Matt Goes Down Under: Australia

One of the greatest gifts of working in academia is being awarded a sabbatical. Every seven years, professors may apply for a sabbatical leave during which they work on some academic project and are released from all their other duties for a semester. In Spring of 2003 I was awarded my first sabbatical, and while I spent much of my time conducting a risk perception survey of people living close to the volcanic peaks of Vesuvius and Etna in Italy, I also took a Circum-Pacific trip in February and March to explore that part of the world for the first time. I bought a ticket that allowed me to fly in a big circle around the Pacific Rim for a couple of months, stopping as many times as I wanted-  so long as I did not reverse direction. I started in Thailand, then on to Bali, Australia and New Zealand, and finally to Tahiti. I’ve written about Tahiti in another blog post, but now I will share the details of my first trip to Australia, followed by a second chapter on New Zealand.

Matt Sydney Ferry
Cruising on Sydney Harbor

In the months leading up to this trip I’d done a lot of research on Australia and it was somewhat unnerving. Anyone who watches the Travel or Discovery Channels knows that most of the world’s most poisonous snakes and spiders live in Australia, That’s bad enough, but in my guidebooks I read with horror about the box jellyfish (known as “stingers”) that roam the coast from October to June. If stung badly enough, one stops breathing in about 2 minutes and death usually follows. OK, so I learned that during my February visit I must swim at beaches that offer “stinger nets” to keep the nasty things out! It’s also not safe to walk in the rainforests either; there are “killer cassowaries,” huge ostrich-like birds that have been known to kill tourists with their huge claws. If you come upon one in the rain forest, the guidebooks said to “back away slowly and don’t upset the animal”. OK, I won’t tell them how much I loved the ostrich steaks I have eaten in the past. There are dangerous salt water and fresh water crocodiles. OK, let’s stick to swimming pools, not swimming holes! There are also supposed to be a couple of plants that if brushed up against, cause excruciating pain due to a toxin on their leaves. OK, long pants always, despite the 90 degree heat. And beware of the dreaded cone shell, which if stepped on can send a lethal dose of neurotoxins into the bloodstream. OK, so I’ll wear my sandals at ALL times. But I’m brave, I’m a seasoned traveler, and I have watched every season of Survivor. I know how to outplay, outwit and outlast! Oz, here I come.

I flew from Bali, Indonesia to Melbourne, arriving in the early morning after only a couple hours’ sleep. I immediately picked up a rental car and hit the road, heading west toward Adelaide, a distance of almost 600 miles. I followed the infamous Great Ocean Road that skirts the coast of Victoria. The scenery was beautiful, with sights like the rock formations called the 12 Apostles just begging to be photographed. Unfortunately, I was tired from my lack of sleep and even pulled over and napped for a couple hours in the car. After 12 hours of driving I pulled into a Best Western an hour or so out of Adelaide and crashed for the night.

The next morning I drove another hour or so to Cape Jervis where I caught the 9AM ferry to Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination off Australia’s south coast that is known for large numbers of koalas, kangaroos and penguins living in the wild, as well as lots of scenic beauty. It was quiet and rural, and as soon as I’d gotten checked in at my hotel, I headed out and started exploring, and almost immediately spied several wild koalas clinging to eucalyptus tree branches. My destination that afternoon was an attraction called Paul’s Place, a wildlife sanctuary where injured or orphaned animals are cared for. Paul is a farmer with a personality not unlike the now deceased Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter on Animal Planet. Paul took children from a group that was visiting the farm and tossed them many feet through the air and into huge bales of lamb’s wool, where they landed unhurt, but dumbfounded. He’d bring out a python and drape it around some screaming woman’s neck. I got to “wear” the python for a bit too; he was very heavy and started to get a nice grip on my neck… “Um, Paul… could you take him away now please?”

