Australia Because, Why Not?

The back story for this is that my/our son who we will call Eric for this entry, went to Australia to teach snowboarding at a partner resort. Normally he does this in the northern hemisphere winter but this year he tried for ‘never summer’ and worked 89 days at Perisher in New South Wales. To save you a click, Perisher is located between Sydney and Melbourne. To save you another click, imagine that Sydney is roughly where Charleston in in the US and Melbourne is Houston. This would put Perisher someplace in the middle of Mississippi.
OK, see, Australia is like a potato chip with delightfully crinkly edges. Grrr, no, ignore that. Imagine that the entire country is a ribeye steak. Sort of a big oval’ish sort of shape but a little misshapen in places. Now, wrap that steak in bacon and pretend you love bacon. Everyone in Australia loves bacon but they horribly overcook their steaks (they don’t, by the way). Now given this analogy, the center of the steak would be burnt to a crisp but the outside edges would be crispy yummy bacon goodness. Because of this, everyone rushes to edges to enjoy the bacon but the middle of the country/continent/island is largely ignored except by a few tough folk that enjoy well-done steak.
My point is that we went to go fetch him and spend some time down under but like everyone that has ever enjoyed Australia, we stayed on the edges. It is a big country so we focused on nibbling the bacon on the eastern edge.
Also, Eric’s girlfriend Andie made the trip as well. She arrived before us and I am deeply confused about where they were before we arrived.
The flight wasn’t terrible on the way over. Jane and I had seats that were a step up from the ‘cattle car’ which just got us a little more leg room. I watched a movie and indulged in sleeping pills so I don’t remember much of the flight at all. We left on Monday and arrived on Wednesday. Jane kept saying that we missed Taco Tuesday entirely. I cringed the first time she said this to a Australian hoping that tacos were a universal experience and relaxed when the joke was well received repeatedly.
The Amora hotel in Sydney was nice–not very nice, but nice–and we upgraded to the “Jamison Club” (the hotel is on Jamison St.) which got us access to a breakfast buffet thing and evening drinks and tapas. We made friends with the wait staff and they were¬†extremely¬†attentive giving us “to-go” drinks after last-call on our way out. We only went to dinner once and that was to an Irish pub that served us individual meals that were frighteningly large.
We took a wine tour the second day and it was fantastic. I booked us a tour for just the four of us so we were able to customize and be a little more flexible. We saw three wineries in the Hunter Valley and a brewery. The beer wasn’t great but it was a delightful environment and turned out to be our favorite place. Saw a kangaroo in the wild which Jane, Andie, and I thought was super awesome. Eric was not amused at all by the kangaroo but thought our reaction was very funny.
On another day, we hit the zoo. It was also a great experience though involved lots and lots of walking. Almost all the animals were out including the pygmy hippo, platypus, wallaby, emu, kangaroos, and a whole big pile of extremely deadly things I am seeing in my nightmares. Lots and lots of walking, however. The zoo is built on a slope down to the bay. We took a ferry from The Rocks to the zoo port and then a gondola like thing up the hill to the entrance. Then we walked up and down the hill over and over. We were exhausted but it was the most rewarding zoo experience I think I’ve ever had.
On the third day in Sydney, we took a ferry to Manly Beach (which is named by some dude in like 1788 because the natives that he saw there was so, um, manly). There was much surfing but the waves weren’t great. I went body surfing until I was completely exhausted. I had also done an hour run that morning over the Harbor Bridge. I was so beat up that I had to take breaks on the way back to the ferry and the hotel.
They were between seasons there but the south was having a heat wave so the crowd was pasty pasty pasty white locals getting out to the beach for the first time this spring. Again, lots of walking.
Sydney feels very safe and though it seems expensive, the exchange rate was in our favor and there is no tipping. So, a burger, say, for $10 is actually $8 and only $8 (plus tax). We found it funny that Coors is popular here, considered an import, and costs $9 AUD a pint.
On the fourth day, we went to the Koala “petting zoo”. Eric and Andie had already been there but thought it was fun in a sketchy sort of way. The whole place is a little dated and could use a good power washing. Petting koalas and kangaroos was very fun. Cassowaries are awesome as well but a definite ‘no touch’ sort of bird. Basically they are slightly smaller than emus but look prehistoric with a big chunk of bone sticking out of their heads. I am not a bird person but cassowaries are freaking amazing creatures that look like crosses between dinosaurs and birds.
