Food, Art, and Home

July 28th, 2012 5:38 pm by Dave from here

Monday we got up at a reasonable hour, packed up, and headed back to the Cairns airport and onward to Sydney. We took a taxi to our next Airbnb site, a room in a 2-bedroom apartment, a 3.5-story walkup with our 50-lb suitcases. There was just enough time to shower and then to walk to Quay, the most stunning restaurant of the entire trip. Despite its being a view restaurant (the Sydney Harbor bridge and the Opera House were both visible from our table) and its having been around eleven years, it was really, really good. There was a choice between an eight-course tasting menu and a four-course ala carte menu. With each of us picking four courses, it became a less expensive but equally tasty eight-course tasting menu. The sommelier picked wine pairings for each course as if we’d ordered the official eight-course menu, and she explained each one and why she chose it. The most memorable dishes were the pig cheek with shiitake and scallops on top, the wagyu beef in a chocolate black pudding with crunchy grains on top, and the eight-texture chocolate cake. Their menu changes every so often, but there are many dishes which were made famous by their appearance on Master Chef, a very popular reality TV show — many clients come from South East Asia to have those dishes specifically, so they can’t remove them from the menu.

We noticed that Sydney was having a Biennale of Contemporary Art, so we decided to check it out. We started Tuesday at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which had Biennale exhibitions on two of its levels. On our way to the next venue, we stopped at the State Library galleries to see the World Press Photo winners for 2011. We continued on the free ferry to Cockatoo Island, Sydney’s equivalent to Alcatraz (it had contained a prison) where many pieces of industrial equipment and many empty industrial rooms were adorned by various pieces of whimsical art. One contained chains and other objects made of white Styrofoam in a rather colossal scale, reminding us of the room-sized Thomas Rentmeister piece we’d seen in Perth — we’ll have to send him pictures. One contained colorful circular paper constructions; at the end of the gallery you’d see how these could be folded up and would have the appearance of a machine gun, a handgun, or a bullet. One space was littered with letters, which the audience would arrange, refrigerator magnet-style. Eventually the sun got close to setting, and we caught the free ferry back while the catching was still good.

Architecture and industrial design are the true arts and nowhere is this more apparent than in a contemporary art exhibit in a factory space. Diligent people spent thousands or tens of thousands of hours imagining and designing these spaces and hundreds of thousands or millions of hours constructing them and populating them with beautifully proportioned machines; and some gal waltzes in and reversibly defaces them with a few yards of store-bought fabric (whose manufacture itself is a long art story) and writes three paragraphs about how she is exploring the space between Heidegger’s withdrawaland the Collective Mantra which challenges the Discrepancy of Art and Ideology in Aesthetics and Politics of Freed Time, and we are expected to pay attention to her and not to the room.

Grant Proposal Writing is also a true art.

There weren’t any post cards at the shop. Art is not serious unless there are post cards. I took instead, some free post cards advertising an entity I had never heard of, and whose line of business was completely unclear, even upon long examination. That’s really the best use of advertising dollars, isn’t it?

We met up with our friend Brendan from the old Opcode days, who took us to Vini, an excellent Italian restaurant in his old neighborhood which has a “regional dinner” every Tuesday. This week it featured the cuisine of Basilicata: the most memorable was the aroma of the braised pork, and the strength of the hard cacio cavallo cheese. Brendan sent us home on the train, and recommended not going to Kings Cross, the closest stop to where we were staying. The next day we read a news story about a murder there, so I’m glad we didn’t go.

We returned to Fiji for three more days relaxing with our friend Siral. We slept, found the one place in the area with an espresso machine, slept, snorkeled, slept, and saw a small zoo with pettable iguanas and brightly colored birds, including a peacock which was presenting. And did some shopping and more sleeping, and a bit of eating. Our flight back leaves at 10:30 on Saturday night, arriving at LAX ten hours later at 1:30 Saturday afternoon, and then at SFO at 6:30.

We had 43 hours of Saturday. We spent the first part of Saturday driving around Nadi and going to Siral’s house where they spent the afternoon drinking kava. It is always wonderful coming here and having the delicious Indian food cooked by Siral’s mother, but we always are the only ones at the table because everyone else is drinking kava and doesn’t feel like eating. Our flight left at 10:30 on Saturday night, arriving at LAX ten hours later at 1:30 Saturday afternoon. Customs coming into the U.S. was retarded but I’m not going to say anything more about it because it’s too easy to get on lists that instruct officials to hassle you. When we emerged, we found out the value of “reconfirming”: our flight to SFO had been renumbered and rescheduled for an hour later. Whatever: we got there at 7:00 Saturday evening.

Adam and Jenny picked us up at the airport and took us out for hamburgers. It was a fun trip, but it was nice to be home.

Unexpected Circumstances

July 28th, 2012 5:26 pm by Dave from here

The original plan included three nights in Port Douglas, snorkeling each of the two days. The replanning added two days onto the front; the place we’d reserved no longer showed up on Airbnb, so we’d reserved at a different place for the extra first night. Thursday we got up to Port Douglas, and went to the Port Douglas B&B, a delightful place filled with peaceful knickknacks, press-pot coffee, lots of books (and no time to read them). We discovered a birdwatching tour on the Internet, and signed up by e-mail for a full day on Friday. We walked three miles up the beach to town, which seemed awfully windy. We headed towards the office of the company we’d reserved snorkeling tours with for Saturday and Sunday, and had a chat about the weather. A high pressure zone around Sydney, with a low over Indonesia, was creating 30mph winds, and was expected to continue for several days. They expected that they would cancel our tours, and in fact both were cancelled as it turned out. Then we got to our hosts’ and TripAdvisor’s favorite Port Douglas restaurant Salsa at 5:30 pm and despite being fully booked they were able to squeeze us in.

The original plan was that we wouldn’t need a rental car. The new plan was that we would rent one, and when we were planning there were tons of cheap cars available. Unfortunately we didn’t get one at the time — by the time we got around to it, just a couple days before we arrived, they were all booked by people who had flown up for the winter school holidays happening from July 3-10.

