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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Planes, trains and automobiles

Annie loves airports, I love subway systems, Ben loves exotic cars and Marley loves Facebook.  We've gotten plenty of airport action so far on this trip, just a bit of mass transit, exotic cars in Los Angeles, Sydney, Brisbane and Singapore, and Facebook when we’ve had internet, which has been sporadic.

The very first airport we flew through on this trip was one of our favorites.  Detroit has some futuristic architecture and a ceiling over their people movers that changes colors.  The airport at Savusavu in Fiji was the most primitive one we’ve ever seen:  just a landing strip and a small cinder-block building.  

The one in Lambasa in Fiji was just a little bit bigger, with a seating area and a place that sold snacks and soft drinks. 

The Auckland Airport was very efficient, as getting through customs was a breeze.  That process in Melbourne was more like mid-summer in Central Florida when there is no breeze and the humidity makes your sweat sweat.  For whatever reason it took more than an hour to get through customs there, maybe because the Australian Open was going on.

The best part of the Brisbane Airport was the airline we were flying on to Singapore: Etihad. Our love for Australia made parting truly sweet sorrow as we boarded our flight for the nearly eight-hour long journey to Singapore.

Once on board, our sorrow started to subside as we enjoyed first-class service back in economy class.  The flight attendants were very kind and friendly, and, we were informed by a PA announcement, fluent in just about every language you would want to be fluent in.
 Australia became even more of a distant memory once we got into the free on-flight entertainment system, called the Ebox.  It features all kinds of things to do to pass the time on a long flight, including games, TV shows, and movies.  It also provided some entertainment during the pre-flight instructions on how to use an oxygen mask.

That individual is clearly not happy about the oxygen masks dropping down in flight.  Fortunately for us, that scenario never played out as we took off, and headed north and west some 3300 nautical miles from Brisbane to Singapore.  All four of us settled in, and flipped through the menu to choose our entertainment for the flight.

Annie and I both separately watched Ides of March, the George Clooney movie shot last year mostly in and around Cincinnati.  I was a bit worried that the scenes of the Queen City would make me homesick, but I actually enjoyed seeing shots of our hometown.  Plus, it helped make a long flight pass fairly quickly.  Unlike our experience in Melbourne, getting through customs in Singapore took about ten minutes.  We had heard great things about the MRT subway system, but were unsure of the logistics of getting where we needed to go on it, so we grabbed a cab and headed to our hotel, leaving the subway for later in our five-night stay in Singapore.

Finding a hotel in Singapore that could accommodate a family of a four in a location that was friendly to the MRT at a decent price was a bit of a challenge.  I settled on the Hotel Royal, which boasted of a “family room” big enough for four people.  When we checked in, we found a decent-sized room, equipped with a queen-sized bed and a single.  And a lot of floor space.  So, I went back down to the front desk and talked to the woman who checked us in.  I asked if there was some other sleeping arrangement they had that would truly accommodate four people.  She looked at me with a big smile and said quite cheerfully that, no, there was nothing she could do.  Sure, we could get a rollaway for $50 a night.  I quickly declined that option and headed back up to the room to report my findings to Annie and the kids.

Waking up the next morning, I carefully stepped over my son, still sleeping on the floor, to make some coffee for Annie and me.  Early on in our trip, Ben established his fondness for floor sleeping, even when not one, but two beds were an option.  When we were in Napier, New Zealand, I found a very affordable cottage, whose owner was willing at my request to give us a fourth night for free for booking three nights.  It had three bedrooms, giving Marley and Ben their own bedrooms, which has rarely happened on our excursion.  In that cottage, the room Ben had contained two single beds.  Apparently unable to decide which bed to sleep in, he piled up the comforters and pillows and slept on the floor for our four nights there.  

With that precedent established, he was the perfect candidate to spend the night on the floor in our “family room” at the Hotel Royal in Singapore.

One of the most time-consuming aspects of this trip as we go along is spending time at one stop, planning for the next.  That reality meant that on our first day in Singapore we had to get to the Vietnamese Embassy and apply for visas, since we had already booked a flight to Hanoi only five days away.  Before leaving Brisbane, I had researched the location of the Vietnamese Embassy, and it turned out to not be about 7 kilometers away from our hotel.  The easy thing to do would have been to grab a cab and hit the embassy.  But we had heard from a friend who works at times in Singapore that the subway system is extremely easy to use and very efficient.  The subway stop closest to our hotel was a ten-minute walk away, so we lathered up in sunscreen, and hit the streets of Singapore, braving the sun, just fifty miles or so north of the Equator.

Getting to the Vietnamese embassy meant catching a ride on the North/South or Red Line to the Circle Comething or Yellow line at the Bishan station, and take the Circle Line to the Holland Village station.  Once there, we navigated our way on foot on the twenty-minute or so walk to the Embassy.  When we got off the train, I noticed that it was about 11:45 am.  Having some familiarity with government workers going back to my time in the state capitol of West Virginia in Charleston, I was a bit concerned that we might be arriving at the embassy just in time for a lunch break. 