The other impression we had about Sydney at least is that people here are wickedly fit. During my run Sunday morning, there were “battalions” of middle-aged women in matching outfits running in loose formation, doing martial arts, in boot camp style workouts, etc. I am used to being the fastest and fittest person my age and I am having to step up my game.
Watching the news in Australia about Korea/USA was interesting. The attitude is less about concern as much as just shaking their heads wondering what is in the water in the northern hemisphere. I met with someone at the CoreLogic office a couple days in and joked about trying to get a transfer. He just nodded sort of like saying, “yeah, I can understand”.
A highlight for me was Sunday when I was able to swim in the Andrew (Boy) Charlton pool. It is located south of the Sydney Royal Botanical Gardens just west of Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair.
To backup a bit, everything in Australia appears to be named after or named by one of two people: Cook and Macquarie. Captain Cook ran into Australia by mistake and Governor Macquarie apparently brought some sense of order to Sydney at some early point in its history. Let’s say that was around 1800 or so. I don’t know and I’m sick of Googling everything. His wife spent hours watching the boats in the harbor from the point just south of the historic Sydney Opera House point. Macquarie had a ‘chair’ of sorts carved into the soft sandstone out on the point so his wife would be more comfortable.
Just to be clear, Australia is filled with folks that think a chair carved out of stone would in any way be comfortable.
Also interesting about Australia is that some questions are either never asked or simply ignored. Like, if you asked, “why did she like sitting on the point watching the harbor boats?” I am not sure if any Australian would have the slightest idea how to answer. I suspect the answer is that she bloody hated the place and kept hoping to catch a lift on the next boat back to England. Or she just liked looking at the boats. I think I did ask someone and they just looked at me like I had lost my mind.
The pool is apparently somehow connected to the ocean in a way that I didn’t have time to figure out. I was about four strokes in when I realized that I was in a salt water pool and this surprised me. After a couple laps, I had to adjust my goggles. Just a little water got in and my eyes were burning. Someone in the lane said, “yeah, it is a little salty today.”
It was VERY salty and made me bob like cork. I made it about 2km and then rushed to meet everyone near the Opera House for lunch. My kidneys were screaming and I was drying up because of all the salt I had absorbed. The beer at lunch was wonderful.
On our last day in Sydney, we did a couple odds and ends like hitting an actual Uggs store and swinging through the Museum of Contemporary Art. I had become familiar with an area under the Harbor Bridge called The Rocks on one of my runs and thought it looked historic so I hooked us up with a tour of The Rocks. I failed, however, to tell anyone anything about The Rocks in advance so Jane, Andie, and Eric thought we were going to go literally look at rocks for 90 minutes. Enthusiasm wasn’t super high and I felt like I was clearly being humored.
The Rocks, however, is where the first convicts were dumped when the First Fleet entered the harbor. Having lost the American colonies as a dumping ground for their unsavory types (read: poor people), Britain decided that it would be fun to try colonizing Australia with a big ole pile of slave labor.
The tour was actually very interesting and the area is trendy and awesome. We should have spent more time at the little shops, restaurants, and art galleries in this area. In addition, it is literally the oldest “civilized” place in Australia.
From there, we went to the airport to go to Cairns. That morning over breakfast we watched in horror two terrible atrocities befall us: 1) it was the first day of the two week spring school holiday, and 2) air traffic control at the Sydney airport(s) was without power. In other words, most of Australia was heading to the beach resorts (read: Cairns) and they were all sitting angrily in the Sydney airport(s).
The power came back after a couple hours but our flight was delayed a bit because of the mess in the morning. This was actually fine because we were stressed about moving all of Eric’s worldly possessions around airport. Eric and Andie ditched most of his stuff in a storage place at the international airport while Jane and I went directly to the domestic airport. Yes, two airports. Not connected except by an actual train that one had to buy a ticket for and stuff. It was a logistic challenge but the delayed flight let us breathe a little.
I was excited to fly two airlines I never get to fly–Virgin and Qantas–on this leg of the trip. I was immediately annoyed by the Virgin Airlines web site. The airline itself didn’t thrill me either but there was food and free adult beverages even in coach.
Also, lots of Asians. Lots and lots. Seemed like most but that was probably just my perception. I think most people were Chinese and didn’t either speak English or pretended very much not to. The airline did everything including the safety talk in perfect BBC English.
