Travelogue Australia 2001
11/1/01 – 12/1/01: Australia
This is going to be a very, very long day. It starts with the super-shuttle from my home at 1:15pm. At least, that’s when it was supposed to arrive. I was more than a little surprised that they were willing to pick me up at my home in the mountains. There was an extra charge, but they were willing. I suspect that they might be trying to find new ways to drum up business since the post-September 11 travel slowdown. In reality the shuttle got to my house at about 1:50, which meant there was no way we were going to make the 2:00pm rendezvous with the real airport shuttle. [SuperShuttle runs a series of small vans around town, which take everyone to a central hotel. From there they are put onto a larger bus that goes to the airport.] As a result, the driver took me all the way to the airport. A pretty sweet deal since I was the only rider.
I was very apprehensive about the airport experience given what I have been hearing on the news about long lines and extensive security checks. At the airport the lines to check in looked to be about normal, pre-terrorism size. At United Airlines in Denver, “normal” means about a 20-minute wait. I was thankful that I am still a United 1K member, so I got to go into the empty 1K line. This is my last year for 1K luxury, as I’ve hardly flown at all.
I had heard that the trick to get through security quickly at DIA was to ignore the main security checkpoint and instead walk to concourse A, then go through security there. I asked the clerk at checkin about this, but she assured me that the security lines were no longer a problem. As I walked along the upper mezzanine, I looked down on the main security checkpoint. Indeed, the lines didn’t look long at all. It probably wouldn’t have taken longer than 5 minutes to get through. However, I was keen to check out the concourse A trick, so I walked across the skybridge (assisted by a moving walkway.) Sure enough, at concourse A there was no line whatsoever. As I was walking towards the security checkpoint I passed a table with a sign noting that all electronic devices must be x-rayed, including laptops, PDAs, cell phones, etc. There were two agents handing out plastic boxes to put your electronics into for x-raying. I asked if they needed me to take my PDA out of my backpack, or if it could be x-rayed along with the rest of my stuff. The agent said “to tell you the truth… what is a PDA, anyway?” Hmmmm. Not quite the confident, reassuring security I was looking for. I explained what a PDA was, and he opined that it could probably stay in my pack, but my laptop had to be x-rayed separately. All told, I found the security experience to be identical to what I was used to, and I made it through faster than I ever have before. The only difference was that this time a soldier in full military fatigues, carrying a machine-gun, handed me a Jolly Rancher candy after I got through. Nice touch.
The Red Carpet club was relatively empty, and the plane was scheduled to be on time. All seems well in the land of United. Ooops! Update: so much for everything going smoothly. Turns out there was a smell in the cabin of the plane which meant they had to replace a filter in the air conditioning system. As of my 5:00pm departure time the status was “delayed”, with the expectation that they might know the new departure time around 6:00pm. We’ll see if it gets off the ground before the next regularly scheduled flight at 7:50. I asked the agent in the Red Carpet Club to book me a seat on the 7:50 flight just in case. Sigh.
Wow. What a classic. Delay, delay, gate change, delay. Finally the 5:00pm flight was so late that the 7:50pm was going to be leaving first! An announcement was made that all passengers with international connections should leave the gate for the 5:00pm and go to the 7:50pm. Off I went to gate 38. I hoofed it so I wouldn’t have to wait too long in line. It worked. In short order I had my new boarding pass for the 7:50pm flight. Of course, the ironic thing is that I had booked myself onto the 5:00pm so I would have plenty of time to make my 10:50pm flight to Melbourne, just in case anything went wrong. When I booked, the United agent tried to convince me to take the 7:50, which would have been a safe connection. How did I know something would go wrong? Perhaps it is because I cannot remember the last time I was on a United flight that departed on time. The last one I was on a few months ago was cancelled outright.
But wait. As I was sitting in my new seat on the 7:50 flight, passengers started pouring on. I asked the attendant what was up. Turns out they had finally cancelled the 5:00pm flight. Clearly the cancellation was not due to the mechanical problem, but rather because they didn’t want to run two flights at the same time. Meanwhile, they had to figure out what to do with both crews. My seat was the exit row seat directly at the cabin door, so I got to watch the whole Keystone Cops caper unfold in front of me. The flight was originally supposed to have 12 attendants, and couldn’t have more than 19. Thus ensued a wild process of jockeying for seniority, figuring out who had the most hours this week, a little arm wrestling, and a rock-paper-scissors competition. Four passengers were booted off the plane, four others were escorted on. I overheard the purser say that they had made space by removing “non-airline assets”, whatever the heck that means. I have never seen so many flight attendants in one place at one time.
Finally all the appropriate attendants and passengers had been ejected, and the privileged few were sealed inside the cabin. At 8:30pm we pushed back from the gate, 5 ½ hours after my arrival at the airport. Not that I really cared. All I wanted was to make it to LAX before my Melbourne connection; hopefully my bags would be making the same trip. I wouldn’t have a 4 hour stopover in LA, but so what?
Throughout the flight the attendants continued to fall all over each other. It took two attendants to take away my dinner tray. Go figure. I was pleased to have gotten a meal. Just this week United cancelled meals on flights under 3 ½ hours. Ouch. Also, during the mad dance of the attendants, I heard them say that they weren’t able to board food for all the passengers. I had assumed I would be eating on a 5pm flight, then again during my layover in LA. After hearing about the lack of food I imagined I’d be dining on my trusty PowerBar, but that turned out not to be necessary. The meal was satisfactory but ignorable. It was entertaining to see that my silverware was metal for all pieces except the knife, which was replaced with plastic. It is a brave new world in the air.
Thankfully the LAX connection worked fine. The plane from Denver landed at a gate next door to the one for my plane to Melbourne, the plane was there, working, and ready to board in just a few minutes. Since the Denver flight had me seated next to the exit door, I was first off the plane, and was able to hop directly to the non-existent line at my new gate. I showed them my passport, checked to make sure everything was on schedule, and waited a scant 5 minutes before boarding to the nice upper-deck business class seat for a very long flight.
True to form the turbulence was pretty bad, though not the worst I have experience crossing the Pacific. I don’t know if it is the time of year that I travel, or the Pacific in general, but there is always turbulence. During my many drowses I found myself wondering how sea-sickness (or in this case air-sickness) evolved, since we humans spend our formative 9 months sloshing back and forth inside our mothers. I would imagine that turbulence would be more soothing than disturbing. Go figure.
November 2, 2001
Due to crossing the International Date Line, this day ceased to exist. It’s kind of amazing how that happens.
We landed into a rainy day in Auckland, where most of the passengers were disembarking. Those of us continuing on to Melbourne would have a two-hour layover. However, it turned out that our airport time would only be one hour, since we would be re-boarding at 9:00am for the 9:50am flight out. I used my ground time by first checking out the duty-free shops. I quickly determined that the prices for champagne and cigars duty free were far higher than the prices for the same items in the USA with full tax. No great surprise – getting these luxury items all the way to New Zealand must add significantly to the cost.
Next stop was the Air New Zealand/United Airlines international lounge. It was a beautiful, spacious, clean and airy lounge offering a nice selection of beverages, fruits and pastries. I started with my standard layover-shower. The shower facilities were very good, though amenities like razors and toothbrushes were not automatically provided. I was startled to find that the shampoo was the same obscure boutique brand that I use back home. Wow. The raspberry flavored soap was a bit much though. After I left the showers I could tell people were looking at me funny due to my fruity smell.
I love the announcements in the lounge here. They were constantly saying things like “AN451 is now boarding for Sydney, Australia. If we could trouble you to go to gate 4 it would be our great pleasure to serve you there.” And so on. All very, dare I say painfully, civilized.
Back on board UA841. The plane, which had been full coming over from Los Angeles, is now 1/3 empty. I guess most Americans either go to New Zealand, or else fly directly to Sydney. Melbourne via Auckland is clearly less desirable.
Landing at Melbourne was uneventful. Unlike my last trip to Oz, I booked a straight line from the airplane to immigration, and made it through with no line whatsoever. Baggage claim and customs took some time but was no problem. An AU$40 taxi ride took me the 20 minutes to my hotel. I could have done it more cheaply by the airport shuttle, but I wanted to get in and relax.
My room at Le Meridien is very nice, and a pretty good deal. For some reason they were offering a special rate on a deluxe club room. The price for my “club floor” room was far less than the prices for standard rooms. The travel industry never fails to amaze and confuse. I did some unpacking, got online and signed up for an Australian ISP (OzEmail.com), then went down to the hotel restaurant for a light meal. I ordered a smoked trout salad that sounded nice. It turned out to be very good, but tiny, and completely devoid of salad. Basically it was a conical stack of smoked trout and avocado. Yummy, but stingy for AU$20 with a coke.
In a bit of a daze I walked around town. I was very interested to see a display of painted pony statues on the Bourke St. Mall. They were virtually identical to the “Trail of the Painted Ponies” that I had seen exhibited in various locations around New Mexico last month. A plaque talked about the exhibit and its relationship to painted animal statuary becoming popular around the world. Otherwise, most things were closed. I looked at fountains and people in the Southgate area, and watched some buskers perform. None of them were nearly as good as in my home town of Boulder, Colorado. I stopped in at Kirra gallery, a great art glass gallery in the Southgate mall where I had bought some exceptional pieces during my last visit to Melbourne. There were some very nice things on display, but nothing really grabbed me, and I was reluctant to make such a purchase in my jet-lagged state.
I started looking around for a place to eat, but most places were full with a line. I ended up having dinner at Saturne in Southgate (9645-9499). The place didn’t look distinguished, but there was no line and the daily special (linguini with prawns and bugs) sounded good. It was OK. I had a great Cascade Premium beer. I don’t usually like lagers, but I like this one. Crisp, clean but flavorful, not too bitter. It is brewed in Hobart at the oldest brewery in Australia, founded in 1824.
Everywhere I went women were wearing hats. Apparently it has something to do with the upcoming Melbourne Cup race. Most of them were big floppy hats, but there was the occasional beehive. Regardless of the shape, all the hats were wildly done up with taffeta, lace, ribbons, flowers and preposterous feathers. It all has a very unreal quality. Jackie-O would have loved it.
Somehow I managed to stay up till 9pm before going comatose.
On the flight over I was taking pills called “No-JetLag”. They claimed to be a homeopathic jetlag remedy, and were quite expensive (US$10 for a package.) I couldn’t really fathom how they were supposed to work; the directions called for taking one on takeoff, then one every two hours until touchdown. Pretty simple, but only tangentially related to time zones. After all, the directions don’t account for day flights versus night flights, long north-south voyages that cross few time zones (e.g. Boston to Brazil), etc. Nonetheless I figured they couldn’t hurt. Last night it had seemed like maybe they had been effective – I had stayed up until 9pm, which was a major accomplishment for me. Unfortunately the night didn’t go so well. I woke up at 3am, 4am, 5am, and 6am. Finally I gave up on sleeping went down for my included breakfast at 6:30am. It was a very fine spread, though clearly they weren’t quite ready at 6:30am, the advertised starting time, and my body wasn’t quite ready for breakfast either.
In spite of being a “club room” at a fine Meridien hotel, I am not happy with the accommodations. It is impossible to get the curtains to close completely, and there are bright lights outside, so the room is never really dark. Furthermore, I am on the first floor next to an echoing atrium adjoining the hotel to the bank next door. Thus, it gets very noisy as the sounds of buses are cars echo up the alley. The bathroom is very attractive limestone but that makes it cold. Also, it is an interior room, so it is pitch dark with the lights off, but with the lights on it is as bright as the surface of the sun. There is no way to turn on or off some subset of the lights. That means that if you are jet lagged and get up multiple times in the night, you have a choice between total darkness, and blinding light. Not my favorite choice. And one more thing; the light switch for the bathroom is next to the bed. Hello? A switch inside the bathroom maybe? On a positive note, the shower was great.
In short, this hotel gets an A for everything that doesn’t matter, and an F for the really important things. Clearly they had a whole team of people focused on form, and not a soul thinking about function.
There was one very clever feature worth mentioning: an electrical outlet inside the room safe. Thus, one can lock ones laptop in the safe and still have it recharging its batteries. Nice touch. If only the person that thought of that were also thinking about the bathroom lights.
One of the features of Melbourne that I had wanted to check out were the Royal Botanic Gardens. A short walk from the hotel I caught the tram south. First had a look at the “remembrance monument”, then continued on to the Botanic Gardens which are quite large and very nice. One interesting but sad note is that the lovely Fern Gully is overrun with 19500 fruit bats (actually gray headed flying foxes.) How they know that there are 19500 fruit bats is a mystery. Apparently the bats are doing a great deal of damage to the trees and ferns; several trees have already been killed by their massive presence. Furthermore, they produce quite a stench, which definitely diminishes the enjoyment of the place. While walking through I narrowly avoided getting pissed on myself. A sign indicated that they are looking for appropriate places to relocate the bats. However, there was no mention of how they were planning to convince the bats to move once the spot was chosen.
After wandering around the gardens for a while, I found myself on a bench overlooking Central Lake, watching golden crested cockatoos and listening to bell birds. It was quite magical. I’m not quite sure how I fell asleep, but when I awoke I got up and headed over to the tea rooms for an excellent light lunch and a fascinating conversation with an ancient polish man who had emigrated to Australia sixty years earlier.
I had been meaning to check out the beach suburb of St. Kilda, so after leaving the Botanic Gardens I headed back to the tram stop, where I waited almost 15 minutes for the tram to St. Kilda. When it finally arrived it was packed; no one could get on. Among the disgruntled would-be passengers were an American couple who had been sent to Melbourne for a year by their American employer. The three of us decided to hop a cab instead of waiting for another tram. St. Kilda was jammed with people. The Sunday crafts market, which I had heard was excellent, turned out to be mostly crap. Hi Ho. On this fine Sunday in spring, all the cafes were full, and the beach was crowded and uninspiring. Wandering around I somehow managed to get a sunburn through my t-shirt. I poked my head in here and there, watched the crowds go by, and pondered this overcrowded scene. It was OK. One of the things that St. Kilda is known for is its cafes. Unfortunately all the places on the beach were packed with long lines. Eventually I did find a place off the beaten track called Brewhaha. It was a small, fun place with excellent coffee and no crowds.