Our stroll toward the small slice of Vietnamese land within Singapore took us past some very impressive large homes, most likely belonging to some highly placed diplomats.  During our walk, I noticed a woman scurrying to and fro with some paper in her hand, clearly looking for an address with which she was unfamiliar, and she seemed to be facing some sort of deadline.  After a while, she was heading in the same direction as us, and we could see flags flying high above an official-looking building that had a gate blocking the entrance.  As Annie and I and the kids approached the complex, figuring it was our goal, the woman went into a full sprint, and when she got to the iron gate at the entrance, she slipped through an entrance and sprinted up the driveway.

When we got to the gate, I pulled out my Iphone to take a picture and noticed the time was 12:04.  I then glanced at the gold sign on the marble post to the left, and saw the sign that said: Office Hours: 9am-12 and 2-4.  (Typical government hours!)  I then saw the words:  Visa hours, 9am-12pm.  No!  That can’t be!!  Instead of taking a photo to document another fascinating aspect of our journey, I herded Annie and the kids inside to see if we still had a chance to get our visa processing process processed. 

Luckily, the workers inside the embassy didn’t seem in a hurry to get to lunch, and pointed us in the direction of the forms we needed to fill out to get our visas.  Annie and I furiously scribbled in the necessary information as quickly as we could and gave them to the workers, who said we would get them back on Thursday.  With that, we grabbed some lunch and took the MRT to Chinatown to check out that scene.

I’ve had the chance to experience subways and train systems in several cities, both in the states and in Europe and part of their charm is the grittiness on a variety of levels.  Dirt, grime and graffiti are typically just part of the experience.  The MRT in Singapore could double as a hospital operating room.  The cars are extremely clean, as are the stations themselves.   

Of the subways and train systems I’ve been on, only Zurich comes close the to cleanliness of the Singapore system.  Passengers move about in a very orderly fashion, and instead of using paper tickets like most subway systems, Singapore uses green cards that passengers recycle in order to get their deposit back.  It means no tickets strewn about the cars or station floors.  They seem to be on to something.

Singapore has given us, and especially Ben, the chance to see some exotic cars.  Our hotel room is facing a fairly busy road, Newton Road, and whenever Ben hears the throaty growl of a powerful engine, he’ll race to the window to see if he can catch a glimpse of the source of that beautiful noise.  He’s been rewarded with a few Ferrari sightings, which we’ve also seen on the streets of Singapore.  We’ve also seen a Lamborghini in Brisbane,

 A Maserati in Sydney,

A Ferrari in Sydney,

And an Audi R8 in Auckland.

 We saw several exotic cars on our very first stop on the trip, in Los Angeles back in December.  The specter of seeing Ferraris, and Lamborghinis and Bugattis was one of the main reasons we decided to stay in Southern California for a few days before heading to Fiji.  Ben was thrilled when we stopped in a few luxury car stores, where the level of patience with our window-shopping varied by location.
We hope to see a few more exotic cars in our last couple of days in Singapore, in part because we don’t expect to have that experience much over the next few weeks as we dive into Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Easing out of Australia and our comfort zones

One of my favorite lines from comedian Stephen Wright is “You can’t have everything—where would you put it?”  That applied in a sort of inverse way to our 35 days in Australia.  We flew into Melbourne near the end of January and were flying out of Brisbane five weeks later.  Those two cities are about 16 hundred miles apart, and Australia is a country best experienced, we had been told more than once, on the ground.  We wanted to see more of the country, but knew there just wasn’t enough time to see as much as we hoped.  Our ground strategy proved to be a solid one as we wound our way first down the Great Ocean Road, to the south and west of Melbourne, then back to the east and north in the direction of Sydney and then Brisbane. 

After spending much of our 27 days in New Zealand in the car, trying to see as much as we could, we opted for a more relaxed pace in Australia.  Our time in New Zealand was marked by several one-night stays, which usually meant driving as far as we felt comfortable during the day, spending some time finding a place to stay, eating dinner, then watching a movie or some TV at the hotel or apartment or cottage.  The decision to have more two-and three-night stays in Australia was more relaxing and gave us a much better feel for our various stops along the way.  But it also meant leaving some things off the "to-see" list.  

Going to Perth in Western Australia was completely out of the question and we wound up crossing off Adelaide in South Australia as well.  That was just a little too far to the west to give us some doable drives back toward Sydney and then Brisbane.  There was also the romantic ideal of renting a four-wheel drive vehicle and forging our way into the outback.
 Our fear, however, was that the reality would be that you drive for hours on end to get somewhere where there is nothing.  Back home in Ohio, we have Indiana for that, so we decided that the only Outback we would see would be in Kenwood.

Ayers Rock, or Uluru, also had some appeal.  It’s a striking geological formation that lends itself to dramatic pictures and can be seen from outer space.  

But the nearest town, Alice Springs, is a few hundred kilometers away from Uluru and a long way away from Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.  So that was scratched off our destination list as well.  Now that our time in Australia is behind us, I think most of the choices we made were wise ones. 

Seeing Great Ocean Road and the 12 Apostles was spectacular.  I’ve never seen anything like it and it was a definite highlight of our time so far on this trip.   

We also loved our time in the seaside town of Lorne, which provided our first koala and kangaroo sightings, as well as the kookaburra, the bird that makes a very loud call that sounds like a series of laughs.  

