astroturf.

The slight absurdity of my expectations were crystallized in my mind during one of those "Oh dear" moments. Put yourself in the other fellow's shoes, I had thought. Try to imagine what it's like. So here it is. Imagine if a visiting Australian came up to you in, say, Ottawa and asked to see a squirrel. "Look outside the window," you might suggest, "there's five of the little buggers on the lawn right now." "But I want to see a wild squirrel," your guest might implore you. "Why?" you reply. "You don't like the one ravaging the bird feeder in our backyard?" "But it's not wild. I want to see them in their natural habitat," comes the response. You eye the squirrel out the window, sizing it up. It's certainly acting wildly, and it certainly looks like it's right at home in this habitat. But you give in and offer to take your guest to see moderately wild squirrels in nearby Gatineau Park.

I'm exaggerating to make the point, of course. Canada's squirrels (and raccoons and groundhogs and such) are more like Australia's possums or rabbits or the famous deer in Nara, Japan. They're fully urbanized and often semi-tame. Australia's kangaroos, while enormously populous, are, generally speaking, more like Canada's deer or, in the right neck of the woods, bears. They don't really come into the cities except, I am told, in Canberra (Canberra, here I come.) And, to be fair, Australians of course understand others' -- and in so many cases, of course, even their own -- fascination with their fauna.

Nonetheless, gaining some perspective on the way in which you're approaching something that is new and exciting to you but commonplace to others can be entertaining. Context is everything. Our friend in the Visitors Centre in Grampians National Park was as unimpressed with his cockatoos as we might be with robins or chickadees.

Of course, much more embarassing than asking a ranger about where to see wildlife is trying to tell a ranger where to see wildlife. On Phillip Island, Miriam and I visited a koala sanctuary. On the way out of the "treetop boardwalk," a man approaching us in a small crowd asked if we'd seen the koala in a tree a short ways behind him. "No," I replied enthusiastically, "but the ones in the treetops have babies!" The man seemed slightly bewildered but thanked me nonetheless. As we passed on, Miriam informed that I had just told a koala ranger about his koala's little joeys. He had been giving a tour, while my brain had apparently been on tour in the outer reaches of the solar system. Poor bugger. I probably gave away the best part of his tour. At least he got to see a tourist in the wild.

Posted by anatole at 11:46 PM | Comments (0)

March 18, 2004

I am work. Hear me roar.

So we've been a little remiss in posting new content of late. The work element of our stay in Australia has increasingly, er, asserted itself, shall we say. With vigour.

We will, however, be posting some new stories and photos this weekend. Two weekends ago we spent a day in the Dandenong Ranges -- about an hour outside of Melbourne (by public transit!) -- and saw and heard the elusive Superb Lyrebird (we'll even post audio for that one!). Then last weekend we went camping in Wilson's Promontory National Park, which everyone here had been raving about and insisting that we visit as soon as possible, and ideally even sooner than that.

So there's lots more coming, but it will take just a few more days as several deadlines loom large at the end of this week.

"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."
- Douglas Adams

Posted by anatole at 03:09 AM | Comments (5)

March 08, 2004

Top Ten Things We Miss About Canada

It's been pointed out to us that our blog sports a "relentlessly positive" tone. Maybe so, maybe so. But in case you were worried that there was nothing for which one could want in Australia, please find below evidence to the contrary.

WARNING: This is a list of quirky little things that we take for granted in Canada and miss in Australia. If you are expecting the Top Ten Great Things About Canada, you've come to the wrong list.

10. The Right Side of the Road

We know that the right side of the road is not necessarily the right side of the road, but adjusting to the left takes some time, and in the meantime you never know if each step you take as a pedestrian will be your last. Cars seem to be coming from all the wrong directions. This is especially true in downtown Melbourne, where the unique, specially-crafted right turns catering to tram traffic are truly the product of a disturbed mind.

