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April 12, 2001

The Northern Territory, Up Over Down Under

From Melbourne I flew directly into the 'Red Centre', the desert heart of Oz, deep within the vast expanses of the Northern Territory. Here lies the stark beauty of Uluru, or Ayer's Rock. Somewhere along the way from Alice Springs to Darwin, this dry red land transforms into a lush tropical region, a region entering into the tail end of the rainy season when I arrived. In between I scrambled over many rocks, hiked many miles, soaked up Aboriginal lore, swam beneath waterfalls, and ate an ant's ass.

The Northern Territory. Say this without pausing: Nworth Un Tear It Tree. There, now, isn't that better? Even though NT became a state in 1978, they have kept their name and still refer to one another as Territorians. NT is vast, with a population of only 120,000. Maybe 80,000 of those live in Darwin, plus a few thousand in Alice Springs. The rest are scattered all throughout. It is a land of extremes, desert below and tropics above. Rugged and independent, the Territorians are their own breed.

The copper sphere gave off pale, shifting glints as it was struck by the last rays of the sun that came through the great stained-glass windows. Were its tip to graze, as it had in the past, a layer of damp sand spread on the floor of the choir, each swing would make a light furrow, and the furrows, changing direction imperceptibly, would widen to form a breach, a groove with radial symmetry -- like the outline of a mandala or penticulum, a star, a mystic rose. No, more a tale recorded on an expanse of desert, in tracks left by countless caravans of nomads, a story of slow, millennial migrations, like those of the people of Atlantis when they left the continent of Mu and roamed, stubbornly, compactly, from Tasmania to Greenland, from Capricorn to Cancer, from Prince Edward Island to the Svalbards. The tip retraced, narrated anew in compressed time what they had done between one ice age and another, and perhaps were doing still, those couriers of the Masters. Perhaps the tip grazed Agarttha, the center of the world, as it journeyed from Samoa to Novaya Zemlya. And I sensed that a single pattern united Avalon, beyond the north wind, to the southern desert where lies the enigma of Ayer's Rock.

Excerpt from Foucalt's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco.

Ever since reading this passage, I have wanted to visit Ayer's Rock, or Uluru as the Aboriginals call it. The land on which it resides is owned by the Aboriginals, and jointly managed with the Australian parks service. There is a 'resort' area near the rock where the many many pilgrims stay for their visit to the rock. Unfortunately there is a bit of a monopoly in this regard, and prices can be high. Dissenters are free to take their business to any of the other establishments hundreds of miles away. If it weren't for modern bitumen roads and a small airport, Ayer's would be a difficult destination to say the least.

As it turned out, this normally parched land had just experienced several days of rain before I arrived. As a result, what would normally have been a landscape of deep reds and light browns (hence the 'red centre') was now exploading with life, producing a wonderful contrast of green flora against the red soil and rocks. For the most part, the surrounding land is very flat. Then, out of nowhere, the monstrous Ayer's Rock juts up out of the earth. It's called a rock because that is what it is -- a single piece of rock, feldspar-rich sandstone to be precise. From ground level it is around 2.2 miles long, 5.6 miles in circumference, and 1141 feet high. I say from ground level because they say at least half of the rock is beneath the surface. I spent a few hours walking around the base of the thing.

Uluru is a very sacred place to the tribes in the area. All along the base there are areas of rock art and ceremonial sites. The rock itself is a beautiful orange/red with sweeping slopes, furrows, and pockets from wind and water erosion. Just about every feature on the rock has some role in the Aboriginal stories from the Dreamtime. Some of these areas of the rock you aren't supposed to photograph because they are so important, so integral, to the surrounding environment that the Aboriginals find the notion of lifting the image out of its context abhorrent.

There are great big boulders and sheets that have fallen from the rock, forming all sorts of caves and boulder fields. The rock has many ledges, beneath which you can see fused columns and formations resulting from the slow, but relentless, motion of water. At several places around the rock there are more or less permanent waterholes where rain collects on the rock and falls in cascading multi-stage waterfalls. Surrounding these pools are usually groves of trees that whisper in the breeze, very peaceful. The red, sweeping features of the rock reminded me very much of the petrified sand dunes you see near Moab, Utah, although on a more grand scale. Although there is a very steep climb to the top of the rock, the Aboriginals prefer that you do not climb since it tramples the paths of some of their ancestors of ceremony. (Actually, I think it also has to do with the fact that if you die while climbing, the whole tribe goes through a big mourning period since they feel somewhat responsible). I chose to respect their wishes in this regard, and contented myself with the base walk.

There were all sorts of lizards and bugs along the walk, but one in particular I found fascinating. There is a type of beetle in the area that does what any sensible beetle would do when threatened: stands on its head. I have no idea why, but whenever you mess with them they lean down and put their abdomen up in the air. There are other beetles in the area that will loudly emit noxious vapors when disturbed (these I encountered sometimes at night around the campsite), so maybe these beetles somehow pretend that they have a nasty payload. Amusing, at any rate.