The birdwatching trip was promising. Del Richards of Fine Feather Tours picked us up at 7:30, and picked up another guy who’d gone with him eight times previously. He had checklists printed out of all the birds in the area, and we saw many species right around Port Douglas. Then we headed northwest towards some small mountains and saw many more, just stopping in seemingly random places along the road and watching something on a wire or the top of a bare tree, or flitting around in a rainforest. By lunchtime we’d already seen over 60 species. And then Del got the message that his wife, who had been chronically ill for four years, had just died.

(Here’s how messaging works there: The other guest on our tour, who had been on eight of Del’s tours before, got a text message from Del’s daughter; and a barmaid running into the parking lot where we had just pulled up for lunch, simultaneously gave him the bad news. Modern communication has made the world a small town and Port Douglas was a small town to begin with.)

So that was the end of the bird tour, and we returned to move two blocks from the B&B to the place we’d originally reserved on Airbnb. It turned out to be a room in a 3-bedroom apartment rented by a young couple with a 3-month-old baby. I was wondering how much sleep we’d get, but it turned out the mother and baby were away visiting her folks, and we visited with the young dad who is a dive instructor for one of the local tour operators. Secure in the new place, we returned to town and went to Bucci, an Italian restaurant which squeezed us in around 5:30, and had a nice dinner of creatively executed dishes. Except that the barramundi was “off”. It tasted fishy, and not in a good way. Like freezer burn. We ate about half of it, and let the waiter know, so they wouldn’t serve bad fish to other customers. They adopted an attitude, saying that it was completely fresh and couldn’t possibly be bad. They didn’t actually taste our pieces to form their own opinion of what we were tasting — it was a little offensive when one of them suggested that we didn’t even leave enough of it for them to do that. The whole thing was kind of unfortunate — no effort was made to not charge for the fish, to comp dessert or anything like that. Americans are about the only ones who tip in Australia, so I took it upon myself to leave only TASTE YOUR FISH as a tip in this case.

Since the Saturday trip had been canceled, and we couldn’t find a rental car, we arranged a day tour up to the Daintree rainforest. It was nice enough — a drive on the road through the dense forest, a cruise up a river through mangroves with a few saltwater crocodiles sitting around as contracted, a walk on a nature trail incorporating both mangroves and rainforest. Lunch, ice cream, a swimming hole. Dinner at On the Inlet, a seafood restaurant which had good sashimi and a whole baby barramundi. That tasted just fine. We enjoyed talking to all the young waiters on Working Holiday visas from around the world.

The Sunday trip was canceled as well, and we whiled away the day in town. We thought we might take a little tourist steam train which only runs on Sunday; we didn’t quite find the south end of the line in time, and I imagine it would have been completely full anyway of people taking round trips from the north end. We walked along the track, and saw several cute birds and an impressive spider on its web. There was also a weekly junk market selling handicrafts, snacks, and a few other services like massage and fortunetelling. We walked up to the ocean lookout, walked past the super-expensive neighborhood containing mostly vacation rentals, bought some souvenirs, and arrived at the next restaurant, Zinc, slightly before it opened. We took advantage of their happy hour specials, and their early bird special that included a free bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The food was good, and the Working Holiday waiters were friendly.

The Red Centre Way

July 28th, 2012 5:18 pm by Dave from here

Thursday was pretty stupid. It got off to a bad start when the airport shuttle tried to actually pick us up at our hotel, instead of a block and a half away at the place their brochure and telephone agent stated pickups were supposed to happen. We called them and they got us in the nick of time. We got to the airport, checked our bags (there was a charge for the third bag which we didn’t expect), and flew to Alice Springs. Once there we made the incredibly bad decision to take the airport shuttle to pick up the camper van, instead of a taxi. We just missed the shuttle that was filling up, and had to wait until the next one filled up; after it left, it stopped at every place in town, leaving me off about two hours after the process started. And Alice Springs is a small place. So we ended up getting to the Ayers Rock Resort at 8:45 pm, well after dark. We saw one pair of kangaroos go bouncing across the road in front of us on the way, but fortunately night driving on that road wasn’t like near Exmouth, where some little kangaroo would hop in front of you every 10 meters.

Friday was much nicer. We got up a little late, went into the park, and spent most of the day walking all the way around Uluru, the name for Ayers Rock in one of the nearby Aboriginal languages. The rock is quite interesting close up; it has a couple of gorges you can walk into, and the entire surface all around has a variety of holes in it, many of them shaped like lips. After all the penis-shaped geology we’d seen on the trip, it was interesting to see something which was a little more female. Like lemmings we followed everyone to the Car Sunset Parking Lot, and took the official photographs of the west side as the sun set. There were no interesting shadows at all, and the colors didn’t really get intense red, they basically just faded.

There are some stretches of Uluru which are designated “sensitive sites” where you aren’t supposed to take pictures: the shapes of the rocks tell stories which are not supposed to be viewed anywhere else in the world. Also, you aren’t supposed to climb it. The government has announced that when fewer than 20% of the visitors to Uluru climb the rock, they will ban it for everyone.

This is a precis of civil liberties in a democracy. The government say they will develop Other Attractions. I am actually surprised that as many as 20% do climb it. The day we were there, the trail was closed due to high wind. We were well on our way walking around it, in the Buddhist-wise direction, before they opened the trail. We didn’t go back, but found our own ways to violate religious sensibilities.

Uluru is doomed. The alternative attractions, what might they be? ¨›The Uluru climbing wall? ¨› The Uluru Galleria? ¨›Ulurucoaster? Abos of the Caribbean by Disney? The whole park by Disney? ¨›Whatever it turns out to be, the Aboriginals will have been beaten again using their own superstitions as a club; just as happened when the government gave them back their land so that mining companies could work out sweetheart deals with dazzled corruptible elders without reference even to the rudimentary morality that rootles around the hedgerows of a parliamentary culture.¨›

Furthermore, the native people should be cautious about bruiting about their favorite water holes as sacred. One of these days the Aborigines will be converted to Islam, seeing how little the Christians and Secularists are doing for them, and then their Taliban will take it upon themselves to crush all idolatry but their own by dynamiting every significant cave in Uluru, if not the whole rock.

