Melbourne

Melbourne

The original plan for Australia didn’t include Melbourne but all the Aussies we met who had lived or visited Melbourne told us it’s such an awesome city, we decided we had to see it for ourselves. Melbourne is our kind of town, a walking town. We walked across the CBD (Central Business District) several times as it was only about 2 kilometers across and perhaps 3 kilometers wide. We took a free walking tour which gave us a great overview of Melbourne’s highlights. There’s a lot of cool architecture, much of which dates back to the gold rush days of the mid to late 1800’s.

The LaTrobe room of the State Library

The LaTrobe room of the State Library

It has a lot of trolleys and we took advantage of the free #35 that circumnavigated the CBD. It’s also a hip city. Art, film, music, street art and the performing arts all have happy homes here.

Street art abounds in Melbourne

Street art abounds in Melbourne

New Year’s Eve felt more like the 4th of July since we usually associate fireworks with that holiday. Maybe also because we missed it at home. It was also kind of weird to be celebrating the new year in warm weather.

outside the library

Melbourne has an unusual set up for fireworks display. Instead of having them at one central location, fireworks are set off at different places around the city, from the beaches to the river Yarra, to parks and even off the tops of high buildings.

fireworks

Cindy asked the hotel manager if we could see the fireworks from the roof. He turned us down while in the lobby, but then quite unexpectedly, took us aside and quietly invited us to the top of the roof to see them with his family. We really felt special and we got a real kick out of taking the elevator down and settling back into our room minutes after the fireworks were done.

We felt so at home in Melbourne.

We felt so at home in Melbourne.

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Cairns to Sydney

Cairns to Sydney

We took 18 days to travel the more than 2600 kilometers from Cairns to Sydney. It was hard to judge exactly how much time was needed to make the trip with the objective of optimizing our journey but without too much driving. In the end, it seems it was planned and executed quite well, especially considering that peak travel season started around mid-month when school lets out for vacation. The other big consideration was how to travel in expensive places like Australia while reducing costs. Fortunately almost all hotels, motels and vacation accommodations provide refrigerators and light cooking facilities. We took full advantage by food shopping and making almost all our meals on the road.

Little known factoid: PB and J is one of the major food groups.

Little known factoid: PB and J is one of the major food groups.

Sydney was the most expensive place we’ve been to date. As an example, we had spent a very full Christmas day touring the town and were tired and hungry and more than ready to eat. Several restaurants were closed and we finally stopped into a contemporary looking pub for dinner. I had a hamburger and fries with a draught beer, Cindy had sausages, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut with water and the bill came to $50 (US). To ease some of the costs we stayed in locals’ homes we found through the airbnb website. Overall, we had very positive experiences having had excellent –and interesting– hosts and always more space than we would have in motels or regular guest houses. It’s also a good way to meet locals and get the inside scoop on what to do and see as well as what to avoid.

In Noosa, we did some hiking in the National Park, biked around town and kayaked on the Noosa River.

Tea Tree Bay, Noosa National Park

Tea Tree Bay, Noosa National Park.

The Australian Bush Turkey.

The Australian Bush Turkey.

Beautiful Byron Bay was the first town we weren’t able to find accommodations due to its popularity and the onset of high season. It turned out to be fortuitous as we stayed in Lennox Head a few minutes drive south. Byron Bay was über touristy and quite a busy place. More of a village, Lennox Head was quiet and our BNB was only a couple of hundred meters from the beach.

Byron Bay Lighthouse on the furthest point East in Australia.

Byron Bay Lighthouse on the Eastern most point of Australia.

Surf culture.

Surf culture sans the Beach Boys.

Byron Bay.

Byron Bay.

We took a ride inland to a scenic area known as the hinterland situated between the central coast and the outback. It was very hilly and the winding roads were quiet without many cars. This was one of the places I really wished I’d had a road bike; it would have been perfect. We stopped in the town of Nimbin. Formerly a quiet dairy village, it changed after the Aquarius Festival in 1973 to become a “hippie” town, now full of long grey-haired, colorfully dressed residents. It had quite a few “head” shops selling varieties of rolling papers, pipes and drug paraphernalia. It also distinguished itself as the only town I’d seen to date with police officers walking a beat.

bringabong pic

“The Entrance”, located about an hour north of Sydney, has daily pelican feedings.

pelican feedings I

Up close and personal.

Up close and personal.