That gave us an idea for a new animal club, but we were a bit bothered by the only conceivable acronym:  The KKK.  While our group would have nothing but the best of intentions for animals of all species, including the human kind, those three letters together have something of an ugly past, so we tabled that one.

Those three creatures were certainly a reoccurring highlight for the entire family.  We stopped by several sanctuaries where visitors could get varying degrees of contact with kangaroos and koalas.  At one called Potoroo outside Merimbula on the Sapphire Coast between Melbourne and Sydney, we got to touch a koala for the first time.  The keeper holding the koala for us to pet said she had never seen one in the wild, which made us realize how special the three sightings we had during our drive were. 

Kangaroos are a bit more common and we saw several of them along the way, and at three sanctuaries got the opportunity to feed them.  Annie was smitten immediately, and it’s difficult to resist their gentle nature and cute mannerisms.  

We also discovered that they really like the spot at their lower neck and upper chest scratched.  They will definitely be one of the things we miss the most about Australia. 

Our transition from Down Under to Asia is going to mean some changes in the overall feel of the trip.  Heading into Indochina means English won’t be the first language in many cases.  Fiji, New Zealand and Australia have all be extremely easy from that standpoint.  There are some phrases that take some getting used to, especially on Australia.  How ya going, instead of how’s it going.  Good on ya, rather than good for you.  And they really do say G’day mate a lot.  Another thing that you discover on an extended visit to Australia is that Foster’s is most certainly NOT “Australian for beer!”  In my excursions into the bottle shops, I rarely if ever saw Foster’s for sale and never saw anyone drinking one during our time there.  XXXX,  Carling, Pure Blonde, Carlton Draught and Victoria Bitter seemed to be the most common.  Of those, I’d have to say Pure Blonde was my favorite, it’s a pilsner, that goes down easy on a hot day or with a plate of fish and chips. 

Much like in New Zealand, the people we encountered along the way in Australia were without exception very friendly.  Everyone seemed happy to see us, and those that we engaged in conversation about the trip seemed to have a genuine interest in our adventure.  We shared travel stories with many people, and picked up some good tips for our future destinations, which we plan to put to good use. 

One other thing that sticks out as we leave behind the southern hemisphere is how just letting things happen has led us to some great experiences.  A random stop in the town of Thames in New Zealand dropped us into an outdoor summer street festival. 

Our arrival in Melbourne came about the day before Australia Day, their biggest holiday of the summer.   

Our time there also co-incided with the Australia Open, with tennis festivities all around. In Manly, north of Sydney, we found ourselves in the middle of the Australian Open of Surfing, giving us a great taste of summertime life in Australia.  A casual late-afternoon early-evening stroll through the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney gave us glimpses of several weddings as couples took advantage of a summer Saturday.

In the gardens we also saw hundreds of fruit bats, flying around and gathering in tall trees making a very unusual sound and emitting an unforgettable odor.   

We also enjoyed the buzz of a massive crowd queing up for a movie showing at the Open Air Theatre of Sydney, with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge as a backdrop.  None of those preceding events were planned, we just stumbled across them. 

When planning this trip back home in the comforting cloak of familiarity in Madeira, one of the goals was to experience completely different cultures and surroundings.  That’s a challenging proposition.  Australia and New Zealand have been pretty easy.  Driving on the other side of the road took a little getting used to, but there are helpful signs at every turn to KEEP LEFT.  In Sydney, they did their best to help pedestrians to keep from becoming casualties. 

But in many ways, the previous weeks have seemed a lot like visiting places in the States.  The food is pretty much the same, with the exception of vegemite of course.   

And “same” is not why we took this trip.  It’s time for something completely different as we head to Singapore and then Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  Bangerts, you're not in Madeira anymore!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Sun, surf and sand in Sydney

My first job in radio was in Charleston, West Virginia.  I started on Labor Day 1982 at V100, WVAF-FM.  I got the job at the tender age of 21 after being an intern at 96 Rock in Hamilton, Ohio.  What started as a 90-day internship in January of ’82, grew into a fill-in job at Rock 96 well into the summer.  My news director there was Larry Davis, who now is a TV reporter at Local 12 in Cincinnati.  He was friends with Bob Schumann who did some consulting work for V100, and he heard they were looking for an afternoon news anchor.  He told Larry Davis, who told me, and I applied for and got the job, launching what I hoped would be an exciting radio career.  It was one of the most enjoyable times of my life.  There were about 4-5 newspeople, 6-8 disc jockeys and we were all about the same age and for most of us, it was our first job in the industry.  The station did very well in the ratings, ranked number one in most demographics, and we had some quite enjoyable evenings out on the town. 

Capitol Street in downtown Charleston had several nightspots and there would actually be something of a buzz when the V100 crew at whatever destination we happened to choose for the night.  The radio station also had a softball team, the Killer Vs, and we would get rock star attention when our caravan came to town to take on the locals.