Finally I took the tram back to Melbourne, stopping just a couple of minutes from my hotel.
For dinner I walked over to Waterfront, a very popular seafood restaurant in Southgate. Again there were women in big hats everywhere. The restaurant was full up for tables, but they were able to seat me at the raw-bar. Behind the bar were baskets of different kinds of fish with identifying labels on them. One basket was full of grouper, but when I asked how they were preparing the grouper, I was told that the baskets of fish were just for show – they were not offering grouper this evening. Harrumph. I ordered a cold steamed crab appetizer and some local fish from the menu. It took forever for the crab to arrive, even though I was seated at the shellfish and raw-bar, and I could have reached out and grabbed a crab for myself. It was good, but very hard to eat. Eventually I got involved in a conversation with a woman seated next to me. She placed her order, got her order, and finished it before I was served my fish. Every twenty minutes or so I would grab my waiter (or any waiter foolish enough to walk by) and ask where my fish was. I think it took about an hour and a half. Preposterous. Oh well, at least the conversation was interesting.
Through an extraordinary coincidence some friends of mine from my childhood neighborhood outside Boston were visiting Australia, and were staying on the Mornington, just a couple hours south of Melbourne. Since today was the Melbourne Cup Race Day, it seemed a good opportunity to get out of town, see the peninsula, and visit my friends. I went over to Hertz to rent a car for the drive. The line was horrific, and the desk was terribly understaffed due to the holiday (Race Day is a holiday in Melbourne.) Fortunately I am a Hertz #1 Gold member, and the special #1 Gold line was empty. Whew! Without that privilege it would have been at least a half hour wait, even with a reservation.
Unfortunately, between the bad directions from the Hertz representative, and my own fuzzy ability at map-reading I made a very poor choice for my drive. I went down Highway 1, instead of the much faster M1. The M1 is a true highway; Highway 1 parallels it and is just a big road with low speed limits and endless traffic lights. It took me two and a half hours to make the drive, which should have been one and a half. Fortunately, Howie’s directions were excellent once I made it into the town of Merricks Beach, so I had no trouble finding the house they were renting.
After catching up a little bit, Howie and Sue took me for a drive around the peninsula, stopping first for pizza at Barraca Trattoria at the T-Gallant Winery. The pizzas were very different than American fare. They reminded me most of the large rectangular pizzas that one sees in northern Italy. Afterwards we drove up to Arthur’s Seat, where the view was completely obscured by heavy cloud cover; I’m sure it would be spectacular on a clear day. We drove on through lovely countryside down to the sea where a spectacular blowhole would normally have been blowing. Alas, today the sea was calm, and the blowhole was silent. Lastly we drove through Flinders, stopping in at an excellent art gallery with a fine attached café.
That night Howie made his famous pasta sauce, and I made the decision to spend the night on their couch. My intention had been to spend more time with my friends, but after dinner jet-lag grabbed me by the medulla, and I was asleep before I could say “so how are the grand-kids?”
For the drive back to Melbourne I corrected yesterday’s mistake and took a much better route – getting me back in just 1.5 hours. Back in town it was a nasty, cold, rainy day, so I started my day with a nap. Jet lag is a mysterious and powerful force.
Very little was open today due to the ongoing Melbourne Cup Day celebrations. Combined with the miserable weather, my options were few, but I had been meaning to check out the new Museum of Melbourne, which was open. The museum was very good, with some interesting displays of Australian fauna, and human physiology. The most moving display was the large presentation on the history of the Aboriginal people since the arrival of Europeans, and the terrible devastation that Europeans have wreaked on them. In the basement of the museum they have constructed their Interactive Cinema Experience (ICE); an interactive movie/experience/game. Like an educational version of a Disney ride, the audience is taken on a trip through the human body and has to make choices on computer consoles to try to destroy an invading virus. It was entertaining, but I wouldn’t go out of my way just for the ICE.
Wandering back to the hotel I stopped at the Melbourne Library. During my last visit I had tried to see the famous domed reading room, but it was closed due to construction. Fodor’s claimed that the construction was supposed to be completed by now, but it was still closed. The current projected completion date is 2004! It must be one hell of a huge restoration.
Tonight I returned to my favorite Melbourne restaurant, Est Est Est. Starting with tortellini’s of blue swimmer crab in a crustacea sabayon, I moved on to chicken stuffed with fois gras for a main. It was all very good, but not quite the experience I had last time.
Now that the long holiday weekend is over, my hotel room is genuinely noisy. The trams are running on their regular (frequent) schedule and there is traffic. I went and looked at the rooftop pool (unimpressive) and poked my head into some other guest rooms that were being cleaned. It turns out my room is quite large. This Le Meridien hotel definitely scores “avoid” for the future. One of the “Leading Hotels of the World”… not!
It is another cold, overcast day, but not actually raining. Looking through my maps and guide books I must conclude that I have “done” Melbourne. The last time I was here it seemed endlessly entertaining; sadly I think I have found the end.
After breakfast, did some research and changed a couple plans for Tasmania, then walked over to the aquarium. The Melbourne Aquarium is quite good, though it turns out to be a bit small. One large area is devoted to the obligatory virtual reality theater experience in which one can enjoy a virtual scuba diving or submarine trip (apparently one has lots of motion effects, the other is relatively mild. I skipped both.) The best part of the aquarium is the giant tanks on the lowest floor, where one can walk through passageways that go through the tanks. This is now very common for aquariums, but is still exciting. In the end the aquarium just isn’t that big - there isn’t very much there. I had allocated two hours for seeing it and was done in about 45 minutes without rushing. At a price of AU$20, the Melbourne Aquarium is quite expensive by Australian standards. Providing only 45 minutes of enjoyment, it is pretty expensive by almost any standard.
With some extra time to kill, I walked over to the Hopetoun Tea Rooms with the intent of reprising a lunch I had last time I was in town. I’m afraid it was pretty disappointing. The sandwich was stingy, the pumpkin soup bordered on flavorless. The cakes and teas were yummy though. I guess that is what they do best.
One of the few remaining things I had wanted to do in Melbourne was to go to Parliament House for the tour. However, parliament is “sitting” now, so tours are not allowed. Sigh. But, it turns out that one can go and watch “Question Period”, which occurs at 2:00pm. I was told that to see the Question Period I should show up at 1:30 to make sure I would have a seat. I arrived at the Parliament building at 1:30 on the dot. The guard at the gate turned me away, saying that parliament was at lunch, and I couldn’t come in until 2:00pm. I sat on the steps of the building for a while, vaguely annoyed at having gotten two different stories. After about 15 minutes I decided to check it out again; if Question period started at 2pm, and I wouldn’t be let in until 2pm, then something was amiss. I went back to the guard and asked if I could go in to use the restroom. That worked. I was search, checked for metal, then sent to the information desk to check my bag before I could use the restrooms. At the information desk they admonished me to hurry up and join the tour to get a seat for the Question period! Clearly the guard was dead wrong, I was supposed to have been there at 1:30pm. Geesh. Good thing I tried being crafty.
Question period is a half our period during the day when any member of parliament can ask any question they like of the premier or any of the cabinet. Basically it is a shouting match. It is broadcast on TV - apparently Australians find it very entertaining. I didn’t understand a word that was said, except for “Order”, which was the speaker of the house’s most frequent utterance. “Order! Order. Order! ORDER! I say, let the assembly come to ORDER!” Of course, what he was really saying was “oah-dah”, but he meant “order”. The whole thing was quite exiting for about 2 minutes. I managed to watch for another 15 minutes before I was dead bored. About that time the Australian fellow sitting next to me got up and left. I was relieved to realize that I wasn’t required to stay for the whole half-hour melee, so I followed him out.
Walking back I passed by a whole region of cool looking restaurants and cafes on Bourke Street near the intersection of Exhibition Street. A place called Izola (03-9650-2222) had a sign in the window advertising “bubble tea.” That was just too enticing; I had to stop in to try it. I ordered a lychee flavored “bubble tea” with an assortment of “pearls”, “coconut jellys” and “jellys.” What I was served was a Singapore style glass of lychee juice with various kinds of agar jellies in it. It was wonderful.
Later that night I headed back to the same area to go to Ah Mu (51 Bourke St, 03-9654-6800) for dinner. It is a very handsome restaurant, small and simply decorated with gray walls offset by a bold red stripe down one side and deep purple dividers. Very stylish. I started with Chinese roast duck wrapped in filo dough with palm sugar and salted plum sauce. They were magnificent. Like filo dough spring rolls, they were crispy and light, with complex flavors and textures. The sauce was wonderfully spicy, the presentation was beautiful. For a main I ordered Nyonya Ribs. These were pork ribs stewed in a home style Malaysian spicy-sour reduction. Served with a cone of rice and surrounded by this rich brown sauce, the interplay of spices was incredible. I tasted chili, green onion and cilantro delightfully playing with other flavors that I couldn’t identify. Alongside, a serving of marinated cucumber gave a delicious vinegary note to the dish. Wow. This turned out to be one of the best meals I have had in years - all for a price of only US$19. This could easily have been US$50 in New York. Afterward I walked back to Izola for yet another bubble tea. Mmmm, mmmm, mmmmm.
I taxied to the airport where I found a huge line for Qantas checkin. Fortunately, though lengthy it moved quickly. The flight to Hobart was delayed by ½ hour, but was otherwise uneventful. In flight I was served a pretty, healthy and tasty snack of dried fruit, fruitcake, and applejuice. The airplane was a Boeing 717, a plane that I had not known existed.
I’m somewhat amazed by how little mainland Australian’s seem to know about Tasmania. At the hotel in Melbourne the bellman told me about how Tasmania is covered with primordial forests. In reality, most of it is farmland. The desk clerk warned me as I was checking out that the weather in Hobart was “frightening” today. When we landed it was cool, but clear with wonderful hot sunshine. Go figure. I picked up my Toyota Camry at Hertz for a super-reasonable AU$45 per day, then drove into Hobart, a town that I had skipped on my last visit to Tassie.
In Hobart I drove to the Battery Point area and parked. The B&B that sounded most interesting in Lonely Planet (Battery Point Guest House) turned out to be incredibly noisy - situated between an elementary school and a construction site. It looked like a lovely spot, with a beautiful garden in back, and they had a room available, but it was just too loud. The nearby Lenna hotel was fully booked, but frankly it didn’t look that great. I think the place was mostly hype. I walked around Battery Point where every 10th building is a B&B until I found one that looked nice and had a vacancy. The Battery Point Manor House B&B (15 Cromwell St., 03-6224-0888) had a room for AU$145 per night, so I checked in.
At the B&B’s recommendation I drove into town for lunch at Fish Frenzy on the Elizabeth St. Pier. The blue eye trevally fish and chips were superb and reasonably priced. With funny wait staff and beautiful spot on the water, this place is really a score. A bottle of Annie’s Elderflower Bubbly (Plenty, Tasmania, 03-6261-2203) accompanied my meal. It proved sweet, subtle and excellent.
Taking in a little of downtown Hobart I walked around, visited the Tourism Tasmania office, battery point & Salamanca marketplace.
Hobart is a beautiful little town - it is hard to believe that it is a state capital. Battery Point is particularly charming. Full of gingerbread houses with fancy ironwork, well kept gardens full of flowers, and roses everywhere. Everything is neat, tidy and eminently walkable. I feel like I could rest here forever, though I wonder if it is overrun in the summer. One odd thing about Battery Point is that though it is very picturesque, it is almost unphotographable. Every shot is marred by something. Here a big concrete electrical pole covered with transformers, there a crane in the harbor, and everywhere cars lining the roads. It was just impossible to get a photograph that expressed the quaintness of the place. It’s funny how we humans are able to edit out all the detritus of urban living and see the beauty of a house or a street, but when you take a photo its all right there; telephone poles, fences, cars, trucks, electrical boxes. If these things entered our consciousness’ I’m sure we’d get rid of them right quick.
After wandering around Battery Point for a while I walked down to Salamanca Place. Salamanca is full of nice galleries and gifty shops in beautifully restored old sandstone warehouses. I didn’t waste time on the silly Artic Adventure place. Sadly, most of the harbor views are blocked by old, rusting warehouse buildings, an ugly set of silos that are being turned into an ugly hotel, and lots of giant cranes and industrial shipping equipment. This is a true working harbor, not a tourist attraction. My favorite gallery was Despard Gallery, 15 Castray Esplanade 03-6223-8266, www.despard-gallery.com.au
Later that night I had dinner at Restaurant Gondwana (Corner of Hampden Rd and Francis St., 03-6224-9900). Everything on the menu sounded amazing. All wild concoctions of local ingredients - I wanted to order it all. In the end I made my choices and settled in with my book for my amazing meal. I started with a venison and ostrich kransky tart served with beetroot jam and endive heart salad. This turned out to be a kind of a quiche. It was good, though a bit dry and I could discern neither venison nor ostrich in the mixture. The best things about it were the beetroot jam and the description. Next I had a refresher course of a gin and limejuice sorbet shooter. This was refreshing, but I am not really a gin drinker. For the main I ordered macadamia nut crusted blue eyed trevally. Accompanying I had a glass of Home Hill Kelly’s Reserve Chardonnay, 1999. (It turns out Kelly is the waiter’s girlfriend.) The trevally was nice, perfectly cooked with lovely flavors and a nice crunchy macadamia nut coating. The subtle citrus sauce worked well. I would say the main was very good, though didn’t quite live up to the extraordinary description on the menu. They were victims of their own hype. I skipped on desert, but had a glass of Wellington Iced Riesling desert wine, which was good but not great. The service was informed, but tragically slow. The place is clearly extremely popular, packed tonight and full up for the next night too. My meal came out to AU$55, which would be very reasonable by USA standards, especially considering the two glasses of wine. Though the meal was “good”, it just didn’t live up to the mouth-watering menu. I don’t think I will be going back.