On the way back to camp we caught a lizard on the side of the road known as a 'thorny devil'. These lizards look remarkably similar to the horny toads of the U.S., and share similar traits. Covered in spines, they stay pretty low to the ground with their tails swooping straight up into the air. In this position they snap up passing ants, up to three thousand in a single feed. On the back of their neck they have a lump of fat that is supposed to be a decoy head in case a predator goes after them. They are just so similar to the horny toad that I wonder if they are actually related or if it is a great example of parallel evolution, where similar environments produce similar adaptations.

One morning I arose very early and joined hundreds of other pilgrims to watch the sunrise on the rock. Watching the sunsets and sunrises are very popular activities here. The sunsets are spectacular; long after the sun has gone below the horizon a purple nimbus hovers above the opposite horizon. Right on the horizon is a deep blue. As you look higher, the blue shifts to a magenta color where the sun's rays are still passing through the upper atmosphere. For sunrise, the effect happens in reverse. Once the sun crests the horizon, the entire eastward face of the rock glows a deep earthy red and rapidly brightens. It is truly a beautiful sight so long as you can tolerate the neighboring nimrods who insist on using flash photography for pictures of a dark mountain.

There is another group of rocks in the region called the Olgas. I visited these as well, but they are not a single rock. The Olgas are these big rounded hills composed of an aggregate sandstone. Rounded granite and gneiss stones, from pebble to basketball sized, are cemented together into rock that looks like huge chunks of red peanut brittle. I spent several hours walking around, up canyons, over surrounding flatlands, and down rubble-strewn slopes. The views were wonderful; with all of the green from the recent rain, the rounded rock hills looked like huge red whales breaching in a green sea. During the walk I encountered a four foot long goanna. I managed to get pretty close to the long-necked critter, and could have caught him. In spite of my keen observations of the Crocodile Hunter handling goannas, I chose not to see what this specimen's claws and mouth were capable of doing to my forearms. I contented myself with catching and releasing a couple of smaller skinks and lizards along the way.

In between the Ayer's Rock region and Alice Springs there is an area known as King's Canyon, on the McDonnell Ranges. Anyone who has seen Priscilla, Queen of the Desert would find the canyon familiar since a few scenes were filmed here. The area is crisscrossed with thousands of perpendicular fault lines, like a big grid. As water eroded around each square of this grid, the rocks became rounded humps. Seen all together, these humps look like lost cities of some sort; in the Aboriginal stories they are the 'cat men'. The area is composed of two types of sandstone, underneath which is a layer of shale. The shale holds water in the porous sandstone. In some areas the rock eroded so deeply that it penetrated this water table, producing oasis in the middle of the desert; many of these hidden pools of water are permanent and whole ecosystems depend on them. King's Canyon was formed from water flowing through these layers. The head of the canyon is walled in with enormous sandstone cliffs. Near the head, where the cliffs join, is a beautiful, deep oasis.

Interestingly, the sandstone at King's Canyon is actually white, like the white sand beaches from which it was formed. The red colors come from dust that blows over from the iron-laden rocks of Ayer's Rock and the Olgas. If you break the red sandstone open at King's Canyon, it is a pale white inside. With weathering and dark algae, the cliffs and rocks sport a lively interplay of reds, blacks, grey, and white.

After that I was off to Alice Springs. The land rolls on and on, punctuated by occasional cattle stations separated by hundreds of miles. All throughout were sightings of wild horses, camels, and kangaroos. The camels are left over from the Ghan shipping route between Darwin and Adelaide. Some of this route was by an extremely unreliable narrow gauge railroad (due to the floodplains), some sections were by road trains, and other segments were serviced by camel trains run by Afghanis. The Ghan railway was eventually rebuilt (still incomplete) in standard gauge, above the floodplain, but one of the noteable last appearances of the old railroad was in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Anyway, some of the camels escaped and now Australia sports a very healthy population of wild camels. These camels are highly regarded back in the desert countries from which they came because of their disease-free status and genetic diversity. The history of the Ghan route is rich and fascinating. (And yes, I saw some modern-day road trains -- semi trucks pulling three or four trailers.)

From Alice Springs I flew straight to Darwin, from desert to tropics. After the arid air, the humidity was suffocating. It felt like home. I immediately set out on a four-wheel drive tour of Kakadu National Park. This region is tropical, with wet and dry seasons. I arrived at the tail end of the wet season, in what the Aboriginals call the 'knock 'em down' season since the more powerful afternoon storms flatten the spear grass. Although it can be very dry, during the wet season the area is composed of huge wetlands, flooded rivers and billabongs (parts of the river system that are connected during the wet season, but isolated like ponds or lakes during the dry). The difference in water levels can be up to a dozen feet from one season to another. As it turns out, the first Crocodile Dundee was filmed in Kakadu National park. If you recall, at one point he was walking along dry land and pointed up to the remains of his boat, lodged up in a tree. That's one of the areas through which I passed, except the water was there. It really can rise and fall that much.