We’d been warned about strict enforcement of traffic laws, especially around the holidays. We only saw a handful of patrol cars but you’re constantly being watched and monitored with radar and cameras; and an innumerable number of signs everywhere let you know you’re under surveillance. Here is an incomplete list of the signs we saw on the way to, and in Sydney:

Check speed, heavy fines, loss of license
Speed cameras used in this area
Average speed camera
Red light camera area
How fast are you going?
Road work: speed limits enforced
20 dec to Jan 1: double demerits apply (I assume it’s some kind of point system)

And two types of ‘public service’ billboards to drive home the point:

One is a picture of a police officer’s head and helmet with mirrored aviator sunglasses. Caption: We have our eyes on you!
The second pictures a doctor asking, “Late or crushed skull? Choose wisely.”

I found the multitudinous road signs and surveillance cameras very intimidating.

closed circuit sign

The “average speed” camera is a real kicker. There are actually two cameras positioned a few kilometers apart that clock a vehicle over the distance and then measures the average speed to determine if it was over the limit. If this were done in the Boston area everyone would be arrested.

Signs notifying the existence of the cameras are sometimes labeled as being for public safety. It’s creepy to know you’re being watched all the time and paranoid-inducing to be continuously reminded of it. At home, you may be on camera but don’t know it. The Boston Marathon-day bombers were quickly caught with cameras’ assistance. Perhaps that’s the best way to use them.

road safety sign

Public hazard warnings are common.

This had the most sardonic icon.

A most sardonic icon.

The Sydney Harbor Bridge, aka The Coat Hanger.

The Sydney Harbor Bridge, aka, The Coat Hanger.

We hit Sydney with a bang on December 26th, Boxing Day. It’s a national holiday and also the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Everyone comes out at various points along the harbor to see the start of the race.

Seconds before the starting gun.

Seconds before the starting gun.

Minutes after the start sailors are 'followed' by motorized spectators.

Minutes after the start competitors are ‘followed’ by motorized spectators.

Five days were bearly enough to take in Sydney. It’s a clean, vibrant international city with a massive harbor. If one were to measure the total linear distance of the shore line of the banks and islands it would surely be an astronomical figure.

The drive down the coast from Cairns featured one beautiful beach after another. Bondi Beach was no exception and it was only minutes away from downtown Sydney.

Bondi Beach.

Bondi Beach.

Next to Bondi is a gorgeous walk which takes you along the coast to more beautiful beaches. Amazing!

shore next to bondi

England’s answer to rising crime in newly industrialized 16th and 17th century society was banishment, or euphemistically, “transport”. After they lost America to the revolution, Australia became the choice location. The Hyde Park Barracks Museum was about convict life in the colony. Harsh and brutal, it also came with the possibility of starting a fresh life with economic opportunity.

hydde park barracks

The most surprising experience in Australia occurred on a public bus in Sydney when, just after crossing the harbor bridge, the driver missed the exit. There were some choice curse words from his mouth and a couple of gentle smiles from some other passengers while Cindy and I sat in bewilderment. I looked around the bus and was also surprised that there were no other reactions from other passengers. The driver simply re-routed the bus back to its normal route and it was like nothing had happened. I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere. If it happened in a major metropolitan area in the U.S. I imagine there would have been at least several passengers speaking up.

Australia has a very laid-back feel to it. It consistently ranks as one of the most desirable places to live with the highest level of satisfaction. There appear to be a lot of job opportunities and the cities attract a lot of foreign workers in the hospitality and service industries. One of the reasons the cost of eating out is so high is that the minimum wage is $20 per hour. Tipping is not customary but the hourly wage is guaranteed so there is no need for strikes by fast food workers who get wages that are impossibly low to live on. This is a workingman’s country. The reputation of most work-a-day folks is that there is a “9 to 5” attitude about doing their jobs. I met a young financial analyst who spent his last semester of school in the U.S. and all the resident seniors were hard at work hustling to find jobs when they graduated; he said it served him well providing good motivation at an important time. On another tour we met two young 5th-year medical residents who only worked 38-hour work weeks–the maximum number of work hours per week set by the Australian government!

Retail stores close relatively early and even in metropolitan areas it can appear ghostly sometimes. There was no big commercially charged shopping frenzy before Christmas. Aussies’ big shopping day is the day after Christmas, December 26th, Boxing Day. (Traditionally, it was when servants and tradesman got gifts from their bosses or employers. It’s also a holiday in the UK, Canada, and some other Commonwealth –or former Commonwealth– countries).