It was a beautiful, clear, crisp morning. The weathermen were calling for rain. I had the uninteresting included breakfast in the upstairs breakfast room accompanied by a phenomenal view. Thus fortified I drove to Mount Wellington up a narrow, winding road. It was a very pretty drive, especially through the suburb of Fern Tree, where, amongst other things there was a house with the three most beautiful rhododendrons I have ever seen. The drive passed through eucalypt forests, past cute houses with nice gardens, waterfalls, and great views of the bay. The drive up to the 1270-meter peak passed through several distinct ecosystems. It was quite interesting. At the top it was distinctly cold, but the sun made the rocks warm to the touch. The views out over Hobart were great, and the “organ pipes” rock formations were very cool. Some kind of large brown raptor flew by as I hiked down the path.
Back down in Fern Tree I stopped for lunch at the Fern Tree Tavern. The extraordinary eggs and bacon sandwich was yummy (just don’t tell my cardiologist.) I stopped to look at a B&B in Fern Tree called the Lapoinya Lodge, 9 Lapoinya Road, 03-6239-1005. Wow. It has beautiful gardens with peaceful, tranquil, picture-postcard views. The rooms are small and uninteresting, but who cares?
From Fern Tree I proceeded to drive down the “Huon Trail”, which a travel brochure called “a journey of diversity and discovery.” The “Huon Trail” is basically a Tourism Tasmania invented name for the region southwest of Hobart. It quite reasonably includes the town of Huonville, the Huon Valley, and the region around the Huon River. Apparently someone decided to extend the name “Huon Trail” to Bruny Island, the D’Entrecasteaux Channel area, and the “far south.” Though the brochure made the whole area sound idyllic, in the interest of time I restricted my voyage to the main Huon valley.
The drive on B64 towards Huonville was mind-bogglingly beautiful. From the B64 I connected to the faster but less attractive A6 to Geeveston, where I headed into the woods on the C631, which quickly became a well maintained dirt road. My destination was the newly built Tahune Forest Airwalk (03-6297-0068, www.forestrytas.com.au), which the owner of the B&B had raved about. It was a great drive, but the airwalk itself was a rather expensive letdown. The whole area was logged in the 60’s, and building the airwalk caused a lot of damage as well. The result is an impressive tree-top walk through an unimpressive, young forest. It will look better in a couple years when the ground has grown back, and in 4 or 5 hundred years it should be truly spectacular. Stay tuned for a follow up report. Interestingly, down on the ground the free “river walk” was nicer than the airwalk. Go figure.
I drove back to town, around the Queens Domain, and to the famous Botanic Gardens. The Botanic Gardens were exceptional, especially the Japanese garden and the Proteas display. One downside is that they are right next to the highway, which generates a lot of noise and distracts from the otherwise bucolic surroundings. To my surprise I discovered that the gates are locked at 6:30. Overstaying my welcome I found myself locked in. Fortunately I was able to climb over the gate and get out.
Taking the recommendation of the B&B, I reserved a table for dinner at Kelly’s Seafood Restaurant, Knopwood Street at the corner of James St. 03-6224-7225. Kelly’s is in a small, old boat-wright’s house on a tiny lane. It is hard to find, and even harder to get a reservation on a Saturday night. Fortunately for me there is a tiny table tucked away in a corner that is really only suitable for one person. It was a nice cozy spot, but there were no views and it was easy for the waiter to ignore me. All the items on the menu sounded wonderful, especially when the entertaining waiter described them. I must say that after last night’s disspointment, I approached the menu with a bit of apprehension. I started with seafood chowder; when it arrived had a lovely bouquet and was beautifully presented with a raw oyster floating on the top. As for flavor, it was surprisingly mild; the fish was fresh but mild, and the tomato broth though fragrant was bordering on flavorless. A stronger tomato base and some Tabasco would go a long way to make this a fine dish. Next I had the best dish of the meal, a lovely salmon sashimi. It was a fairly traditional presentation, but very well done. Finally I had my main, “Kelly’s Katch”, a King Dory filet with prawns and scallops in a vermouth and mushroom cream sauce with a spinach and potato timable. This was just OK. As with the soup it was nicely presented, and smelled really good, but was so mild as to be almost bland. No matter how sophisticated these restaurants may seem, the chef’s still have British taste buds. I must also point out that Australia still needs to institute tipping. Though Kelly’s is billed as a fine restaurant, the service was glacial.
The weekend market at Salamanca place is billed as one of the “must dos” of Hobart. I had planned to be in Hobart until today for this every reason. Thus, after packing up and checking out I headed down the hill for the spectacle. It resembled farmers/arts/fair markets everywhere but with an Australian flavor. The length of the marketplace was blocked off from traffic and lined with tents, booths and stalls selling all manner of wares; clothes, pottery, wood carving, foods both raw and prepared, arts, crafts, records and CDs, on and on in great variety. Except for the turned wooden bowls and some other crafts, little was particularly noteworthy, though the whole was quite fun.
Among my favorites was a stall selling different local honeys, including Leatherwood honey, which was exceptional. Leatherwood trees grow on Tasmanian mountains, and nowhere else in the world. Enterprising beekeepers have been bringing hives up to the leatherwood groves for some time now, producing a honey with a unique flavor and bouquet. Apparently it is not to everyone’s taste, but I loved it so much that I bought a bottle to bring with me. I also sampled a local ginger beer adding 50 cents for a copy of the recipe. For lunch I enjoyed a wonderful sandwich of “skinless lamb sausage” rolled up in a feathery light wrap. I also had the opportunity to meet Annie of Annie’s Elderflower Soda and embarrassed her terribly with my effusive praise. If course I had another bottle of her excellent Elderflower soda.
In a courtyard of Salamanca place I found an amazing gallery of iron works and jewelry <name?>. I couldn’t resist a buying fantastic steel and copper ladle and a hand-carved wooden spoon. More fodder for my overfilled luggage. Later I went back up to Battery Point to retrieve my car and had a snack at Jackman & McRoss, 57-59 Hampden Road, 03-6223-3186. Their fantastic poached pear and frangipani tartlet was just the ticket with some excellent tea.
I must take a moment to praise Aussie rest rooms. I know it sounds odd, but after living in the United States the quality and cleanliness of rest rooms here is really astounding. I can’t speak for women’s public toilets (either in America or abroad), but the great American public men’s room is a truly frightening prospect. It isn’t just the public places; there is a very nice breakfast restaurant in Seattle called Café Mini. It’s not a fancy five-star restaurant by any means, but it is a nice place. Until you get to the men’s room; I’d rather go in a New York City subway than in there. By contrast, in Australia the rest rooms are neat, clean, and tidy, perhaps with a lavender flower on the sink. On the other hand they’re often not even in the same building as the restaurant, and the directions can be amazing: “Out that door over there, down the hall, around the corner, when you see Mr. Murphy’s dog, you’re there.” Of course, there’s no telling if “Mr. Murphy’s dog” is a type of curb stone, a pub, an exotic tree, or an actual dog.
Walking back to the car I was caught in a sleet shower that lasted just long enough to coat my hair, then it was full sun again. Heading to Bicheno, I drove the A3 north from Hobart, through places with names like “Brushy Plains Rivulet”, “Bust-me-gall Hill”, and “Break-me-neck Hill”, past fresh wallaby kill, through emerald green fields covered with black faced sheep, the tarmac steaming in the sun after the recent rain.
Along the drive, I stopped at Kabuki by the Sea (03-6257-8588). A B&B with incredible views, it is right on the highway, but there is no traffic noise to speak of. I had read about it in the Tasmania guide and was keen to have a look. I didn’t get to see any rooms, but it is a beautiful spot, appears to have a fine restaurant, and looks to be a great romantic getaway. However, being 10kms south of Swansea, it is 55kms to Bichino, and equally far from the Freycinet Peninsula. Thus, unless you want to cocoon yourself at the B&B, you are pretty far from all the local attractions. I stood and watched sleet falling through a rainbow over the sea, then drove on.
The B&B in Bicheno that I chose this time was Bicheno Berrie Retreat, 18067 Tasman Highway, 03-6375-1481 or 03-6375-2002. I had the whole upstairs (living room, kitchen, laundry, bathroom, and two bedrooms, plus a deck) for AU$90. It is a really ugly building with ugly furnishings, yet with an unparalleled ocean view. I had to laugh. I had so much laundry that I was almost as happy to see the washing machine as the view of the sweeping beach. The spot is quiet, relaxed, secluded. I love it. As a bonus, they provide a full selection of videos to borrow and watch on the supplied VCR. Nice.
Dinning in Bicheno offers two options; lengthy sit-down meals or very poor fast food. Knowing that even a quick sit-down dinner in Australia can be an epic affair, I opted for fast food at Freycinet Fish Café. To date it was the only truly bad fish and chips I’ve had in Australia. I wolfed down the pathetic strips of fried fish while finishing a novel, Lincoln’s Dreams by Connie Willis. Neither is recommended.
Finally the penguin tour office opened for business. I paid for my reservation then waited in the small gift shop for the tour to begin. If you have 20 minutes to kill on a rainy evening in Bicheno, there isn’t really much to do besides kill it. There had been crappy weather all afternoon and evening: cold, nasty, breezy, rain. Then, as if on cue, just before the penguin tour began the skies cleared and the stars came out. On the beach it was a humid cold that gets into your bones, like a London night in winter. But at least the air was still and it wasn’t raining.
The three cutest things in the world are puppies, kittens, and little blue penguins. No PBS special can express the experience of watching these guys stumbling up the beach. Moreover, this is breeding season so they are bumbling along stuffed to the gills with fish for their young; making them even more wobbly than usual. The last time I was here it was in between the breeding season and the molting season, so there were not more than 20 or 30 penguins to be seen all night. This time there were 20 to 30 penguins in each group. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the whole spectacle was richer. Did I mention the smells? Lest you were wondering, a penguin colony smells. A lot. You have to be there. Still, cold, distance, and olfactory distress are small prices to pay to watch troops of little blue penguins marching up the beaches to their burrows. It is pure magic, and the Bicheno penguin tour people continue to do an excellent job of showing them off without impacting their little lives.
Earlier that night the counter person at the Freycinet Fish Café told me that I needn’t bother with the official tour, and gave me directions to see penguins on my own. Though I was nothing less than thrilled with the tour I had done, I decided to check out the DIY version on my way back to the B&B. As directed I drove down Gordon Street to Redbill Beach. Though I could hear penguins in the bushes, and an occasional penguin cross the path, the tour was immeasurably better. There are several reasons for this, but there are three that particularly stand out. First, the penguin tour people have been trapping and killing feral cats and rodents, protecting the penguin rookery where they do their tours. This has lead to a fabulous restoration of the penguin population in that spot. Second, little blue penguins always return to the same burrow year after year, and young penguins building new nests always make their burrows as close to their father’s burrow as possible. That means that the penguins nesting in the protected penguin tour area are a very stable population that has been coming back to the same spot year after year. Year after year, from childhood on, these penguins have been walking by harmless humans. As a result these penguins consider humans to be irrelevant obstacles in their paths, instead of potential threats. They have no problem walking past groups of people, between human legs, and even across our shoes (more than one penguin marched right over my sneaker this very evening.) Meanwhile, penguins just a few feet down the beach have not become inured to human presence, and hide when we come along. Finally, the penguin tour leaders know where to look to find the birds. On my own it was very hit or miss.
Morning came up brilliant and clear with big puffy clouds, the sound of the surf only occasionally interrupted by cars going by on the highway below. It is still very cold outside. The entire house is heated by one single space heater, which isn’t enough. Something to consider if visiting during the winter months!
After breakfasting on freeze-dried coffee and toasted WonderBread (“the bread for your breakfast is in the freezer, dear,”) I packed up and continued on my way. I decided not to go scuba diving here; the cold water just isn’t appealing. I doubled back through Bicheno to see the amazing blowhole, which I had visited on my previous trip. It’s still very cool, but just wasn’t the same without my friend Jaybe getting drenched.
Leaving Bicheno I spotted an Echidna at the side of the road. Echidnas (or Australian Spiny Anteaters) are a biological oddity, being one of only two species on earth in the family of monotremes (or rather, “monotremata”) - creatures that have a cloaca, a single orifice through which they both defecate and lay their eggs. In addition to economy of orifices, monotremes are also the only creatures that lay eggs (like birds and reptiles), but also produce milk like mammals. The Platypus is the other member of the monotreme family. In addition to being intellectually exciting, Echidna’s are also very endearing critters, and well worth seeing.
I drove highway B34 to Cambell Town. Though lower on the nomenclature hierarchy, the B34 is actually a better road than the A3 - straighter, wider and unused, it was easy to maintain a healthy clip. It remained a clear sunny day, but there was always a line of clouds on the horizon. Ah, spring.
In Campbell Town stopped at the Lilac Café for lunch: a steak sandwich “lot”. The “lot” part meant that there was a lot of stuff on it. Let me tell you, it was a lot! A piece of steak (a whole piece, not shaved steak or something) with (get this) grilled onions, cheese, tomato, a slice of beet, a fried egg, bacon, lettuce, and catsup on grilled wonder bread. The bread fell apart instantly, leaving me holding this mess in my bare hands. Was it good? With enough fat, cholesterol, and salt to kill two people, you bet it was good!
The Lonely Planet for Tasmania makes every little place sound fascinating and full of history. When they say a place is dead, you can bet it is really dead. This “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” town gets a full page in the Lonely Planet Tasmania. I have to wonder about places like Forth, Port Latta, and Melaleuca, that each rate only a paragraph!
To break up the drive I stopped further on in Deloraine, a lovely little town. I sat by the river next to a rhododendron in the bright sun and listened to the birds singing their Sunday afternoon aria. Afterwards went to a café for a coffee and pastry while watching the local kids race their cars up and down the main drag. Though a pleasant place to stop, there is clearly nothing for kids to do in Deloraine, so they just cruise up the main drag, around the rotary at the top end of town, then back down again. I guess it’s a better occupation that beating up tourists.