So before entering Kakadu proper, we inspected some of the area wetlands and went on a crocodile cruise. We piled into a big flat bottomed boat and motored up the Adelaide River, looking for wild crocodiles. We found several, and the guide coaxed a couple of them near the boat with tasty scraps of chicken and fish on a long pole. The crocs were leaping out of the water after these morsels. Seeing the crocs in their natural habitat was well worthwhile, and I gained a new appreciation for the grace of these predators.

Most 4WD vehicles in Australia are real beasts, decked out with all the bells and whistles including snorkels. I had been wondering about the snorkels, and I soon found out why. During the wet season, many of the roads in the NT have floodways rather than bridges. A floodway is an area of the road where water is expected to flood right over the road. Packed into our 4WD, hoss trailer in tow, we crossed over several floodways in the park. In some cases water was shooting up over the whole vehicle as we crossed floodways up to three and four feet deep with water. Meanwhile, our two guides are telling stories about how if the water gets too forceful and starts pushing the truck off the road you have to open the doors to flood the inside of the vehicle -- this adds enough weight to keep the truck on the road as you cross. No thanks. Thankfully we did not attempt to drive through any crazy water like that.

Instead, we reached one point where the road up ahead was under about seven feet of water. So we did the sensible thing and took a boat to another truck. This was an informative boat ride through the billabong system of the Magela River. The aboriginal captain told us all about the flora and fauna of the region, as well as the various uses of some spears he had in the boat. They have these particular barbed spears called 'punishment spears', and aptly named they are. Under Aboriginal law (at least in the Arnheim region) if you commit a crime you get stabbed with a punishment spear. The region of your body that gets stabbed is determined by the nature of the crime -- it could be an ankle, thigh, arm, shoulder, etc. For something particularly bad, such as murder, the spot might be the middle of your chest. So this nasty barbed spear gets jabbed clean through the chosen spot, and then yanked back out, along with whatever tendons and meat it encountered along the way. Then you are left on your own somewhere out in the wilderness so that you have to make your own way back (assuming you haven't been exiled). Here's the catch: If you run away from the punishment or try to avoid it, then one of your relatives such as your brother will have to take the spear treatment. This spear treatment is still practiced to this day; as you can imagine, crime rates in the Aboriginal communities are extremely low.

After the boat tour we headed up to a beautiful escarpment above the wetlands called Ubirr. There was a preponderance of Aboriginal rock art here. Layers upon layers of art, some of which depicts ancient (and now extinct) animals. Each bit of art tells a tale, a bit of the life of the artist. Mostly the art was of regional animals, but some was of ancestral beings from the Dreamtime. We climbed up these cliffs for an amazing view over the wetlands, looking into Arnheim land (Aboriginal owned). This escarpment also made an appearance in Crocodile Dundee. Down in the billabongs, thousands of birds were feeding, and on the horizon storms loomed as the sun set.

We stayed at a small hostel of sorts that first night, shared only by a bunch of baramundi fisherman. Baramundi are these huge fish that populate the area rivers, and seem to be the primary object of lust for regional sportsmen. That night I shared all sorts of fish stories with a couple of colorful blokes named Pete and Ratsack.

The next couple of days we visited more rock art sites and swam beneath many beautiful waterfalls. The days were pretty hot, and those swims were nice. All through the region there are termite mounds, and there are a particular variety called 'cathedral termites', for good reason. One cathedral termite mound must have been over twenty feet high. The mounds are waterproof and smokeproof, and do just fine when the floods and fires sweep through. (The Aboriginals deliberately start brush fires every year; some species require the fire in order to survive, and the periodic burning prevents larger, hotter, fires from breaking out). In addition to termites, there are all sorts of ants in the region. One that you see everywhere is called a green-tail ant. It's about the size of the black or red ants you see back in the States. The head and thorax are brownish-red, and the abdomen is pale green. Their abdomens are full of folic acid, which they use to build nests out of leaves (the leaves are folded and fused together). The guides told us that the folic acid tastes a bit like a lime, so we occupied ourselves for a while by plucking ants off of a tree and eating their butts. Okay, so I only tried one. It did indeed taste like a lime.

That night we were treated to some Australian tucker. We had crocodile, water buffalo burgers, and kangaroo steaks. The crocodile was really like a mix of fish and chicken, with the texture of pork. Tasty, but sort of tough. The buffalo burger was great -- so much more flavor than what I am accustomed to in a burger. The kangaroo steak was phenomenal. Absolutely lean, very tender, and no gaminess whatsoever. I felt a little guilty about eating a kangaroo, but dang that roo was good.

After Kakadu I headed back to Darwin. There is a movie out called Yolngu Boy about three Aboriginal adolescents from Arnheim land near Kakadu. It is a really great movie that does a fine job of illustrating the duality of Aboriginal life in modern society. The photography is outstanding, and offers many views of the escarpments and billabongs I've just described. If you can get your hands on it, see this movie.