I got to hold and bottle-feed a kangaroo, cradle a sleepy koala bear that was as heavy as lead, and hand feed sheep, emus, wallabies and kangaroos. The nastiest were the sheep; they jumped up on me, almost knocking me over and sticking their heads into the food bucket! In contrast, the emus, despite being almost 6 feet tall and looking like rather fierce ostriches were very calm and polite and waited their turn (except when Paul stood me against a fence, poured a bucket of seed over my head and hollered a couple of names: giant emus came up on the other side of the fence and pecked the seeds off my head, occasionally taking tufts of hair too I think! It was really fun and it was certainly a unique experience!

That evening I took a “Fairy Penguin Tour.” No, these were not pink and purple penguins wearing leather harnesses or carrying gay pride flags. They are absolutely adorable and very small penguins, barely a foot tall, that come waddling out of the sea each evening in an informal parade.

The next day after a visit to the insane formations of the Remarkable Rocks, I swam at a cold but beautiful beach, and took a tour at Seal Bay, where a ranger led me and 2 other people on a beach walk where we got within 10 feet of dozens of seals that were body surfing on the waves or lounging in the sand, virtually ignoring our presence.

After Seal Bay, I explored many of the coves and beaches on the south coast of the island, and then ended up at Admiral’s Arch. Within a national park, this place is situated on cliffs at the southwest corner of the island, and is a home to the somewhat larger New Zealand fur seals. I could hear them barking at one another from a mile away, and after descending a long staircase down the cliff side, I could watch them leaping off rocks and into the pleasant cove below. At the end of the stairs was the dramatic Arch. the ceiling of which is “dripping” with stalactites. The sun was getting low in the sky and was making wonderful patterns of light on the water and best of all, I was the last person there, so I got to sit and watch the seals for a good hour in quiet and solitude.

As I started the long ride back to town, I was driving down a dirt road at probably no faster than 25 MPH when out of nowhere a very large kangaroo came bounding out from my left and landed directly in front of the car! There was no time at ALL to stop and I hit it. He bounced forward, and as I came to a stop, he continued hopping into the brush on the other side of the road. I got out of the car and tried to see if I could find it to see how badly hurt it might be (the travel info says to check the pouch of a kangaroo if you kill one, as there could be live babies that might be saved). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it, so I am praying it wasn’t too badly hurt and was able to just keep on going. Meanwhile, the rental car’s left front headlight popped out of its “socket” but nothing seemed broken, so I popped it back in and headed on my way at a painfully slow speed for the rest of the trip.

There were many, many animals lying dead along the roadsides… wallabies, kangaroo, and possums mostly. They may be worse than deer, as these animals can simply hop from the bushes to the front of your car in one leap. There is no way to see them coming! Of course, those of you who call me “the carnivore” won’t be surprised that my feelings of unease and guilt over hitting the kangaroo did not keep me from ordering a kangaroo steak at the restaurant at my hotel when I returned; it was very, very good… and did NOT taste like chicken! I also tried a local fish called King George Whiting for lunch and that was really excellent too.

Another interesting spectacle to see here is the night sky. For those of you who have never traveled south of the equator, everything is from a northern hemisphere perspective, either backward or upside down. The new moon is opposite to what we see in the north; the crescent opens on the right instead of the left. I noticed the constellation Orion, the hunter, but he looked funny and it took a minute to realize why: he is upside-down here! His sword hangs UP instead of down from his belt! The Milky Way is unbelievably bright here, and the famous constellation of the Southern Cross is dazzling in the southern sky. Fantastic!

I found prices to be very expensive. Gas is, of course, more expensive here than in the U.S. A modest dinner is at least $20 and often over $30, and even a cheap meal like fish and chips gets more expensive if you want a tiny container of ketchup or tartar sauce to go with them, to the tune of $2 each and in amounts barely big enough to dip more than 4 fries! To get the amount of ketchup I typically use, I’d have had to hand over a $20 bill!

After a great couple of days on the island, I got back on the ferry and started the long ride back to Melbourne. Taking the coastal route going westbound had been almost 700 miles) so eastbound I took the inland route, which was closer to 500 miles, but still took a long time, as the “freeway” goes through many towns and forces you to slow down to about 35 mph for long stretches. There was also a lot of road construction which further delayed my trip. I returned the rental car at the airport and got charged for the damaged light and some undercarriage damage (sigh) and then took a shuttle to my hotel in the city.