There are a number of limestone caves in the areas <?>. I hoped to visit two of them before heading on to the Lemonthyme Lodge. If you work out your timing right, you can visit both caves. Unfortunately it is hard to find out what the schedule is for tours of the two caves, and it didn’t make it right. When I got to <?> cave, the second-to-last tour of the day had already started. Looking at the schedules posted there, it was clear that I could drive to the other cave to do their final tour of the day, or stay here for their final tour, but there was no way to do both. The place was closed up tight as the tour was in progress, so there was no one to ask about the various merits of the two different caves. I re-read my guidebook then decided to zoom over to the “glow worm” cave.
The cave was cave-like. Cool, damp, filled with stalactites and stalagmites. The guided tour lasted about 45 minutes and involved walking a fairly easy path past the geological features of the cave. There were a lot of stairs involved and some uneven terrain, so this cave will not be for everyone. At the end of the tour we were taken to the glowworm cave. When the lights were turned off we were able to see the glowing specs on the ceiling above. I was hoping to be able to see actual worms, but they are too small and too far away. The effect was much like looking up at a starry sky, and was among the least interesting parts of the tour.
The subsequent drive from Caves to Moina was nicer than the cave tour. I drove along through the verdant Tasmanian forest listening to Poi Dog Pondering’s first album. Along the way I stopped to annoy another echidna.
Finally I arrived at Lemonthyme Lodge, Dolcoath Road, Moina, 03-6492-1112. On my last visit I stayed in a room in the main lodge. This time I am checking out a much more expensive separate cabin for one night, then moving into the lodge for the next. The cabin was spacious, attractive, and nicely appointed, though somehow it felt too opulent for the forest surroundings.
After unpacking I hurried out the back door of the lodge to enjoy the spectacular “Ferntree Walk” before dinner. Along the way I was surprised to see yet another echidna. On my last trip to Australia I was thrilled to see just one. This time they seem to be everywhere. Perhaps it is the season? The Ferntree Walk was just a splendid and serene as I remembered it. The smell, the feeling of the air in my lungs, the cool, humid clarity, the oxygen, all made me feel so peaceful. This is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
While waiting for dinner, I relaxed in the lodge on one of the couches near the fire and enjoyed a Cooper’s Extra Strong Vintage Ale, vintage 10/2000. Wow! A phenomenal beer, with 7.1% alcohol. I got into a very pleasant conversation with a nice couple from Sydney. After a while I realized that the time for my reservation had come and gone, so I went to investigate. It turns out they forgot about my reservation! The couple from Sydney invited me to join them, which I gratefully accepted. Reviewing the menu I was surprised to discover that none of the mains sounded interesting, so instead I had all three of the appetizers. The smoked salmon was excellent, then I had venison spring rolls, which were just good, and a Cajun blackened pink ling cod which was good. After dinner the blond fudge, which I remember from my last visit, was strangely absent.
This morning I had a very heavy “cooked breakfast” of eggs, toast, tons of bacon, sausages, potato mash, grilled potatoes, and on and on. I ate about ¼ of it, then went out for a hike. I’d decided to hike to Champagne Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, a hike I had enjoyed the last time I was here - why mess with success? The forest was alive with birds; along the way I witnessed a pair of Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoo’s courting, mating, and then preening each other. It was very touching. The hike down to Champagne Falls was much slipperier and harder than I remembered. In fact, it was downright difficult. Last time I was here it was the middle of a drought, this time it is a flood. As a result, the waterfall that I remembered trickling, was a full-on torrent. It was absolutely amazing, especially by contrast. Continuing on to Bridal Veil Falls I was again stunned by the amount of water cascading over the cliff. Later in the day when I compared the photographs, then and now, it was almost comical. It is a pity that the climb is so difficult - these falls are definitely worth seeing. Unfortunately, only the agile will make it. The whole hike is billed as a 2 hour round trip. I spent about 2 hours hiking in, taking photos, and relaxing with the scenery, then just under an hour hiking back out.
After my hike I had a nice ham and cheese sandwich on the porch at the lodge, then drove over to Cradle Mountain to repeat the walk I had done there. Along the way I spotted another echidna at the side of the road. This one was very busy digging up an ant hill, and didn’t seem to mind my presence at all. I finally got a photo of an echidna with his head in the air, instead of my usual pictures of their spiny butts.
>>>Walk around Dove Lake, try to take the perfect photo, sit by the beach eating an apple, sleet.
How to do a “Tim Tam Slam”
Get a packet of Arnot’s Tim Tam cookies
Get a cup of coffee, filled to the brim
Take a Tim Tam and bite off two opposing corners (make as small bites as feasible)
Put one end of the Tim Tam in your mouth, the other in the coffee
Using the Tim Tam as a straw, drink the coffee
Keep in mind that you are trying to use a cookie, chocolate and cream confection as a straw. Timing is everything! After about 1 second your straw is going to collapse into mush, fall into the cup and splash you with coffee. Thus, before this happens you have to “slam” the Tim Tam into your mouth.
- Don’t wear your best clothing
- Have a towel ready
- The hotter the coffee, the quicker you need to be
- It’s best to keep your Tim Tams in the fridge when not in use. A melted Tim Tam still tastes good, but is no use for a Tim Tam Slam.
- Have fun
I had dinner at the lodge with another couple from Sydney. The pumpkin-apple-leek soup was OK, then I had the chicken grilled in oil and spices. It was also just OK and rather tough. It turns out that the chef has changed since the last time I was here. The change really shows. The menu is not nearly as interesting, and the food doesn’t hold a candle to what I remembered. Before the food was reason enough itself to go to Lemonthyme, now it is just OK. Furthermore, the wonderful blond fudge is just a memory.
Did the Fern Gully walk again
Drive to Launceston
Had wanted to stay at the Lonely Planet recommended Turret House, but it was full up. As it happens the Turret House is on a very busy road anyway. A lovely spot, but noisy. The proprietor recommended the Ashton Gate Victorian Accommodation B&B, 32 High St., 03-6331-6180, and called over to make a reservation there for me.
Last night my dinner companions recommended a Launceston restaurant named Strathlynn. So, after settling in at the B&B I drove out the Tamar valley to the Strathlynn winery (95 Rosevears Drive, 03-6330-2388). It was an incredibly beautiful spot, eating on the porch overlooking vineyards, roses, the Tamar river, and the hills beyond. I had the Vineyard Tapas plate of chicken, lamb, sausage, beet root, cous cous, lettuce, grilled veggies, and salmon sashimi. It was some of the best food I have had in Tasmania. However, service in Oz continues to be terrible. They give you a desert menu with five items on it, then disappear for 15 minutes. All I needed was one minute to decide that I didn’t want any more calories.
After lunch I did the Strathlynn wine tasting. All the wines were thin and watery, with little body or character. None were aged long enough in wood. They were quite drinkable, but irrelevant. The water at the end was the best part.
Down the road from Strathlynn was the Waterbird Haven Trust. Ugh. I assumed it would be a place where endangered local birds were cared for and protected. All the birds were in cages, you were encouraged to buy bird food to feed the birds. The birds came running over begging for food. Most were not indigenous. The majority of the birds were a collection of pheasants from Asia. Clearly it is someone’s private zoo that they support off tourist dollars.
On the way back I stopped in at the Tamar Island Wetlands Preserve. A beautiful boardwalk through marshland to a bird blind, then on to Tamar Island. The birds were there because they wanted to be. Saw geese, black swans, swallows and marsh harriers. There were also platypus burrows, but the platypus are only visible in the evening and morning.
Woolworths is a grocery store!
Dinner at Fee & Me, corner of Charles & Frederick Streets, 03-6331-3195, email@example.com
Structure of menu. Many awards including American Express best Australian restaurant for 2000. Well heeled diners, but no ties.
The service was very good (unique for Australia), and dinner lasted over 2 hours. The total cost was AU$86 (about US$45), a stunning amount for Australia, but quite fair by USA standards for a 5 course meal with a glass of desert wine at one of the best restaurants in the country.
Repack all the bags
Walk around town
Exceptional Tasmanian Wood Design Center <address, phone>.
City park, tiny conservatory
Design center of Tasmania
10 minute drive to airport
Sandwich – 4 points of different meats. All had cheese, what the other stuff was I couldn’t say
Fly to Perth via Melbourne.
Flying over Perth and looking down, it could be anywhere. Flying out of the cold weather into 27 degrees C.
Dinner at Dusit Thai Restaurant, 249 James St., Northbridge, 08-9328-7647. Gang Keow Wan Gai. Good, a bit thick, and peas instead of pea aubergines. Walls of restaurant covered with awards. Redback Original Beer from Freemantle. A very good wheatbeer. Walk around Northbridge.
Jet lag all over again.
Asked the concierge for a variety of information about places I needed around Perth. She tried really hard to be helpful, but it seemed like she knew nothing. Everything needed to be looked up in the yellow pages or other references, nothing was on hand.
Walk to the Hay St. mall. Flies everywhere. Try to eat a croissant and coffee at an outdoor café on the mall. Cant stand the flies, driven away. Flies: one of the plagues of Egypt? Now I understand.
I’ve hit the travel doldrums. Depends on how much moving around I’ve done, but 2 weeks is just about right on cue. This is the time when an all-inclusive Club Med vacation sounds really appealing.
Flies make it unbearable being outside. Bought a bottle of “aerogard”. “Reapply every 4 hours”. Effect lasts for about 4 minutes.
Coconut smelling sunscreen + lemon scented bug spray, I smell like a pina colada.
Perth Visitor Centre, Forest Place (corner of Wellington Street), 1300-361-351, www.westernaustralia.net. Lots of really good brochures, but people working there don’t have any personal experience to relate.
Land of malls
Lunch at Han’s Café, 822 Hay St, 08-9322-2259. I was thinking of a bowl of Laksa, but for some reason I ordered Pad Thai instead (something I never eat.) There are 1.4 million people in Perth, and I think they are all on Hay street today. No one closes the door.
Botanic Gardens. I just cant get past the annoyance of the flies. It is impossible to describe.
I find myself very uncomfortable in this city. I want to leave. It is warm and sunny, but the flies drive me indoors. That plus the traveling blues. I just want to hide in my hotel. I had been hearing about this gleaming, wonderful city. I think I had been imagining Prague. Perth isn’t a bad place, but so far I have not found anything in particular to draw a person all this way. Reminds me very much of Brisbane, or just about any other Australian coastal city.
Back at hotel make reservations to go to Exmouth on Saturday.
Dinner: sushi, Matsuri Japaneese Restaurant, 250 St. Georges Terrace, 08-9322-7737. Noted in Australian Gourmet Traveler magazine’s annual restaurant guide. This is a sushi place, but they only have salmon, tuna and octopus! The place is very busy and fairly cheap, but noisy as hell and what a sparse menu. Apparently they employ a psychic chef, as my meal arrived about 1 millisecond after I ordered it. Of course, with so few items on offer, it’s hardly a chore to have things ready to go. The Kikkoman soy sauce bottles have been refilled with cheap Chinese soy sauce, which is anathema for sushi. This is not the ravings of some lunatic sushi eater; on first taste I knew immediately that it was Chinese soy and asked the waiter. He confirmed that it was indeed Chinese soy but tried to convince me that it was better for sushi! He said that they had no other soy available. How pathetic. Someone at Gourmet Traveler magazine needs a talking to.
Bubble tea, not as good as in Melbourne
Walked back from Northbridge. A local radio station has 12 people locked in a glass room on the pedestrian mall, in a homegrown version of Survivor.
Took the train to Freemantle (locally known as “Freo”). AU$2.80 one way for the 30 minute ride. Very comfortable and easy.
Breakfast at Gino’s on Market st. Pancakes with lemon, sugar, and a pile of fruit. Yum! What a great place. I feel better already. Next time I’m skipping Perth altogether.
Walk around, Exmouth Market, E-Market, firing of cannon at 1pm.
Lunch at Dome on Market. Not good. Tons of mayo, then grilled. Bletch.
Travel writing is tiring. Everyone says “ooh, what a great job.” But it is a lot of packing and unpacking, choosing hotels and restaurants, deciphering bus schedules. And always trying to think of something to say about a place. Something interesting. Some new and unique observation. And therein lies the rub, because one has to relate the truth about a place, finding a unique truth which is also interesting. There’s the trick. I wonder if I manage it.
Exmouth starts to close its doors at 5:30, by 6:00pm everything other than food and drink establishments is shut tight.
Dinner at The Essex Restaurant, 20 Essex St, 08-9335-5725. Balmain Bugs and Bug Ravioli drizzled with Dijon and Semillon sauce. Then Grilled Western Australian Dhufish with a lemon butter sauce. Billy Halliday on the radio. Get desert menu then a 10 minute wait. Gave up.
Hotel raped me on my call to Exmouth, AU$26 for 12 minutes.
Up at 5:30am to pack, check out, and get to the airport for my 7:45am flight to Exmouth. Turns out I was a bit overeager. With no traffic whatsoever, the taxi to the airport took 15 minutes, I used express checkout at the hotel, and got to the airport at least a half an hour earlier than I really needed to. I guess I’m just really psyched about going diving. In fact, now more than ever I feel like I really wasted five days in Melbourne. Everything I’ve heard about Exmouth and Shark Bay has me excited. On the other hand, I’m about to spend 2 and a half hours on a Fokker dual-prop plane. Ugh. C’est la vie.
The flight on this 42 person Fokker F50 is remarkably smooth. Very noisy, but comfortable. I’ve just learned what I should have been able to find out at the visitors information center in Perth: SkyWest Air flies from Shark Bay to Exmouth, but not vice versa. That means that if one wants to visit both Shark Bay and Exmouth (which I do), you fly from Perth to Shark Bay, then to Exmouth. Thus, going to Exmouth first is a mistake. That is exactly the kind of information I was relying on the visitor’s center for, but no one there knew anything. They knew where the brochures were, period. Brother. Oh well, I’ll learn more in Exmouth, where I’m sure they’ll know quite well how to get to other places.
I just saw something I’ve never seen before; a used syringe deposit box in the head on this airplane. How many heroin addicts are flying up and down this coast anyway? And would it really kill them to carry their used syringes off the plane? Oh well, its nice to know that even if you cant light up in the toilets, you can still shoot up.