It’s no utopia as I’ve heard voices of frustration regarding over-zealous government regulation squashing entrepreneurship and innovation. And on another occassion, a small business-owner, a painter, had been hit by the down-turn in the housing market around the time of the global financial crisis of 2008. He has since recovered but not at the level that he was earlier. He went from 25 employees to about 6 or 7 where he’s been since then. And for me, when I consider all those posted warnings and the constant surveillance it can feel like I’m in a ‘nanny’ state or that an Orwellian “big brother” is watching.

But people I talk to do seem pretty content with their lives. And although the ‘best places to live’ surveys may not be infallible, I believe there is probably some statistical significance to them.

Sometimes I find myself getting annoyed when talking to foreigners from other western nations about things like the recent government shut down, comparative healthcare systems, and the embarrassment that creationists are even slightly involved in American children’s education. But, like Dorothy said in the original land of Oz, “There’s no place like home”.

Oz: The Get Go

Oz: The Get Go

We arrived in Cairns via a stop-over in Perth where we were able to pick up a replacement for Cindy’s iPad at the airport duty-free shop. Cindy’s iPad Air was one of the few, or perhaps the only, bargain we found in Australia.

The first order of business in Australia was taking care of Cindy’s scratched cornea. Back in Indonesia, it took much longer than expected for her urinary tract infection to go away. It finally did but just days later, she woke up to a stinging pain in her eye along with an ultra-sensitivity to light. We were on the wonderful island of Gili Air so had to go to the tiny local health clinic. She was seen by a nurse –not the blond-haired, caucasian woman pictured on the local billboard we’d laughed at days before– who gave her some useless eye drops, charged an outrageous tourist-gouging $65 for the visit and eye bandage, and then recommended she go to the new internationally accredited hospital on Lombok. Since we missed the ferry, we had to wait until the next day, thereby leaving one day earlier than planned. The next day we traveled back to Lombok, dropped off our luggage and took a taxi to the hospital to see an ophthalmologist. After waiting over 4 hours, we saw the ophthalmologist for a 45-minute visit who recommended a 5-day hospital stay to treat the ulcerated cornea with antibiotics administered through I.V.. It seemed like trying to kill a mosquito with a sledge-hammer. He was a bit sheepish about Indonesia’s healthcare being inferior to Australia’s system but was clear about getting treatment there since it would only be in two more days. His visit cost $18, and the medicine (oral antibiotics, topical antibiotics and NSAID pain killers) about $30. Forward to Australia. After a 15 minute wait at a 24-hour medical clinic in Cairns, we saw a (G.P.) physician who examined Cindy (also un-rushed), confirmed the diagnosis, prescribed a different topical antibiotic and gave her a referral to a local ophthalmologist should she need more expertise. Also, he recommended she wear an eye patch which the Indonesian ophthalmologist nixed. The visit was $70 and the medicine about $30. In a week and a half, she was 98% better. Considering the cost of healthcare premiums in the U.S., maybe the duty-free iPad wasn’t the only bargain in Australia.

biking cairns

Crikey! Watch out for crocs and just keep on riding!

Crikey! Watch out for crocs and just keep on riding!

Our first full touring day in Cairns we rented bikes taking to the outskirts of town. We locked them up to climb some hills and then to see the beautiful botanic gardens.

I could hear Steve Irwin, "That orchid was huuuge"

That orchid was huge.

We booked two tours through a local travel agency while in Cairns. The first was a trip to the Great Barrier Reef right out of Cairns and the second was a two-day/one night sailing trip a few days later around the Whitsunday Islands, a day’s ride south. The day on the GBR was a combo trip, I would do three dives and Cindy could snorkel. It was an expensive day and I would describe the trip as a ‘factory tour’ since the boat, though not even full, was geared to taking a lot of people for the long trip to the outer reef in a very structured and highly regimented fashion. The divers were split into three groups of 8 each and the snorkelers were all released on to the reef en mass. It’s often difficult to combine snorkeling with diving since good snorkeling requires the water depth to be not much more than 7 or 8 feet. This was a good place to dive and snorkel, though, and I was glad Cindy had the opportunity to experience the GBR. And we did so together, at least on the boat ride out and back. The trip for both of us was $420. Snorkeling cost $190 and the dives cost almost three times as much as I was paying in Indonesia.

  Cindy is snorkeling there, somewhere

Cindy is snorkeling there, somewhere.

As we traveled south out of Cairns, we passed through light green pancake-flat valleys lined with dark green mountains in the distance. As we got farther south, the dominant agricultural products, bananas and sugar cane lined the roads. We stopped at Mission Beach for a stretch and a short hike. It was nice to get away from the crowds.

