Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

We’re in my own personal WayBackMachine again (a.k.a. my travel journal), hiking the red-tinged wilds of central Australia…

July 23

What a great day! Yesterday we spent time with the Rock, today we survived the Olgas!

That grocery shopping trip yesterday served us well. For breakfast we all had coffee and tea, along with bananas, apricot bars, and yogurt. We pulled white plastic chairs out onto the concrete apron around the cabin and had time to hang out in the sun, enjoying each others’ company. After an hour or so of sun-dappled relaxation we decided a morning hike through the Olga Mountains was a perfect Sunday activity. (Eek, a mouse in the room! Must be part of our high-priced entertainment package.)

The Olgas are the other geologic protuberance on the plain, but aren’t as catchily named as the Rock. Our housekeeper popped her head around the corner at the exact moment we were deciding whether to go and put in a plug for the Valley of the Winds. This is one of the walks through the Olgas and we decided we’d be fools not to check out the path this woman called “indescribable.”


For the next five hours we hiked, scrambled, birded and panted through a gorgeous trail of red rock and almost voluptuous desert flora. The fauna (broadly speaking) weren’t bad either – I saw lizards and insects and tons of birds. As of this evening I’m the proud sighter of a handful of beautiful blue green black Port Lincoln parrots, a very chatty pallid cuckoo, and tons of delightful little zebra finches with orange beaks and rouged cheeks and striped tails. Outside right now I’m listening to the cries of wild dingoes in the desert.

The Olgas’ scenery was dramatic and varied, with changeable clouds overhead conveniently shielding our skin from the worst of the sun’s rays. Buoyed by the day’s beauty and the presence of three Snickers bars in my pack we opted for the full 7.6 km route.

It was a perfect day hike. The whole circuit took a lot longer than planned but the greenery and birds and interactivity of the place kept my attention. It was 1.6 klicks to the burnt-out tree, another kilometer to the lookout over both sides of the valley pass.


Winding down out of the lookout valley the trail hugged the base of the main “Olga” and swept through a sheltered but open plain. The next two kilometers led over low hills and down stream beds, past uprooted trees and wildflower fields. Two point four klicks from the car we found a rain-fed water tank and rested in its shade.

The water drew birds to the trees around the tank and dozens of zebra finches braved our presence for a chance to enjoy the wet concrete under the tank’s tap. I watched the finches chatter and flit around the water spout, waiting for us to release a few drops of the precious fluid to replenish their bath.


Five o’clock found us hot and tired back at the hotel, where we devoured the rest of our groceries. Bryan’s brie and salami were a huge hit with me, and everyone enjoyed the nacho cheese Doritos, leftover pizza, and roasted chicken-flavored chips. All washed down of course with vodka tonics from Bryan’s birthday bottle. A nice little happy hour, complete with sunset.

Back to our favorite restaurant. Between us we had the lamb, veal, lasagna, gnocchi, and of course more salad. I love being in countries where you don’t have to worry about water or fresh vegetables. We came home for a beer with the (one-man) band and closed down the Outback Bar at 10 p.m.

While I’ve been writing it has started and stopped raining. The drops sounded loud on the porch overhang and came down fast, but tapered off quickly. This is a very nice place, despite the price and lack of amenities and nightlife. I’ve always liked the desert, even with snakes and scorpions (and the fact that I like the East Coast smell of worms after rain because it tells me that the earth is alive). The desert is never as empty as it seems, and it’s full of survivors like the yellow flowering shrubs and pink-gray star flowers lining the paths today.

Tomorrow we move on to Sydney and true Australian winter. I’m looking forward to seeing what a city’s like here and to running water in my room. I also think, deep in my touristy heart of hearts, that it’s going to be damn cool to see the Sydney Opera House. There! I said it!

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July 22

“The Naked Days, or Night of Lattea”

Today is an Uluru day. We all piled into the wagon and drove the few miles to Uluru National Park. We bought three-day park passes and entered an area that looked just as dry and scrubby as that we’d just come from. The only access was by a two-lane highway rimmed with red dirt. The earth here is made of an iron oxide that practically glows, and the wetter-than-usual weather has kept greenery alive against the red backdrop. There are a surprising number of trees here for a desert, and the low shrubs are showing off a variety of colored flowers.

