Sunday, January 9, 2011

Last Day Down Under

So I’ve finally caught up to the present day with my blog, but it’s on my last day in Australia.  Last night I took the overnight train from Byron Bay all the way down to Sydney.  Left at 5:17 PM and arrived bright and early at 6:52 AM.  It was nice to walk around the city so early in the day, when everyone was sleeping in on Sunday morning.  After checking into a hostel I headed over to the National Maritime Museum and found some interesting exhibits.

Now that's my kind of boat.

Entry to the museum was free but there was an extra charge to board the floating exhibits.  I couldn’t resist the urge to set foot on the newly built replica of Captain Cook’s vessel the HMS Endeavour so I ponied up the $9 and stepped on board.  It was worth it.

I learned some interesting tidbits of information.  The Endeavour is a pretty small ship—it takes less than 20 men to sail it—but Cook had a crew of over 90 on his first voyage to Australia.  They had to add in an extra deck to house the extra passengers, so the boat was fit more for hobbits than men.  Captain Cook was also one of the first to prevent scurvy on a long ocean voyage by having everyone eat sauerkraut.  He got his crew to eat it by having all the officers get the sole “privilege” at first.  When the crew demanded to be fed sauerkraut too he was more than happy to oblige.

Avast me hearties! It's the bilge-master!

After leaving the museum I walked through downtown Sydney towards Hyde Park.  It’s an impressive park with massive trees throughout.  At the other end I came upon a massive stone building and one of its huge wooden doors was ajar so I decided to check it out.  The building turned out to be St. Mary’s Cathedral.  Had I known I was stumbling into a Cathedral I probably wouldn’t have been impressed, but because it was not what I was expecting (I was looking for the state library) it was a pretty awe-inspiring.  Photography was not allowed so I drew a quick sketch instead.

A little messy, but you get the idea.

I eventually made it to the State Library of New South Wales, where I sit now.  Might stay here for some time; public wireless and air conditioning is a great combination.  Tomorrow around noon I bid farewell to Australia and fly out of Sydney International Airport, just about six months from my arrival.  It’s been a while and I am certainly ready to get back to the States.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

More Tales of Wwoofing

My three weeks as a wwoofer have been very eventful.  For one there were the holidays in the middle, which were pretty strange for me.  I am used to a white Christmas in cold New England, and a traditional Polish Wigilia Christmas Eve dinner with my family.  We start after the first star comes out, put hay under the tablecloth, break off pieces of the Christmas wafer and wish each other good fortune, and pass around the traditional herring dish that only mom eats.

This year the French guys and I grilled up some juicy steaks.  With shorts on no less, because it was warm (probably high 70s) and raining outside.  The steaks came out real well, though, after Julien and I whipped up a quick marinade with what we could find in the cupboard (soy sauce, olive oil, lots of chopped garlic, salt and pepper, dried basil, lemon juice, and Dijon mustard).  And earlier in the evening Pierre and I rolled up a ton of sushi for our Christmas dinner, after a quick lesson from Catherine (she went to her brother’s for dinner).

Our Christmas feast of... Sushi!

Christmas morning we spent with the neighbors and had a little Secret Santa gift exchange.  That was nice, but it still felt weird to spend Christmas a world away from my home.  In the evening the French guys and I drove their van to a little party at the coastal house of one of Catherine’s mates.  It had rained all day so on the way back we encountered some water over the road.  We strayed a little too close to the edge of the road and in the deeper water the van stalled out.  Pierre and I jumped out and had to push the van out the rest of the way out of the water.  Then we waited 15 minutes before “Herbie” would start again.  A strange end to Christmas day.

New Years Eve was no different.  I spent the night on the veranda of a neighbor and some of their friends.  I was the only one under 50.  The next day they asked me if I had fun, and I answered, “Yeah, for sure.  I got a different perspective.”  Which was true.  And not just because of the age gap.  I was so used to watching the Times Square ball drop on TV to usher in the New Year, but we were 14 hours ahead of New York, so we only had the clock to go by and once it struck midnight we celebrated with a toast of sambuca (all the champagne was gone by then).

Since it’s been the holidays Catherine has had a lot of time off to show me around the area.  One day she took me to Minyon Falls in one of the nearby National Parks.  The falls were absolutely gushing because we had just had six straight days of rain.  It was an impressive sight.  We were on a viewing platform on the edge of the cliff, 100 meters up from the forest floor.  I know that because there was a sign that said, “Danger: 100 Metre Fall over cliff.” 

