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March 05, 2001

The Land of Oz: Brisbane to Melbourne

After safely landing in Australia, land of the Ozzies, I began to work my way down and around the coast towards Melbourne via Sydney. Alternating between costal beaches and mountain rainforests and prairies, I encountered a diverse crowd including holiday vacationers, cowboys, and Aquarians. Along the way I encountered many fruit bats, finally sheered a sheep, picked up a quality didgeridoo, and lazed on a nude beach.

The first thing I did upon arrival in Brisbane was investigate how to visit the Australia Zoo, home of the Crocodile Hunter, a.k.a. Steve Irwin. Many of you might be familiar with this guy's antics on the Animal Planet, wrangling with deadly reptiles such as crocs and highly venomous snakes. His over-the-top enthusiasm seems genuine, and he is one of Susan and my favorite people to watch. With this in mind, I had hoped to catch site of the man himself, since he lives at the zoo. I took the train up to Beerwah, the nearest town, and took in the zoo. Unfortunately, Steve was not there since he is currently filming a documentary; however, he does still do croc demos on Sundays when he is around. I did see a couple of the animal celebrities from the show, including the irritable Agro the crocodile, and the ancient Harriet the Galapogos land tortoise. Agro is the one who has destroyed something like four lawnmowers on his premises, 'defending his girls' as Steve might say. Harriet was brought over to Australia by none other than Charles Darwin himself, on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1835. She is over 170 years old, and still going strong. The zoo is very well done, and the croc demos are spectacular. In the demos they hand-feed the crocs -- one announcer running around doing the commentary and feeding, and two or three spotters distracting crocs and keeping an eye on the dominant crocs to make sure they do not catch the announcer by surprise. It really is an astonishing thing to see a sixteen foot crocodile lunge out of a pond and devour a wild boar skull right out of a scrambling handler's hand. Just as an aside, I also really enjoyed the Tasmanian Devil display. It was the first time I'd seen these critters up close, and as I watched a couple of them were involved in a vicious tug of war with the thigh bone of some goat. Not bad for a marsupial.

I spent a couple of days exploring Brisbane, which is a nice city that still seems to be finding an identity. The river that winds through is the centerpiece, and a fine way to get around town on the ferries. I suppose I should have realized this beforehand, but the east coast of Australia is full of fruit bats, even in the cities. Walking around at night, you could see flying foxes with three-foot wingspans carousing in trees above your head at restaurants. I thought this was great; they remind me of those huge bats in the second Indiana Jones movie that get caught up in Kate Capshaw's hair. I digress. At this point I really had no idea of where I'd like to stop between Brisbane and Melbourne (other than Sydney). So with a shrug I decided to take the Oz Experience bus down to Sydney, at least. This is one of those psuedo-tourist bus trips that take you to some pretty obscure places along the way, allowing you to hop on and off any time you like. As with the similar services in New Zealand, it's not a bad way to get around if you can handle actually being on the bus in between stops.

The first area we passed through is known as the Gold Coast, and features beautiful beaches with white sand (I hear north of Brisbane, up towards Cairns, has spectacular and popular beaches, but I did not venture up that way). The Gold Coast, unfortunately, is very commercialized with an economy very much aimed towards holiday vacationers. With tacky tourist shops everywhere and McRestaurants on every corner, I could have sworn I was on the Gulf Coast of Florida (sans rednecks). Nevertheless, the beaches are indeed beautiful, which explains the popularity of the place. I did not linger.

From there we ventured up into the mountains towards a fascinating little place called Nimbin. This little town was the epicenter of the 1973 Aquarius Festival; it had already been a center of counterculture before the festival, but many of the people that attended the 1973 festival never left. The town itself is very small, with perhaps a few hundred residents. The surrounding hills, on the other hand, host several thousand alternative types that enjoy the free, back to the earth lifestyle. You can find everything from individualists to co-ops to communes in these hills. With their enlightened views on social dogmatism and personal responsibility, there is also a preponderance of drugs (mostly marijuana) in the community. The existing drug laws of Australia are largely unenforced in this region. Though from time to time you might see examples of more problematic drug use (such as heroin), for the most part the populace is extremely friendly, laid-back, and get along quite well without governmental interference. This is a good thing, because if the government decided to interfere it would involve the forcible removal and incarceration of thousands of people lodged up in the surrounding mountains.