The practice of advertising one’s weakest point continues. The posters in the bathroom at Ayers Rock Campground and Resort advertising camel rides twice describe their camels as friendly and once as good natured.

Saturday was also really great. The other geographical point of interest in Uluru-Kata Tutja park is Kata Tutja, also known as “the Olgas”. Unlike Uluru, which is an immense sandstone rock sticking out of the flat desert, the Olgas are a series of conglomerate domes. We took the Valley of the Winds walk, which went between several of the domes with great viewpoints. We stopped constantly and took lots of pictures of rocks and plants, and watched flocks of zebra finches with their clownlike orange beaks. As we got back to the starting point, a honeyeater got about a meter away from Ray in a tree, completely oblivious or uncaring, and just posed for a few hundred clicks of the shutter. It was intermittently being chased around by another bird, who didn’t want his picture taken. I don’t know what they were fighting about since the other bird didn’t look the sort to be sipping nectar from a Grevillea.

Another walk went into another gorge between two of the Olgas, which had a pond which happened to reflect the moon rising into the gap between the two, which hopefully will turn into a nice picture somewhere someday.

On Sunday, after going into the park briefly to get some sunrise shots of Uluru, and returning to the Car Sunset Parking area in the middle of the morning to take pictures with nice shadows, we drove 300km or so to the Kings Creek Station caravan park and settled for an unpowered site as it was all we could get. This meant we couldn’t use the microwave or charge our phones, pad, and computer, and camera and GPS batteries. We did contract for a powered site for the next night.

Monday we visited Kings Canyon, going on the Kings Canyon Rim Walk. The canyon doesn’t cover a very large area, but it is impressively deep and narrow. We walked up along what we thought was one side of a box canyon, but it turned out to be a “box ridge”: the canyon actually twisted around the end of the ridge. One short side trail led to a viewpoint at the end of the ridge. Ultimately we crossed a bridge to the “outer” rim of the canyon, and another side trail went down into the “Garden of Eden” to a waterhole, which is the only water that currently constitutes Kings Creek. We’d already seen hundreds of pretty Crested Pigeons, but this waterhole had even prettier Spinifex Pigeons, which were just as crested but were a nice brown color. This part of Australia doesn’t really have wet and dry seasons, it just has cold dry and hot dry seasons. This season is the “winter vacation” season for schoolkids, and every place has been booked solid since the beginning of the weekend.

The plan for Tuesday was to drive back to Alice Springs in time for our flight back Wednesday afternoon. At Kings Canyon, a guy suggested seeing “Serpentine Canyon”. We investigated a little, and discovered a whole chain of places just west of Alice Springs called the West Macdonnell Range. We ended up going to Standley Chasm, a beautiful little private gorge and camping area about half an hour out of town. We arrived at sunset, quickly checked out the gorge, and then fixed dinner.

In the morning we had time to go on another walk in the area, and to see the sun shining in the gorge we’d seen the night before. We ran into the same entire tour bus of kids from Nazareth College in Melbourne that we’d seen in the Olgas. Returning the van was moderately uneventful, except that they pointed out that the ATM card I’d been using declined the refund of the deposit because it was expired. They manually typed in an expiration date for three years later, which worked. This time the shuttle was great — it was on time, and there was only one other pickup. At the airport, we watched a magpie lark flying around inside the terminal, and setting down in front of the door sensor in order to fly outside. We flew to Cairns, went to the Shangri-La Hotel, a super-nice place by the beach which had a last-minute cheap room on Expedia, and had dinner at Ochre, which had a reasonably interesting seafood platter. The waiter talked to us a long time about his work travel visa adventures. They all have stories to tell.

Travel by Train

July 28th, 2012 5:08 pm by Dave from here

Friday we headed to the Pinnacles Desert in Nambung National Park. There are a few sandy square miles there covered with small pillars, most between two and twelve feet high. It was a very photogenic area. We continued on to Perth, trying to locate a good place to eat, with some difficulty because every place was packed on Friday. We targeted a “modern Japanese” place which turned out to be completely full, but had a really good “modern Thai” dinner next door.

Saturday we returned the van, and took the MacBook Pro (whose screen had gotten slightly cracked early in the trip) to Perth’s large Apple Store, which was mobbed. It turned out not to be possible to get it fixed because it would have taken a couple days and we only had one day. We walked around downtown for awhile, and headed to the Perth Institute for Contemporary Art. An artist named Thomas Rentmeister had a small exhibition (“Objects. Food. Rooms.”) which was just opening; the most brilliant work was a six by thirty-foot area entirely covered with Nutella. German Nutella, which is thicker than the Australian variety. Another work was a huge pile of various white things; several people asked us to pose in front of it with our white beards. Yet another was entitled “Found Mop”. We posed in front of it American Gothic-style, and the artist took pictures of us there. We walked past the town carillon, a very stylish modern building, and back along the river.

The #1 restaurant in Perth on Trip Advisor was Amusé, and its website said there were no Saturday reservations available until September 3. We put ourselves on the waitlist anyway, and miraculously they called us back (on our US mobile) and offered us a slot. So we went there for dinner. It wasn’t cheap ($125, $75 for wine pairing, various extra optional plates). But it was stunningly good. About sixteen small plates were served to each of us, with interesting combinations of ingredients. We’d hoped to learn more about Australian wine, but much of their wine was European. It was all good. Our favorite was Australian, though, a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Margaret River area south of Perth, served with delicious lamb (chunks of tongue, something braised, and a medallion of some other part.)