9. Hockey

Cue the Hockey Night in Canada song!. Anatole misses following the Canadian teams as they make a run for playoff positions, especially since one of them might actually win this year!

8. 10-digit Phone Dialing

In Australia, you never know how many digits you're going to get. Ostensibly, it is 10 digit-dialing. A number in Melbourne (03 area code) might look like 03-9999-9999. But it only recently became ten digit dialing, so you'll often see an old 9-digit number printed like 03-999-9999. Also, cellphones ("mobiles" here) occupy their own area code -- 04 -- but are "chunked" differently for no apparent reason: 0499-999-999. Then there are the "1-800" numbers, which only get six digits after the 1-800 (e.g. 1-800-999-999). That's unless they don't even start with a 1-800 ... for example the phone company's "1-800" number (which actually starts with "13" is simply 139999 (no prefix or chunking). Then there are other services numbers with a different beginning and also chunked like cellphones, for example our Internet dialup number: 0199-999-999. To conclude: ack!

7. Loonies and Toonies

We miss our loonies and toonies so much that we've taken to calling the Australian $1 and $2 coins by the same name. We are cheerfully ignoring the fact that Australians call these (gold-coloured) coins "gold coins".

6. Four Seasons

No, not the hotel chain (although it's also Canadian!). We miss Ottawa's four distinct seasons in a year, as compared with Melbourne's infamous "four seasons in a day". As the saying here goes, "If you don't like the weather in Melbourne, just wait a few minutes." Melbourne's four seasons are really more like three, since they don't actually have a (Canadian) winter.

5. Mountain Equipment Co-op

Advice to Canadian travellers: do not leave home without first stocking up on any outdoor gear you could ever conceivably need. If not, you will inevitably end up bitter, disappointed, and broke at some inferior outdoor shop that cannot possibly have as much cool stuff and expert advice as MEC.

4. The Kyoto Protocol

Given that we both work on environmental issues and especially climate change, we can't help but notice that Australia, unlike Canada, hasn't ratified Kyoto (yet?).

3. The Rideau Canal

As a symbol for the winter that we were sad to miss -- really! It's been way too long since we've been skating.

2. Cheap Broadband

Do you know how hard it is to publish an image-heavy blog with a dial-up connection? ;-) We knew Canada was ranked #1 (or sometimes #2, but #1 sounds better) for broadband access, but who knew the rates were actually cheaper too?! Our choice here was signing up for a 12-month broadband contract for 3 times what we pay in Ottawa (not to mention we'll only be here for 6 months), or dial-up. Now you know why we don't update the blog every day.

1. You*!

Cheesy but true!

* NOTE: If you're reading this but we don't know you at all, we probably don't miss you specifically all that much. No offense intended, of course. You're probably swell, and if we knew you at all, you would no doubt rank in at least the Top 15. Write us a comment and perhaps we can get to know each other a little better.

Posted by miriam at 12:31 AM | Comments (4)

March 07, 2004

Walk on the Left, Please

A lot of the travel literature about Australia refers either seriously or in jest to the number of things that can kill you Down Under. The list always includes the usual suspects: sharks, snakes, spiders, jellyfish, and crocodiles.

In reality, deadly encounters with these creatures are extremely rare. We haven't even seen any of them yet in our nearly two months in Australia. What these sources neglect to mention is that the real terror -- for those unaccustomed to it -- is learning to cope with driving on the left side of the road. This is especially true in Melbourne, where the extensive tram traffic in the downtown core has led to the development of a totally unique style of right turn (the equivalent to a left turn in Canada and other right-hand-drive countries, in that you have to cross oncoming traffic). The online Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy project has an entertaining description of the turn, and Bill Bryson, humour travel writer, describes it thusly:

"Melbourne may not have a Harbour Bridge or an Opera House like Sydney's but it has something in its way no less singular. It has the world's most bizarre right turns. If you are driving in central Melbourne and you wish to go right (and bear in mind that you are driving on the left), you don't get in the middle lane, but rather pull over to the left-hand curb -- as far away as possible from where you want to be -- and sit there for an indeterminate period (in my case until all the clubs and restaurants have shut and everyone has gone home for the night) and make your turn from there. It's all to do with keeping out of the way of the trams -- Melbourne's other specialty -- which go down the middle of the road and can't have turning cars blocking their way."