The vegetation in this region is rainforest, unless it has been cleared for farming macadamia nuts, coffee, or marijuana. I was thrilled once I found out that the rivers and creeks in the region harbor duck-billed platypus. Despite a couple of scouting missions, I never saw one of these critters in the wild. They are nocturnal, and unless you head out in the middle of the night with a flashlight, the only potential viewing times are at dusk and dawn. Ah well.

I only spent one night in Nimbin, where I went to the local theatre located in a converted cheese factory. Here I saw a really great Indian film called "The Terrorist". Following the activities of a hard-core terrorist, the tale concerns itself with the affirmation of life. The cinemaphotography is brilliant; apparently, it was the directors first film and he completed filming in only 14 days. I don't know if it will hit the independent circuit in the states, but if it does, check it out.

After Nimbin, we headed back out of the mountains to another popular beach area, Byron Bay. Despite its popularity, Byron Bay is heavily influenced by the surrounding counterculture in the mountains. They have no fast food restaurants and overt commercialism in the area, despite plenty of places vying for tourist dollars. The beaches are beautiful and liberated. Still not much in a beach mood, however, I did not linger here either. I headed back up into the mountains to fabulous little alternative town called Bellingen.

Bellingen is still in the fold of the alternative lifestylers of the region, but tends to harbor more artists and craftsmen. It's a beautiful little town, surrounded mostly by ranches in the hills. One claim to fame for the town is that it's the home town of David Helfgott, the riddling musical genius portrayed in the movie Shine. The hostel was very comfortable, and I decided to hang out for a couple of days. The next day I headed out to Bundagen, one of the nearby co-ops, with some of the folks from the hostel. Greg, one of the managers at the hostel, has befriended this community and frequently takes these trips. The main attraction is a beautiful private beach with fantastic surf. The co-op itself is a collection of alternative types that sort of live their lives doing their own thing. It's nothing like a commune; it's more like what you get when a bunch of Aquarians decide to put together a neighborhood association. They have a bunch of rules and meetings, but certainly not the sort you would ever see in suburbia. Anyway, we were there for the beach, and the Bundagens are not very big on swimwear. When in Rome, I say. Despite a warm rain, I spent most of the day naked body surfing in the waves, having a fantastic time; we pretty much had the beach to ourselves. Afterwards we had some vegetarian pizza up at the weekly BBQ and market, mingling with the locals (no, it's not a nudist colony, that's just on the beach). They are very nice folks who seem well content.

Back in Bellingen I paid a visit to a local didgeridoo shop. This guy actually runs most of his business on the internet (http://www.heartdidg.com) and has chosen Bellingen as his headquarters. He has some of the best made and beautiful didges I've ever seen. I signed up for a lesson the next day; that night I spent around a fire at the hostel playing drums and didgeridoos that they keep around the premises.

I should say that sunsets are amazing at Bellingen. Nearby in the river is an "island" (more like a big embankment) that hosts a colony of nearly 40,000 fruit bats. Every sunset they head out for their nightly feed, and stream out overhead, away from the setting sun, until it is too dark to see them. Wonderful sight, that. During the night, the bats can also create quite a racket up in the surrounding foliage as they scramble around for dominance, food, or both. Also, I was particularly fascinated with the chickens they had running around at the hostel. They are Chinese Silkies, and are these amazingly fluffy, almost furry looking, chickens. I was always catching sight of the Chooks, as they call them, and chased a couple of them down periodically just to get my hands on them. If I ever own any chickens, I will require a few Chooks.