The Indian Pacific Express is a train which goes from the Indian Ocean in Perth to the Pacific Ocean in Sydney. We took it to Adelaide, which is a two-night trip. It left on Sunday at noon, and was scheduled to stop in Kalgoorlie from 10pm to 1am, during which we thought we’d investigate the authentic Australian pub experience. There is also a tour there, advertised as 45 minutes, of the world’s largest open-pit gold mine, called the SuperPit. We figured we’d have plenty of time to have dinner in some pub, or the 24-hour restaurant, after the tour. It turned out that the train arrived late (though it still planned to leave on time), and the tour ran long. So there was no time whatsoever for dinner in town, and we really should have had it on the train. Except it isn’t really very good there. Probably wouldn’t have been in town either.

The signage in the dining car was kind of confusing, and we ended up missing breakfast as well. Remind me to send back the feedback form citing Paul as making a rude remark to me, the customer, in the context of complaining that they wouldn’t serve us breakfast. They would serve us prepackaged meat pies, but I wasn’t really in the mood. The peanut butter and honey sandwiches in our room were better anyway. The next afternoon we stopped in Cook, an “abandoned” town which serves as a fueling station for the train. The only other thing which happened on the train was that a pair of singers, Dave and Kathy Townsend, who also played accordion and banjo entertained the other travelers each night with traditional Australian songs. Some weren’t so Australian: they didn’t quite get the chords right for Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

The songs give cause to reflect on the casual gender pigeonholing that is still present in Australia and other non-Woodside places: Dave Townsend said he was going to sing a song about sheep shearers; “Everyone makes jokes about sheep shearers, you all know some right?” and some Australian made an affirmative response; and Mr. Townsend said, “Well let’s hear it, then,” and the audience member said, “There are ladies present,” which got the laugh it was intended to get, but I thought, Roy or Callum or Dennis would know what that means and be able to decipher it, but it would be deciphering the way they would read a street sign in an unknown Romance language, it wouldn’t be this immediate laugh-inducing recognition that it gets with a person in an older culture. I leave the Romanians out of this assessment; Romania is still that way and so is Colombia. Likely so is Tibi. It serves him well, in bed.

The business of a recognizing vs. deciphering deserves further deciphering. Riding in a van or traveling on a train affords me a lot of time to make meaningless distinctions between things. A book about Aboriginal Art said on the first page, that Aboriginal art was mostly the study of Ethnographers until about 1960, and then became the study of Artists, but was in this century being batted over to linguists because a lot of the drawings are now taken as pictograms.

I stopped reading there. I can’t read much any more. I have way more books than I have time for so I can’t be buying any, and I don’t have much time. I can read a book as far as the first really stupid statement and then I put it down; or maybe to the point where I am thinking faster than the book is writing, and I put it down for that reason.

This was a bit of each. They need to tell us the difference between a picture and a pictogram. So I will. The interesting quality of a pictogram is that it has to be deciphered; where a picture takes you immediately. There is a lot of the pictogram in medieval saint pictures and Soviet Podium pictures, and a lot of pictures in words, when you are such a good reader that you aren’t even aware you are reading. Do you often have memories where you don’t know if you saw it on TV or read it? Marshall McLuhan wishes you would stop.

Don’t try to read Marshall McLuhan now. I did a few years back, it was ludicrous.

Hearing pre-feminist jokes is a matter of deciphering, by now, I hope.

Apparently there was some medical emergency in the middle of the night in Port Augusta where someone was taken off the train, but I slept right through it.

We spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Adelaide. On Tuesday we had a nice breakfast, saw some astronomical photographs at the adjacent science museum, bought some chocolate, and then visited the art museum and saw lots of art by European Australians, and a bit by Aboriginals. We also went to the Central Market and got some cheese and salami for the upcoming continuation of the road trip. And in the evening we had dinner at Press* Food and Wine, where we ordered the “tasting menu” in which they would bring you whichever items off the menu they felt like bringing. It was an exceptional value: for $65 each we got six “small plates”, two mains, a side, and dessert. Of the nine savory courses, three did not involve red meat: the six that did were chorizo, merguez, anise sweetbreads, pork hock terrine with pistachios, hanger steak and pork belly. They also brought us several glasses of wine, and we were probably the most full that night of any night on the entire trip.

Wednesday we went on a tour of the McLaren Vale wine area just south of town. It was a cutely conceived tour, a “progressive lunch” with one course at each of four wineries: Maxwell, Wirra Wirra, Hugo, and Rosemount Estates. As usual, all of the reds were very young and just-opened, so they weren’t really so drinkable. I was feeling pretty sloshed by the end of the day. For dinner we went to Andre’s Cucina and Polenta Bar, where we could have had a similar tasting menu, but instead just had a few things. The most successful was the polenta of the day, with mushrooms and taleggio.

Special Guest: Buzz Aldrin

July 28th, 2012 5:00 pm by Dave from here

Tuesday we headed towards our next intended attraction, Shark Bay World Heritage Area. It was a fair distance away, and turned out to be mostly a driving day. The highlight was the town of Carnarvon, which had a NASA tracking station which was used in the Gemini days. We asked if it had a museum, and the answer was interesting: “Yes, but it doesn’t open for a couple days. Buzz Aldrin is coming out to preside at the opening. We’re spending $50,000 to fly him and his entourage out here.” We poked around the museum where things weren’t all quite set up, and looked at really old computer tapes and communication equipment that dated to before the invention of User Interface. There’s a little panel on some giant box that has a red light that says “CALL”, two quarter inch plugs with the label “TEL SET”, and a switch that throws between “CALL” and “BUZZ OFF”. This is where rocket science got its reputation for being hard. My iPhone has 34,000 times the capacity of the computer that took Buzz Aldrin to the moon, and it’s a couple of generations old.

There were also various objects which had fallen from space into the Outback, including a small Gemini fuel tank. Carnarvon Steel Supplies has built a replica capsule for kids to sit in and have their picture taken. Bob and Keith Brown from Carnarvon Smash Repairs generously donated the painting of the space craft, according to the sign.

The people who speak to you in the tourist industry moderate their dialect, but many of the others you meet can’t be understood, unless they are foreigners. Irish, Dutch, German accents, these can all be deciphered, but beyond Crocodile Dundee and GEICO lies an unintelligible wilderness.

