Tuesday, March 27, 2007

G'Day, Mate!

Written by Lynn

Okay, pretty cheesy title, I admit it, but I just couldn't resist..................

As many of you have guessed, our next stop was Sydney, Australia. Sydney is a great city, definitely on my "I-could-live-here" list. While here we stayed in the questionable area of King's Cross, a backpacker haven, also well known as a drug- and prostitute- infested borough. Remarkably similar to East Hastings in Vancouver (well, maybe not quite as bad!), it was cheap and within walking distance to the much higher priced down town.

In Sydney we did the usual - visited the Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney Opera House and walked George Street. We also splurged on a visit to the world famous Sydney Aquarium, where you can walk through tunnels constructed of clear fibreglass as sharks, seals and a variety of fish swim above, under and around you. Since it was the Chinese New Year, we also had a chance to watch the of dragon boat races and other celebrations. The best thing we did, though, while we were in Sydney, was visit the local Quantas office (we are soooo easily amused at this stage).

To explain this better to those of you who are curious, we are presently travelling on what is known as a "One World Alliance" ticket. Depending on the number of continents you are visiting and the mileage you cover, it ranges in price (cost is also dependant on where you start, it being about $1500 less per person to start in the UK than in North America, not sure why). Because we are heading into South America and Africa, we are classed in the highest category. With each continent you get a certain number of stops and the miles within each continent are added up to make a total. Because you can only reserve seats about 11 months ahead of time (and we booked these tickets back in July 2006) we were responsible for rebooking dates for destinations after May 2007. In the Quantas head office we met up with the most helpful agent, called Caroline, that we could have hoped for. Several hours, a few cups of coffee and a thank you card with an accompanying bouquet of flowers later we had finalized our plans. Turns out we had a lot of mileage unused on our tickets and stops that we could have used in Asia and Africa. So we booked ourselves a little flight from Singapore to Bangkok in order to jump over southern Thailand due to political unrest and we also picked up a stop in Cairo, Egypt at the very end of our trip, so we can see the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings, which I am very excited about. All in all, a very satisfactory morning.

As a preemptive warning for the rest of this posting, I would have to explain that our plans in Australia were pretty vague. So if this blog seems like we were rambling around with no firm plans, that's only because that was exactly what was happening.

We were scheduled to fly into Sydney February 23rd and out of Perth (on the opposite coast) on March 11th, and that was pretty much the extent of it. We had originally thought that what we'd do was rent a car and spend the few weeks transversing the country, an romantic vision of outback experiences, kangaroos and koalas being the driving force. EVERY Australian we talk to, with out fail, told us this was a retarded plan, the distance between the two cities being daunting and the landscape monotonous in the extreme. Not to be dissuaded, we went around to the various car rental agencies and quickly realized that not only would it take DAYS to get to Perth, the cost because of one way drop off fees was quite prohibitive. So instead we re-evaluated and decided to rent a car for a week and do a loop through New South Wales and down through the province of Victoria. It was decided to go this way, rather than north on the more popular Gold Coast Route, due to a life long dream of Gilles' to drive the Great Ocean Road.

Once again we visited the local Salvation Army Store (you gotta love Sally Anne) to gather up cheap camping equipment and set out on our adventure.

For those of you not aware of it, Australia is presently in the grip of one of its worst droughts in a 100 years. Many regions, including the ones around Melbourne were suffering through their fifth year of well below average rainfall, and water restrictions were fully in force in most town we drove through. As a dramatic example, the Murray-Darling river system that we drove through, which recieves more than 4% of Australia's water run off, was 54% (!!!) below its record minimum at the end of 2006. Climate change, which is blamed as a major causative factor, is a hotly debated topic here.

Well, you wouldn't have known it. Our first day on the road it POURED. In less than 24 hours there was over 96mm of rain in the Gippsland area we were driving through. At one point there was a staggering 35mm in less than an hour. So our drive through NSW (New South Wales) was pretty unspectacular, wet and not conducive to camping. So rather than spend the night in one of the many national parks scattered through out the area, interacting with wallabies and other campers, we hunkered down in a cheap highway motel room (which, by the way, started to flood around 11pm) and ate pizza. Not exactly an authentic Australian experience.

Once the weather dried up a bit, we continued on our way towards the infamous, oft talked about Great Ocean Road.

Turns out the Great Ocean Road that is pictured on ALL the travel brochures of Australia is a bit of a disappointment. Only about 40 kilometres of it actually follows along right beside the coast. Having just spent 10 days being blown away by ocean views in New Zealand, this section of the trip lacked a little something for us (makes you think we might be getting a bit spoiled).