The next day I hired a bike and set out for the nearby town of Glennifer, which I had heard had some sweet swimming holes on the interestingly named Never Never Creek. Along the way I made a detour and hiked out onto the island that hosts the fruit bat colony. During the day the colony, forty thousand strong, roosts in the rain forest there. Stepping through the ever-present guano, I was surrounded by the ever present chattering of the flying foxes. They look so intelligent, looking quizzically at you as you pass underneath; they really do look like foxes in the face. During this walk, I also stumbled across a five-foot long goanna lizard (monitor) slithering up one of the trees. I got as close as I could and observed his progress for a while; I don't know if goannas go after fruit bats or not, but the bats up in the tree were making far more noise than normal, and never let up. The goanna eventually stopped on a branch and I never saw him move again before I gave up and left. I'm not sure if he was sunning himself or if he was hoping the fruit bats would forget he was there; little chance of the latter, based on the noise.

So I continued my ride out to Glennifer and found Never Never Creek. This was a very refreshing little river that had some gorgeous swimming holes. One of the holes had a big rope swing on one bank that I used with vigor. The water was surprisingly chilly considering the hot day, but the chill rounded out the heat well. After I returned, I took my didge lesson with Tynon, the proprieter of the shop I mentioned earlier. He taught me a few tricks that I had not stumbled upon already, and I ended up walking out of the shop with a brand new didge in the tune of C. It's lightweight and has a sweet sound, so I figure I will travel with it for a while at least.

I hopped back on the bus the next day, and ended up at a really insane place, the Dag Sheep Station. This place is a fully functional cattle and sheep ranch that also caters to travelers passing through. The ranch hands are a riot, Australian style cowboys full of humor, piss and wind. Some of the older shearers looked like they had been on the job for a while, wiry and sporting permanently hunched shoulders. I got to see them working the sheep with their dogs, which were underfoot everywhere. It seemed like every person that worked on the station had about two or three well trained shepherds (I forget what they called them, but they are a cross between Australian shepherds and dingoes). Afterwards I checked out the shearing shed where I got to hop into the fray and try my hand at shearing a sheep. This was just plain fascinating. They drag these sheep around like sacks of grain, flinging them to and fro, and the sheep just sort of stare off vacantly during the whole thing. I think you have to present yourself as a predator of authority to elicit that kind of behavior from a sheep, because if you are like me and hesitate a little when handling a sheep, they kick around quite a bit. Anyway, I got the hang of it and sheared some of the less delicate portions of a sheep. As it turns out, a 'dag' is basically the dingleberries that form around sheep butts. At some point in the season, the sheep get a 'bikini cut' which clears away the wool around their face and backside; this turns out to be important since flies can nest in the shit-encrusted nether regions and cause all sorts of complications that will end up killing a sheep. Well, those of us that were observing the shearing became very familiar with the dags since when the shearers noticed us watching they started throwing dags at us whenever they became available ("Here ya go, a little something to take home, Mate!").

They tend to party pretty hard at the Dag. That night we had a fantastic ranch-style roast lamb slowly cooked in cast iron pots, followed by many beers at the bar. At some point I had a go with Curly, the bucking sheep. Well, it's not really a sheep. It's a barrel suspended from the ceiling by four ropes; each rope has someone yanking on it, doing their best to dislodge you from Curly. I lasted something like three or four seconds; not too bad, but not spectacular.

After the Dag I continued down the coast to Sydney. Sydney is every bit as beautiful as everyone says it is. The harbor bridge and opera house are truly impressive. I spent most of the day wandering around down on the harbor, trying to come up with ways of photographing the opera house that millions of other photographers had not already tried. I stayed in an area known as King's Cross, an interesting mix of upscale trendy restaurants and clubs along with sailors from the nearby naval base, streetwalkers and strip joints, and popular bars. The next couple of days I explored bits of the city, including the Sydney Aquarium. The displays were very good, including some "oceanariums" that involve submerged tunnels in the tanks. These were nice, but not as nice as Kelly Tarlton's over in Auckland, NZ.