The Australian and American languages are both descendants of English, but they were different classes of English, and they were mutually unintelligible in England even before the separation occurred. Our American ancestors were mad, but they were literate; they expressed ideas with an English so rich that it had words for more things than there actually are — the “elect” come to mind. The Australians, on the other hand, were drawn from a class of people for whom language was not even the preferred method of communication. They coshed each other and grabbed such victuals and organs as they wanted, and furthermore, the Australians are drawn from the least verbally expressive members of that class: the ones that got caught, could not explain themselves, and were transported.

Eventually ministers arrived but the original strain of Australians are still working in the mines out here in Western Australia. A guy in a gas station — petrol, I mean — was putting $665 of unleaded into an industrial crane (the stations in Port Hedlands have REALLY high clearance in their bays) and he started a conversation with me and I couldn’t understand a single syllable of what he said and I’ll bet a Melbourner would need translation as well. The people who put together the exhibit in the museum in Canberra ten years ago worrying over the loss of the Australian dialect — they need to listen to the ones who dig their Sub Zero refrigerators out of the ground and ship them to China for metallurgical polishing. They are thinking mostly of vocabulary. I heard few people on the whole trip say “G’Day” to me, or anybody else. One reference to “Waltzing Matilda” from a tour guide. The word “barby” appears in print commercials but the usual word seems to be “grill”.

There are benefits. The problem, for example, of going to sleep in a noisy environment is not the noise but the information. You hear one shoe drop and you want to hear the other. This is only a problem if you speak the language. Listening to loud, drunk, heterosexual Australians in a tavern immediately adjacent to a trailer park is not any more of a problem than sleeping in a stamping mill.

After our visit at Carnarvon, we continued driving and got close to Shark Bay, but stopped at dark at the Woomeral Roadhouse.

Wednesday we proceeded onto World Heritage Drive and went to the Hamelin Pond area to see the stromatolites. These are rock formations in the tidal area which, they tell us, are created by cyanobacteria. I was entranced by a bird call, three or four notes descending repeated endlessly. After an hour or two I was lucky enough to see the bird who was making the call: he had a distinctive crest. That made it easy to look him up: the chiming wedgebill, who was described in the book as making exactly that call. Continuing up towards Denham, we stopped at Shell Beach, a beach covered with millions of identical white coquina shells — a tiny bivalve. We also stopped by the side of the road to see various plants: what looked like a scattering of yellow tennis balls turned out to be some kind of squash growing wild. One of the things we’d hoped to do in this area was to see the dugong, the Australian version of the manatee. And by the time we got to Denham, it became clear that it was very unlikely that that would happen. The only other attraction there was dolphin feeding: despite the name Shark Bay, there weren’t really tours that take you snorkeling with the whale sharks like the ones we didn’t go on in Exmouth. So we turned around, drove back down World Heritage Drive back to the North West Coastal Highway, and continued south. We drove as far as we could before it got dark, which turned out to be a rest area with “24-hour stopping”. This was pretty cool, because it was free. It had a toilet, but that was all: no water, no showers, no electricity. Despite its rusticness, it was quite popular: there were probably thirty vehicles parked there.

Thursday we drove out towards Kalbarri National Park, which hosts various gorges on the Murchison River. We decided on an interesting destination for the evening, so we didn’t have time to explore Kalbarri as fully as one could: ideally one would have a 4WD vehicle to take on their 30km dirt road to the Window on the World. We didn’t, and settled for some nice roadside views, and a coastal walk along some incredibly eroded rocks. There were areas of “positive/negative”: a square foot would have one-inch “nubs” on it, and several adjacent square feet would have one-inch pits. Several formations looked like small stalactites: they turned out to have been formed by worms. It was a fascinating landscape. But it became time to press on to the Western Flora Caravan Park, whose owners are avid botanists and can tell you the name and detailed life facts about just about every plant on their large property. They host guided walks daily. At night we set up the telescope and had fun looking at various celestial objects like nebulas and globular clusters and just little star clusters. It was a delightful place to stay.

If you go to the Western Flora Caravan Park, don’t forget to slam the toilet seat down. It makes the most profoundly resonant boom you have ever heard a flimsy plastic toilet seat make. The bathroom itself is mission style architecture, real adobe.

Puttin’ on the Britz

June 18th, 2012 6:19 am by Dave from here

Thursday morning we got in touch with the local campervan agent in Broome. They didn’t have any of the small high-mileage Backpacker camper vans like the one whose engine blew on us. They gave us a Britz van which is SO much nicer. You can stand up in it. It has a microwave oven. It has a refrigerator instead of a cooler. (You have to go to a powered site every other day to recharge the battery which runs it.) It has a toaster and a French press. It’s a diesel Toyota and gets much better gas mileage, with a much larger tank, than the unleaded Mitsubishi we had before. It has 96000 km on it, instead of the 213000 km the other one had. Still, the old van had a couple advantages — it had a huge water tank, making me comfortable to stay by the road if that ended up happening. This one hardly holds enough water for washing dishes for one meal. The old van’s camp stove worked awesomely; this new one is harder to light. But it is built-in, and you get to cook inside; arriving after dark isn’t so much of a problem.

After screwing around in Broome for awhile, we finally got on the road and made it as far as the Sandfire Roadhouse. It has the best showers I’ve seen in Australia, powerful and hot.

Friday was another reasonably long drive. We stopped for gas in Port Hedland, which is a large town catering to the mining industry, and which you are warned against staying in in all the guidebooks and by all the tourists you meet. Our next destination was another rock art site near the town of Karratha, where we were also warned against staying. We were advised to stay in Point Samson, a nice little beach community between all of this heavy industry; from the beach we could see four tankers lined up waiting to take a load of natural gas to China. The line of ships reminded us of the Panama Canal.