At this point, my budget for Australia was about tapped. I hung low in Darwin, walking around and reading books. I walked down to the wharf precinct (for some reason I love wharfs). That particular day, the U.S.S. Boxer was docking for fuel and resupply, on the way to East Timor to assist in humanitarian efforts. The Boxer is some sort of huge amphibious assault ship, with a flight deck and about 1000 crew aboard. I had never seen a ship like that dock, so that was pretty much my entertainment for the day. There is a lot of war history in Darwin, since it was repeatedly bombed by the Japanese during WWII. There is a beautiful park alongside the harbor (called the Esplanade) with all sorts of war memorials. I visited the WWII oil tunnels -- big, huge tanks hacked straight out of the rock (without the use of explosives) for storing oil during the war. No longer used, you can now walk around in the tunnels and view a gallery of photographs from the war days. Other than that, I shopped around for some gear, rounded out my immunizations, and relaxed in the swimming pool. The Hash House Harriers are in town, that esteemed group of drinking, jogging scoundrels. I have had several encounters with these guys in my life; this one seems to be some sort of international gathering here in Darwin for the Easter weekend. In fact, as I was typing this I saw someone running by the window playing a trumpet, followed by several dozen naked people running, hooting, and hollering. Go Harriers!

Now I am off to Indonesia. Some day I would like to return to Australia and see all that I know I missed. I would like to see the Kimberly, visit the huge state of Western Australia, see the Great Ocean Road, dive with whale sharks off the coast of WA, see the Great Australian Bight, fully explore the north coast, dive the Great Barrier Reef, and rent an expedition vehicle for a more thorough exploration of the great Outback.

Random Hah: While in Alice Springs I was talking with an Irish bloke who had an amusing tale to tell. When he was visiting Vietnam his camera was stolen; rather than buy a new camera he found some disposable cameras, garish ones with Micky Mouse and Donald Duck plastered on the cases. So he headed into Cambodia with these cameras, where he took pictures of the truly grim killing fields. Eventually he had this film developed, and apparently the cameras were designed for children. For there, across every shot of the sombre killing fields was a happy little Micky Mouse or Donald Duck.

Excerpt from the Beer Lover's Almanac: Not too much to report in the Northern Territory. The same major Australian brands are prevalent, and they drink a LOT of it around here. Darwin is famed for it's annual Beer Can Regatta in the harbor, where all participating boats are constructed out of beer cans. Now that's a boat race!

Till next time, from somewhere in Indonesia,

April 06, 2001

Van Diemen's Land, Down Under Down Under

Tasmania, or Van Diemen's Land as it was once known, is the most southerly Australian state. In the Southern Hemisphere, this translates to the most temperate climate, situated as it is in the 'Roaring Forties', near 40 degrees below the equator. As a consequence, the winds that course over this land are some of the cleanest in the world, with little to stop or sully them as they whisk around the globe. In this air, on terrain both rugged and rolling, I took in a wonderful bushwalk on the famed Overland Track, explored remote costal areas where convicts once lurked, and with the help of a car explored the hill laden countryside in the agricultural heart of the island.

I arrived via plane from Melbourne into Hobart, the largest city on the island. Though this port town is a busy port on the southern coast, it is nevertheless still a fairly sleepy town at heart. The pace of life is different in Tasmania relative to the rest of Oz. Once I had arrived, I set about collecting and organizing my trekking gear so that I could hit the back country, of which a staggering proportion of Tasmania is comprised in the form of national parks and world heritage areas. While in Hobart I did manage to catch two movies: Quills and Men of Honor. Quills was good, but extremely dark: Geoffrey Rush did a great job as usual, and Kate Winslett remains as beautiful as ever. Men of Honor was a decent, inspiring movie, but I kept getting distracted by the "Hoo Hah! U.S. Military! Hoo Hah!" nature of the film -- I'd rather a film rely more on the plot as opposed to yanking on the strings of patriotism. I was particularly aware of this since I was screening the movie in another country.

So after a couple of days I caught a bus service that would eventually take me nearly to the trailhead of the Overland Track, a famous walk nestled in the Cradle Mountain/Lake St. Clair National Parks. Before embarking on the trek, I took a detour out to the remote west coast of Tasmania. First I stopped in Queenstown, a town that sprung up to support an old strip mining operation. After seeing the wild beauty of the temperate rain forested region along the way, the desolation surrounding Queenstown was shocking; the signs of mining were everywhere in the surrounding countryside. The town itself surprised me by exhibiting a quaint kind of charm, somewhat similar to what you see in the old mining towns of Colorado. These days they are banking their future on the tourist trade, and are positioning themselves both as a monument and an admonishing reminder of the impact of strip mining. It was while I was in this town that my birthday rolled over Georgia, the state of my birth.

Onward to the coast from Queenstown was the tiny town of Strahan. In one of the most inaccessible places in Tasmania, this town is the only safe anchorage on the west coast, in the Macquarie Harbor. The town was a shipping port for the timber harvested from huon pines and the ore shipped over from Queensland on the Abt Railway. The railway is currently being restored for the tourism industry, and its claim to fame is slopes so steep that it required a specially designed center rail, toothed so that a cog on the engine could help the train negotiate slopes that would otherwise have been too steep with a full load (Abt is the surname of the designer). These days the town relies on fishing and tourism to keep the economy alive.