Mission Beach is about 2 hours south of Cairns.

Mission Beach is about 2 hours south of Cairns.

My plantar fasciitis had been getting worse so I researched and booked an appointment with a ART (Active Release Techniques) therapist in Townsville, about half way to Airlie Beach where we would embark on the Whitsundays sail. I had great results with the issue almost 10 years ago with an ART practitioner, so I had high hopes.

  View from Castle Hill. Townsville in the foreground, Magnetic Island in the background.

View of Townsville from Castle Hill. Magnetic Island in the background.

Usually meticulous about showing up on time, I really blew it when I accidentally showed up for the therapist appointment 2 hours late because I’d written down the wrong time. He was booked for the rest of the day so now I had to find another therapist further south that could fit me in their schedule.

It wasn’t a total loss as Cindy and I had a great time in Townsville. We enjoyed Castle Hill, the esplanade, went for a night-time swim and visited a cultural center that focused on the people who came from islands in the Torres Strait and settled in Australia.

 Good for swimming, day and night.

Stinger nets make for safe swimming, day and night.

Ironically, the northern Queensland coast is stacked with miles of beautiful, broad white-sand beaches and a wide-open Pacific Ocean with toasty warm temps, but certain times of the year the waters are invaded by various types of jellyfish (some of which can cause fatalities), or “stingers” which necessitate swimming inside of areas protected by nets.

sail

We arrived in Airlie Beach the night before the cruise of the Whitsundays, a gorgeous group of 74 islands that make up part of the GBR. We shared Hammer, a 75-foot former racing sail boat, with 20 other travelers, all Europeans except for us and an Aussie couple. It was pouring rain when we woke that day, and once on-board, the captain gave a speech about how it was definitely going to rain and what a great time we’d all have anyway. It drizzled for the first 5 minutes and that was the last of any precipitation for the remainder of the trip.

Like a Porsche on the water

Handles like a Porsche on water. Yeah, baby!

It was cloudy for the most of the first day which is not a bad thing considering the devilish sun in Australia. While in Turkey, we met a lot of Aussies who told us of a hole in the ozone layer over Australia. It was a bit hard to swallow, but in fact, it has one of the highest rates of skin cancer. So for years, Aussies have lathered on the sun-block and now there is apparently a vitamin D deficiency in the population.

Snorkel, mask, stinger suit, dorky tourist with patient, understanding wife. Ok, ready to go.

Snorkel, mask, stinger suit, dorky tourist with patient and understanding wife. Ok, ready to go.

The second day was sun-filled, rounding out the entire two-day fair-weather cruise. The passengers on the boat were a fun and interesting group of people. Pretty much wherever we traveled we’d always meet Germans and this trip was no exception. They get lots of vacation time and are perennial travelers. Perhaps a third of the passengers were from Germany and they included a judge and a former WNBA basketball player.

Whitehaven beach on the Whitsundays..

The Whitsundays.

Mid-Queensland travel-fest

Mid-Queensland travel-fest

After the 11 hour drive from MacKay to Rainbow Beach, I was wondering if we were keeping to our ‘less is more’ philosophy. It was a tough day on the road. We got stopped along the way due to an accident almost in the middle of nowhere. As the traffic backed up while waiting for emergency vehicles, a few cars started to turn around to navigate around the main highway. I followed the advice of a local trucker who thought it would take a long time to clear the road. I made a u-turn to follow the pack, and after what seemed like quite a few extra miles on a hard-pack road and then crossing a stream about 12 inches deep, I came to the conclusion I probably should have waited for the traffic to clear on the main road. It was confirmed when I got back on the road and saw that we were behind the traffic that had stopped at the accident.

Just after passing through the former timber town of Maryborough, dusk had fallen and I had completed about 10 hours of driving. Suddenly, out of nowhere, two kangaroos appeared on the left side of the road and started to cross. As I braked, I started to angle the car to the opposite side of the road to increase the distance between me and the kangaroos. I stopped just in time. They continued their travels across the front of the car to the other side of the road oblivious to how close they came to becoming kangaroo burgers and without a roo-care in the world. For me, this was the start of a 1-hour white-knuckled drive down a darkening and desolate road. Not only did I start to see kangaroo warning signs, there were also signs indicating the lack of border fences along the road, followed by others with the icons of horses indicating the presence of the very large, feral creatures. I recalled the guy who was on the line in front of me at the car rental agency buying extra insurance because, “it wouldn’t take much to do some real damage hitting a kangaroo”. I thought to myself that hitting a horse could really ruin your day. I was so glad to arrive at our accommodations. I was exhausted.