I spent the next two days exploring “Mel-bun” as the Aussies pronounce it. It is a very clean, very safe feeling city, but physically it really did not grab me. It is very flat and laid out in a predictable grid. The architecture is rather interesting, but it just seemed like it could be any big city in the American mid-west: Minneapolis, Omaha, or Denver (without the mountains). I was glad I stayed where I did: a suburb on the beach south of town called St. Kilda. It’s an area with a small, oceanside amusement park, and a couple of main streets, Acland and Fitzroy, which are jammed with interesting restaurants and cafes. I was able to walk to a main beach area and thankfully was able to get in some swimming, as it was VERY hot in Melbourne. There must have been a dozen cake shops along Acland Street within 2 blocks of my hotel, so I definitely enjoyed sampling those. The best thing I had was a chocolate kugelhopf cake, a kind of marbled coffee cake with dark, wonderful chocolate swirls throughout.

On my second day in Melbourne I took a tram out to Melbourne University to meet Dr. Bernd Rohrmann, a German psychologist who now teaches full time at M.U. He is an expert in the field of risk perception and I just read a book of his last fall, so it was exciting that he agreed to take time to meet with me for lunch. He is an eccentric man, maybe 55 years old, and was wearing brilliant red socks, pants with legs a bit too short (maybe to show off the socks), and a red button down shirt with a big Chinese dragon emblazoned across it. In his heavy German accent, he commended me for being so punctual. He complained that the Australians have no sense of time and are always late to appointments and classes. “Of course I must be careful not to say too much to them about this, as they then accuse me of being a Nazi,” We had lunch on the campus (a school of 35,000 students) and he had taken the time to look over my volcano survey and gave me a couple of very valuable suggestions on ways to improve it, so I was glad I was able to meet with him.

From Melbourne I flew to Sydney on Virgin Blue Airlines, and I was impressed by them. I arrived to find a line of almost 150 people waiting to check in, and even though I was there 90 minutes early, I was worried. I was at the check in counter within 10 minutes… they were so efficient, and friendly and funny. On top of all that, my ticket from Melbourne to Sydney cost about $18 in American dollars! An hour and a half later I was on the Airport Express that took the most ridiculously circuitous route of surface streets into downtown Sydney and my hotel.

Finally, I checked in, got on the elevator to head up to my room, and 5 Aussie “blokes” hopped in with me. They were loud, obnoxious, and seemed drunk already, even though it was only 2PM. One of them asked where I was from, and when I told them, another yelled, “Wow, San Francisco! How’s the pussy there? Must be great!” I was so caught off guard that all I could do was laugh. We stopped at one floor and there were two women wanting to get on the elevator but it was too full. As the doors closed, another of these guys pointed at me and said, “See that, mate – if you hadn’t had that bloody big bag of yours, we’d have had 2 ladies and 6 blokes on here! Them’s good odds!” Again, all I could do was laugh and hope that the 10th floor was coming up soon!

Despite the interesting first exposure to the locals on the hotel elevator, I had a very positive impression of Sydney. It is one of those cities, like San Francisco, Seattle, or Vancouver that just captures you. Sydney is vibrant, exciting, beautiful, has great cuisine, is somewhat hilly and surrounded by water, with a beautiful harbor and fantastic nearby beaches, ferries going everywhere, interesting bridges. It’s also amazingly compact; I could walk almost anywhere in under a half hour, and the trains, ferries and buses are plentiful too. It is considerably warmer than Melbourne and the foliage is far more tropical. The streets are tree lined and the trees are populated with a number of tropical birds that make beautiful music, though the little green parrots are a bit loud and off key. I took a stroll through the beautiful botanical gardens, but was unnerved by several trees filled with “flying foxes”, a cute nickname for bats! Ew! They were spooky even in the daylight and I had flashbacks to the old gothic/horro soap opera Dark Shadows, hearing Dr. Julia Hoffman screaming, “No, Barnabas, no!” as the vampire went for her neck in the form of a bat. Sorry, but I prefer to see cuddly koala bears hanging from the trees… not bats!