I signed up for one of the harbor cruises which seem to be one of the major activities in the town. The cruise in a large catamaran was well worth it. Macquarie Harbor is the second largest harbor in Australia, but its only access to the ocean is through Hell's Gates, a narrow passage approximately fifty yards wide. The marvelous layered rocks that meet the ocean here sport shades of yellow, orange, and brown. These colors contrast nicely with the white lighthouses perched at various strategic locations near Hell's Gates. Ironically, the name of the entrance comes not from navigational angst, but rather from convicts destined for the Sarah Island convict settlement: The narrow mouth of this bay was their first sight of their new home, from which most knew they would never return. Most of them were sent to Sarah Island because they were considered incorrigible due to transgressions committed while at other convict settlements. Back then this area was extremely remote, but in order to effect a successful escape, which some did, a boat was required. Sarah Island itself is tiny; we disembarked to personally inspect the ruins of the old settlement and hear tales of intrigue involving escapes and the bustling shipyard that convict labor produced. The history of the settlement was absolutely fascinating.

After Sarah Island, the cruise took us by some fish farms that raised what they call 'ocean trout'. These are rainbow trout that have been raised in the brackish waters of the Macquarie. Rainbow trout apparently taste different when raised in this environment, hence the new name. The pens are huge circular floats with netting suspended from them. Divers periodically maintain the pens, as damage can be caused from many sources, chief of which would be seals. I imagine those seals must feel like a kid in a candy store when they see those huge concentrations of tasty fish.

We then proceded up the Gordon River and its abundant temperate rain forest, source of the tannins that give the whole harbor its brown tea color. It was up in these forests that the magnificent huon pines were logged for the ships produced on Sarah Island. The story of this logging is a typical one: amazing trees of ancient age, decimated by overharvesting. Some stands of pine do remain, and efforts are underway to restore them, but the results will only be seen far in the future if fires do not clear the way for the encroachment of eucalyptus.

After Strahan I hopped back on the bus, headed for the Overland Track. The Cradle Mountain/Lake St. Clair National Parks are a small region of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. This World Heritage site qualifies for an astonishing seven out of ten qualifiers for WH status. Most WH sites qualify for only one or two of these. Tassies love their wilderness; national parks abound. This particular WH area covers nearly 20% of Tasmania, a generous allotment indeed. I was focused on the Overland Track in the northern region, a trail around fifty miles long that connects Cradle Mountain to Lake St. Clair. Despite being one of the more popular walks in Australia, the terrain is absolutely spectacular -- any regrets over bumping into other trekkers are quickly lost in the beauty of the walk. The rugged peaks and cliffs in the area are fascinating to study. Most of the rock consists of imposing vertical columns that resulted from dolerite intrusions into a sandstone base; this sandstone subsequently weathered away, leaving behind the awe-inspiring pillars of rock. The most significant displays of this rock I found around Cradle Mountain and Pine Valley. The Cradle Mountain vicinity was the most rugged portion of the hike, and included gorgeous views of Cradle Lake and Dove Lake, nestled in their craggy heights. Further south, on what is actually a detour from the Overland Track itself, is Pine Valley. From a base camp in the rain forest I climbed the Acropolis, an amazing outcrop of dolerite. It is aptly named, as the columns look as though they could be the ruined pillars of buildings constructed by some ancient, giant race.

The track traverses several biomes, including the craggy peaks, alpine moors flush with button grass, and dense rain forests. The weather is extremely unpredictable; for two and a half days of my seven day journey I was blasted with icy winds full of hail, sleet, and snow, and the rest of the time was clear and sunny. One of these stormy days was when I climbed Pelion Gap, hoping to make a side trip to Mt. Osso, the highest mountain in Tasmania. Although the pass itself is not too difficult, on this day it was roaring with wind and sleet, and Mt. Osso was chaste the whole day, cloaked in clouds and never revealing her face. I opted to forego the mountain and planned instead to take in Pine Valley and the Acropolis, harboring hopes for clearer weather. The weather did clear (the next day, even) and the Acropolis satisfied my yen for scrambling up huge edifices; in fact, the day was spectacular and I could finally see Mt. Osso from the top.

On an amusing note, I later met up with some crazy blokes from Western Australia who chose to summit Mt. Osso the same day I cleared the pass. They had never seen snow before, and knowing full well that they could not see a damn thing from the peak, they scrambled to the top of Mt. Osso just so they could see snow. See snow they did, over knee deep in the late summer. They were flush with excitement over the experience, and I couldn't help but enjoy the snow vicariously.