Feral mare and foal on Rainbow Beach.

Feral mare and foal on Rainbow Beach.

The next day we got picked up in a 4-wheel drive monster-truck for the tour of Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island.

On 75-mile beach, Fraser Island

On 75-mile beach, Fraser Island

Our tour guide, Henning, was the most entertaining one to date. He was German with an accent like Aaahhnold and would occasionally increase the pitch in his voice for effect. I was expecting him to say, “Get to za chaaapah” at any moment. Much of the drive was along the wide, white sands of Seventy-five Mile Beach or through forest and he spoke almost the whole time giving a history of the island and information about the flora and fauna; well done, since it broke up the trip. His best schtik came towards the end of the tour when he got into some of his personal story. His wife divorced him after bearing three kids, all girls. She took the kids, the house, his money, the pension fund, etc.. But he got his revenge when 6 months later, to his ex’s horror, he married a Phillipina woman 20 years younger. Shortly thereafter, he was a father again with a 4th child, now a toddler, and his young wife was pregnant with his 5th child. It was really good deadpan humor; he had the whole bus laughing.

Dingos on Fraser Island are the most pure breed due its isolation.

Dingos on Fraser Island are the most pure breed due its isolation.

The Land of Oz

The Land of Oz

Ever since I was a little nipper I wanted to go to Australia. I was in grade-school and remember reading a National Geographic book on Australia thinking, “Whoa. That looks like a really cool place. I’ve got to go there!” And years later, while working a coop job while in college, I did a bit of research into working there, visas, etc.. but I never made it. So now, finally, I made it. And wow, what a country!

There are some real similarities between Australia and the U.S. First is size. They’re huge geographically and distances can be incredibly daunting in scale. Complications of navigating your way around New England may prompt a local to say, “You can’t get there from here”. In Australia, it may be said because it’s probably too dang far away. Both were British colonies, though, Australia’s genesis is much more jocular having started as a penal colony. I always seem to hear Nelson, the character from “The Simpsons”, with a taunting “Ha Ha!”, to their former colonial overlords. Lastly, our nations began with european immigrants who screwed over indigenous (and non-white) populations for countless decades.

Then, there are some differences. At home in the U.S., the consumer is king. Here, the consumer is seemingly liable for all transactions. If you buy something and the store doesn’t like your reason for return, you can forget about getting a refund. Cindy found out the hard way when she purchased an iPad screen saver from an iStore, then found another for half the price somewhere else. When she tried to get a refund the iStore rejected the return because her reason wasn’t good enough. A few days later we went into a shoe store and a sign at the cash register instructed customers to make choices carefully because you can’t just ‘change your mind’ if you want to bring things back.

In the cities and municipalities we’ve been to so far, signs are posted instructing pedestrians to yield to traffic. Many times, though, drivers will stop politely deferring to pedestrians so they can cross first. On the road drivers are often polite to each other, as well. One thing I’ve seen is that it’s common for them to use their turn signals warning others of intended moves. For example, two-lane highways often merge one lane into two after a ‘passing zone’ and despite clear signage, drivers will signal the intent to merge to those behind them. It’s very pleasant.

We speak the same language……sort of. I love the Australian accent. Who wouldn’t want to go to an Outback Steakhouse or drink Foster’s Lager after listening to one of their ads? But sometimes, from a distance, I listen to locals speak and wonder what language their speaking. Sometimes they speak very fast, sometimes they use different words, and sometimes they slur words. Sometimes I just have a hard time understanding them. One of the funny things they do often is shorten words. Brisbane is Brizzy, mosquitos are mozzies, and Woolworth’s is Woolys.

By the Esplanade in Cairns

By the Esplanade in Cairns

The Aussies really seem to have it together, civilly speaking. The parks are well-maintained and very accessible with lots of public swimming pools, water fountains in good working order, BBQ’s for public use and beautiful parks and areas for common use. Public servants are often seen working away at whatever task is at hand. As we travel along, we see many public roads being widened and improved.

Australia has one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Their healthcare system is universal and is funded by taxing everyone 1.5% of their income, except for those with low-income who may pay nothing and the wealthy who pay more.

Mission Beach. One of the countless beautiful beaches.

Mission Beach. One of the countless beautiful beaches.