What was overwhelmingly impressive, though, was the 12 Apostles. These 8 (yeah, apparently 4 of them have succumbed to erosion, the most recent in 2005) huge limestone projections jut out of the ocean, carved out over 20 million years ago by the relentless pounding of the waves. They rise over 45 metres out of the water and are enhanced by the presence of other nearby peices of natural rock art, such as the Loch Ard Gorge, Mutton Bird Island and the London Arch. The arch used to be London Bridge until part of it collapsed in 1990 stranding two tourist on the sea side rock out cropping, who then had to be air lifted off. Would of thought the nursery rhyme would have warned them this was going to happen!

Even better for us was a chance to see koalas in the wild. On an unlabelled dirt road just off the Great Ocean Road, in a small town called Kennett's River you can drive up away from the crowds and park. You get out of your car and you think your standing in a pretty deserted section of a eucalyptus forest, looking a little scraggly because of the drought. But if you hold still for a bit and look really closely, you'll start to distinguish these furry little gray lumps resting on the eucalyptus tree's branches. If you wait long enough, one of these lumps will turn its head towards you and give a lazy yawn. Voila - koala bears.......

These lazy little marsupials (they aren't actually bears) sleep up to 20 hours a day to conserve their energy and keep their metabolism rates low. This is because they consume only eucalyptus leaves, which are limited in calories, proteins and basically any usable nutrients. Being confined to one food group also severely limits their range to certain parts of Australia. Koalas have 2 opposable thumbs, which enable them to grip the trees more securely during their extended naps. They also have fingerprints that are remarkably similar to humans, an unusual trait in the animal world. Best of all - they are just goddamn cute!!

Not to be outdone, the kangaroos and wallabies showed up during our journey in impressive numbers. Actually kangaroos are considered a bit of a pest in Australia as they graze on valuable farmland and are so plentiful that there are grills on the front of most cars to prevent damage when you hit them. Car rental companies generally warn their customers to not drive after dark, just to avoid this complication. Most camping areas we stayed in had a few of these fellas hanging around, some more tame than others. We also managed to see an elusive echinadae (kind of like a really big hedgehog with a pointed nose - of course you can't see its nose here because its managed to roll itself into a ball AND bury itself in the dirt), wild emus and about a million different bird species, none of which I can identify.

After the "O.K." Ocean Road we headed inland towards Grampians National Park. Grampians is a well known holiday destination for the outdoorsy folks that live in Melbourne. It covers a huge range in Victoria province and is best remembered for is beautiful forests set amongst extensive limestone mountain ranges. Many of the trees are centuries old and help to provide breathtaking scenery. It also is infamous for its aboriginal rock art paintings, many of them thousands of years old. This area was the range for the Koori Aboriginal Tribe who recorded their dreamtime legends and ceremonies on the recessed walls of caves throughout the park, making it a valuable historical site.

Unfortunately a huge forest fire ripped through the park in January 2006, destroying almost half of the Grampians' old growth trees. Some 62,000 sheep in the surrounding farmlands were burned to death, along with 120,000 acres of bush and farmland, destroying several homes along the way. Today there are several roads and hiking paths in the park that are still closed. Of the ones that are open, you can still see burned trunks of destroyed trees. The park makes a big deal of having a unique opportunity to view a forest springing back to life after a mammoth natural disaster (which is, after all, only a part of a natural process of renewal), but it does seem like we missed out on seeing something grand by not getting here ahead of the bushfire.

Fortunately the fire did not make it to several of the aboriginal rock art sites, including the Billimina shelter and the Gulgurn Manja shelter, which we visited. They also have a fantastic visitor's centre that is set up detailing the history of the aboriginals in Australia. You, like me, probably have a vague idea that in the war of the worlds, the Australian aboriginals didn't do so great. As a matter of fact, the entire population was almost decimated.

For 25,000 years before the arrival of Europeans in the 1770's, the population of aboriginal Australians remained stable. Estimates placed the population at around 500,000, maybe as many as 1 million. By the 1860's almost 98% of the aboriginal population was decimated due to a combination of disease, violence against them inflicted by Europeans, and starvation after being driven off of traditional hunting grounds. By 1883 only 1000 pure blood aboriginals were left in all of Australia.

Convinced that the population would die out, the European government attempted to integrate the aboriginals, particularly the mixed raced children, into their society. With supposedly the best of intentions, aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in missionary schools, some hundreds of kilometres away from their homes (great movie about this is one called "Rabbit Proof Fence").