The track features abundant wildlife as well, some of which is seen nowhere else in the world but Tasmania. There are Tasmanian devils, stout little marsupial beasts with crushing jaws. It's because of these scavengers that you never see any animal remains, not even bones, because the devils eat it all. There are wombats, tank-like burrowing marsupials that have a curious aspect: they have cube-shaped scat and are fond of leaving thoughtful piles of it on the trail as territorial markers. There are wallabies and pademelons, smaller versions of the kangaroo. There are quolls, little spotted predator marsupials that are also known as 'tiger cats'. Of these, I saw lots of wallabies and pademelons. I briefly spotted a quoll, and only on the bus did I see a wombat lumbering along. Most of the marsupials tend to be nocturnal, so happenstance encounters are rare. There are many more varieties of these mammals, and many unmentioned.

Tasmania only has three varieties of snake, all of which are venomous and deadly without treatment. It was a while before I belatedly figured out that Ozzie bushwalkers wear gators on their boots not for snow, like we do in the U.S., but to protect their legs from startled snakes. I had no gators, so I was always on the alert for snakes. They are not particularly aggressive, and only bite if they feel threatened in such situations as getting stepped on or pestered. I was excited because I managed to spot three tiger snakes along the trail, beautiful glossy black specimens. The first one was by far the largest, about as big around as my forearm. During that day I made three side trips to see waterfalls in one of the rain forest sections (the Kia Ora to Windy Ridge segment). The waterfalls themselves were beautiful. The largest, Hartnett Falls, has a trail leading down to the base of the falls that winds through some tight scrub just below the knee. That particular day was one of the first sunny days after the snow and sleet, so my eyes were out like a crab's looking for snakes sunning themselves. On my way back up this trail my eyes snapped onto this huge tiger snake in front of me, adjacent to the trail in a small clearing. Absolutely gorgeous, this snake slowly adjusted itself to get a better look at me, and after satisfying itself that I did not represent a threat, slowly moved off into the tight scrub -- unfortunately further up and closer to the trail in front of me, hidden under the scrub. No thanks. I found some thinner portions of the scrub and bypassed that section of the trail. Really, though, it's the younger snakes that tend to be more aggressive -- they understandably worry more about becoming a meal due to their smaller size. Nevertheless, something primal in us remains that responds to snakes. Despite my awe at the beauty of this snake, and my rational knowledge of how to deal with snakes, the hackles on the back of my neck stood straight up and adrenaline raced through my system when I was the object of this ones calm scrutiny. I eventually saw two more of the beasties, and each sighting was a treat.

The end of the track was dominated by Lake St. Clair, the deepest lake in all of Australia. This large lake was the result of three glaciers converging and gouging out an enormous scar that eventually filled in to become the lake. The rain forests along this region are more dominated by huge tree ferns, in a type of environment that lends itself to expectations of dinosaurs tramping out of the flora. Like New Zealand, there are an abundance of ancient plants that date back to prehistoric times on the Gondwana super-continent. The path is relatively flat along the shore of the lake, and was a fantastic cap on my seven day hike. Conveniently enough, the hike ended on St. Patrick's Day.

Back in Hobart I treated myself to a large steak and proceeded to locate a rowdy Irish Pub in order to enjoy some Guinness and hear some live Celtic music. The next day I wandered around Hobart on a more thorough exploration than I had opportunity for when I arrived in Tasmania. After exploring shops and restaurants, I wandered into a park where there was a 'No G.E.' festival in progress. The 'G.E.' stands for Genetically Engineered foods. The festival was populated by fairly standard issue earth first types, and I had a jolly time eating organic fruit, sitting in the grass, listening to live protest music (lots of tribal influence, of course), and observing the characters in attendance.

Since I had a few more days in Tasmania, I decided to take the plunge and rent my own wheels for some exploration. I hired a car, and adjusted surprisingly well to driving on the left. My experience thus far as a pedestrian and cyclist had given me a head start on 'thinking left'. However, what I found most difficult was staying in the middle of the lane! The steering wheel is on the right hand side of the car, and I had a tendency to drift to where I would normally be in the lane if I were on the left hand side of the car. Reversing the traffic rules was pretty easy; constantly correcting my sense of center was exhausting.

The first place I went was to the Cadbury chocolate factory, with visions of chocolate easter eggs dancing in my head. The tour was informative and interesting -- this factory is one of many Cadbury factories (the largest in the Southern Hemisphere), but unfortunately was not where the eggs are made. Ouch! I was very impressed with the mixing machines, these huge vats with churning apparatus that looks like part of a locomotive assembly. Each batch has to be mixed about eight hours before it heads off to be shaped and molded. I dutifully inspected each stage of the process, but kept getting elbowed out of the way by little old ladies whenever free samples were offered. Don't mess with chocophiles.