Pulling into the Cultural Center’s parking lot I saw that Frank Lloyd Wright’s got nothing on aboriginal architects. The Center was so integrated into the landscape that it was hard to even see. Red sand paths through low bushes showed us the way to a collection of low buildings with fluid walls and no visibly straight lines. The roofs were thatched grass held in rounded shape by discrete applications of chicken wire.

Smooth red brick blended into the landscape and framed native murals, which depicted the myths played out on the Rock. The great snake goddess who came here to avenge her nephew. The monster sent to kill a whole tribe. The waterhole guarded by a spirit with the power of life or death. All these things have left their mark on the Rock’s surface, and are recorded so that the natives remember Proper Way, or Tjukuru tribal law (I think that’s how it’s spelled). Do what the law says and all will be well. Step out of line and there’s no telling what might happen. Nothing good.

The afternoon perked up with the arrival of an aboriginal tour guide named Millie and her Anglo mouthpiece Megan. We joined the 3:15 tour starting at the Cultural Center and heard tell of the legends surrounding Uluru and how the locals lived before White Fella came to town. Megan, a white Aussie in her 30s, translated what Millie had to tell us about the lives of the spirits and the natives who remember them. Everything Megan said began with “Millie says that.” For a good while I thought that Millie was just for show and that I was witnessing a classic example of cultural appropriation. By the end of the tour, though, it seemed clear that Megan, while knowing her stories pretty well, was often prompted and corrected by Millie. Millie didn’t say much, but she was definitely listening.

The tour left from the Cultural Center and moved on to the Water Hole just next to Uluru. We were shown cave paintings that Millie explained as parts of The Law’s stories. The drawings, like those we saw in Kakadu, were the 10,000 year-old equivalent of a school blackboard. Elders would paint the walls and tell stories to educate children in the Proper Way. That was the way tribal custom and behavior was passed on, Millie said, in the “naked days” before the white man came.


Megan also produced a number of film canisters containing edible or medicinal plants used by aborigines. We all sat in a circle and everyone but Maureen tasted the offerings, at least until Dad found a chunk of glass in his bush plum. Where the hell did that come from? I kept looking and smelling, but didn’t taste after that. At the end of the tour Millie decided she liked our group and let us pose with her for photos.

We left the Center near sunset and had the perfect opportunity to stop at the Sunset Viewing Site just off the road. Of course, everyone else had the same idea. The sunset wasn’t much more spectacular than the one last night from the hill behind the hotel, but we were a lot closer. The Rock didn’t care if we could see purple and red highlights on its flanks, it knew there’d be other times, other sunsets.

Half an hour later, convinced by a quick visit to the other fancy restaurant that our first choice was the best, we sat down to a nice dinner. Bryan had oven-fired pizza, Maureen linguini with shrimp, Dad the creamy duck and gnocchi, and I had salmon with risotto and a huge Mediterranean salad. Two days of chicken nuggets and fries had pushed me to the edge and I wanted greenery bad. The cool green cucumber in my salad went beautifully with the Kalamata olives. We also tried the Clancy wine, a red blend of cabernet, merlot, shiraz and who knows what else. It was a big hit.

For dessert I invented the “lattea,” a cup of tea with hot foamed milk. (Ok, it’s a tea latte, but tell me lattea isn’t a better name:) It took some explaining but the waitress managed to translate my request into a steaming hot cup of delightfully restorative beverage. The perfect end to a fascinating day.

Red paint on sandstone
Through heat
and rain, through gods
and dreams


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I received a request for more travel writing (thanks for the positive feedback, folks!) and I’m happy to oblige. Fifteen years ago today I was still on my around-the-world-on-a-shoestring adventure and lucky enough to be in beautiful and fascinating Australia. (For more, and often hilarious, writing on this fine land, I recommend Bill Bryson‘s excellent In a Sunburned Country.)

July 19

Today was my first real day in Australia. I woke early and showered, then walked to a car rental place down the street and picked up a car. It’s a Camry with the steering wheel on the right (meaning wrong!) side. Weird, but fine once I got used to it.

I rescued my incredibly resilient brother from the jaws of the commercial aviation system, checked out of the hotel and started driving east. I took a left toward Humpty Doo and cruised down the Arnhem Highway. There aren’t that many roads up here so getting lost wasn’t as much of a problem as finding places to refuel. In these isolated parts the petrol stations are like souped-up 7-11s back home. They’ve got everything from gas to snacks to a lunch counter complete with short order cook. My brother bought an amazingly large and leaky hamburger with everything on it (we’re talking usual condiments like cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, ketchup, but also Thousand Island dressing, ham, pickled beets and a whole fried egg!). I had toast with peanut butter and everyone was happy.