We got to Cairns around 11 PM and luckily were able to share a taxi to Trinity Beach which is maybe 20km up the coast. Eric had the forethought to call the Trinity Beach Club Apartments and explain that we were going to be very late. This turned out to be a very important call as I have no idea how we would have gotten into the unit if he hadn’t made the call and got the combination number to the funky wall-safe lock box in the lobby.
In Cairns, Eric became very important. He was the only person with a working phone and a working knowledge of how to make a call in Australia. He also understood the thickest of accents. I was spending an increasing number of conversations nodding and smiling politely trying to pretend I understood what we were all talking about.
I booked the apartment because two hotel rooms seemed unreasonably expensive. I don’t know why I chose Trinity Beach instead of Cairns itself but I think it might have had something to do with wanting to be more in striking distance of the Daintree rainforest. Trinity Beach was great, lightly populated, and just the right amount of mellow and relaxed.
The apartment, however, was in a concrete bunker of a building and laid out super goofy. The first bed was basically in the hallway between the front door and kitchen. In addition, it had three enormous flaws: 1) concrete bunkers are echo chambers making the place super loud, 2) the beds were harder than the concrete floors, and 3) the internet was awful.
Most of us–not me, of course because I have the sleep schedule of a two year old–got up late and we spent the day at the beach after having a light brunch sort of thing right near our place. I was supposed to do a couple of kilometers swimming so I asked the lifeguard where I could do that. Unfortunately, a crocodile had been spotted in the water the day before. After sizing me up, he pointed out that the croc was thought to be about 4m long and that I shouldn’t have any trouble. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to feel flattered by that.
Eric and Andie were in the water first and out of the water about as quickly. The water was the perfect temp but Eric claimed to see a string ray. With a definitive “nope” he was out. Andie got bored without him and the spent the rest of the afternoon turning lobster red in the sun. Eric’s pale flesh that hadn’t seen a minute of summer since August of 2016 or so immediately burned. Andie got red and then stood in the shade for a minute and turned instantly bronze. Apparently this is a magic trick she has mastered over the years.
I did get in a swim but was out of the water for only a couple minutes when everyone else also got out because of a ray. Eric apparently really did see a ray in the water. We didn’t believe him so he was feeling very vindicated. The sea creature was about a meter long but not a stinging type of ray. Once the identification was made, people got right back in the water. The ray, however, stayed by the shore for a long time seeming to play in the surf. Someone thought it was injured but I couldn’t tell. I thought it was on holiday and sightseeing along the coast just like us.
We found a “bottle store” which in Australia are often hidden apparently. With provisions in place, we tried to make plans for a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef the next day. However, thanks to the school holiday, everything we tried was booked. A guy running a kiosk on the beach who got a 20% booking fee kickback from the tour companies he works with performed a magic trick for us and got us on a very reasonable trip. He also hooked Jane and I up with a rainforest tour Thursday.
While I was doing business with the kiosk guy, the other three were enjoying refreshing beverages in an Italian place at the corner across from the beach. It took me a while to get everything put together so they were in fine spirits when we headed back to apartment to get ready for dinner. The other three ran out to get snacks while I fought with the internet at the apartment trying to get shuttles to the airport worked out. I failed utterly and completely.
Dinner was back at the Italian place where everyone had a wonderful meal except for me. I ordered the barramundi special which turned out to be a little too experimental. They took it off my bill and as we discovered later, the menu as well.
The reef trip started early but was awesome. We snorkeled at two places and Eric saw a turtle at both places. Andie and I were free diving but never figured out how to regulate the pressure in our ears when we went deep. The reef is dying so there were places where it was very sad to see but the first location was very colorful and had lots of fish. The second was deeper and had some clam shell like animals that were maybe a meter in diameter. They seemed friendly but everyone kept their distance.
On the way back, they did an activity they call the Boomer Net. It is a net attached to the back of the boat that you can hold on to and get pulled along as the boat cruises back to shore. The brochure made this look fun. The crew was quick to point out that the experience is strikingly similar to drowning.
They needed four or five big guys that were strong swimmers to hold on to the back end of the net as anchors. The person next to me asked if we weren’t really just trolling for sharks. He received no answer from the crew. On the count of three, we five all stepped off the back of the boat. We had been told to hold on as long as we could but that if we fell off, we would be picked up by a little boat with an outboard motor that was following us.