At one point we shared the platform with a modern-day Kokopelli, who chose to sit up on the railing at the very edge.  Keep in mind that 100 meter fall over the cliff.  It was a very gusty day too, so I applaud the man’s courage.  If he was a man…

The spirit-figure's reincarnation.

A few days later we took advantage of a perfect beach day.  With a few of her mates (and their kids), Catherine took me to Whites beach, a hidden gem along the now-touristy coast around Byron Bay.  There was a steep path no longer than a kilometer down to the beach.  Coming up from the sand were rock formations that Catherine referred to as “pirate caves.”  I am more than happy to believe that tale.

Where's the buried treasure???

There were also plenty of palm/mangrove trees on a beach around the rock outcropping.  They were great to climb up and sit in, and close enough together that I could swing from one to the next.  There was hardly anyone else on the beach either and we had a nice picnic to finish the day off.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

On Cudgerie Hill

After three more nights of hostel living in the beach town of Byron Bay, I moved 30 minutes inland to the tiny village of Clunes, where I have been wwoofing since December 19th.  WWOOF stands for “willing workers on organic farms” and the deal is I work four hours a day (with one rest day) for food and a place to stay.  This is my first time wwoofing, but I think I have a pretty good situation.  It’s not exactly working on a farm, but I fill the role of resident gardener/help around the house.

I have a great bedroom to myself in my host’s mud brick home and three nutritious meals a day.  My host (Catherine) has spent most of her working life as a documentary filmmaker and she lives in a small community (four houses) of other artists, including another filmmaker, a composer, and a graphic designer.  They call this place “Cudgerie Hill.”  I haven’t asked why.  I dig the neighborly feel that exists here, though; they share tools and supplies and often have dinners together.

Complete with sweet as mosquito net.

That being said, this place would be a great setting for a murder mystery novel.  A small, remote, rural community with international wwoofers coming in and out—when I arrived there were two French guys also staying—where tensions could easily flare.  They don’t lock doors either (if they even have the keys).  And if the floodwaters rise then the area can quickly become isolated: water can cover all the main roads when they dip down into the surrounding valleys.  Everyone would be stuck here for a few days, plenty of time to solve a mystery.  I’ll have to give it some thought.

The view a hundred meters down the road.

Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed living and working here in the subtropical rainforest.  The French guys—Julien and Pierre—and I overlapped for a week and it was fun having other wwoofers here.  It certainly made the work easier, especially when we had to do forest weeding, which is real soulless work.  A lot of invasive species have flourished in this area, so to re-establish the rainforest we have to rip out all the forest undergrowth and then plant indigenous trees.  It’s especially hard to motivate yourself when the forest extends as far as you can see down the hill.

Forest weeding's a bitch.
Pierre and Julien with their freshly painted van, Herbie.

This post is starting to get long so I’ll have to continue in the next one with all the activities I’ve been doing and perhaps my daily schedule.  For now I’ll list some of the tasks I’ve done:
  • weeding
  • planting hydrangeas
  • pruning guava trees
  • more weeding
  • picking and pruning lemon trees
  • banana bagging
  • painting outside, staining inside
  • a little more weeding
  • leaf blowing

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Week on the Road

I had the desire to go on a road trip for some time—ever since I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road a couple summers ago—and I got the chance at the beginning of December.  For a little over week Tommy, Tina, Richie, and I made our way up the coast from Sydney to Brisbane, in style.  We rented a campervan to make the trip and stayed in caravan parks at night.  We spent nights at Port Macquarie, Byron Bay, and Coolangatta on the Gold Coast.

Our house on wheels, taken by Tommy.

The road trip was a good first attempt.  There are some things I will do differently the next time, like for one not spend so much money.  On top of the campervan rental we had to buy a lot of gas, pay for the surprising expensive nights in the caravan parks, buy food and groceries (a necessity I guess), and pony up for attractions along the way.  It was also difficult because everyone on the trip was working from a different budget.  I ended up spending way more than I intended, but I had a great time so I can’t really complain.

During the day we spent a lot of our time at gorgeous beaches.  We also went to two World Heritage-listed rain forests.  I think they were both Gondwanan so the vegetation was the same as it was hundreds of millions of years ago.  I’ll get photos from one of my friends soon.  At the second one, Mt. Cougal National Park, there was a rain forest stream that we drank from and as we were standing in the water Tina noticed a large object moving around next to us.  It was dark red and about a meter long with arms and legs, so I think it was a huge salamander or something of the kind.  Definitely up there for coolest animal I’ve seen in the wild.  It didn’t stick around long though, and just after we caught a glimpse it quickly swam away.