Land, AU$16.50 for shuttle from airport. PotShot hotel, Murat Road (08-9949-1200).
Check in at dive shop for tomorrow
Rent car, drive
Snorkel Turquoise Bay
Roos, emus, monitor lizards
Other hotels in Exmouth, note about Beach Comber <name?> resort on Navy Base
Dinner at the hotel. Almost good.
Dive with Exmouth Dive Centre (08-9949-1201), 2 dives at Murion Islands
First dive, “The Spit”: An OK dive, not very good vis, didn’t do the swim-throughs, not many fish, OK reef, not great. 2 nice lobsters, one nudibranch. Basically disappointing from all the great stuff I heard about the Ningaloo. Way too much weight. Will remove one 1.5kg weight next time.
Second dive, “Eastside Bommies”. Pretty interesting site, tons of small bommies. Amazing black catfsih, huge batfish being cleaned by wrasses, nice big anemonie, interesting corals, sponges, lots of giant clams, cluster of nudibranchs mating, one turtle (briefly). My buddies were swimming like they got points for covering ground. Weight was correct this time
Dinner at Whalers, took hours, merely good
Dive with Exmouth Dive Center, 2 local dives: blizzard bay (opposite the lighthouse), Amazing dive!
Huge yellow sea snake, most beaufitul (large) nudibranch I've ever seen, Huge huge groupers (Cod) - big enough to have his own zipcode! Nudibranch's mating, many scorpion fish, lion fish, catfish, very cool shrimp. Sponges, very nice hard and soft corals. Very long dive, no safety stop
Labyrinth: Very brief surface interval. Cool jellyfish, irridescent scillia, Moray eels, mating nudibranchs & nudibranch eggs, Blue spotted ray, huge anemonies, Sponges, Sea squirts (Tanicates/Asidians). Good dive, not as good as previous
Make reservation for tomorrow at Coral Bay, rent car, arrange hotel
Grab a soda and a bag of “RoadKill” at the bottle shop. RoadKill turns out to be the best beef jerky I have ever had, bar none. “The Champagne of all Beef Jerkies” is made in Exmouth on Payne Street, phone 08-9949-2230.
Finally get a meal at 5:30pm at Rock Cod, worst tarter sauce I’ve ever had
Recipe: take Aussie mayo, leave in the sun for a few hours, add white school paste, add relish & spices
Drive to Coral Bay
Ningloo Reef Resort: actually a motel on the beach, but the best thing in town and far better than anything Exmouth has to offer. Bad water. AU$140 with a great ocean view. Promotional materials call it a resort, when you get here it says “motel” right on it. Bare florescent bulbs for lights, slippery floor – washed with soap but not rinsed. The constant thrumming of some kind of machine across the parking lot, probably a water treatment facility. Thrumming is mostly drowned out by the whistling wind and the whipping of the palm tree leaves. My room is over next to the bar which is the local hot spot till 10pm each night.
Cigar on the beach, sound of waves, incredible stars and moon, hard to stay on the beach due to the wind.
Windy as hell, hard to sleep due to noise of wind whistling wind and whipping leaves.
Beautiful bay, wonderful water color. White sand.
Bad, slow breakfast at Fin’s Cafe
Up early, Manta Ray Interaction trip with Ningaloo Reef Dive (08-9942-5824), sister company of Exmouth Dive Center: Reef dive, then Manta snorkel. Not what I expected
First dive was Coral Reef. The most boring interesting dive I have ever done. What I mean by that is that it should have been super interesting, but was very boring. More coral, more types of coral in one place than I have ever seen. Staghorn on top of plate, brain corals, this that and the other, all on top of each other, all mixed up. Very little colorful, very few fish. First 5 minutes were thrilling seeing so much untouched healthy coral. After that it was more of the same, then more, then more. Very few fish, nothing else worth mentioning.
Bad lunch at Fin’s café
Sadness then relief to learn that <dive company> is all full for tomorrow
Back to Hotel, try to nap, hard due to noise from wind.
Experienced a “travel crash”. I just don’t want to be here, and don’t really care where I go.
Decide to keep car and drive down to Perth.
Wake up in time to get fish and chips at the hotel bar. No burgers, grill is already closed.
No dive today, ten hours sleep. Still unbelievably windy at 8am. After two nights here I think I’ll take the boring PotShot concrete box in Exmouth with no beach over this place.
Good donuts at the bakery
A mocking bird sat on my porch and sang me an airia. Thank you!
Snorkle in the bay right in front of hotel. As much coral as on the dive trip, just as few fish. Still, coral not colorful (and a lot more damage than on the dive trip.) Did see a school of little catfish coming the sand, so many they looked like one big fish. Cool. Would probably be an incredible experience for someone that had never done scuba. More fish close in to shore than out in the midst of the reef. I wonder why. Perhaps the vast amounts of coral consume all the available plankton? Tide is low, at several points I got stuck in spots where the coral came within a foot of the surface, and I had to find a way out to avoid hitting it. At first worried about boats, then realized they would shred themselves on the coral before they ever got to me.
Checkout, AU$50 charge for late checkout.
Beef Jerky, potato chips, a “sausage roll”, and soda for lunch. More tasty, healthy and nutritious than any meal I could have ordered at a Coral Bay restaurant.
Drive to Shark Bay. Straight highway through scrub, brush, red dirt. Wind storms throw huge clouds of sand and dust onto the highway. One dust devil threatens to throw my car off the road. Highway signs give distances to insignificant towns over a hundred kilometers away. I expected to see signs saying “absolutely nothing next 167km”, or “be thankful we bothered to pave it.” All around nothing but desolate scrub. I am told that there is a lot of interesting stuff out there; lizards, snakes, birds, roos, and a plant that is said to have a flower that looks exactly like a swallow. I’m sure David Attenborough could make it fascinating. From the highway it is just one long road. At one point I past three cars going the other way within the span of only a minute or two. Very exciting. This is Mad Max territory for sure. 2.25 hours to Carnavon, which was less than I expected. Then I found out it would be 3 or more hours to Shark Bay, far more than I expected. Hmmm.
I’ve got the pedal pressed hard to the floor in my diesal Toyota Camry (a car no one can believe exists.) With the airconditioning on, I cant get over 125kph. At one point I had to slow down to let an emu cross the road. A bird that can run at over <speed? 35mph?>, why does it have to pick the highway to show off its stately stroll.
4.5 hours to Overlander, the turnoff to Shark Bay, and still over 160 kilometers to Denham.
Hamelin Pool & Stromatolites. Not your average tourist stuff, but very cool for a geek like me. Got there at super-low tide. It was great. Strange shell beach.
Just about sunset I got to the turnoff for Eagle Bluff. Turned down the unpaved red-dirt road covered with drifting dirt and sand. 4kms down to the end just in time for sunset. However, there was a previously unseen cloud-bank hanging out to sea, so the sunset was effectively lost. Also, the wind was so strong I almost couldn’t stand up at the lookout point. Ugh.
With all the stops, 7 hours from Coral Bay to Denham. Remind me to send a note to my chiropractor: “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here!” Left Coral Bay at 12:30, got into Denham at 7:30pm. A long day.
Denham Villas: Photo in guide book is a total fake. Place looks like crap. Drive up and down looking at all the places. Only the Denham Seaside Caravan Park (08-9948-1242.) is off the higway and on the beach. AU$70 for a self-contained pre-fab unit with two bedrooms (one queen bed, and one room with 2 bunk beds), kitchen, bathroom, drinkable water in all the taps. A brand new unit on the hill overlooking the ocean. Unfortunately the wind is so strong I almost cant carry my suitcase from the car to the door. This is “the most westerly caravan park in Australia.” Now that’s saying something! Not much, but it is saying something. This place really wouldn’t be bad except the wind is trying to knock the unit off the hill and into the sea. I have been asking around about the wind. People are being pretty cagey, but it sounds like this is the windy season, but the winds lately have been pretty exceptional. Last week apparently it was dead calm. Hmmm.
Dinner at the Bay Café (69 Knight Terrace, 08-9948-1308). Most beautiful salad I have seen in Australia. Lettuce, onions, fresh bell pepper, fresh strawberries and peach slices. Wow. Pizza, very beautiful but just OK. Looking forward to left over pizza for breakfast tomorrow.
Wake up. Last night’s gale has diminished, but it is still quite windy. Great view from my “cabin”, though now that it is light I can see that the whole area between me and the view is RV parking. Thus, if the place were full up with campers, the view would be the backs of a lot of vehicles, not the beautiful turquoise ocean view I am afforded. Otherwise, this place has worked out quite well, though they don’t provide soap, shampoo, or packets of freeze dried coffee like everywhere else. I showered with Woolite.
Drove to Monkey Mia to watch the spectacle of the famous Dolphins of Monkey Mia. It was just as pathetic as I expected. Didn’t participate. Looked into the different sailing “eco-cruises”, but just couldn’t bring myself to do it, no matter how much I wanted to see a Dugong. <describe dugongs>. Did nature walk at high noon. Lots of hot, red sand that was as fine as powder. Didn’t see much, since all the creatures (beside me) had the good sense to be out of the hot sun. I made it as far as a bird blind at the edge of a small pond. Taking respite from the sun, I watched a cormorant and a flock of LBB’s (little brown birds.)
Drove back to Denham. What a waste.
Go into town, find phone booth. Call down to Leeman to talk to Ian Stiles at Beagle Island Dive about diving with sea lions as described in the SkyWest airlines Destinations magazine. He asks me “where did you read that?” He tells me that the government doesn’t let them do that anymore, that he takes people out to snorkel near the sea lions, and if the sea lions decide to come to him, that’s OK. He only does it on the weekend, and only if there are enough people. There might be a trip this weekend, call back tomorrow. Harrumph. Afterwards I went back and re-read the article. In truth, it doesn’t actually say that he takes people to dive with sea lions, but boy is it ever implied.
Walk over to the beach, the beach in Denham is not particularly nice. The water is too shallow to swim without walking hundreds of yards through ankle deep water, and the wind is too strong to sit on the sand. Oh well.
I walked into the Famous Sandlewood Crap Shop (not its actual name.) As I walked in a small backpacker bus pulled up and all the captives trundled out and into the shop. I overheard someone mutter “oh, we’re stopping at another one of these places.”
I wanted lunch so I started looking around. Lonely Planet had mentioned that the Old Pearler was better for lunch than for dinner. Sited in an historic building made of mined shell blocks, the menu sounded OK. However, there was absolutely no one there; neither customers nor waiters. Also, I noticed they were plaing the Country Music classic, “Oakie from Muskogie” on the stereo, so I got the hell outta there. I walked all the way back up the street to the Jetty Café (51 Knight Terrace). The food looked and smelled nauseating, so I made a beeline back to the old faithful Bay Café. There I had an excellent chicken sandwich and taught them the obscure art of making ice tea, “You make a pot of tea, and pour it over a glass of ice.” I think they liked the idea.
After lunch I headed back out of Shark Bay. Stopped at Eagle Bluff again to see if I could snorkel out through the seagrasses and find a dugong or some turtles or dolphins on my own. It is really strange here, a desert next to the ocean. Of course, just because there is an infinite amount of water over there, doesn’t mean that any of it ever gets over here.
I drove my car down the unpaved Eagle Bluff road, then turned off left before the lookout point to the beach access. Parked and carefully locked the car, safety-pinning the car key inside my bathing suit. All the while I wondered why I bothered, since there wasn’t anyone around and it didn’t look like another car had been there all day. I got my snorkeling gear together and trudged down the last part of the path to the beach where the wind slammed into me. It was a real fight to get out to the point where I could put my fins on. I had to fight my way through the sea-grass clogged shallows against the wind and wind-blown surf. Finally it was deep enough so in I went. The visibility was terrible, which didn’t matter much since all there was to see was sea grass growing in three feet of water. After a while I started to get nervous about the possibility that in the murky water a tiger shark might mistake me for a lone dugong. I wasn’t seeing anything anyway, so I headed back into shore.
Driving back out towards the main highway the only living things I saw where a few birds, a wild cat and a rabbit. The latter two being introduced species that are reigning havoc on the native species.
In his book, In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson goes on at length about the vastness of Australia and the creatures, thought extinct, that were found quietly living their lives in the uncharted tracts of land. But, when he describes his drive across the outback, he can only find a couple pages of things to say. Probably because his drive was as boring as mine, the scenery unchanging, nothing in particular to mention.
Back on Highway 1 heading south, I drove through kilometer after kilometer of boring outback bush country, which gradually gave way to some trees, then finally farmland. Suddenly there were signs of civilization: passing zones, other cars, then, gasp, a traffic circle.
Geraldton is a real town with a population of over 20,000 people. I pulled in around 7:30pm. Lonely Planet describes the local hostels as “charming” and “a real gem”. Alas, they were full. The Champion Bay Bed & Breakfast (31 Snowdon St., 08-9921-7624), however, was completely empty. Frank checked me in and put me in the nice upstairs room with the view.
For dinner, Frank recommended Skeetas Garden Restaurant (9 George Rd., 08-9964-1619) which was just around the corner. Crayfish fishing is the major local industry. I had mentioned to Frank that I wanted to try the crayfish, and apparently the brother of the guy that owns Skeetas is a crayfish fisherman, so the crayfish should be great there. I get seated and ask the waitress, “Can I get crayfish tonight?” “Yes, sure. Would you like them thermador or in cheese sauce?” “Uh, how about plain?” “Certainly, crayfish ‘natural’ over a salad with spicy cocktail sauce.” “Uh, does that mean you serve your ‘natural’ crayfish cold?” “Of course, though we can do it hot if you would like.” “Oh, yes, please! Just with butter sauce would be fine.” Whew! That was a close call, as I remember my terribly disappointing lobster in New Zealand, served old and cold, but with no way to get it hot.
I addition I ordered the fish ‘consommé’ and a glass of the house chardonnay. The chardonnay had a slightly moldy bouquet and was sharp with absolutely no finish. The consommé had me laughing out loud. It could hardly have been farther from consommé, being both thickened and full of seafood. Basically it was seafood soup. Though not consommé, it was nice, but I improved it substantially by pouring some of my chardonnay into it and adding salt. When the lobster arrived it was OK, but frankly it hardly seemed to be the same genus as the wonderful Maine lobsters of my youth.