During my time here I have had to learn a few things about the culinary culture. Ordering coffee was a little daunting, as menus at cafes offer no explanation of what things are. A coffee with milk is called a “flat white”, an espresso is a “short black”, and a large black coffee is, of course, a “tall black”. Iced coffee is unfortunately NOT iced… it contains a scoop of ice cream and loads of whipped cream, so it’s not the thirst-quencher that its American cousin is. Prices are not cheap: a cup (not a mug) of coffee is $4 or $4.50 and there are NO refills, which is putting a huge dent in my caffeine addiction! And just as I’d found with the pricey ketchup and tartar sauce condiments, if you ask for jam on your toast they will give you two of those little plastic jelly containers – enough for a half a slice of bread – and that will add 50 cents to the bill.

On my first night in Sydney I wanted to have dinner at a Chinese place that a friend had recommended. He’d had emu in black bean sauce at a place called “East Quay” located in an area called Circular Quay (which I soon learned is pronounced like “key”) from which all the ferries depart. He said it’d been phenomenal, so after a little walking toward the eastern side of the quay, I saw a second floor Chinese place called “The Quay”, and thought this must be the place. It was closed until 6, so I at least decided to check out the menu… no emu. Drat! Could it have been a special? Was it not emu season? Sighing heavily, I kept walking out along the quay and soon saw a Chinese place called “East”. Hmmm. I looked at their menu, and there it was: emu in black bean sauce. AND it was open. I sat outside with a view of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and a glimpse at the famous Opera House and dined on emu (with some guilty feelings given my happy times with the emus at Paul’s Place) and it was indeed amazing. It, like kangaroo, did NOT taste like chicken! It did taste like ostrich, which tastes like lean, tender beef, but I think is far more flavorful, and the Chinese preparation was wonderful. What a great meal!

Later in the evening That evening I decided to get a drink and stopped at the Oxford Hotel Bar, but as I tried to enter, the doorman scrutinized me and said, “Sir, how much have you had to drink tonight?” I was so thrown off guard I started to laugh, and said. “I haven’t had ANYTHING to drink tonight. Why?”

“You look a bit out of it. Are you sure you haven’t been drinking?” I was tired and my contacts were dry, but damn, I didn’t think I looked THAT bad. The situation reminded me of a psychology study in which a researcher got himself admitted to a mental hospital to observe life from the inside, but then couldn’t talk his way back out because everything he said, no matter how rational, was interpreted as crazy! No matter what I said, the doorman interpreted it as further evidence of my drunkenness, so I left, shaking my head in wonder and disgust. It was all the more ironic because of the sheer number of drunken people walking the streets in the evening, but here I am, stone cold sober and a bit tired and I am denied entry. Oh well, I prefer food to drinks anyway.

I found a great place for brunch in Surry Hills: the Room Nine Café, where they served pancakes sprinkled with some granulated sugar and some lemon wedges on the side. No syrup. At first I thought that was odd, but after squeezing a bit of lemon juice over the cakes, wetting the sugar on top, it made the most delicious topping! I may have to try that at home. I returned there another day and the staff treated me like an old friend The waitresses remembered me, and when I without hesitation ordered a flat white, one of them exclaimed, “Ah, look, he’s embracing the culture!” This time I sat outside and ordered corncakes for breakfast: a very popular dish here and served with wonderful bacon, fresh avocado and a salad. Yes, I could get used to this place.

Australia in general, and Sydney in particular would definitely be a great place to study road rage. The drivers are VERY aggressive and foul mouthed, rolling down windows, screaming obscenities, blaring their horns for 30 – 40 seconds. It makes a rush hour in Boston look like a church picnic! They drive very fast and do not seem keen on stopping for pedestrians either.