We would hang out with other media types in town, including some TV reporters we got to know while covering stories.  One of them was a blonde who personified the reporter Don Henley mentions in the early 80s song Dirty Laundry: “there’s a bubble-headed bleach blonde who comes on at 5, she can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye…It’s interesting when people die, give them Dirty Laundry!”  On one night when were were out on the town, the aforementioned reporter and I were casually talking and she noticed the University of Florida golf shirt I had on.  I had gotten it earlier that year when I went to Florida on spring break.

It wasn’t your typical spring break trip for a 20-year old.  My parents, in a rare display of discretionary spending, took me (par-TAY with Hank and Marilyn!!) and my cousin from Columbus, Jeff, who is a year older than me.  The shirt purchase was one of those you make that is really satisfying.  It didn’t scream out that you had taken a trip somewhere, plus at that time, I kind of liked the U of F.  That was well before their ugly history with Ohio State in both football and basketball title games and before the whole Tim Tebow thing.    Blondie asked if I went to the University of Florida, and-just because she seemed like someone who would believe this sort of thing-I told her yes, that I had been on the surfing team there.  She seemed appropriately impressed and I got a good silent laugh at a harmless fib.  Had the story been true, and had I gone on to become an accomplished surfer, I probably would have heard of Manly Beach in New South Wales Australia before we arrived as part of our visit to Sydney and discovered the Australian Open of Surfing.

Traveling constantly can be a bit of a grind.  I mean, I’m thrilled to be on this trip, and the bonding going on with our family is priceless as are the incredible variety of experiences we are, well, experiencing.  But packing up every two or three days as we’ve done in Australia after a month in New Zealand where we had several one off stops can wear on you after a while.  On transition days, you spend a couple of hours just getting everything back in suitcases and backpacks and back in the boot of the car and hitting the road.  I was starting to question the entire process until we got to Sydney. 

We had gotten a wide variety of opinions on Sydney before we launched our trip and then, again, once we were in Australia.  More than one person had told us that Sydney was the best city they had ever been to, while others, especially some people in the Melbourne area said it was just another big city.  After spending a few days in Sydney, I couldn’t disagree with those people more. 

Only a handful of major cities are blessed with a setting such as the one surrounding Sydney.  Nature has provided a gorgeous harbor, that man (and woman I’m sure) has enhanced with a pair of iconic structures.  The Harbour Bridge connects Sydney with the shore to the north and does so in a classic Art Deco style.  The bridge opened in 1932 and is still the major thoroughfare for Sydneysiders to get to and from the northlands. 

An even more recognizable landmark sits gracefully on Bennelong Point, just to the east and south of the Harbour Bridge.  The Sydney Opera House is one of a handful of landmarks around the world where you immediately say, “I’m somewhere special!” 
We took the ferry in from the north, having found a two-bedroom apartment in the seaside village of Manly, where (completely unbeknownst to us when we booked the place) the Australian Open of Surfing was going on.  (More on that later)   The ferry route winds it’s way south from Manly through a picturesque bay, with houses lining the hills on each side, giving it a very Southern European feel.  The tops of the tallest buildings in Sydney are visible over the hills, but not the Opera House or Harbour Bridge.  The anticipation builds as the ferry cruises closer and closer until finally, it runs past the last land mass, and there they are in all their glory. 

The view is breath-taking and both landmarks are even more impressive in person than in photographs.  To the right is the bridge, to the left is the Opera House, presenting a challenging decision on which way to go once you’ve gotten off the ferry.  The Opera House was one of my top destinations for the entire trip, so we took a hard left and made our way toward the building that some describe as a series of turtles giving each other piggy back rides.  A stroll around the outside of the building gave me an appetite for paying to go inside, but first we all had appetites of another kind to quench, so we grabbed a surprisingly affordable lunch at one of the outdoor cafes nearby.  Annie and Ben were more interested in visiting the Sydney Aquarium, while Marley and I decided to book a guided tour of the Opera House. 

The hour-long tour had many highlights, as we went inside the various performance halls in the building.  We saw a performer rehearsing for La Soiree in the smallest theatre of the five that the tour took us to.  The guide led us up a series of stairs, pointing out architectural details along the way, stopping twice to play a video providing background information on the planning and construction of the Opera House.  No photos are allowed during the course of the tour, and that point was underlined more as we approached the Concert Hall.  Inside, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing and early the day before, someone in a tour group apparently snapped a picture, resulting in a day-long ban on tours sitting in for a few minutes on the orchestra’s rehearsal.  We all glanced around the group, eyeing one another and wondering who, if anyone, would be such an offender among us.  

The tour guide unlocked the door, and when he opened it, out came the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.  Rich notes cascaded from the floor below, as the musicians dressed in casual clothing worked their way through a section of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4, which they would be performing the next night.  The beauty of the music brought tears to my eyes, but I’m admittedly the weepy sort.  I get misty-eyed during that goofy intro before Bengal games when the silhouette of Paul Brown walks across the scoreboard and there is that little beam of light that comes from his eyes.  I can’t watch the “wanna have a catch?” part of Field of Dreams without a box of Kleenex within reach.  A little bit of red wine and Dvorak’s Symphony #9 and I’m a complete mess.   But still, this was something that was very special, and it was even more so getting to experience it with Marley, who has shown some signs of musical talent.  It's one thing to just see one of the world's most iconic landmarks, it's even greater to do that with your daughter.  I know it’s something we’ll both remember for the rest of our lives. 