After Cadbury I toured the countryside, deliberately taking small roads. Most places in Tassie, if they have roads, are accessible within a day of driving. The countryside is beautiful -- rolling green hills, pastureland, and forest -- I was very much reminded of the hills of England, or dare I say, Ireland. I did have an amusing encounter in the little town of Deloraine involving a Harley gang. I had briefly inspected the main street shops and was sitting in a pastry shop having a coffee. Outside the window, I was observing a leatherclad biker gang called the Ulysses Club (Motto: Grow Old Disgracefully). This gang was fairly typical: middle aged, vaguely surly, unable to completely shake the impression that they all had well paying day jobs. In particular I was watching two of them named Beast and Braveheart (these names I divined from the various patches on their leather goods). Beast was a big fellah with a wild black beard, and Braveheart was tall and lanky. There were about five others, and their ladies. Eventually Beast comes sauntering in and sits with his lady in an adjacent table. After a while, Braveheart knocked on the window and gesticulated some inside joke to Beast, and they both laughed, after which Braveheart returned to observing the street traffic. Beast noticed me idly watching, and said in a friendly way "Don't smile at that one, mate, or he'll be on ya." I laughed, and said "Yeah, he looks pretty vicious." At this point, Beast and his lady looked at each other and laughed, then he told me meaningfully "I didn't mean that way." After a brief pause, I got the gist and laughed "Ah!" Beast smiled and said with a nod "You got me now, mate..." Braveheart, unaware of the joke that had been made at his expense, continued to idly watch the traffic outside the window as we laughed.

My eventual goal was up on the north coast of the island, and I detoured to a little town called Mole Creek because I had heard there was a leatherwood honey factory there. Upon reaching the town, nestled in gorgeous rolling hills, I discovered that the factory would be extracting honey the next day, the "first time in a fortnight" as the lady told me (fortnight, or two weeks, is not considered an archaic term in Oz). So I continued along to the north coast, and worked my way west to the Nut. The Nut, or Circular Head as it is known officially, is a huge outcrop that juts out into the Bass Strait, connected to the main island by a narrow isthmus. The formation is the 12.5 million year old remnants of volcanic activity and forms the base on which Port Stanley resides. This was the first headquarters of the Van Diemen Land Company, which was charged by England to develop the island back in colonial days. The small town still serves as a port, mostly for fishermen, these days. Early the next morning I climbed up the Nut and explored the views of the Bass Strait and surrounding countryside. There were great views of the port, and plenty of lore regarding the history of the region and the number of shipwrecks from the early days.

After climbing the Nut I began to head back to Mole Creek so I could check out the honey factory. Along the way I stopped at Fossil Bluff in the small town of Wynard. This obscure area was the site where they found the oldest marsupial fossil in all of Australia. The bluff was comprised of three layers, all clearly visible where the bluff faced the pounding waves. The bottom layer is dark claystone produced from the tillite left behind when a glacier dumped its contents directly into the sea around 500 million years ago. The middle layer, the thickest, is colorful layers of sandstone deposited from an inland sea some 22 million years ago. This sandstone is chocka blocka full of shells and evidence of marine life back in those days; it also happens to be the layer where the marsupial fossils were found. The topmost layer is basalt deposited from the volcanic activity over by the Nut around 13 million years ago. The bluff is most easily accessed at low tide, but with some scrambling and a careful eye out for rogue waves, I was able to explore a large portion. The surface of the sandstone was amazing; easily eroded by waves, it looked as though someone had attacked those colorful bands of rock with a giant ice cream scoop.

After the bluff I stopped at a cheese factory. Up until this point I had not been very impressed with the available types of cheese in Australia. Gladly, this factory had plenty of delicious variety, including a credible feta. In fact, all of the cheese in Tasmania seemed better than the rest of Oz. After the cheese I made it back to Mole Creek, where the honey extraction was going strong. They were nice enough to give me a personal tour of the place, and each employee described their job to me. I had no idea this was how you extract honey, at least on a commercial basis. First, the bee hives in those little white houses have these rectangular wooden slats in them which form a frame for the honeycomb. These slats are warmed and excess wax is removed from them, including a scraping that takes the caps off the cells of honey. Then the slats are radially placed in a big centrifuge, which whirls around and slings the honey free of the comb. The honey gets pumped away for packaging, and the slats go back into the hives where the bees reuse the now empty honeycombs. Leatherwood honey, this factory's specialty, is a delicacy only made in Tassie. Leatherwood trees are one of those varieties left over from prehistoric times, and they are found nowhere else in the world. The honey is light amber in color, and to me at least, had delicious notes of jasmine and lavender in the flavor. The manager gave me the contact information for their U.S. distributer, and I look forward to making a mead from this tasty honey. After the honey factory I decided to head over to the East Coast in hopes of seeing the famous Wineglass Bay. Along the way I stopped at another cheese factory and a couple of wineries (one of which had an olive grove as well). I drove through rain and more gorgeous national forests to the little town of Swansea on Oyster Bay.

Swansea was very quiet when I arrived. I took an evening stroll along the beaches of Oyster Bay, admiring the waves and scenery, despite the drizzle. I was nearly alone in the hostel, except for two older Australian ladies who were touring Tasmania. I chatted with them most of the night, and one conversation of note involved the railway hobby of one of their husbands. Apparently they travel to rail enthusiast conventions all over the world. One example was when the famous locomotive The Flying Scotsman came to tour in Australia -- competition was fierce, but they got tickets and rode around on this train with a couple thousand like-minded enthusiasts for three weeks, thrilled at the opportunity. At other times they travel around to various rail conventions, which have several notable characteristics:

  • Whichever hotel is closest to the (depot, rail station, rail museum), no matter how trashy or nice, is the hotel where the attendants stay.
  • If the hotel is actually adjacent to the (depot, rail station, rail museum), this is a bonus.
  • If you can look out the window and see trains, this is a bonus.
  • If there are no shops nearby to keep wives occupied on credit cards, this is an extreme bonus.
  • If there are workshops, bonus.
  • If there is a buffet, bonus.