On Saturday we drove a few kms to Karratha, got directions to the rock art site, and went there. Karratha turns out to be a major center of industry, both processing of natural gas, and transshipping iron mined inland onto ships headed to China. A train we passed on the way to the site had 240 cars; those trains apparently hold the record for both weight and number of cars. As we headed down the 3km dirt road to the site, we passed a major natural gas processing facility. The site turned out to be piles and piles of boulders, many dozens of which had various designs on them. Apparently there are 700 sites on the peninsula with similar collections of petroglyphs. There is quite a struggle between the natural gas industry and the aboriginals in this place, and one can easily guess who pays the government more. After a few hours scrambling around, we got back on the road and headed towards the Coral Coast, stopping at another obscure roadhouse with minimal facilities.

Sunday we continued on towards Exmouth, and on the way passed the first large kangaroo we’ve seen, in the form of roadkill. Poor thing. The smaller ones we’ve seen are pretty dumb, actually, dumber than deer. Little surprise so many of them end up feeding crows and eagles. We continued on to Cape Range National Park, the land component of the Ningaloo Marine Reserve, where we got in an evening snorkel and a green flash, and stayed at a nearby caravan park where we had the Sunday roast with a bunch of other old fogies. Monday we snorkeled three times in the park and saw another green flash; there wasn’t much live coral to speak of but there were many cute fish. (The place where you find really bright coral these days is largely The Past). It’ll be interesting to compare Ningaloo with the Great Barrier Reef.

At sunset, the road out through Cape Range is lined with kangaroos and wallabies of all sizes. Evolution is gradually winnowing out a detectable majority in favor of those who jump away from an oncoming car rather than toward it.

Another thing we did on Monday was to replan much of the rest of the trip: we were scheduled to drive from Adelaide to Cairns, stopping briefly to see Ayers Rock (Uluru). Now we are scheduled to fly from Adelaide to Alice Springs, where we will do a five night drive to not only Ayers Rock (staying longer there) but another nearby attraction called Kings Canyon as well. We’ll then return to Alice Springs and fly to Cairns. We’ll spend less time driving and more time “being there”. The saleslady at the camper van rental place seemed disappointed we were cancelling our trip. But “Awesome Campers” advertise 1998 model year vehicles, and after our breakdown, and upgrade, I’m actually kind of happy to pay a little more for a just-barely-luxurious late-model van from Britz.

This is the first camper van vacation we have ever gone on. It is instructive to learn what the issues are: French press, refundability, not blowing up the engine.

Next Service 288km

June 18th, 2012 6:16 am by Dave from here

The transit ended successfully, and we packed up and drove a short distance to Cooinda, where there was a sunset cruise on wetlands. There were several dangerous saltwater crocodiles, which is all that anybody wants to talk about to Australian tourists, and some pretty birds.

Thursday we did some serious driving, stopping briefly to go on a cute walk under a cliff face. Being under a decaying cliff face is as nerbous as being on top of one, but the only sign of geologic activity we were subjected to was a large pile of honeycomb attended by a bunch of angry bees. It had fallen from an overhang several tens of meters up. Unlike the honey that was oozing out of Boris’s walls back in the day, I didn’t try any. It was well attended. We stayed at Timber Creek, which was named 150 years ago because there was wood there. The trees are pretty small up at the top end.

Friday we continued the serious driving. We had been playing a game of Nim with our food, and we were down to three slices of bread and the shards of carrot between my teeth. In other words, we were ready for the Western Australia quarantine inspection at the border. A few km later on, we stopped at Kununurra and stocked up, and continued to Turkey Creek Roadhouse, the pick-up spot for our all-day tour to the Bungle Bungles. I suppose that Turkey Creek was named for Turkeys. It now goes by its Aboriginal name, which nobody uses. We stayed in an unpowered site, as usual, which in this case amounted to on-the-street parking. The street was a dirt road to no apparent place so it was a good investment on the part of the roadhouse to appropriate it as a rental.

Our all-day Saturday tour picked us up at 5:30am, drove three hours into the park, showed us Echidna Chasm, fed us lunch, showed us Beehive Domes and Cathedral Gorge, and drove three hours back.

The Bungle Bungles, now known as Purnululu National Park, are a small mountain range about 35×25 km whose most recent geologic cause was a meteor impact which caused cracks in the sandstone. Over the millenia, water carved out the cutest chasms and gorges. Echidna Chasm is to narrow in places to walk to without twisting sideways. The tour guide assured that the catchment for these slots is tiny compared to the ones in Arizona, and even after a downpour the water is only waist deep.

Much of the rock is covered with orange rust and black, with the parts that are submerged every rainy season in their original white. The iconic image of the Bungles is Beehive Domes, a series of striped domes at the south end. It is just as special a place as Bryce Canyon (and at the same times of day) but is shaped somewhat differently. A special shout out to our neighbor Callum for insisting that we go there.

We then had two days to get to Broome to catch our next two scheduled all-day tours. The distances between roadhouses and towns continued to increase — it really was 288km from Turkey Creek to Halls Creek. One needs to manage fuel carefully. Sunday we drove to Fitzroy Crossing, where there was another afternoon cruise on Geikie Gorge, part of the large Devonian reef which winds around much of the Kimberley, the northern end of Western Australia. The cliff faces had been eroded into fascinating shapes, and undangerous freshwater crocodiles sunned themselves. We learned about a fruit that looks like the squashes that grow wild near our house but actually are soft on the inside and taste like a combination of banana and passion fruit. We were warned not to eat too many due to their laxative effect. We stayed at the Fitzroy Hotel and Caravan Park, which is essentially a caravan park for the 1%. People had mysterious antennas, solar panels, and the fanciest imaginable caravans and vehicles to tow them. We felt pretty humble, one of the three vehicles in the “unpowered” area (another one was the solar panel caravan). We accidentally parked next to the dump site, further increasing the humiliation.