Another thing we will all remember for quite some time is the Australian Open of Surfing that was going on. When we were trying to find a place to stay while in Sydney, more than one person mentioned Manly.  Securing accommodation there was something of a challenge, but we managed to find a lodge with a two-bedroom unit that could put us up for three nights.  Once we made our first trip into Sydney, we extended that to four nights, knowing we would want to check out the beach scene at Manly as well as make another voyage on the ferry into Australia’s largest city.
Manly had an incredible buzz going on as surfers and their followers filled the outdoor and indoor spaces of the city.  A Surf Stadium had been erected along the beach, along with a Skate Bowl for the "sk8r boi" crowd.  The day we chose to hit the sand was another one drenched in sun, and we plopped ourselves down on the beach.  The surfers competed in heats of four, which lasted 20 minutes.  They would each wear a different colored jersey: one in red, another in yellow, a third in black and the other in white.  Some clearly had bigger followings than others, and one of the more popular ones was Matt Wilkinson.  Commentary from a pair of announcers broadcast over speakers toward the water let us know that Wilco, as he is called, was considered one of the more colorful characters surfing had seen in the last few years, so we decided he was one of our favorites.   
Another was Jordy Smith who was patient enough after competing to take the time to have his photo taken with many admirers of various ages, including a certain 12-year old girl from Ohio. 
The excitement from the beach transferred to the streets of Manly.  Restaurants and bars were overflowing with people, giving the scene the sense of something big happening.  There was talk of members of Pink Floyd being in attendance, and a local weekly newspaper ran a photo of four guys who were supposedly part of one of my favorite bands of all time, but I didn’t recognize any of them.  The guys in the photo definitely were not David Gilmour or Roger Waters,  and not even Nick Mason.  There was also talk that Tony Hawk, the skateboarding legend was around, but we saw no trace of him.  Still, it was fun to see the crowds pouring off the ferry from Sydney during the late-morning and early-afternoon hours.  The atmosphere was truly electric, and that just added to the buzz we felt from our time in the Sydney area.  Who knows, maybe someday, we’ll be Syndeysiders, if just for a while.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nowhere, man!

Every now and then it’s nice to be nowhere.  So far during our stay in Australia, we’ve seen many amazing sights, including several well-documented sightings of koalas, kangaroos and kookaburras.  We spent several days in Melbourne, took a drive down the Great Ocean Road to see the 12 Apostles rock formations and spent some time on the Mornington Peninsula and Phillip Island.  Those last two spots are very popular getaway destinations for people living in the Melbourne area.  So we didn’t necessarily feel like we were off the beaten path very much, something that had been a goal of ours during the course of our trip.  That changed when we got to the village of Seaspray.

Our post-Melbourne area plans were to drive along the Victoria coast toward Sydney, which is in the state of New South Wales.  About 150 miles east of Melbourne is a stretch of sand called the 90-Mile Beach.  I haven’t figured out why it’s not called the 145 kilometre beach, since nothing else here has been measured in miles.  Our limited amount of research made it seem like an attractive destination, despite the fact, or maybe because of the fact that there are no significant towns on the sliver of sand that goes on uninterrupted for mile after kilometer after mile.   

We were desperate for some internet access, and we found a cottage online offering free wi-fi in the town of Seaspray which had a rate in our price range.  Nothing fancy from the outside, but the interior has been nicely renovated.  There are no restaurants in Seaspray, and just a general store where you could buy a six-pack of Crown Lager for $25.  I discovered that fact when I put the six-pack on the counter along with a bag of potato chips and the woman told me the total was $29.  I was only half-way paying attention to her as I gave her a $50 bill and when she handed me back my change, I asked just how much the beer was.  It wasn’t a look that could kill that was in her eye when I gently pushed the six-pack back in her direction and asked for my money back, but it was a glare that could have put me in ICU for a few days. 

With little to choose from in Seaspray, we took the twenty-minute drive inland to the town of Sale leading to the discovery of several restaurants and a grocery store that didn’t have Manhattanesque prices for beer and other necessities.  The vibe was definitely more laid-back and off the beaten path than what we’ve seen so far, and that’s been a welcome change.  One disappointment was the fact that the beach at Seaspray featured waves that were a little too rough for us to feel comfortable with Ben and Marley launching their boogie boards into the water.  It was Friday and the beach was only patrolled by the life saving squads on the weekend, so we waited until Saturday to head to the surf, and we had our few meters of the 90 Mile Beach to ourselves.  We enjoyed the quiet setting there for the two nights we were in Seaspray, glad to be someplace that didn’t have a number of attractions featured in brochures at information centers all over the coast.  On our way to Seaspray, we stopped for lunch in a town called Foster.  When we went into the information site and started talking with a man working there, he asked where we were headed and we replied, “Seaspray.”  His reply:  “How in the hell did you find Seaspray?”  We told him we found it online and were attracted by the free wi-fi.  He seemed to find that an acceptable response and we were on our way to our little slice of nowhere.  