I should point out that the deep water between the reef and the shore is indigo blue. The water in general is amazingly clear and apparently the reef provides a natural filter. We were in deep indigo blue water when we stepped off the back of the boat.
It was a short second before the men at the back of the net realized that we were all going to have a terrible experience. Eric said I seemed to be getting the worst of it. I was second from the left and for whatever reason, could not stay above water. They told us that it can be easier to just hold on with one hand and that was pretty much my only option. Holding on wasn’t too tricky but breathing was definitely a real challenge.
A bunch of smaller people–kids mostly–got on the net and they sped the boat up. Eventually the kids would lose their grip and careen down the net between, over, or into the anchor people at the back. That happened to me twice. One of the anchor guys lost his grip. I asked if we could try to climb up the net back to the boat and they said, ‘sure’ so I did. I spent the next five minutes trying to get salt water out of my eyes, nose and mouth. I decided that every US politician who doesn’t think waterboarding is torture needs to anchor the Boomer Net for a while.
That night we ate near to our place at Trinity Beach at a place that served kangaroo and crocodile. Jane got the crocodile, Andie and Eric got kangaroo steaks, and I got a kangaroo curry. Everything was good. Kangaroo tastes like elk and is very lean. It requires skill to prepare and requires careful seasoning. I loved it. The crocodile was breaded (schnitzel is a HUGE thing in Australia) and tasted like chicken and though good, needed sauces to make it interesting. The drinks at Blue Moon typically came with sparklers.
Eric and Andie had to fly back to Sydney before Jane and I so, they left Thursday but Jane and I went to the Daintree Rainforest on a tour. The tour started with another animal habitat where we played with kangaroos and wallabies (small kangaroos) and Jane got to hold a koala. Then we drove the Cook highway north and listened to Geoff tell us how evolution works.
The Cook highway is really a beautiful drive. We were heading to Cape Tribulation named by Captain Cook because that is where all his tribulations began. Basically, he was sailing north up the coast knowing that the reef was to his right. What he didn’t know was that the reef which is 10 miles out at Cairns angles inland further up north. Things got hairy right around the cape.
The coastline is gently scalloped with long amazing beaches. No one is on the beaches. Miles and miles of beach and hardly any people or boats.
The Daintree is across a river that is crossed by a slow ferry. On the other side, pavement extends to Cape Tribulation but turns to nasty dirt road from there to Cooktown. On the north side of the river, there is no electricity and only sketchy phone service. Thanks to a bunch of hippies a long time ago, the area is massively protected and for good reason. It is the oldest continuously existing rainforest on the planet having been spared ice ages and other nasty planetary extinction level events.
We were taken to a place called The Cape Tribulation Beach House where we got lunch (kangaroo burgers) and walked on the beach for a bit. Then we took a stroll along a boardwalk through the rainforest and saw things like prehistoric plants, a four hundred year old tree, and much other exceedingly rare and wild stuff. No cassowary unfortunately.
After an ice cream stop on the way back, we did a river cruise looking for crocodiles but only saw a baby and a python. At one point, we were at an overlook and the guide pointed out the island where Steve Irwin was stung by the ray and died. He is still a national hero in Australia. I heard an Australian start talking about Steve Irwin on three separate days while in country. It was a slower day than the rest.
Jane and I hit the Italian place again for dinner. Eric and Andie eventually made it back to Sydney after having to deal with a flight cancelation. He made a taxi reservation for Jane and I at 4:30 AM the next day so we could make our flight. I had tried to make a reservation but because I had little internet and no phone, I was having no luck at all.
On Friday, we started the long trip back to Colorado. This started with a three and a half hour flight on Qantas to Sydney but to the domestic airport. Then we had to get to the international airport which was actually not too big a deal. Given a cup of coffee, it would have been easy. We were tired and lugging around baggage so it was trickier than it needed to be. The Delta flight to LA was only 13 hours and change on the way back but then we had a four hour layover at LAX. That was fine because of customs and whatever but still a little long. We ended up landing in Denver at 4 PM or so on Friday after having left Cairns at 6 AM the same day. We essentially crammed 31 hours of travel into 10 hours.
Eric summed it up by saying that you have to do a lot of math to be an Australian.