Sydney marks the point where the east coast starts to become the south coast of Australia. Heading out of Sydney, my bus made what was supposed to be a brief stop at a wildlife refuge and beach called Pebbly Beach. Here I got to get my hands on some wild kangaroos, and with the help of some sunflower seeds got some of the native parrots and other birds to land on my arms. The beach itself was pretty and I got in some body surfing (with a suit, this time). Unfortunately, so did our bus driver, and the waves at some point dispensed with the bus keys that he had forgotten in his swimtrunks. We eventually managed to get a locksmith out to the bus with the help of a forest ranger, and he replaced the ignition. I spent the time playing didgeridoo and juggling amongst the kangaroos. Once we were on our way we arrived that night at Canberra, the specially built national Capitol of Australia. It's a pretty interesting city, geopolitically set up in a similar fashion as the D.C. in the States. Unlike D.C., there are hardly any people in this city. It is very nice, though, and I took in some great views of the place, but eschewed sitting in on a parliamentary session since from what I could gather from glances at the television, these sessions mostly involve heavy ranting. Even worse than our own politicians, if you ask me.

The next day we headed up into the Snowy Mountains, following the fabled Snowy River. These mountains are very pretty, but not as craggy as I expected. They have been weathered down quite a bit; you do get some elevation, but not necessarily extreme slopes. The Snowy River became the site for a huge hydroelectric project, and has lost much of its magnificence since there are around fifty damns clogging it up. Once up on the plateau above the mountains, I stayed at a farmstay called Karoonga Park, near Gelantipy. Here I immediately hopped on a horse for a ride through the countryside, since they had nearby stables. Everyone snickered at my horseriding skills, but I showed them. Along the way we came across a heard of about fifty wild horses, with a magnificent stallion leading them with a wild temperament nobody had seen before. We proceeded to round up these wild horses, and were doing quite well until the stallion led the herd straight down about a sixty degree slope towards one of the surrounding rivers. Nobody could believe it, as most horses would never attempt such a thing. All of the other riders balked at pursuing the horses, except for me. I took my horse straight down that slope after that stallion. For three days I chased them, and I'm sure most of the people back Karoonga wondered where I went. Their questions were answered when I triumphantly returned with all fifty horses, including the magnificent, but now cowed, stallion.

Oh. Wait a minute, that wasn't me, that was the Man from Snowy River. In my case, I bumbled around on a horse named Jack, who knew quite well that I was not fully in control, and had a penchant for nipping the hind quarters of nearby horses. We did go up and down some steep gullies, but nothing like in the movie. It was a great time, though; it was the first time I'd been on a horse since I was just a kid. I thought I did pretty well, but I'm sure the ranch hands were secretly laughing at the Yank on Jack.

Karoonga Park is a family-run operation, and they treated me very well. I had a big meal that night that reminded me of Thanksgiving; something like five courses of pure comfort food. That night I hopped into a trailer behind a tractor with some other visitors and went looking for nocturnal wildlife such as wombats. Unfortunately a huge storm blew in while we were out and we did not see any wildlife. The intermittent glimpses of the surrounding countryside with each flash of heat lightning were very beautiful, though. Eventually, one of the family collected us in a covered bus to take us back to the lodge. Along the way he crossed a couple of cattle pastures, and in one we saw some calves nearby the herd, except for one who was alone by the fence, up in the headlights. This whole family that runs the place is very quiet spoken, and only because I was up next to him, I heard the driver mutter "That one was born for dyin'..." Then we moved on. Harsh life on the farm, I guess. I felt bad for the little feller, though.

After Karoonga, we briefly stopped at a winery near Lakes Entrance. While here, I heard rumors that you could rent cruisers and explore the surrounding lakes (which are saltwater lakes, separated from the ocean by an overgrown sandbar). I knew that a couple of people were hopping off at Lakes Entrance, and at the time I was talking to a guy named Adam from Dallas. I convinced Adam that it would be a good idea to rent a cruiser if we could collect enough people. I convinced the two that were already staying, two girls from England, and with that Adam and I hopped off the bus to stay as well. We rented the Mason Bay, a cruiser that berthed four and sported an upstairs deck and skipper controls as well. With four people this ended up being pretty affordable. This was by far the largest boat I had ever driven.