The nights in Byron Bay were fun.  We saw a lot of live music both in bars and on the street corners.  But the first caravan park we stayed at there—Tourist Village—was awful.  To me it seemed like a maximum-security prison: barbed wire fences around the perimeter and you had to enter a code to just walk out of the park.  We moved to a better spot (First Sun Caravan Park) the next night and didn’t look back.

The last day we were on the Gold Coast, which is renowned for its theme parks so we spent the afternoon at Wet ‘N’ Wild water park.  It was worth it.  The day was cloudy and a little drizzly so #1 I didn’t get sunburnt and #2 the crowds really thinned out towards the end of the day.  We went on the best ride three times in a row.  Overall, for the first attempt at a road trip it was successful.  Next time, though, I'll try to channel more of the frugality and spontaneity of Kerouac and Cassady.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chasing the Sunrise

The morning after our jaunt to Katoomba Falls Richie and I planned to “carpe diem” and wake up early to watch the sun rise over the Blue Mountains.  The girl at the information desk had pointed us to Sublime Point in the next town over, Leura, as a good outlook with easterly views.  The plan was to get a taxi there at 5:10 AM and then hike back along a cliff-side trail.  We woke up at 5 AM but we probably wouldn’t have gotten out of bed if we didn’t see a bright pink streak across the sky outside our window.

That sight mobilized us.  We got our taxi out there but the driver ripped us off—$20 for an eight-minute ride over to Leura.  And it turns out that Leura must be a couple hundred feet lower in elevation than Katoomba because we were firmly in the clouds and couldn’t really see anything.  Our hostel room was above the clouds, but Sublime Point not so much.  A couple times the clouds lifted for a moment so we could see into the valley, but that’s about it.

Peeking under clouds.

We decided to give up at about 6:10 AM and head back.  The experience reminded me of a family vacation to St. John a few years ago when my brothers and I woke up before light to hike out to a promontory named Ram’s Head to see the sunrise.  That attempt failed miserably as well, with a large cloud blocking the sun in front of us.  I don’t have any photos from that event, but here’s an artist’s depiction:

Facebook "graffiti" by Zack Nolan.

Back in the Blue Mountains, Richie and I couldn’t find the cliff-side trail that led back to Katoomba.  We tried bushwhacking for a little ways, but no dice.  We ended up running back along the roads, up the couple hundred feet of elevation.  When we made it to the hostel we passed out for an hour and a half but still managed to catch the 10:20 AM train back to Syndey for a great day/evening/night.

The road to Katoomba.

Later we both decided that it’s fruitless to chase the sunrise, and that you have to let the sunrise come to you.  Under a week later we (with two friends Tommy and Tina) were at a caravan park in Byron Bay, halfway through our road trip from Sydney to Brisbane (more on this later).  After a long night out on the town—I won’t go into details—we were sitting in camp chairs, discussing matters.  The sky slowly began to lighten and before we even realized it there was a sunrise in front of our eyes.

I guess you just can’t force these things.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blue Mountains Escapade

Back on the morning of the 8th I landed in Sydney with my friend Richie, a fellow American who lived down the hall from me at Ormond College.  We had a couple days to kill before our other friends arrived for our road trip to Brisbane so we decided to spend the night at the Blue Mountains.  We caught the train out of the city and arrived in Katoomba a little after 3 PM.  We lugged our bags to the cheapest hostel—Katoomba Mountain Lodge or something like that—got a couple beds, and walked up the street until we reached the Echo Point information centre.

After admiring the view from the outlook we entered the information centre.  It was about 4:30 PM so we had a few hours of daylight left to explore the area and the girl behind the desk gave us a map and highlighted a trail and we were on our way.  The trail first took us down a series of steps around a cliff then leveled off for a few km. 

We reached the base of the Katoomba Falls and a little area amid the subtropical rainforest with a few picnic tables called “Katoomba Falls Viewing Area.”  You could only catch a small glimpse of the waterfall through the dense foliage and I was supremely disappointed.  Richie warned me not to have expectations.  We continued up the trail and soon came across a path leading towards the Falls.  We kept getting better and better views and my faith in the Blue Mountains Par Service was restored.  Then we reached a spur that said “Under Falls Trail – 10 min” and promptly took it.