I decided that I really don’t like Sydney very much on Friday and Saturday nights. What by day is a very laid back and friendly city literally transforms into a drunken horror show after dark. I made the mistake of taking a bus back down to Circular Quay for dinner. Little did I know that this bus route was frequented by hordes of college-aged kids all heading out for a night of debauchery that evidently began in the dorms. Imagine a bus packed with 100 people, screaming down the bus to one another, every other word uttered had 4 letters and began with f. We were caught in hellishly snarled traffic and it took forever. At every stop, another group of hellions was waiting to cram themselves in, banging on the sides of the bus as it lumbered to the curb.

I know that Aussie men have a reputation of being rowdy and heavy drinkers, but to all of you ladies reading this, I have to tell you that here in Sydney, your fair sex outdoes the men in every possible way. They are all dressed like something out of an MTV video, so extreme that it almost looks like a Halloween costume, and wearing heels that could do permanent damage to their feet in just one hour. The majority of them seemed to be drunk out of their minds, screaming at pitches that could damage the human ear, dancing in the middle of traffic and uttering more swear words per second than I’ve ever heard from the mouths of sailors.

One couple was having a battle that would have been perfect on the Jerry Springer Show, as the woman screamed, “Why don’t you take me home and f___ me tonight!? God knows it hasn’t happened in months!” Thanks for sharing. From the bus window I saw throngs of young people waiting in line to get into the many clubs along George Street, and then tucked away in back alleys I saw women vomiting as their girlfriends stood around holding their friends’ hair up and out of the way. What a way to spend a weekend. I do not get it. I swear, I have studied Psychology for over 20 years and I will never understand people.

The days in Sydney were much more pleasant! One afternoon I took a ferry to the beach at Manly, about 30 minutes north of the city. The ocean felt surprisingly cool, but the beaches were very clean and beautiful. In fact, Sydney and Melbourne are both spotlessly clean and San Francisco could take a lesson from them. It made me sad to see these spotless cities and remember how San Francisco used to look and how shabby it’s become over the last few years.

Another day I took a bus out to Bondi (pronounced BOND-EYE) Beach. It was a very warm day (about 80 degrees, and I thought a day at the beach would be just what the doctor ordered. I got brunch at a place called Brown Sugar, where I was treated to pancakes that were literally buried in fresh kiwi, apples, grapes and strawberries and topped with poached rhubarb and yogurt. What a great meal!

I wandered the town a bit, but it was very hot and crowded, so I found a place in the shade in a park facing the beach. There was a border collie that had a frisbee in her mouth and kept bringing it to me (and to about 5 other groups of people sitting all around the park). I’d throw it a few times and she’d bring it right back to me, and then just walk off and bring it to someone else for a few turns, then back to me again. I guess she didn’t want anyone to feel left out. Her owner watched all this with amusement and said, “she’s a very social dog.”

I then decided it was time to get in the water, so off I went. The water was crystal clear and reminded me of Hawaii. I probably swam for an hour, carefully avoiding the surfers and boogie boarders who occasionally aimed themselves in my direction. But then a lifeguard in a jeep pulled up and announced over a bullhorn that swimmers needed to get away from the rocks on the south side of the beach. There was a news crew there with a camera, so when I finally dragged myself ashore (I am like a 5 year old at the beach; I never want to have to come out of the water!) I learned that some swimmers had gone missing far out toward the rocky areas, and that there had been sightings of jellyfish swarms. Good LORD! I’m glad I got my swim done before I heard that.

I dried off and fortified by a not-bad gelato, I walked the three mile long coastal trail that connects several beautiful beach coves between Bondi and Coogee. Thankfully some clouds had moved in and so it wasn’t as hot now. I have to say that Sydney gives L.A. a run for its money in terms of the sheer number of beautiful, athletic people jogging and surfing its beach areas. I sighed as I passed two amazingly built men who were doing chin-ups on a mini-gym built alongside the trail. What would it be like to be that healthy? Sigh. Maybe in another life.