Monday we continued the drive. About 175km along the way, we heard a sound like a machine gun, and I brought the car to a stop. The guy behind us stopped and noticed oil coming out the exhaust and pointed out we’d likely blown a piston. He had a satellite phone, and we arranged to get towed. After 90 minutes or so, we stopped another vehicle with a sat phone, and they said that the tow truck was on the way and would arrive in 90 minutes. And, just over four hours later, an hour before sunset, it did — it put the dead van on the flatbed and drove it and us to Broome. We managed to get out an email in a small window of cell coverage asking the travel agent who arranged our tours to find us a place to stay, since we no longer had a van to park in a caravan park. Bill, the driver of the tow truck, allowed it was all right with him if we slept in the wrecking yard. That seemed a little down market after Fitzroy, caravan parks provide a lot: water, showers, toilets, the absence of junkyard dogs; it seemed it was prudent to get a hotel. Besides, tour pickups at a towyard? The travel agent booked us into the “Broome-Time Lodge”. (“Broome Time” is the town’s self-effacing name for the tendency of never arriving anywhere on time.)

I called the camper van helpline and told them that we’d be on tours the next two days and that we’d deal with the van replacement on Thursday morning.

Tuesday we had another all-day tour, with the same pattern — get picked up early (around 7am), drive a couple hours, see stuff, see the sunset, drive back a couple hours, get back too late for dinner. This one went around the Dampier Peninsula north of Broome. The first highlight was when the vehicle’s fan belt broke, and the radiator broke off all of the fan blades. Miraculously, a shop near where we were was able to put on a new belt and fan, and we continued with a slightly abbreviated version of the tour. We had an hour to see the town church, with its mother of pearl altar which has some local fame.

The second highlight was going mudcrabbing. We picked up Vince, a local Aboriginal, who led us out onto this tidal plain and into these mangrove forests. It was a fascinating landscape — you could picture roots under the ground which sent up tiny little shoots, which is basically what we were walking on. Mudcrabs tend to hang out under the rather horizontal trunks of mangrove trees, and the group (not us) collected about six crabs altogether. We returned to the bus, Vince threw the crabs onto the fire, and we feasted on them as well as the normal tour lunch. The rest of the tour was fairly perfunctory, but we saw a nice sunset on the beach. No green flash though.

Wednesday was yet another all-day tour, though a larger group in a larger vehicle. We went to Windjana Gorge, another part of the Devonian reef, where we saw some beautiful birds and many “freshie” crocs. The signs pointed out the fossils in the reef. Then we went to Tunnel Creek, a cave walk where we walked through up to two feet of water. That was a blast.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been more expensive in the end to have rented a 4WD vehicle and driven to those places ourselves, but it’s hard to find places that will let you take a rented 4WD vehicle into the Bungles.

Coarse Art and The Transit

June 5th, 2012 7:20 pm by Dave from here

Monday we drove into Kakadu National Park, where there was still time at the end of the day to go to Ubirr, one of the main rock art sites. Aboriginal rock art there ranges from 20,000 years old to the present; some of it was restored in 1964 by “Barramundi Charlie”. They are serious about not taking the artifacts seriously — it was performance art in 20,000 BC and it’s performance art now. Many of the drawings are of fish and other animals: one of the galleries was apparently used as a teaching guide for fishing and hunting. A ranger being followed by an educational film crew gave a talk about about the art, and we saw a sunset from a nearby lookout.

Tuesday we had time to explore the Nourlangie art site. In addition to drawings of fish, there were various spirits, and even some hands reminiscent of Cueva de las Manos in Argentina. Some of them were making gang signs as well — the three fingers held together in the center, and the outer two spread. On the way to and from Nourlangi, we stopped at an overpass and watched egrets fighting, bee-eaters foraging, cormorants drying their wings, some spoonbills and many ducks hanging around, and a few mighty Jabirus wandering around and plucking things out of the water. The day was annoyingly cloudy, a little concerning on the eve of the transit of Venus. Many of the previous cloudy days were described as “clear” on all the weather sites, but at some point we finally got a site to admit that it was “cloudy” in Darwin, though it was expected to be clear later.

And indeed, on Wednesday morning, it is gloriously clear, and we set up the telescope and have been watching Venus move in its orbit across the face of the sun. We have heard stories from many fellow travelers as they have come by to look at the sun. Whenever we lose the sun it takes fifteen minutes to find it. Fortunately, the transit moves at a more stately pace than a lot of occultations we struggle against.

Turtles and Fine Art

June 5th, 2012 7:12 pm by Dave from here

Our final morning in Darwin was spent buying some snack food for the car, and visiting the beautiful Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which featured a fascinating exhibit on Cyclone Tracy, which wiped out Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974. We went to a fancy restaurant for lunch, since there won’t be any more fancy restaurants for weeks. Then we headed to Nauiyu, home of the Merrepen Arts and Sports Festival.

The Merrepen Arts Festival has a hundred or so oil paintings by local Aborigine artists for sale, ranging from $250 to $3500. They were shown for inspection, and offered for sale Sunday. A few will be auctioned. There were also many pretty fabrics and silks for sale. The sports aspect of the festival is happening continuously on the local football field. We didn’t really know what game we were watching; it turned out to be Australian football, which has a ball shaped like an American football, no markings on the field, and completely different rules.

In the evening there was a concert, featuring some fire dancers, Leah Flanagan from Darwin with her band, Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier from Melbourne and local favorites the Emu Sisters. Deborah Conway was the hit, with interesting lyrics and great mandolin/steel guitar/guitar work by Mr. Zygier. The Emu Sisters aroused lots of enthusiasm, but they basically alternated between two songs about three times, and were a little tuning-challenged.

Sunday morning we went to the art sale, were disappointed to see that the $550 work we wanted was immediately snapped up, probably before the shopping spree officially opened, and arrived at the $950 work we wanted, a depiction of barramundi caught in nets, simultaneously with a Polish expatriate who was kind enough to let us have it. Afterwards we walked over to a fire pit where some elderly Aborigines were cooking two wallabies and two turtles. We watched them open up the pit and start slicing open the critters. We got to taste some turtle liver and a turtle egg, as well as a little meat from turtle and wallaby. Also the local version of bread, which they called Damper. Also a plant they called Yams, but it has nothing to do with anything we or any other culture calls yams, being a kind of spiny tuber. It tastes like potatoes.