We had gotten a glimpse of Nowhere at our stop in the town of Cowes on Phillip Island.  Not far from the hotel room we rented was a waterfront park.  At the entrance of the park is a sign bearing it’s name:

It took me a couple of glances to realize that Erehwon Park was nowhere backwards.  That got me to thinking of a segment from Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live when Chevy Chase was the anchor.  He did a story on the death of Professor Backwards, a comedian who had been shot to death during a robbery in Georgia.  In doing the story, Chase said "Professor Backwards, the entertainer who had the bizarre ability to speak backwards, was killed today in College Park, Georgia. Passersby apparently ignored the Professor's cries of 'Pleh! Pleh!'"  The kids got a big kick out of that, so now “pleh” has become part of the family vocabulary.

As we continued to move forward in our stay in Australia, we were closing in on our departure date of February 27th from Brisbane.  With about 2000 kilometers or about 1200 miles between Melbourne and Brisbane, we knew we had some pavement to cover.  That led us to buckle up and drive about 400 kilometers or about 250 miles to the town of Merimbula, a small fishing village along the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales.  The plan was to make it our mid-point stop before heading to Sydney, with the idea being to spend two nights there. 

After our first night in Merimbula, we decided to add an additional night to our stay there.  Turns out the extremely affordable apartment we were renting was a five-minute walk to a very nice beach.  The waves were big enough for Marley and Ben to get on their boogie boards, but not big enough for us to be concerned about their safety in the water.  They both caught some nice waves that gave them solid rides ashore.  That made me feel better about the fact that we had been dragging around the boogie boards and beach chairs we bought in Lorne a couple of weeks earlier in the trip and hadn’t been able to use them. 

Another factor in the decision to stay in Merimbula another day was the fact that we had purchased internet time that was good for 6 days.  The plan we bought was one that allowed more than one person to be on a computer on the account at a time.  That would let Ben and Marley to both be doing online schoolwork through the Kahn Academy.

Our next major move is toward Sydney.  Heading into the trip, several people said Sydney was one of their favorite cities ever.  Since we've gotten to Australia, we have talked to many locals who say it's just another big city and not to spend too much time there.  Some of that could be due to the fact that it came from people in the Melbourne area and the two cities have something of a rivalry.  Melbourne and the surrounding area was fantastic and something we all enjoyed.  We're giving Sydney the same amount of time that we gave Melbourne:  4 days and 3 nights.  We'll see if she can measure up to the best that Victoria had to offer.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Animalistic in Australia

For the past couple of days I’ve had that silly children’s song about the kookaburra in my head.  I don’t know why as a child growing up in Youngstown Ohio I had the occasion to sing a song about a bird in a gum tree on the other side of the world, but I did.  The first couple of times it plays in your head, it’s a pleasant reminder of what certainly must have been a simpler time in your life.  After about the fiftieth time it plays in your head, you’re ready to go on a kookaburra hunt while pondering what wine would pair nicely with some grilled kookaburra. 

We didn’t have to hunt for the first kookaburra bird we saw, he found us.  It was at the cottage we rented in the town of Lorne along the Great Ocean Road southwest of Melbourne.  That’s where we saw a koala in the tree above the cottage when we first got there.  The excitement over the koala sighting overshadowed the sight of the kookaburra, which was sitting low on a tree branch and didn’t flinch at all as we approached to get a good look at it.   We didn’t know at the time that it was a kookaburra, or that it and others like it was responsible for the loud laughing sounds we would hear coming from high up in the forest in Lorne and in other places we stayed.  Its identity was confirmed at a nature center later in our stay in Australia.  The kookaburra has been a nice addition to our obsession with and study of koalas and kangaroos.

More than halfway into our 34-day stay in Australia, we haven’t seen quite as many kangaroo as I thought we would.  The two places we’ve seen them the most have been in the coastal town of Lorne, and at the Gunnamatta Golf Course at St. Andrews Beach on the southern tip of the Mornington Peninsula.  In Lorne, we would take about a ten minute walk from the cottage we rented up in the hills amongst the eucalyptus trees, and go to a field where we could see them from about 50 to 75 yards away.  At the golf course, we got up close and personal with them, getting within about 25 to 30 feet away.  We liked the golf course so much that we played it two days in a row.  They’ve got a great $25 twilight rate and it was a quick drive from the cottage we were renting, plus being that it was late in the day, it gave us a better chance of seeing some wildlife.  The roos were near the 8th green both days.  The first day, there were two of them and they didn’t seem phased at all by our interest in them. 

The second day we played there, their roo twosome had grown to a threesome, and this time they were lounging just off to the side of the green.

At one point, they all laid down, just kind of chilling as we played through.   Then, when we teed off on number 9, one of them stood up on his hind legs, and started scratching his chest and belly like a man getting up from his towel on the beach.  It was probably providing a great laugh for the other roos, as he was probably mocking the silly tourists, taking their pictures and shooting their videos.  For those of us not accustomed to seeing kangaroos in such a setting, it was great fun.  The kids got a big kick out of the pictures and videos and we took when we got back to the cottage. 