I would have loved to have spent more time in Sydney, but the trip had to go on, and I had reservations to fly to Cairns, located in tropical Queensland in far northeastern Australia, 1200 miles from Sydney. After a pleasant 3 hour I got to Cairns and picked up my rental car. The woman at the Budget Rental Car office was hilariously funny and good-natured. She was giving me a brand new car with only 10 kilometers on it. When it came time to go over the little damage forms they ask you to sign to indicate any dents or scratches in the car, she said, “You needn’t bother with this; the car’s brand new. But when you go out to the lot, if you find it’s been totally destroyed, could you please come right back in and fill out this form?”

I drove up the coast about 30 minutes to my home for the next 3 nights: Ellis Beach Oceanfront Bungalows. They are not kidding when they say oceanfront. There is NOTHING on Ellis Beach at all except this very small set of bungalows… it looked like the beach in the movie Castaway except that it was lined with adorable little cottages. Palm trees are everywhere, and you can hear the surf from the bedroom. When the full moon rose that night and lit up the clouds, palms and the Coral Sea at my doorstep, I almost cried. What a sight.

There is trouble in paradise however: from November to May, it is impossible to swim in these waters due to the box jellyfish or “stingers” as the Aussies call them. One big enough dose of venom from their tentacles, and you stop breathing and die within a couple minutes. The groundskeeper at my place told me that they never really knew about stingers until 30 years ago or so. He told me that when he was a kid, people swam all year and sometimes, someone mysteriously just died in the water and people thought it was heart failure! Now they realize it was probably a stinger! Swimming is only possible in “stinger nets” that have been set up along certain small stretches of beach, usually near major towns. But as I drove up and down the coast it seemed that due to the storms they’d had, the stinger nets were not well in place and stingers could easily have floated over them, so no ocean swimming was allowed. Strangely, these awful creatures do not like deeper ocean water and are seldom found out on the Great Barrier Reef. Still, there are about 6 other varieties of jellies that can sting you badly enough to ruin a few days of vacation. Viva Hawaii!

The biggest dilemma in this part of the country is deciding which tour operator to use to take your trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. Unless you carefully shop around, you could end up on huge boats that carry 400 people at a time to enormous pontoons, 2 story buildings built off the reef that look like big service stations. Boats dock there (to avoid anchoring on the coral, which is a good thing) and then shuttle their multitudes off to shallow areas of reef. This was not what I wanted for my experience. It was also possible to get boats to take you to one of several offshore islands that really aren’t as far out as the reef. Hut here you can use the facilities of big mega-resorts built on the islands, but again, not what I wanted. I finally settled on the 40 passenger “Poseidon” for a full day trip that took us out to the very outer edge of Great Barrier Reef, stopping at 3 different sites. Best of all, they rent you “stinger suits” to wear when you go snorkeling. These are one piece, blue lycra suits with a hood and mittens. All that is left exposed to water is your face and your feet (which have flippers on them). The added bonus of the suits is that not only do they protect from stingers, they keep you out of the sun, so no need for 18 gallons of sunscreen to be applied every 5 minutes! The bad news about stinger suits: they are made of lycra or spandex! Of all the materials in the world, this has to be the least flattering for someone with a lot of extra pounds! Still, if it came down to a choice between humiliation in a lycra suit or death by stinger, I’d take the humiliation any time.

I was the first to try my suit on (worried that it might not fit!), and one of the funny Aussie mates who made up our crew asked me to show everyone how they look. So picture me in this full piece, electric blue suit with a hood and mittens! He then came up behind me and placed an upside down coat hanger on top of my head and said, “Look everyone, it’s Tinky Winky!” (one of the Teletubbies, those impish little characters from a British children’s show. I just waved shyly and said, “uh-oh!” in my best Teletubby voice. Oh the humanity!

The first two dive sites were ok, but the water was quite rough and truthfully I’ve seen more fish in Hawaii, though the corals here are amazing. The third site was much calmer and here one of the crew took us on a snorkel safari where he’d dive under and find something interesting to bring to the surface for us to see and touch and hold. My favorites were the sea cucumbers, about 1 to 2 feet long and the shape of a very wide French baguette. They came in all shapes and colors; some had smooth silky black bodies while others looked almost shaggy with “hair.” They would easily have passed as space creatures from an episode of Star Trek. Some shoot seawater several feet if you gently squeeze them. I got to hold one of them and the leader had me put him on my head for a photo opportunity! Another thrill here was seeing a reef shark maybe 2 feet long very close-up. They look sleek and beautiful when they are that small. The coral was so colorful and comes in every shape and color possible. It was a fantastic day, and there were no jellyfish stings and there was no sunburn.