This is a diagram of the famous "hook turn" from the Victoria government's Road Rules gazette. I'll also take a picture of the corresponding road sign and post it here later. You can also see a pretty neat Flash animation of the hook turn, "with a few realistic drivers thrown in for good measure," here.

To tell the truth of the matter, learning to drive on the left side of the road wasn't actually too bad. What has proved much more difficult is simply walking around. Being a pedestrian typically commands less focus, so I'm finding it's harder to get better at it. As a result, I still get confused about which way to look when crossing an intersection. Perennially bewildered, I just look in all directions to make sure. I must look very paranoid to other people.

As if all of that wasn't tricky enough, I noticed something else after a few days in Melbourne. Not only do Australians drive on the left side, but they walk on the left side (when crowds and such necessitate informal foot traffic rules)! Not too surprising, I suppose, but needless to say I'm no better at this than I am at at figuring out which way to look at intersections.

The end result of all this is that my attempts to navigate Melbourne on foot no doubt loosely resemble a Mr. Bean or Monty Python sketch.

Posted by anatole at 11:57 PM | Comments (3)

March 02, 2004

Sense of Proportion

One of the countless hilarious and brilliant segments of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series ends with this oft-quoted wisdom:

"[...] if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion."

This past Sunday we visited the Immigration Museum here in Melbourne. There is nothing like reading about multi-month ship voyages -- where more than 20% of the children and nearly 5% of the adults would die from some horrible disease en route -- to put the trials and tribulations of modern-day air travel in stark perspective.

Australia is still a long way from home, of course, but arriving Down Under in one piece used to be an undeniably epic achievement (and in the case of convicts, less epic achievements -- today's "minor misdemeanors" -- were often sufficient to get them on the ship in the first place).

So what do you do on a six-week voyage to the farthest reaches of the Earth? Why, you play cricket of course. The Museum described how "deck cricket" (one can only assume with some variation on the rules) was one of the pastimes used to wile away the hours (and days, and weeks ...). Naturally, the ships' occupants also published a blog (o.k., o.k., a newsletter) which detailed the progress of the ship and contained event announcements (e.g. a lecture criticizing Australia's "White Australia Policy") and classifieds (including romantic messages!).

All in all, the museum was excellent and its politics were intriguing (what do you define as the first "immigration" to Australia, and what do you say about the current government's immigration policies?). The exhibits are an excellent combination of general history and highly personalized stories, with both passive and interactive visual and audio elements. The museum is housed in the impressive Old Customs House and was recently renovated. As we should have expected, there was a lot of reading to be done, so we'll have to go back again.

Posted by anatole at 03:51 PM | Comments (0)


Want to take a quick virtual stroll through the (Queen Victoria) Night Market? I took photographs of all of the stalls and stitched them together.

If you look closely you can of course see all of the artifacts of this panning-stitching technique (distortions due to inconsistencies in distance from the "subject", angle problems, the fact that people were moving - sheesh!, etc.), but the overall effect still gives a bit of a sense of what the Night Market is like. So take a stroll and enjoy.

Stroll along the left-hand stalls         Stroll along the right-hand stalls

NOTE: These files are quite large (~700k) and quite wide (4000 pixels). You'll need to scroll across to see the entire image, of course, and you may need to override your browser's inclination to shrink the image down to microscopic size in order to display it without scrolling (usually this "override" comes in the form of a button that appears on the image if you hover over it with the cursor for a few seconds.)

Posted by anatole at 03:18 PM | Comments (3)