It was incredible.  If you’re ever going to visit the Katoomba Falls I seriously recommend doing it at around 6 PM.  You’ll miss out on the tram ride across the cliffs, but you’re lucky like us there will be no one there.  We had the Falls to ourselves so we could get really close up to them.  It was a pretty magical experience to be alone with something so powerful and impressive in nature.

The top of the Falls, up close.
My friend Richie at the bottom, for scale.

They had two tiers and we were out on the middle level rock platform with the Falls pounding down behind us and then dropping off below us, in front of beautiful views of the blue Mountains.  Amazing.

Where the Under Falls trail took us.
View from the platform.

It was getting pretty late, though, so we hiked out, walked back along the roads, and stopped at the grocery store to buy the supplies for our feast of sausages and salad.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Last Great Ocean Walk Post

I really have to catch up on what I've done the last two and a half weeks, but I'll have this last post as a place to collect my thoughts about the Great Ocean Walk.  It was the longest backpacking trip I’ve done at 6 days and 100 km.  Going into the hike I thought I could probably do it in 5 days, but now I would not recommend doing it in any less than 6 if you’re carrying all your gear and food.  The track is deceptively hilly and hiking on the beach is not as easy as it sounds.  Walking in the sand worked different leg muscles than normal terrain and really tired out the calves.  Plus on the shorter days (which were 14-15 km) we would just spend an hour or two lying on the beach.

I really enjoyed this hike and it’s nice to know it will only get better.  When I did it there was a fair amount of walking along roads, but Parks Victoria is working on a couple realignments that should be done soon, if not already.  The trail wasn’t crowded at all either.  I can almost count the number of groups we saw on one hand: the father and son team, the elderly crowd, the school group, the army patrol, and the four ladies.  There were a handful of tourists at the more accessible points as well, but for most of the time we had the trail to ourselves.  The campsites were mostly empty as well.  We didn’t reserve any sites and with the exception of Johanna Beach we didn’t have a problem showing up and claiming a spot.

At Cape Otway, Day 2 campsite
From outlook above Ryan's Den, Day 4 campsite

The hike also reaffirmed my belief that the best views don’t come from viewing platforms, but are off the beaten track.  And there’s no railing in front of you either.  In addition to great views we also saw a lot of wildlife.  Here’s my list of the animals we saw:
  • 5 black wallabies
  • 4 koalas (heard many more)
  • 4 echidnas
  • 2 pairs of hooded plovers
  • 1 bird of prey (kestrel?)
  • 1 heron
  • Super Fairy Wrens
  • Crimson Rosellas
  • Yellowtail Black Cockatoos
  • Galahs
  • Many lizards (one big one)
  • Scorpions (found in Sytske’s bag one morning)
And here are my journal entries for each day of the hike:

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Great Ocean Walk Day 6

Journal Entry: Friday 3/12/2010

We woke up early today because we had to catch a 3 PM bus from the 12 Apostles.  We made it out of the campsite a little past 8:30 AM and bid farewell to the school group.  The morning was along dirt roads again—the realignments here were not complete either.  At ~11:30 AM we passed Princetown Camp Ground and made a side trip to the town centre.  We stopped at the Talk of the Town pub for a real meal.  I had a burger with the lot and a cold VB.  Delicious.

After lunch we continued down dirt roads with the sun beating down on us.  At this point the hike started to get tedious—toiling away under the hot sun—but soon the road turned to a path and then at the crest of a hill the 12 Apostles came into view, all in a row off in the distance.

Apostles ahead.

The image left me revitalized, and glimpses of the Apostles kept me going the rest of the way.  Before long we broke out onto a parking lot off the Great Ocean Road.  On a wooden post someone had scratched “End GOW.”  Not a very ceremonious end to the hike, but that’s okay because it was more about the sights along the way.

Black wallaby spotting.

We continued down the Great Ocean Road for about 2 kms, walking on the side of the road, until we reached the 12 Apostles car park, which was packed as usual.  As we headed down to the viewing platforms a sudden downpour started, sending all the tourists in search of cover.  We stuck it out with a couple other brave souls and got soaked, but we had the platform to ourselves.  Then as the rain stopped we headed out to the bus stop as everyone came streaming back.  It seemed a fitting end to the hike.

A little wet.