One of the most striking aspects of these rail enthusiasts is their taxonomy. According to my source, there are at least four major breeds of rail enthusiast, not necessarily mutually exclusive:
  • The trainspotters. This variety endeavors to spot numbers of trains, much like bird watching but with more complexity (the same number at as many stations as possible, the frequency of certain numbers, or similar games with time periods such as spotting numbers within three months, etc).
  • Those that record 'track talk'. This variety dangles microphones outside of trains in motion, as close to the track as they are allowed, in order to record the sound of a particular train on the tracks for their archives. Nobody present is allowed to speak, cough, fart, make any noise whatsoever when these recording sessions are in progress. Serious business here, folks.
  • Those that record 'stack talk'. Similar to the track talkers, this variety records the sound of the engine exhaust as it belches forth from the stacks. The rules pertaining to recording sessions apply as well.
  • The restorationists. This more understandable variety was the hobby of the husband in question. They are extremely interested in the process of taking an abandoned hulk of metal and restoring it as a functional locomotive. Sometimes they specialize, say on boilers.

Now I was aware of the restorationists, and is what I considered to be a fairly normal hobby. The others strike me as a bit obsessive about their particular passion, however, those archives could some day prove valuable. The whole existence of this subculture amazed me.

The next day was extremely foggy and overcast, but I headed out to Wineglass Bay as planned, in Freycinet National Park. This area is full of huge bluffs and peaks comprised of strikingly pink granite. Hiking over the pass to the bay I passed through huge boulder fields and could see the surrounding cliffs even though the wider views were obscured by fog. When I approached the bay, I descended below the fog and found a beautiful sight: Wineglass Bay, spectacular, rolling waves on coarse sand about the consistency of petrified cous-cous and slightly pink due to the surrounding granite. I spent a couple of hours on the bay, relaxing. Despite the overcast day, it was well worth it.

Afterwards I headed back towards Hobart, stopping at a couple more wineries along the way. I wanted to reach a place in New Norfolk called the Oast House. Supposedly there was a hops museum there, and I was excited to see such a thing. Unfortunately, it was closed, though it was a beautiful old house to see. Back to Hobart I went, for my last night in Tasmania. The local theater was showing Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, so I checked it out and was highly impressed. It's a wonderful interpretation of Homer's The Odyssey, and Clooney was fantastic in a comedic role. It was interesting to note that the implied dieties responsible for the deus ex machina that tormented Odysseus (or in this case they gave Clooney the Roman name Ulysses) were reversed in this case: water (Poseidon) was his saviour, and fire (technically Hephaestus, but I think they had Hades in mind) his constant torment. And in a delicious twist, the wonderful soundtrack features the main song, a blues/bluegrass summary of the plight of Odysseus...Brilliant! I mean, if anyone gots the blues, you know Odysseus gots them.

So I returned to Melbourne and lingered for a few days. Melbourne is a wonderful cosmopolitan city that really likes its food. Good, tasty, great food. I wandered around, reading, eating, relaxing and juggling in parks, and visiting museums. At the Melbourne Museum, I was mostly impressed with the blue whale skeleton they had prepared from a large carcass that washed up on the beach. The process of cleaning the bones was impressive enough, but standing under the skeleton you get an overpowering sense of how enormous these creatures are. While in Melbourne, I arranged to meet up with Paul Fenwick, a fellow programmer responsible for the Finance::Quote module that complements my Finance::QuoteHist module. He and I had adjacent articles in The Perl Journal, and together our articles were featured on the cover of that magazine. He, his girlfriend, and I met for beers followed by Indian food. Later on I got to inspect their house, where they grow all sorts of things in their garden and maintain a great variety of fruit trees in the back yard. It was a great night of conversation, and even though I'd never actually seen him before it was nice to see a familiar face.

Then I was off to the great Northern Territory the next day. Stay tuned for more on that land of extremes.

Random Hah: Seen on a sticker plastered on the inside door of a bathroom stall while sitting and contemplating: "Toilet Camera is for Experimental Purposes Only".

Excerpt from the Beer Lover's Digest: Tasmania has two of its own breweries that comprise the most commonly seen beer in the state. The other mainstream brands from Australia are represented, but the Tasmanians seem to prefer their own brands. In the southern part of the island, they prefer ales and lagers from the Cascade Brewery (nothing to do with American Cascade Hops). In the northern region they seem to prefer similar offerings from Boags Brewery. Both have similar offerings, and are servicable. I did not encounter any boutique breweries, but they might be there.

Till next time,