From Cairns I drove up the coast to Daintree National Park to visit the rainforests. I hiked at a place called Mossmon Gorge and swam in a beautiful fresh water pool and waterfall area. This is one of the few places you can swim in fresh water anywhere in Queensland because there are those pesky crocodiles everywhere! I took a boat trip along the Daintree River, and in addition to seeing many beautiful birds, there were several crocodiles in the water and I even saw a baby (maybe two days old the guide said) sunning itself on the sand along the river.

At night I went into Cairns for dinner. It’s a very pleasant city – tropical birds fill all the trees along the pedestrian malls and streets, making an unbelievable level of noise. I sampled the local fresh water fish delicacy, barramundi (Asian sea bass) and have had more kangaroo. The best meal I had was at a place called Red Ochre Grill. They served Italian gnocchi made with sweet potatoes and served with sundried tomatoes, caramelized onion, capers, smoked salmon and a white wine cream sauce. Some of the best pasta I have ever had outside Italy.

I spent my last day in the area going to Tjubakai Aboriginal Culture Park, which provides a history of the Aboriginal people of Australia and documents the struggles they have had to stay alive and maintain their culture since the first white settlers came and began taking their land. I rode the Sky Rail, a sleek, silent gondola that takes you up above the rainforest and into the nearby mountains to an aboriginal village called Kuranda. There were films, and several demonstrations: dance, music, food preparation, medicine, sports such as boomerang and spear-throwing, etc. It was quite moving and very entertaining.

At one point during the day I had to get parental: there were three children left sitting alone in an amphitheater area and their parents were nowhere in sight. One of the boys, maybe 10 or 11 years old, was swatting at the air and taking handfuls of sand and gravel and throwing it as he was whirling around in a circle. At first I thought it was demonic possession, but then I realized that he was trying to swat and hit the beautiful butterflies that are everywhere in this area. I shouted in my most authoritarian voice, “Hey! What ARE you doing? Stop that! What is WRONG with you?!” (Great child psychology technique, eh?) He immediately stopped and the three of them sat on a bench like three bumps on a log until their parents returned. The boy kept looking back over his shoulder at me, but said nothing. Later I saw this same family in a nearby village where there is actually a butterfly sanctuary that you can visit. It was all I could do to hold myself back from running up to the parents and saying, “Have you seen the butterfly park? You should go – I think your youngest son would really like it!”. But I refrained.

I then flew back to Sydney and spent a last glorious. sunny, picture-postcard-perfect day there. I took the train and bus out to Bondi Beach again and hiked the cliff-walk that runs between three local beaches. I had a good swim and had some great fish and chips. Back in the city I went to one of the bar/cafes and watched in awe as people put away 6 or 7 beers in the time it took me to drink one. The Aussies are really big drinkers, and how they can even be coherent after so many drinks is amazing to me. I ended up taking an evening ferry ride, and not really caring where the ferry was going, I just hopped aboard and sat outside watching the city lights, brilliant stars, and the sea gulls who followed the boat like a flock of angels… they were so white in the light from the boat, and then they’d almost vanish for a second as they raised their dark gray wings. It created a strange strobe-like effect and I was hypnotized by the show they put on.

My last night in Australia I had a rather sleepless night. I find that I am always too nervous to sleep when I have an early morning flight. I worry that the alarm won’t work, I’ll miss the airport shuttle, be late for the flight, etc. So in a zombie-like haze, off I went to the airport to catch a flight to my next destination: New Zealand. Stay tuned for Part II of my adventures “down under.”

2 thoughts on “Matt Goes Down Under: Australia

  1. Wonderful adventure, Matt. The writing is entertaining, as always, and I always learn something new. So glad you avoided the jellyfish. Looking forward to New Zealand.


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