The Lonely Planet for Western Australia in describing Geraldton notes that the “constant wind…drives some people mad.” Well, though there was a breeze this morning, it was nothing in comparison to the gales of the last few days up north. Bright, clear and sunny, but cool. My room has a pleasant view out over part of the town to the rock breakwater just offshore.
Get up, talk to Frank for an hour over breakfast. He recommended the live lobster factory tour, which was also noted in Lonely Planet. He also mentioned that the woman who wrote the Lonely Planet stayed at his B&B. Interesting. The Brolos Crayfish tour was just OK. It is just the very beginning of the crayfishing season, so there isn’t much going on right now. The introductory video had hysterical music and was a total promotional piece. During the course of the 10 minute video, there were two different actors that recited the exact same spiel about the freshness and quality of the Brolos product. It was word for word the same, but each acted as though it had just occurred to them on the spot. Very funny. Clearly the producers of the video were given the mission “get the words ‘freshness’ and ‘quality’ in there as many times as you can.”
This trip is becoming an absolute classic. I went to the local dive shop to find out about diving trips to the Alhobros islands. The dive shop does not actually offer dives themselves, but there are two local operators they book people onto. Turns out that neither operator could get any divers this weekend. The one isn’t going, and the other managed to fill their boat completely with snorkelers. That’s how this trip has gone; either things are cancelled due to lack of bookings, or they are full up. From a payphone I call down to Freemantle to the Perth Dive Acadame and book onto a trip to Rottnest Island for the next day. Then I call the number for the B&B I checked out. Nope, they’re full. They give me the numbers of a couple other B&B’s. They’re full too! Finally I call the visitors information center in Freemantle. Turns out that it is festival weekend in Freemantle and things are pretty well filled up. Again, things are either full or empty. The visitors information center people tell me they have room at a B&B in South Freemantle, so they book me in there. Whew!
Turns out I am parked in a zone which requires purchasing a ticket from a vending machine. I don’t have any change except for a $2 coin. I stop into a used book store and ask for change. The book dealer gets this odd expression on his face and tells me that he cant afford to go making change for $2 coins, then insists that I take a 20 cent piece as a gift. It was an odd and touching moment. After buying a 30 minute parking voucher I went to a little sandwich shop called “Go Health”. I ordered a foccacia sandwich and took a seat on a couch. I find myself dreading meals and just wanting a bag of potato chips. It’s the waiting that kills me. How can it take 20 minutes to get a pre-made sandwich? By the time my order is finally ready I have to take it to go, since my parking voucher is now expired. Sigh.
Lots of wildflowers, must be amazing at the height of the season, which is said to be September to October.
Stop at “Western Flora”. Did their flower walk, invented “fly aerobics”. Eventually driven out by the flies
Drive to Freemantle, 7 hours.
The Daly View Beachside B&B (15 Douro Rd., Freemantle, 08-9336-1238)
Annabella’s Mediterranean Cuisine and Pizzeria (408 South Terrace, 08-9336-2194.) Typical Aussie menu; start with Italian, and then corrupt it. Put sweet potato where there should be rice, decide to make the carpaccio be fish instead of beef. Offer a dish called “Penne con Pollo” with a “cream-soy sauce”. Eh? Come again? I ordered the Penne Annabella’s. The penne was properly al dente, but the tomato sauce was thin and the sausage had an odd sterno-like overtone.
The tap water in metro-Perth is really nasty tasting. I gather it isn’t harmful, but it sure aint pleasant. None of the local beers advertise that it’s the water that makes it special.
Breakfast at the B&B
Lost trying to find Perth Dive Academy (8 Rous Head Road, 08-9430-6300), located across the river in North Freemantle, hidden in the industrial docks. The people who work there gave me half baked directions and behave as though it should be easy to find. Harrumph. Their boat, the Lionfish IV is a purpose-built dive boat and is far and away the best dive boat I’ve ever been on, bar none. Even though it is intended as a day-trip boat, except for the lack of cabins it is a better boat than any live-aboard I’ve been on. Everything works and is in the right place. The dive deck is large and well thought out. The showers are excellent and plentiful. This is one great boat. However, I just say that I hate the BCD’s that they rent (Sherwood Scuba “Pro Black”). Also, this was my first experience with steel tanks, and I certainly prefer aluminum. The dive briefings were “brief” to say the least. All the other divers were local regulars, and I wasn’t sure that the dive master knew the sites well enough to really do a briefing anyway. Oh well.
We did two dives off Rottnest Island in 19 degree centigrade water. I was very cold wearing a 5mm one piece wet suit plus a hood. Here most people dive with 2 piece 5mm wetsuits, and one woman had a dry-suit. I envied her.
The first dive was a spot called Roe Reef. I failed to note the fact that my tank was steel, and so I wore as much weight as I would with an aluminum tank. Big mistake. I sank like a stone. Thank heavens for a BCD, even a poor one. The dive had poor visibility and very strong surge. But nonetheless it was an interesting dive. I’ve never seen so many sponges and sea squirts. The limestone that makes up the sea bed here allows these creatures to get a strong grip in spite of the surge, and the many sea caves protect them as well. I also got to see some live crayfish and one large round ray. Even though we had found the boat on several occasions during the dive, when it was time to surface neither my buddy nor I could spot it. After circling for a while we finally ascended and found ourselves far from the boat. Here they do not pick you up unless you are in trouble, so we had to endure a long surface swim. Back on the boat they served an excellent lunch. I asked the dive master about the poor visibility and strong surge. He replied that the conditions were some of the best he’d ever seen at this spot. He called them “perfect and ideal.” Hmmmm. I’d hate to dive here on a bad day!
The second dive was at North Roe Reef. This time I was really cold from the very start, though the surge was not as bad, the visibility was better, and I was properly weighted. The dive had more limestone caves and some fun swim-throughs. There were more sponges and sea-squirts, plus some nudibranchs and awesome cuttlefish. There were also amazingly aggressive little fish called McCulloch’s Scalyfin, some scorpion fish, rays, leatherjackets, and the stunning Western Blue Devil (see http://www.mlssa.asn.au/photos/62.jpg).
All in all it was interesting diving here, but I’m not rushing to go back. Certainly I would want a much warmer wetsuit. Also, though Perth Dive Academy’s boat was top-notch, the rest of the operation didn’t thrill me.
After diving I retired back to the B&B and fell asleep.
Tonight I went for dinner at the oft-recommended Indiana Tea House in Cottesloe (99 Marine Parade, Cottesloe, 08-9385-5005), about 15 minutes north of Freemantle. It is a spacious and attractive restaurant set in an historic building. It is meant to look like a slice of Indian Raj décor, but I’m afraid a few ceiling fans and wicker chairs don’t suffice to fully create the illusion. Nonetheless, it is a pleasant place, and a great spot for viewing the sunset. As is the case with all Australian restaurants, they plan for only a single seating each night. Thus, even though all the sea-view window seats were available when I arrived, they wouldn’t seat me there, since they had bookings for those seats hours hence, and I couldn’t convince them that I hoped to be out of there in under two hours. Sigh. As a further point of wonder, the sea-view seats are really only premium seating until sunset. Once it is dark out, the window seats are irrelevant – it is dark. Thus, booking a prime seat for 9pm is just plain silly. My logic fell on deaf ears. Regardless, they put me at a very nice window seat, though without the prime sunset view. The menu had many interesting options, including my entrée: Indiana Trio Turkish Bread with three veggie dips (guacamole, tsaziki and daal.) The homemade bread and all three dips were excellent. Dining alone I could easily have filled up on this large appetizer alone. [Aside: I’ve never understood the word “appetizer”. Generally I find that a really good appetizer ruins my appetite, rather than whetting it. I think the word “entrée” (as used outside the USA) is a far better word. It is your entrance into the meal. Why “entrée” is used to mean the main course in the United States remains a mystery.]
For my main I had the rack of lamb, which was excellent, though slightly rarer than a-point. It was served with a selection of great vegetables, which were lightly sautéed and very flavorful. Accompanying my lamb I had a fine local cabernet sauvignon which went very well with the lamb. The service at the Indiana Tea House was very attentive, and certainly up to American standards. Though I had been concerned that the place was going to turn out to be a tourist trap, the meal, service and experience were excellent. Highly recommended.
After dinner I took a short walk around Cottesloe, which is an attractive community set on a beautiful beach. Certainly worth more investigation.
A day off
Fun kite festival at South Beach, a 2 minute walk from the B&B
Terry took me to a brew pub called Little Creatures, 40 Mews Rd, 08-9430-5555. It is a really fun, cool place with good beer, great music, interesting art on the walls, a catwalk overlooking the kitchen and nice ocean views, full of fun, happy people. Highly recommended.
Afterwards we had Thai food at a place on Essex St. It was quite good, though not fully authentic.
Up at 6:00am for sea kayaking trip on Rottnest Island. 7:30am ferry over. Kayak from 9am to noonish.
Lunch at the Tea Rooms. Very good, nice view.
Consider renting a bike to ride around the island. Decide against. More peacocks on Rotto, why?
Wander around Rottnest, get in touch with my inner Quokka.
In a country surrounded by shark infested waters and filled with crocodiles and the ten most venomous snakes in the world, its kind of amazing to find a Quokka. They’re just these big friendly oversized rats with pouches. The Quokka sits there thinking, “Hmmmm, should I hop over there and eat that leaf? No, maybe I’ll just sit here and eat this blade of grass.” He sees me. “I’m a Quokka, who are you? I was just thinking about eating this blade of grass. Grin.” I wonder, if Quokkas were named Qualus, would Quokka Soccer have been invented?
Fairy terns on Government House Lake. Huge skink. Beautiful breeze, sun, day sitting in monument.
Talk to folks at Malibu Diving on Rottnest at Thomson Bay (08-9292-5111). They do two dives per day; the boat comes back into port between dives. The cost is comparable to Perth Dive Academy. Pros: you don’t have to cross over from Freo on dive boat, can have lunch on land, can decide if you want to do one dive or two, they dive aluminum tanks, and you can be on Rottnest to begin with. Cons: the boat comes in between dives, I haven’t seen the boat, and you have to be on Rottnest to begin with.
Rotto, Freo, “o”
Plan travel for tomorrow, do laundry, some packing.
Dinner at Little Creatures. A lot less crowded on Monday night. Still fun. If I lived in Freo I’d hang out there a lot.
Have breakfast, talk with Terry, pack up and head out at about 11am (far later than I intended.)
Mandura, flies are really bad here today. Visitors center, very well stocked with info. The information man tells me with great pride about the new 20 million dollar marina that was built, the new shopping center that is going in, all the hotels being built, and the condos and villas that are going in all around. He suggests a walk along the boardwalk around the estuary, but the flies are too bad. I drive around and get lost in a maze of awful condo developments and villa parks, all advertising Estuary views. Ugh.
Mandura vs. Shark Bay. Mandura has stromatolites, dolphins that come in to the beach, dolphin cruises, and even dolphin tours where you can snorkel with the dolphins. Why go to Shark Bay? Driving along my mind is filled with thoughts about being a traveler vs. a tourist. How much effort am I willing to put in? If I can see it in Mandura, am I willing to put in the effort to get to Shark Bay in a world heritage site? Mandura is building itself a modern mess, but Monkey Mia is a terrible tourist spectacle. Hmmmm. Maybe I vote for neither.
Stop at a spot on the “South Estuary” south of town.
Down to winery, Lake Clifton, Thrombolites. Cape Bouvard Winery does not serve food during the week, weekends only. Thrombolies OK, not as interesting as Shark Bay.
Lunch at the Gull gas station (not Gulf), at the Halfway Café. A hamburger, I think it was ham, I think it was deep fried. Peacock (why?) (also Peacocks on Rotto)
Donnybrook, apples and fruit. No free coffee
Balingup, arts and crafts community. The Old Cheese Factory Craft Center and Garden Café, WA’s largest Art and Craft Gallery. I’m not sure what surprised me more; the amount of crap they had for sale, or the fact that a reasonable amount of it wasn’t crap.
Driving along I find myself in an area of rolling hills, pleasant looking farms, and suddenly a genuine pine forest off to my left. I assume this is a forest planted for timber, since pine trees are not native.
Bridgetown, a very cute little town. But that’s no surprise, it was, after all, the 1999 Tidy Town Award winner in category E.
Got to Pemberton around 6:00pm. Check in at the Treenbrook Cottages on the Vasse Highway (08-9776-1638). It seemed like there were a number of good choices, but this one looked fine and was first. Hand made mud-brick cottages on the edge of a paddock containing donkeys and <not llamas>. Beautiful flowering trees and bushes everywhere, a lovely flower arrangement on the table, zillions of birds in the trees. For AU$95, the cabin could sleep five people, and is supplied with a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, and a patio with BBQ. Carolyn greeted me and seemed very friendly and happy to chat. Phillip, her husband, showed me to the cabin, and though cordial, seemed like he had given his “welcome” spiel one too many times.
The first truly beautiful sunset I have seen during this trip to Oz.
Buy supplies at the excellent general store for breakfast tomorrow
Dinner at the Pemberton Hotel. There are two choices, the pub restaurant, or the new modern café. There were a number of people in the café, but the pub was almost empty. That’s a vote for the café. But in a town like this the café couldn’t help but bollux it up. I’ve had too many lousy café meals in this country to make that mistake again so I take a table in the pub. I really don’t want to fight it, so I just order the special of the day: a traditional Aussie pork roast dinner with mashed potatoes, potatoes, squash, creamed cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, and corn. Hmmmm. Would you like so starch with your pork? It was actually quite good in a down-home kinda way. I think I made the right choice.
Back at the cabin. Boy is it quiet!
Get up and fix my breakfast; a very nice change to do it myself.
Walk through the Karri forest behind the cabins. The flies were awful until I got away from the Donkey paddock. Beautiful, peaceful walk. Innumerable bird songs; hard to see most of the birds making them.