Like animals letting their young get used to the wild, we’ve been allowing Ben and Marley to gain some independence during this trip.  We pick our spots, making sure the situation is safe for a pair of 12-year olds.  There have been about three or four times we have made them dinner in whatever hotel room or cottage we’ve booked and gone out to have a “date night.”  They seem a little too happy to get rid of Mom and Dad for an hour or so, but that’s fine.   We’ve also sent them on mini-field trips, just to get them used to fending for themselves in an area that’s new to them.  In Akaroa near Christchurch,  we gave them some money to go to the grocery store to get some microwave popcorn (a staple on this trip since every place we’ve stayed has had a microwave) and some drinks.  Kind of like at home when we send them down to Madeira Mart for beer, smokes and lottery tickets.  Just kidding, Annie quit smoking after all. 

When we got to Cowes on Phillip Island and were getting settled into our hotel room, we sent the kids out on an exploratory mission.  The center of the village was just around the corner, so we gave them some cash to get some snacks and about a half an hour later they returned with a bag of goodies and some change and a useful recon report on the town’s layout.  They seem to enjoy the freedom it gives them and you can see them bonding even more. 

The main reason we put Phillip Island on our itinerary was the Penguin Parade.  On the southwestern tip of the small island, Little Penguins, the smallest type of penguin in the world, return from the ocean at dusk every night.  They cross the beach and make their way up into the sandy, bush covered scrubland, finding their burrows for safe haven for the night.  The park has boardwalks that make their way from the visitor center down to the beach, where two viewing stands are set up.  The stands hold a total of about 3800 people, and light poles provide illumination for the flightless birds as they waddle ashore in groups of about a dozen or so at a time.  They hesitate as they first emerge from the water, trying to gain the courage for the most threatening part of their daily routine.  The penguins pause from time to time, but then when they are about halfway across the beach, they lower their heads, stick their little feathery butts out and waddle with great determination toward the safety of the bushes and trees that cover the land where they have dug out their burrows.  This is where the real fun begins for the paying customers.  The boardwalks wind their way through the bushes and the penguins waddle inland right beside them. 

On the night we were there, which happened to be clear, giving us a great view of the full moon, we got very close to penguins several times.  The park rangers make it very clear that no pictures are allowed and they also informed the crowd that any attempt to touch a penguin would probably meet with a sharp response from the furry little creatures that apparently sport sharp beaks that they aren’t afraid to use.  Fortunately, on this occasion of human/penguin interaction, no beaks were deployed in anger, and no blood was shed.  It was an experience for which we had great expectations, and those were exceeded.

Another encounter with a young animal species happened completely unexpectedly as we drove from the Mornington Peninsula toward Phillip Island.  It was early afternoon and we were looking for some lunch when we came upon a cafĂ© at a working dairy farm.  It featured some animal enclosures where we saw a young lamb and a young cow.  In keeping with the trend we’ve had on this trip that started on our flight from Los Angeles to Fiji, the baby child lamb was a noisy little fellow.  He bleated more than baaed, pacing around his enclosure, noisily announcing his displeasure at something or someone, possibly me.  After all, I had the lamb skewers for lunch, the night after grilling some delicious lamb cutlets at our cottage in St. Andrews Beach.  I tried to assure him that it was nothing personal, but I’m not sure he bought it. 

Koalas have been more elusive during our time in Australia than kangaroo have.  We had the one that welcomed us to our cottage in Lorne, but the only other one we saw in that area was in some eucalyptus trees on the dirt road leading to our cottage.  A few days later, we were driving on a rural road from the Great Ocean Road area toward the Mornington Peninsula when I spotted a furry creature scampering along the right side of the road.  It was a koala, who scurried up a tree.  I pulled over and we all got out to get a closer view. 

It was somewhat surprising to see one so close to the road, but there are road signs instructing drivers what number to call when they see wounded or dead wildlife.  We haven’t seen any koala road kill, but we have seen a few kangaroos.  The ones we’ve seen near and on Phillip Island have had red x’s sprayed painted on them.  My theory is that they are members of a kangaroo gang, and got caught up in a joey deal gone bad, or perhaps it’s more roo on roo crime.  You hate to see that.

We love to see koalas and we saw our share at the Koala Conservation Centre on Phillip Island.  The park featured boardwalks that rose 10-15 feet off the ground and got viewers up close and personal with koalas.  Every single one of them is adorable and we could post picture after picture of them in various stages of sleeping and eating and moving about their tree habitat.  The boardwalk was set up very ingeniously, allowing easy movement in and out of where the koalas were hanging out in the trees, sleeping or munching on eucalyptus leaves.  It’s just fascinating to see them up close.  The most frequent response we’ve gotten to pictures of koala that we’ve posted on is requests to bring one back with us.  If there was a way to do that we would.  For now, we’ll just have to settle for the many pictures and memories they have given us.

Monday, February 6, 2012


I’m not sure we’re going to be in the state of Victoria in southeastern Australia long enough to solve it’s obvious identity crisis.  The conflict is apparent on the license plates we’ve seen on the cars from Victoria in our first week here.  One set of plates says:  Victoria-On The Move 

The other says:  Victoria-The Place To Be.   