It’s about three hours from Darwin to the Kakadu Park hotel where we were staying and I drove, pleased that being on the wrong side of the road was really no big deal. Keep left, look right, that’s my motto. I didn’t sweat it at all, except for that one time when I may have clipped a highway reflector post with the passenger-side mirror. Fortunately, both objects involved were spring-mounted. No harm done!

We pulled into the hotel mid-afternoon and found Dad and Step-Mo out by the pool. After halloos and stories, Dad joined us on a two-hour billabong boat tour where I saw two crocodiles, a ton of birds, and a sunset. I took many pictures. I was not eaten.Billabong

The road back to the hotel ran through scrubby trees and dense undergrowth, all of which exuded more elegance than during the day. The magnificent headdress of stars certainly helped.

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant (kangaroo isn’t so bad, really), drinks at the bar, then called it a night. I couldn’t stand to be behind in my writing anymore though, so I’m up and pleased to be back on track.

Spotted today: white parrots, a long lizard, three big monitor-type lizards with purple tongues (by the pool), a kangaroo (dead), big snake (dead), a wallaby (alive), biting insects galore, and the Southern Cross – beautiful!

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My new crush: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

What: Australian TV series set in the 1920s, featuring a murder-solving “Lady Detective”… which doesn’t really capture it at all:)

Where: Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Netflix (and elsewhere, including my public library, but Netflix works for me). Season 3 recently aired on Australia’s ABC TV.

Why? Because Reasons!

  • The series is based on the books by Kerry Greenwood, and because each episode (at least those I’ve seen to date) is based on its own book, the plot and character arcs tend to be layered and complex.
  • It features a woman (played by the fabulous Essie Davis, interviewed about the series on NPR) who is not afraid of action, bucking authority, family planning, sex, crossing racial or class boundaries, believes whole-heartedly in nonjudgmental good works, tolerance, and enjoying the hell out of life.
  • Great mix of characters and story lines, plus incisive social commentary incorporated in an interesting way.
  • I’ve seen the series described as “competence porn” and while I think the lead character could benefit from a few lessons on how to hang on to one’s pistol and the downsides of scaling buildings in heels, I’d have to agree. She always solves the case, rescues herself and everyone else, and gets the gun back. Also, her skills with a grappling hook are impressive.
  • The clothing gets talked up a lot in reviews of the show and while I’m not a fashion devotee, it’s true, the outfits provide a beautiful and fascinating glimpse into Jazz-age apparel. In this article at The Australian, designer Marion Boyce discusses the process of outfitting the series. Fun fact: Instead of using vintage items, most of the costumes were made for the show, in part because modern humans are differently proportioned than they were even a hundred years ago.
  • Insanely catchy theme song🙂


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Another one for the “make change” column, this time for the knitters among us…

From a news piece in Australia today:

Knitters Wanted for Penguin Pullovers

The Penguin Foundation has a global callout for knitters to make pullovers for penguins in rehab. Penguins caught in oil spills need the little jumpers to keep warm and to stop them from trying to clean the toxic oil off with their beaks.

If you happen to be a Ravelry member there is a free pattern all ready to go. Extra sweaters are used for fundraising and educational purposes.

/because you can’t write all the time

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I’m very pleased to tell you that my new story Catch of the Day is now out at SQ Mag, a delightful speculative fiction zine from Australia. This “tale of magical artefact smuggling, full of betrayal and twists and turns” is now freely available online. Enjoy!

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Dear Air New Zealand and Australia.com,

Please stop showing me perky web ads with weather maps of your fair region. I know that it is summer there when it is winter here, but you don’t have to rub my face in it. I know that my −24C is your +24C, but thinking about it makes me want to cry. I also know how lovely it is Down Under, how full of stunning vistas and sumptuous wines and delectable foodstuffs, and sigh as I peer over the wind-swept mounds of snow outside my window.


So please, please, Air New Zealand and Australia.com, stop rubbing it in. Have pity on a poor Northern Hemisphere-ite, and let me freeze in peace.

Yours in winter,

J.R. Johnson

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