Continued down the road to look at the Karri Valley Resort and the Karri Valley Hideaway Cottages. Both are a significant distance from town (about 20km) in Beedelup. The Karri Valley Hideaway Cottages (Hopgarden Road 08-9776-2049) are quite beautiful, set in a super quiet spot with nice gardens, fields, trees, and a pond. Looks like it might be even more pleasant than the Treenbrook Cottages, but for somewhat more money and far from Pemberton and its restaurants and services. While there I sat and watched a pair of honey-eaters feeding at a beautiful banksias tree.
Karri Valley Resort (Vasse Highway, 08-9776-2020). The manager gave me an extensive tour. He spent so much time with me that I couldn’t help wondering if somehow he knew I was a travel writer. Self contained 2 and 3 room cabins in the trees, or a motel/lodge on the lake. Every motel room has a balcony overlooking the lake. You can fish for trout from your balcony, and the restaurant will clean and cook it for you. The rooms were entirely comparable to the other places I looked at, but somehow this felt like a more complete experience. I felt like I was able to exhale more completely, I felt like I would be more taken care of. They will lend you fishing gear, you can borrow a paddle boat. It was entirely pleasant, peaceful and comfortable. Of course, this comes at a price of more than two times the rates the other places were asking.
Drove over to Beedelup Falls. Among the least impressive falls I’ve ever seen. Hardly steeper than a set of rapids, I know kayakers in Colorado who would probably consider going down these falls. The AU$9.00 fee to park is definitely a ripoff, especially considering that the Karri Valley Resort will let you park there and hike over. The forest was pleasant, and it is a nice place to visit for a while, but really the falls are a pass.
Drive into Warren National Park, do the lovely Heartbreak Trail drive and Maidenbrush trail through 400 year old Karri trees. Wonder about the linguistic relationship between the old giant Karri trees of Australia and the giant Kauri trees of New Zealand. Stop at the “last campsite” where there is a small pond, and some kangarro paw flowers are still in bloom.
Into Pemberton. Stop at the Karri Visitors Center and the Karri Forest Discovery Center, home of ‘Coco the Frog’ and his friend ‘Penny the Possum’. “Childen and Adults alike will be delighted talking to ‘Coco the Frog’”. It turns out that Coco is a 2 foot tall cement frog statue situated next to a stagnant pool in an unkempt atrium garden. The people at the visitor’s center assure me that, nonetheless, children are delighted by Coco. I think they have a special place where they put adults that are delighted talking to garden ornaments. I couldn’t find ‘Penny the Possum’. Perhaps she broke. Leaving the Discovery Center there was a collection box asking for donations to help improve the center. I put in a dollar in the fervent hope that promised improvements are not too far off.
Lunch at Jan’s Café on the main road. Chili chicken wrap. Not bad.
Drive to Walpole. Pretty wildflowers, amazing huge trees. Driving from one state forest to another in a seemingly endless string.
Stop in at the visitors center, make a booking for a B&B tonight, and get a ticket for the Tree Top Walk, which is located east of town about half way between Walpole and Denmark (yes, “Denmark”.) In fact, though Walpole claims the Tree Top Walk, it is really closer to Denmark. This Tree Top Walk was a substantially better experience than the one in Tasmania. It was really great, though it swings like crazy and is definitely not recommended for the <?>phobic <word – fear of heights.> The main reason for its superiority is that the trees here are really worth seeing, unlike Tasmania where the forest was logged just 30 years ago. Here the forest is full of huge old trees, including the Red Tingle, the world’s largest buttressing eucalypt. Interestingly, the trees aren’t actually that old by ancient forest standards. Turns out most of the trees that inhabit this area just don’t live that long. They get very big, but then they die and a new generation takes their place. One problem with the Tree Top Walk is that suffered by so many tourist attractions: Tourists. There are just so many damned tourists there; it would be nice to be there alone. Hi ho.
Walpole Wilderness Resort, Gardiner Road, 08-9840-1481. Wow is it terrific here. Three bedrooms, could sleep 6 people, spa, two showers, beautiful living room and kitchen. A pod of Roos outside my door, lorikeets, fly catchers, and laughing kookaburra in the trees, a lovely view. Wow. Unfortunately it is a 20-minute drive to town and I don’t have any supplies to make dinner.
Drive into town, dinner at the Top Deck Café, 25 Nockolds St., 08-9840-1344. For an entrée I had the marron parcels, which were excellent: yummy marron tail meat properly done in a cream sauce, placed inside a light fluffy puff pastry. Very, very nice. The lamb kabobs main was beautifully spiced and very filling. As I was finishing my meal I suddenly realized that I had had several good meals in a row. Whew!
Returned to the cabin, roos were still feeding. Made a fire and went to bed.
A fire is a nice rustic touch, but waking up at 4:30am feeling cold isn’t so much fun. I rebuilt the fire and went back to bed. On the other hand, it gave me the opportunity to see that the roos were still out grazing at this late hour. [In the morning I discovered that the bed had an electric heating pad which I should have turned on instead of relying on the fireplace for heat. Doh!]
When I woke up this morning it was overcast and cool, with a strong breeze. The roos were gone, as were the lorikeets, though there was a good deal of bird song in the bushes. I made myself breakfast from yesterday morning’s leftovers, packed up, and headed down to town for the Wild On Wolpole (WOW) Wilderness Tour. The guy that lead my kayaking tour on Rottnest had recommended it very highly, and the proprietor of the Walpole Wilderness Resort said it was great. Lonely Planet too mentioned it as an excellent trip. I was a little unsure though, because the WOW brochure said absolutely nothing about what the trip entailed. As I was checking out I mentioned to the resort owner that the weather didn’t look too nice for the Wilderness Tour. He replied that I shouldn’t worry, as I wouldn’t be seeing anything anyway. What? I’m going on a wilderness tour and I wont see anything? What the hell does that mean? Scratching my head I continued on my way. At the tourist bureau they sold me my AU$22 ticket and assured me that (a) the tour will be going since Gary runs it even if there is only one person and (b) I would love it.
Let me not keep you in suspense; this was the best thing I have done during my whole month in Australia! If you find yourself within 1000 kilometers of Walpole, you must go. I insist. To miss this would be criminal. I can’t believe there were only 7 of us on the tour, it should have been booked solid for months. No, make that years.
Gary Muir is one of 20 people involved with WOW, an organization created by his family to do nature preservation and research in Walpole and around the world. They are also working vigorously to “lower the barriers separating people around the world”. Twenty percent of the tour ticket price goes directly to support WOW projects. Gary is amazing. He seems to know everything that there is to know about the flora, fauna, and environment of Walpole, in addition to its history, and pre-history. Add to that the fact that he never wears shoes, and you have quite a guy. Forget about the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ guy, this is the genuine article. Finally, he seems to have majored in connecting Walpole to every other place on the planet. Tell Gary where you are from and he will find some way in which Walpole is historically, biologically, or philosophically connected to your home. Either the immigrants that founded Walpole come from your part of the world, or a fish that lives only in Walpole has its closest living relative in a pond near your home, or his great grandfather ‘Coughing Bob’ taught a famous horse rider who won a major rodeo in your town in 1916. It is truly astounding.
Using props ranging from an inflatable globe to a giant rubber spider, to aerial photos, to books, to his own leg, Gary entertained, lectured, and educated us on everything imaginable and them some. We learned how to treat snake bite victims, how the weather in Southern Australia works, why the weather patterns cause so much rain in this one small place, and why an endangered local spider is a vital link that helps us understand the way the continents were connected in the mega-continent Gondwanna. He regaled us with tidbits about where the word “chockablock” comes from, how his grandfather “Coughing Bob” won a famous horse race to become the top rider in Australia, how Carbon-14 dating works, and why environmentalists are able to use a poison (called 1080) from a local plant to kill foxes without poisoning indigenous animals. Gary delighted in telling us the wonderful story how of his mother, a prim and proper British school headmistress met and then married his dad, an outback kangaroo hunter. He paced back and forth as he told us about how forestry management had decided to make the local area a ‘no planned burn’ zone with the dire result that now when fire does strike, it burns too hot and kills the local plants and animals that should be able to survive a normal fire. He talked about the local land that his great grandfather had bought for $22, and which his family had turned into national park land. Finally, he practically burst with pride as he described his own work leading the development of the Tree Top Walk and the Valley of the Giants. Apparently the Tree Top Walk has been so successful that its profits are used to help support the other parks in the area, and it is being copied in other parts of the world. Gary had just come back from California where he was helping set up another treetop walk.
Apparently Gary never sleeps. That morning he had used the tour boat to drop off a group of researchers studying invertebrates in the recently burned forest, then he came back to lead our tour. After our tour he was heading off on a five hour drive to pick up some researchers at the airport, then he had to retrieve the invertebrate researchers and finally lead a group of scientists to a local bog deep in the bush where they were looking for a frog that only lives here, but who’s closest living relative inhabits ponds in the Swiss alps. Tomorrow morning he will bake cakes for that day’s tour before setting out for another full itinerary.
As for the wilderness tour, we really didn’t see much, but we did see a bit. Gary pointed out every type of bird, bush, tree and fish on the shores and in the waters, gave us their Latin names and told us some amazing fact about their lives, history, or connection to the global ecosystem. I’m not sure how he managed that amongst all the other stories (and piloting the boat), but it did happen. At the midpoint of the trip we stopped at a small dock and did a brief hike through the bush and over to a beach on the other side. Gary pointed out snake droppings, ant mounds, and trails left by Quokkas (yes, they don’t live only on Rotto.) At the beach he picked up a small handful of sand to point out the several kinds of minerals that make it up. With characteristic enthusiasm he pointed to a brown smudge on the sand and started digging. “Look at this! You see this brown stuff here? This is soil from the ancient forest that grew here 14 to 18 million years ago when the ocean was lower and this beach was in the middle of a temperate rainforest. And how about that over there? Look at that brown sand. It’s lighter than this dirt here. Wouldn’t it be something to analyze these two bits of dirt and find out what makes them different!?!” I swear to god he made me want to drop what I was doing and run right out to get a degree in soil sciences. The whole thing was magical. If we could clone Gary and put one of him in every school in the world we would end war and hunger and save the planet’s ecosystem in one generation.
One caveat however. Back at the visitor’s center as I was gushing over this fantastic experience they warned me that some people don’t like the tour. If you are really expecting to go out and see kangaroos, penguins, whales, sea lions, or whatever you imagine you’ll see, you will be disappointed. But seeing stuff is not the point. Gary Muir is a national treasure. Meeting him is a life changing experience. That is the point, and that is why the WOW tour brochure doesn’t say anything about what the tour is. Also, sometimes Gary is working his magic in other parts of the world. His father, and other WOW members also run the tour, and I am sure it must be a different experience. There could hardly be two Gary’s. I would love to see what the tour is like when his father leads it. Anyway, your mileage may vary.
Back to the Top Deck Café for an excellent lunch. A homemade beef pie made of really good beef in a very fine pastry. Looking around, everything that other people had ordered looked great too. This is a fine place.
Driving highway 1 north out of Walpole was magic. The huge trees, smell of eucalyptus in the air. The air felt think like a cool blanket. The dappled light through the trees felt so comfortable; I feel like I could stay here forever.
Back in Pemberton I phoned up the Karri Valley Lodge and made a booking a the reduced rate of AU$146. Then set out to see The Cascades before heading to the lodge. The Cascades were a truly lovely spot, as Lonely Planet had said. The Cascades are a rapids-like falls. I took photos and watched a kookaburra diving for fish until the flies drove me out.
I sit on the deck of my room over the lake, listening to the combined rushing of wind in the leaves of trees and the Beedelup falls, along with the sound of little lorikeet feet on the tin roof. Ducks splashing in the water below, swallows flying over its surface, I alternate between watching a pair of raptors sitting on a nest in a dead tree across the lake, and the changing evening sunlight glinting on the ripples of water. Just poking over the tops of the trees, the almost full moon hangs ethereal pale bluish-white in the robins egg sky. A kookaburra calls in the distance as countless other birds sing their evening songs. Looking at the moon I realize that the air over the trees is full of dozens of swallows. The birds are legion. The cool air smells and feels alive.
[Side note: I have just learned that the raptors are a pair of osprey, which has everyone very excited because they don’t live here! Apparently there are people here from CALM and the BBC studying them to find out why they are here. I am told that there is also a duck on the lake here which comes from Tasmania, and has never been seen anywhere near south West Australia.]
Dinner at the lodge restaurant. A pleasant room with perfect views of the lake. Starting with an entry of local marron grilled with garlic butter, then a dish of chicken breast stuffed with ham, roasted peppers, sun dried tomatoes, and mozzarella. I was tempted by the lake Beedelup trout, but had a hankering for chicken. Along side my final glass of Cascade lager. Gonna miss that.
The marron was very nice. It is interesting that the famous local ‘crayfish’ (which I would call a ‘lobster’) isn’t very good, but the fresh water marron (which I would call a large crayfish) is excellent. Served with a fabulous mushroom risotto and a huge salad. The salad was so big that many American restaurants would charge as much for the salad as this restaurant charges for the whole thing. The chicken was just good. Beautiful presentation and bouquet, but the flavor didn’t follow through.
One unpleasant negative about the restaurant. In order to allow for viewing of the lighting placed in the trees across the lake, the restaurant is all-but pitch dark. Forget about seeing your plate, let alone reading or looking longingly into your partners eyes.
The service had been quite good, so I was surprise when they cleared my plate and then disappeared without asking if I wanted desert. After 10 minutes of waiting I flagged down my waiter who was just standing in the back of the restaurant and asked him the question I’ve been wanting to ask for weeks; “Why is it that in Australia you clear the table, then wait for 10 minutes before asking if I want desert?” “Oh, well, we do that on purpose, squire. [Yes, he really did say ‘squire’.] We want you to have time to get hungry again before showing you the desert menu.” Really? Time to get hungry again? Are you joking? Were they planning on leaving me there for eight hours? Furthermore, I recall seeing a program about eating and eating disorders on the PBS program NOVA awhile back, and I’m pretty sure that the biology of digestion does not support their theory. In any case, a single man sitting in a dimly lit restaurant is more likely to fall asleep given 10 minutes after a big meal than to build up a hankering for sticky date pudding! I skipped on desert and went back to my room for Tim Tams and coffee. ‘Nuff said.