Okay, which is it?  Those seem to be a bit contradictory.  If Victoria is The Place To Be, why would you be On The Move?  If Victoria is On The Move, then clearly, it’s not The Place to Be.  Back in the States, Ohio issues license plates that say, Ohio-the Heart of It All.  What if Ohio started issuing another, separate set of license plates?  Ones that bore the phrase:  Ohio-the Small Intestine of It All.  That wouldn’t make much sense and neither do these conflicting plates.  Hopefully we won’t have such license plate turmoil in New South Wales or Queensland as we head toward Brisbane for our flight to Singapore on the 27th of February.

We saw license plates from several Australian states as we loaded up from Lorne and continued south along Great Ocean Road.  The primary lure for the portion of the proceedings:  the 12 Apostles, or what used to be called the Sow and Piglets.  They are rock formations along the Australian Coast that have been eroded away by wind and water over millions of years.  The photos we had seen of them looked other worldly and spectacular and they did not disappoint.  It’s one of the most beautiful sights in nature that I’ve ever seen.  Perfect weather of temperatures in the upper 70s with a light breeze added to the experience. 

Some locals told us the sight was even more spectacular in the winter, when the seas come up from Antarctica and slam into the shore with massive force.  The forces that created this beauty are also destroying it.  In the past twenty years, two arches that connected two of the rock spires have collapsed into the ocean.  It’s an unstoppable process that speaks to the powerful forces of nature that constantly shape our planet. 

Just to the south of the 12 Apostles is Loch Ard Gorge.  At several spots along this part of Australia coastline, those powerful forces have carved a series of gorges inland.  Loch Ard gets its name from a ship that smashed into the coastline there in June of 1878.  The 37 passengers and 17 crew members were spending their final night on board the ship after 92 days at sea, having departed from London in March.  A celebration had been held the evening before, as they expected to arrive in Melbourne the following day.  A powerful storm had other plans for the ship, and despite the best efforts of the captain and crew, the ship was thrown against the rocks that lead into the gorge.

Only two people survived:  a member of the crew, Tom Pearce and a 19-year old passenger, Eva Carmichael.   Their survival can be attributed to the fact that of the several gorges along this part of the coastline, only this one had a sandy beach at its end.  The others were just box canyons, leaving no way out.  
After both Tom and Eva made it to shore, he found shelter for them and made a place for her to sleep.  He eventually managed to find a way out of the gorge, (which to our disappointment was not pointed out in any of the many historical markers around the gorge) and find help.  He would go on to live for another 22 years, continuing his career at sea, including some time as a ship’s captain where he survived two other shipwrecks.  She would live for another 56 years, and despite their connection of being the only survivors of a terrible tragedy, their lives never intertwined.  That certainly wouldn’t be the case these days.  You’d see those two dragged out onto every morning TV news program on the 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, etc etc anniversary of the crash of the Loch Ard. 

Our hopes were high that we would not be part of any anniversary of a nautical disaster on any level as we got in line to get on the ferry to Sorrento from Queenscliffe.  We caught the 2pm ferry, hoping to get over to the Mornington Peninsula and find a place to stay before everything got booked up on a Saturday night.   

Arriving in Sorrento, we were taken by the charm of the bayside village and hoped to find a place somewhere within walking distance of the shops and restaurants there.  One of the shops was a beach house rental office and they had a villa available for $500 a night.   That tidbit of information sent us across the street to the Sorrento information hut.  The woman there explained that coming in after 3pm on a Saturday didn’t enhance our chances of finding anything in town.  After a couple of calls, she put us in touch with the owner of a two-bedroom cottage in an area of the peninsula called St. Andrews Beach, about fifteen minutes from Sorrento.  It was much more in our price range and even had a tennis court.  The cottage, unbeknownst to me when we booked it, was within five to ten minutes driving of several quality looking golf courses. 

Once we checked in to the cottage, I saw a book called Golf Courses of the Mornington Peninsula.  I was stunned to leaf through the pages and see photo after photo of linksland golf courses that was reminiscent of courses found on Long Island.  Everyone of them looked beautiful.  The one closest to the cottage is Gunnamatta at St. Andrews Beach and is designed by Tom Doak, who just happens to be my favorite modern golf course architect.  He designed Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand near Napier, where we stayed for a few days last month.  It is situated on one of the most beautiful pieces of land I’ve ever seen for a golf course.  The landscape is as dramatic as you will find anywhere, with fingers of land jutting out over the ocean, and fairway positioned as though they will melt into the sea below.   Not a house in sight.   I hoped to play there when we were staying in Napier, but the greens fee for a non-New Zealand native was over $400.  I sent Cape Kidnappers an email right before we got to Napier, telling them all about the trip, the golf blog I was doing, and my man-crush on Tom Doak.  I heard nothing from them while we were in Napier, and when we were at the Napier waterfront, I would look longingly to the south, and see the bluff of Cape Kidnappers and realize I would leave the area without playing there.  A few days later, after we had made the ferry crossing from the North Island to the South Island in New Zealand, I got an email from Cape Kidnappers.  They would be happy to have me play there at a reduced “media” rate of about half of what the regular foreign rate would be.  I was crushed, knowing there was no way I could make it back to Napier to realize my dream of playing that course.  However, as has happened more than once on this trip, good karma is appearing and I can’t wait to play the Tom Doak course here.  Did I mention I like Tom Doak?