In the afternoon we drove north to Litchfield National Park, where we saw “magnetic termite mounds”: a species of termite makes very thin mounds which are on a north-south axis to minimize exposure to the sun. Seeing a whole field of them aligned was quite interesting. Most of the other mounds we’ve been seeing are more generally cylindrical, though some are twenty feet tall. We also saw three cute waterfalls, but it was a little too late in the day to go swimming, and there was also the issue of not having the campsites fill up. The National Park camps don’t take reservations.

Getting on the Road

June 5th, 2012 6:59 pm by Dave from here

We arrived at the Paravista Motel around 1:30am. The management had left our key in the mailbox. After a few hours of sleep we caught up on our laundry, left our luggage, and headed out to pick up the campervan. We returned to the motel, picked up our luggage, and had a long conversation with the proprietor. He had been a bouncer and is now a corporate counselor. All about the Uninformed Subconscious and Auditory Visual and Kinaesthetic types. The most helpful innkeeper I’ve ever met. He told us where to go shopping for the things we needed, including a replacement CamelBak nipple: ours had somehow come off. It was $14. I also got a domesticiPad SIM card which seems like a better deal (4GB for $30) for data than our AT&T international data roaming plans, assuming we can find enough Vodafone (in Nauiyu all we see is Telstra).

He also said that he had had to get an airport issued last minute visa to go to the United States a few months ago, because the US also now requires pre-issued visas of everyone, even rich white people.

The Australians are nothing if not rich, but tan. The campgrounds here cost as much as a Formule1 or Motel 6 in the Northern world.

After a nice dinner in downtown Darwin (Indonesian steam-table food), we headed to our first campground nearby, where we learned that the office closed at 7pm. Some guy took us to a site anyway, and we settled in for a warm night.

Rest Stop in Fiji

June 5th, 2012 6:48 pm by Dave from here

One of the benefits of having been delayed 15 hours in Los Angeles was that our flight happened in the daytime, and we were able to get a proper night’s rest beforehand. But this meant arriving around 8pm, followed by a three-hour drive at night after our eleven-hour
flight.

We spent three days at the Pearl South Pacific Resort in Pacific Harbour on the south coast of the main island of Fiji relaxing with our Fijian friend Siral. Much of the time was spent geeking out — we handed him down an iPhone, and bought him an HP netbook. We drove to Suva to get a wireless modem for the netbook (people in Fiji don’t generally have wired broadband connections to their house). We also visited the Immigration Office to check progress on Siral’s passport: they are expecting a shipment of 40,000 blank passport books “next month”, though it has been “next month” for more than a year now. How does a country get so out of control of its own passports? They must be in arrears to some printing company.

We decided to drive back to Nadi through the mountains instead of along the coast, on a road clearly shown on the tourist map. Like many such adventures, the road shown merely in white on the map, instead of yellow, started out being a perfectly nice paved road. The one we turned onto was a “good gravel road”, which was supposed to go through the village of Nabukaluka. We saw the road up ahead failing to cross a river, and started seriously doubting the map. People we asked had different opinions on whether the roads on the map existed; we tried another road and it quickly became too challenging for our little Toyota Vitz. We had to turn around and drive back to Suva, and then back to Pacific Harbour on the coast road. It was such a disappointing experience that I had fast food and drank Coca-Cola for the first time in several years on the way back.

The hotel tourist office suggested many possible activites, including jetskiing, tag lining, and skydiving. When I expressed interest in something less extreme, like walking along the beach, I was warned of the dangers — some stray dogs hang out around the beach and I could be bitten. My walk turned out just fine, but some big blue jellyfish washed up on the shore probably indicated why no one was swimming in the ocean. They also had several kayaks one could borrow and paddle up the river in; the first one Ray tried had a crack in it which made it immediately fill up with water and sink. We found a couple ones which were intact and had a short but very peaceful paddle on the river which runs through the upscale housing development there.

We returned to Nadi, had another delicious Indian meal cooked by Siral’s mother (and a kava ceremony — more kava than ceremony; they are Indian and not Fijian — with his father and brothers), and headed to the airport to fly to Darwin via Brisbane, two four-hour flights on 737s. The second flight had individual seat-back displays of 24 channels yet nothing on. Even the map channel was three-fourths advertisements. Virgin Australia.

We were lucky to get on. Without my knowing it, Australia started requiring pre-issued visas about five years ago. The guys at the Virgin Australia desk checkin desk put on frowny faces and typed furiously into their bad airplane user interfaces and issued us boarding passes. It seems they had got us visas on line. So far as I know, no money changed hands.

A Slow Getaway

May 24th, 2012 9:35 pm by Dave from here

A journey of ten thousand miles begins not only with being the only people in New Mexico who got clouded out of the annular eclipse, but also by having our flight connection from Los Angeles to Fiji delayed by fourteen hours, so far. When we got to the Air Pacific checkin counter, there was a large mob and the departure board indicated that the flight was delayed from 2330 to 0820 the next morning. As we stood there watching, it moved back to 1330. A line wrangler with an Australian accent said that a flap on our designated airplane wouldn’t retract when they left Nadi, and they went back. It isn’t perfectly clear that they’ve taken off yet. It’s best to be sure that your flaps are retracting. Our luggage is checked through. We bought a set of toothbrushes and toothpaste at Walgreens for $1.99. The Hacienda Hotel has meal vouchers for delayed passengers printed up already. It’s clear that they cater to this market segment.

We did not use the dinner voucher. We had sushi with Rob and Maria and Nico. They live in Manhattan Beach. That is a real treat. Truthfully I don’t like 20 hour travel days. I divide up flight with nights when possible. And this seems to have been done for me, though if the agent in SFO would have told us the air pacific flight was delayed, I wouldn’t have checked the bags through.

Welcome!

May 17th, 2012 3:20 am by Dave from here

We will be traveling around Australia for most of June and a bit of July, stopping in Fiji on the way and on the way back to see our friend.  On June 6 there will be a transit of Venus which we will watch; the rest of the time we’ll be driving around and checking out Australia’s scenic beauty.

Before we leave there’s another quick trip to Santa Fe to see the annular eclipse.

We’ll do our best to let you know what happens.  There might not be that much Internet in the outback.