As the aboriginals began to develop resistance to diseases, their populations stabilized and began to rise again. Unfortunately, racial stereotyping and discrimination continued. It wasn't until 1963 that aboriginal Australians were actually given the right to vote. Today many in the indigenous community continue to struggle with alcohol and drug addictions. Less than 40% will finish highschool, and their average household income is a 1/3 less than that of Australians of european ancestry. Their life expectancy is 17 years less than that of other Australians and they are 11 times more likely to end up serving a prison term.

Regardless, the aboriginals here have a proud and extensive history and are working hard to not lose their heritage. In the area we were camping in, aboriginals could claim ancestory going back for 1600 generations!

After the Grampians we just touched on the edges of the outback's eastern side up by Mungo National Park. We then turned our car to the right and headed back to Sydney. On the way to town we passed through Blue Mountain National Park. It is called this due to the bluish mist that hangs over the area because of the large number of eucalyptus trees excreting an oil that vapourizes. This vapour is highly flammable, making the area particularly vulnerable to bush fires. During extreme heat, the volatile oils have even been known to explode.

We made sure to take in Govetts Leap and take a quick trek out to Wentworth Falls, though part of the trail to the bottom of the waterfall was closed due to unstable conditions. After this we headed north of Sydney to the town of Port Stephens.

In Port Stephens we had a day to wander around and decided to take a "marine explorer's" day trip. Port Stephens is reknowned for its pod of gregarious bottlenose dolphins. About 80 animals make up the pod that inhabit the harbour here, and are a large tourist draw. Strict measures to protect the pod have been enforced, and no boat is allowed to approach closer than 50 metres or entice the dolphins with food, though the dolphins quite regularly come right up to the boat with no urging, strictly out of curiosity. There is a popular viewing area called The Boulders in Port Stephens where the dolphins will arrive daily in order to push themselves amongst the millions of river smoothed pebbles to clean any lice or dirt they have on them off.

We were lucky enough to have a mother and calf join us for most of our boat trip, riding on the bow wave close enough to almost touch. We were heading out to Cabbage Tree Island, the only place in the world to find the endangered Gould's petrel, which has had a recent population come back due to intensive conservation efforts. Here we put on our snorkels and fins and got into the water to have a little look around. Unfortunately, this is an area dolphins don't come into, so we weren't able to swim with them. But what you could see was thousands of little translucent jelly fish of varying hues, bobbing along in the waves. As well there was some impressive kelp beds and a large grouper that the boat operators fed some sea urchins to in order to entice it out from behind its protective rocks.

After this, we continued on to the Stockton Beach Sand Dunes. This is a 32km long beach covered with massive sand dunes, many over 30m high. We were here in order to track down the wreck of the Sygna, a bulk carrier that was capsized in 1974 less than 100 metres off shore. The ship's captain foolishly decided to try and sail during a storm with gales of 165km/hr and had his ship forced sideways into the shore, where its stern settled into the sand, water breaking the 53,000 tonne ship in half.

By now we had managed to fill up a week of aimless wandering around NSW and Victoria and headed back to Sydney to return our rental car. We then FLEW to Perth, having given up on the idea of driving there. I was quite excited by the idea of seeing Perth, having not made it there the last time I was in Australia and having heard many good things about the city. Well, the city itself is quite nice - lots of green space, good pubs and restaurants, very clean, friendly people - but, oh my god.............it was 42 degrees the day we got there and it never really got much cooler. We had hostels refusing to rent out rooms because they had no air conditioning, which meant we had to stay in a more expensive hotel and hunker down in the heat of the day watching tv. We did manage to go out to a wildlife reserve one day when it was a bit cooler, but its really hard to enjoy it when all the animals are hidden in the shade trying to avoid the sun. We also went to Freemantle Beach to take in the annual modern art sculpture festival. Otherwise we stuck to air conditioned movie theatres, cafes, restaurants and hotel rooms until we could make it to the airport and fly on out to Jakarta.

So all in all, our experience in Australia was expensive (much more so that we were used to after South America) and not as fun as the last time I was there. I think that Australia is a fantastic country to visit, but you have to go willing to do a lot of flying around because the distances are so vast, and the main sites are widely spaced out. We didn't make it to the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru or Kakadu National Park, which means we missed out on the some of the best that the country has to offer to visitors. Next time, I think a totally separate trip is in order for this country..................

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