Speaking of large boats, the night before I had an interesting conversation with a fisherman who worked charterboats in the area. Frank was in town for maritime school, upgrading his commercial status. To even get in the school you must log something like 900 days worth of time on a commercial rig, and once you graduate the school and complete your oral examinations, you are entitled to run commercial trips on a large boat out to a goodly distance from the shore of countries (the details escape me, but it would allow him to run clear up to Japan, but 50 km shy of running a trip to New Zealand). Anyway, we were shooting the shit about seafaring, fishing, and what was involved with the courses he was taking. Frank had heard a compelling new theory regarding the Bermuda Triangle. In these maritime courses, they teach you why it's a bad idea to try and force an anchor when it becomes caught on an undersea gas pipeline. If you force it, you are likely to rupture the pipeline, creating a huge bubble zone of rising gas. Physics being physics and all, a boat cannot float on air or a diffuse enough combination of gas and water. You can immediately sink your ship in such a bubble stream. So goes the new theory regarding the Bermuda Triangle -- they now suspect that ships might have been lost in natural gas eruptions from the seafloor. These can be spotted, but apparently they are difficult to distinguish between the bubbles that rise up from the junction of cold currents with warm currents (a rise in temperature (or a fall in pressure)) will shock gas out of solution in a liquid. So captains likely assumed thermal junctions and sailed their ships right into a gas bubble eruption. Kerplunk! Of course, this does not account for the airplanes or radio anomalies, but it sounded quite plausible to me. Frank was full of tales, and the evening was well spent.

Full of maritime lore, we departed the next morning on the Mason Bay and had a fantastic time. The first thing we did was explore the Bunga Arm, which is a long channel nearest the ocean. It's pretty remote, and once beached you can hop over the dunes to Ninety Mile Beach. Down on the beach you can look as far as the eye can see in both directions and see absolutely nothing except for empty beach and big waves. The boat had a fully equipped kitchen, and the first night I cooked up a nice red sauce pasta (with lots of garlic, which sort of ruffled the Brits I think). At night the stars were about as brilliant as I have ever seen. Not only could you see the Milky Way, but you could also see the dark splotches that obscure the stars. Right about sunset, I also caught site of a four-foot long freshwater eel maneuvering nearby the boat (apparently freshwater eels can withstand salt water). The next day we explored more of the lakes, and camped at another section near Ninety Mile beach. For dinner that night we grilled some fresh fish we had picked up at a nearby wharf. This trip was well worth the detour. I came away from it with one certainty: I very much want to own a boat someday.

When we picked up the bus again, we ended up doing the winery tour again. Bonus. The next destination was Philip Island, a popular vacation spot for denizens of the Melbourne region. I hopped off the bus here to wait out the horde that had descended on Melbourne for their Grand Prix. All hotels and hostels were booked and inflated. I bided my time by hiring a bike on the island and touring much of the hilly ranch country, including a nice winery. The south coast of the island has big surf and is very popular with the surfing community. Though I did no surfing, I did hang out on the beaches, soaking up the sounds of crashing waves. After a couple of days, the Grand Prix was over and I darted into Melbourne. Tomorrow I catch a flight down to Tasmania where I hope to get in another bushwalk; when I return, I will spend more time in the Melbourne area before heading up to the Northern Territory. I am going to see if I can fit the Ocean Road drive into my schedule, as it is supposed to be fantastic, but if I do it will cut into my time near Darwin. Time will tell.

Excerpt from the Beer Lover's Almanac: The beer scene in Oz is distressingly similar to that of the States, though as far as I can tell they don't have anything resembling Prohibition to blame for the emergence of mega breweries. Though the brands are different, the tune is the same: Lots of McPilsner, but with a few light ales. I have sullenly settled on Victoria Bitter as my McBeer of choice. To be fair, however, I have not spent much time seeking out craft breweries yet. Down in Tasmania they have the Cascade brewery; I look forward to inspecting their product.

Random hah: While on the Dag Sheep Station, the cowboy showing off his dogs for us was riding his horse bareback, drinking a beer the whole time he was whistling instructions to the dogs. Show off.

Till next time from somewhere in Oz,
Matt