I’ll put up a post soon with a little debrief about the Great Ocean Walk and a list of the wildlife we spotted.  I’ve done so much since the Walk too that I have to catch up on.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Great Ocean Walk Day 5

Journal Entry: Thursday 2/12/10

“Today is gonna be a hot one.”  Sytske’s first words to me as she pokes her head in the tent.  She’s been up for an hour and she expected me to wake up too, but she didn’t know how deep a sleeper I am.  Today’s hike has been pretty usual (for the Great Ocean Walk).  At least in the morning.  Lots of ups and downs with outlooks scattered along the trail.  Eventually we broke out onto a road (dirt) and saw the school group’s van.  They were heading out early to skip ahead to the 12 Apostles, staying the night at the next campsite, then heading back to Brisbane.

Echidna petting.

Down the road a ways they caught up to us and gave us a ~5 minute lift to the next junction.  They’re hiking into the campsite tonight so we’ll see them one more time.  After continuing on dirt roads for a while we descended the 366 steps to Wreck Beach.  We arrived at low tide, which was the perfect time to see the anchors embedded in the sand.

After we hiked along the beach a while we got to the point where the trail veers inland, up to the campsite.  We stopped to eat lunch and I sit here now, roasting in the mid-afternoon sun.  Today has been the first really nice weather day—by normal standards, anyway.  Hot and sunny most of the day while the others have been overcast and cool.  Those days are better for hiking, though, because I have been sweating buckets today.  We’ve been on this beach for 1+ hour and haven’t seen another soul.

. . .

I took a quick dip in the ocean, basically just wading in and then diving under a wave—the beach wasn’t great for swimming because there were rocks everywhere and a strong rip.  From the beach it took about 30 minutes to hike up the gully to Devil’s Kitchen Campsite.  It was deserted.  There was a great outlook above the last campsite and from the camp toilet.

As I was sitting up there I noticed what I thought looked like smoke but I wasn’t sure.  Then, as Sytske and I were watching the sunset ash started to fall from the sky.  The school group hadn’t shown up either so I was starting to get a little worried.  In my mind I was planning a mad dash back down to the beach to escape the approaching flames.  But eventually the group arrived at 9 PM and reported that as they were driving they saw the smoke of a bush fire off in the distance.  They didn’t seem too worried about it so I forgot about the threat.  The skies cleared up and the stars that night were amazing—I even saw a few shooting stars.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Great Ocean Walk Day 4

Journal Entry: Wednesday 1/12/10

This morning was a much less glamorous section of the hike.  It started well, with pastoral hills dotted with cows that very much reminded me of Ireland.  The sun was peeking out through the clouds and I was sweating going up the first hill.  At the top I turned to Sytske and said, “I don’t want to jinx it, but if it’s this warm this early, it’s gonna be a hot one.”  Pretty soon the wind picked up, clouds descended, and the mist came in.  I was even more reminded of Ireland.

The trail ahead.

The entire walk before lunch (~10 km) was on dirt road past the occasional home.  One house left out water and had marmalade for sale.  Sytske bought a jar.  We finally made it down to the beach where we stopped for lunch. 

We saw them in real life, too.

As we were eating a group of four ladies walked by.  As we packed up and started walking further down the beach they were coming back towards us.  One of them, the short round one, was soaking wet.  “You can’t go that way,” they said.  “It’s too dangerous.”  We told them we would check it out and, yes, with the tide coming in we did have to scramble a bit, but we made it.

Past the scramble.

There was an extremely helpful rock formation that left round stones poking out of the rock face, providing perfect foot and hand holds and we may not have made it without those.  From the beach we ascended through short jungle-like scrub with magnificent views of the cliffs below.  The afternoon definitely made up for the dull morning.  I had to remind myself to enjoy the view not through my camera, but in person.  A few times we spotted a black wallaby bounding up the trail ahead of us.

Afternoon's views. 

A shorter day than the rest, we reached Ryan’s Den Campsite a little past 3 PM.  Deserted.  There was a great lookout at the top of the camp site that we sat and enjoyed for a while then we played cards until the school group showed up at maybe 4:30.  I beat Sytske at every card game we played: Spit, Speed, and an epic game of Egyptian Rat Screw.  After the school group no one else showed up at the campsite so we claimed a spot and set up.

We shared the shelter/kitchen with the school group and their leader and talked and told stories for a few hours.  They had just finished Year 12 and were from Brisbane.  It was fun to watch the banter between them.  We’re staying at the same campsite tomorrow too…