I woke up this morning to a comfortable gray gloom and the soothing sound of rain pattering on the metal roof of the room. Pulling the comforter up around my chin I thought about what a cozy day it would be to spend in bed, watching the patterns of rain on the lake, then groaned as I realized that this did not bode well for my real plans for the day. Sigh.
I saw the famous Tasmanian duck this morning. It is a quite unexceptional salt-and-pepper colored duck, but it has a gigantic wattle under its chin. At first I thought it was a shadow of its head on the water or some trick of the light, but no, it is carrying around several square inches of extra skin. I’m sure others of its species find the wattle unbelievably sexy.
Listening to the rain I am thinking about the fact that this is the rainiest part of WA. I wonder what it is that attracts me to rain forests. I guess it’s just the lush beauty. I don’t like rain, but I do like what it produces.
A few more thoughts on the Karri Valley Resort. The room is spacious, functional, but characterless. All the value is in its location on this beautiful lake. The shower is fantastic, a real waker-upper; I’ve been having a lot of whimpy showers lately, so this was a nice change. I couldn’t figure out how to make the shower curtain keep the water in the shower though. It appears to be impossible to avoid flooding the bathroom floor. Oh well. By the way, the lake is actually man-made. The river was damned years ago to provide irrigation water for a planned hops-growing business that didn’t survive.
Pemberton Fine Woodcraft Gallery, Dickinson St. 08-9776-1399 – phenomenal work, amazing prices (by US standards)
Next door, Coffee Connection, excellent coffee, magnificent home baked goods
Peter Kovacsy’s studio (Jamieson St. 08-9776-1265). Disappointing. The super-expensive pieces were great. What is it about very successful artists. Reminded me of Chihuli <sp?>
Driving back down 10 towards Nanup. Steam rising off the road, driving between fields, suddenly the air is full of swallows wheeling and swooping over the road, buzzing over my car, cavorting, sailing, flying, incredible.
Eventually I found myself needing a restroom just as I was passing a place called the Nillup Village General Store. I pulled over and noticed a pair of old, rusting bicycles parked next to the fence. I grabbed my camera to get some shots. As I was photographing the bikes, a happy yellow retriever bounded over and forced me to play catch with it (well, it wasn’t that hard to convince me.) I petted the dog while photographing the bikes from different angles, then finally went into the store which was half shop, half restaurant. Out from the kitchen came a large, middle-aged man in an apron. “Excuse me, do you have a restroom I could use?” I asked. “Why would I, mate?” came the gruff reply. I must admit I was stunned. “Ummmmm.” “And next time you want to take a photograph on private property, ask first.” “Ummm, right then, goodbye.” It was “Doctor Doggy and Mr. Hyde” or “The Puppy of Dorian Gray” at the Nillup Village General Store, with a dog that was as friendly as the proprietor was nasty.
One kilometer further down the road I pulled into the Karridale Crossroads petrol station where the restrooms were free for all, and the shopkeeper was as friendly as could be. My relief (both mental and physical) was palpable. As I continued down the road I amused myself making up stories about the guy in Nillup. Perhaps his wife just left him. Maybe he’d just burned himself on the stove, or got a really bad stain on his favorite apron. Or maybe his twin sons had parked those bikes next to the fence the afternoon they were run over by an American tourist with a camera. Or maybe the guy is just an asshole.
Into the town of Margaret River. Tourist office, “Oh no, you wont find availability anywhere on a Friday night without a booking,” they told me. My first call was to La Forest Enchenté, where I got an answering machine. Next I phoned Empire Retreat, and, yes, they have availability. So much for no availability!
Lunch at Vat 107, 107 Bussell Highway (08-9758-8877). Starting with sourdough bread with oil and vinegar. Anywhere in the US they would automatically give you more bread than you could eat for free. Here I have to order it; a stingy portion arrives for AU$3.50. The expensive bread was very good, the chermoula chicken and spinach salad was excellent. Furthermore, it was exactly what I wanted. It reminded me of Boulder - of home. Tomorrow, I leave, but not for home. After the disappointment of the northwest, it is bittersweet to find myself enjoying the southwest so much. A week ago I was wondering if I should change my ticket to leave early, now I’m sad to be leaving this soon.
Margaret River is funky-chic expensive touristville. My first impression is that this is the place that Byron Bay is afraid of becoming. Kids in designer clothes pass hippies on the street. I wonder which of them come from better homes. Are the designer kids actually wanna-be’s living at the edge of their incomes? Perhaps the hippy surfer dude is a rich-kid dropout. Like Aspen, or Monterey, Napa or Nice, this place either attracts or repels. Vat 107 is a fine restaurant across the street from the grocery store. Up the street is the organic coffee bar, surf shop, and pharmacy. What is this place, really? I don’t know yet.
I drive north on Caves Rd to Yallingup. Along the way I stopped at Dilkes-Hoffman studio ceramics. There was nothing interesting. Skip it. Next I popped into the famed Vasse Felix winery to do a wine tasting. Most of the offerings were good. I particularly liked the oak matured 2001 Semillon, which the sommelier said was “not a crowd pleaser.” Hmmmm. Leave me out of the crowd, please. Next door to the winery is the Vasse Felix restaurant, which Australian Gourmet Traveler magazine gave 2 starts (ratings range from 0 to 3 stars with most restaurants getting 0.) I went in to make a booking for tonight but was told that they don’t serve dinner! Ever! They said there was no call for it. Graciously they phoned up to a restaurant in Yallingup that they recommended. But no, they are closed on Fridays. Closed on Fridays?!? You’ve got to be joking. No restaurant is closed on Fridays. The people at Vasse Felix tell me that there just aren’t enough customers. So on a Friday it is so busy that the tourist office tells me I wont be able to find a room, but the restaurants don’t bother to serve dinner because there aren’t enough customers. Something doesn’t make sense here.
Continuing up the road I got to Yallingup and the Empire Resort. It is a beautiful ‘Balinese’ style resort with Indonesian furnishings, an open, airy feel and lovely gardens. Throughout the trees there were incredible songbirds. It really is wonderful. I asked about my booking here and was told that they had been booked up, but had a cancellation this afternoon. Normally I would not have been able to get in on short notice. Curioser and curioser.
For dinner the owners of the Empire recommended the Bay Cottage Restaurant, Dunn Bay Rd, Dunsborough, 08-9755-3554. Driving over I witnessed the most spectacular sky; a rainbow running through the sunset. I ignored the passing time of my reservation and drove to a beach overlook. The sky was filled by bright pink-orange cloud with a vertical swath of rainbow slashing through the middle. I was spellbound. Finally the rainbow faded, releasing me to head to the restaurant.
Australian waiters must have a very active social life; I’m constantly seeing them chatting in groups and studiously ignoring me. In an American restaurant they would be running around checking on tables, refilling water glasses, or at least having their conversations discreetly hidden in the kitchen. Finally I get waited on and order the “famous” sizzling garlic prawns. I ask to have mine “extra famous.” The waiter doesn’t smile. For a main I am having Ostrich medallions on a bed of sweet potato mash. Since the restaurant doesn’t serve iced tea, I ordered my usual cup of hot tea with a tall glass of ice on the side. A flicker of understanding crosses the face of the waiter. Oh! Tea poured over ice. That’s how you make iced tea. How novel.
I cannot speak to their fame, but the prawns were very good, served in a small super heated metal dish with clarified butter, garlic and scallions. I regretted not ordering the AU$4.50 bread which would have been great for dipping. I am so programmed to get bread served free that I just can’t bring myself to order it.
The ostrich was beautifully presented, but its flavor was just OK. It needed salt and the sweet potato was cloying. The sauce looked rich, but was so mild that it did little more than make the dish wet. I overheard an English woman at another table say to her husband, “the spices in these vegetables are so wonderfully subtle.” “Too subtle for me” was his reply. That’s it! Australian food is subtle to the point of blandness. In Britain, Indians, Burmese, Indonesians and Thais have brought their spices to the cold island’s cuisine. Here the cross-pollination of colonialism has not fully taken place.
In two days time I will be in Phuket. I will walk down 200 Year Road to the open-air fish restaurants where I will choose a live mud crab, a whole red snapper, and a pile of clams. They’ll be cooked in curry sauces and covered in chopped peppers. And then I’ll eat. I’ll eat until sweat is pouring off my brow. I’ll eat with tears flowing from my eyes. I’ll cool the fire with a Singha beer, and then I’ll eat some more. In a matter of moments I will forget every mediocre meal I’ve ever eaten in Australia.
The ostrich at Bay Cottage was fine, but it didn’t say anything. Food should sing. It should cry out, grab you and make you pay attention. This ostrich sits there, and you eat it. The nutrients enter your system, and that is fine. But it could do so much more. The ostrich at Val D’Isire in Whistler, British Columbia loves you. It caresses the lips and tongue and palate. It welcomes the throat as it slides inexorably downward. You eat it and you remember it. It stays with you. No subsequent meal makes the memory fade. Alas, the ostrich served at Bay Cottage died in vain, joining the undifferentiated miasma of my Australian culinary past.
<pondering the offering of fresh ground pepper. >
Tonight I knew enough to ask for the desert menu as they were clearing my plates. I ordered the Trio of sorbets baked into a meringue bombe, served with a lime custard. It was quite nice but hard to describe. I’m not sure how the chef managed to bake the meringue without melting the sorbet.
Overall the meal got a weak “B” until I saw the bill. When taking my order the waiter had asked “Would you like the cooked vegetables or salad with that.” I assumed that the entrée came with either cooked vegetables or a salad, but no, when the bill came it had AU$6.00 for the salad. That always irritates me. I think a restaurant should make it clear when they are trying to get you to order something additional. Thus, I lowered my grade from “B” to “C”.
George Harrison died. All things must pass, but today just got harder.
Morning comes bright robin’s egg blue with puffy clouds, a breeze blowing through the grass trees. They grow one centimeter per year, so these 6-foot tall plants must be almost 200 years old.
Breakfast at the Empire was superb in the sunny breakfast room. Several kinds of bread, preserves, locally made yoghurt, smoked salmon, juices, etc., etc. followed by the cooked breakfast of your choice. I had the eggs benedict, which were excellent. This place is truly a US$500 a night retreat for the Australian bargain price of only AU$270. Well worth it if you come from a country with a strong currency and want to pamper yourself at a discount.
Stopped in at the Cape Lodge, Caves Rd., 08-9755-6311, for a look. This was one of my other picks for a place to stay last night, but it was booked up. This is definitely haute luxe accommodation with an utterly different feel from Empire. The place is attempting to feel like an English manor house. It is only 17 years old, but feels older and more established than that. The beds have Egyptian cotton duvets, the house is surrounded by rose gardens, fountains and a man-made pond. There are Porsches parked in the parking lot. Still, even the honeymoon suite is only AU$340, which is less than you would pay for a standard room in New York city. The place has just a touch of “purposely built” artificiality. At a place like the Karri Valley Lodge in Pemberton you can borrow a fishing rod. Here the activities office provides croquet sets. If the weather were better I would expect to see English ladies with lace parasols promenading, even if they were just paid actors.
Continuing back down Caves Road towards Margaret River, I returned to Vasse Felix for lunch. This 2-star restaurant is only 1/3 full at 1:00pm. The manager recognized me from yesterday and chatted about my dinner before I went up to the restaurant to be seated at a lovely window table overlooking the river. As the waiter delivered my menu, he told me that the manager would like to buy me a glass of wine to accompany my meal. Normally I wouldn’t have wine with lunch, but hey… so I ordered a glass of the non-crowd pleasing Semillon. One thing I’ve got to say about Australia; most people are so remarkably kind, affable and outgoing, I am constantly wondering “do they know I am going to write about this, or are they just ridiculously nice?” Do Australians really treat everyone this way? Something to consider.
All around me people are being served tall food; whole mountain ranges of bread crisps and sticks, soaring potato cracklings, forests of carrot and celery. When my main arrived and was a scant 2 inches tall, I must admit I felt cheated. Ah well. Seared salmon on a bed of citrus scented garlic potatoes surrounded by a butter-lemon caper sauce and surmounted by spinach sautéed in caper brine. Wow! It was absolutely outstanding. Furthermore, as the Semillon breathed, it continued to get better and better. On my last day in Oz I have finally learned to manage the wait staff (though the staff at Vasse Felix are very good anyway.) I ask for the desert menu as they clear my table. When I order desert and coffee, I specify that the coffee be served at the same time as the desert, not after, and I ask for extra sugar at the same time. Whew. How much easier dining might have been had I known all these arcane incantations up front.
As for desert, the lemon-lime macadamia nut tartlet was lovely. Dear I say subtle. But subtle-good, not subtle-bland. Vasse Felix is definitely a relaxing, comfortable place to sit over a cup of coffee, reading a book and digesting.
Drove to Dunsborough …
I attempted to walk to the whale watching lookout at Cape Naturaliste National Park, but I was driven out by the flies. I wasn’t the only one. As I willed myself to proceed down the path groups of people were hurrying the other way. Many had jackets or towels wrapped around their heads and faces, others were swishing leafy branches around themselves. All were hurrying towards their cars. You could see defeat and disgust in their faces. They’d given up, and after a hundred yards, so did I.
I’ve written a lot about flies during this trip. In some places they were non-existent, in others mild, and in some unbearable. In his book “In a Sunburned Country”, Bill Bryson attempted to convey life with Australian flies. However, he coated it in so much humor that the real experience was lost. Imagine you are someplace, maybe enjoying the beach, taking in a scenic vista, photographing an interesting view, or maybe just studying a map. There’s a fly buzzing around your head and occasionally settling on you. You swat at it, but it just flies up and buzzes around some more. I’m sure we’ve all had this happen and it’s pretty annoying. Now let’s say it’s not one fly, but two, or three, or even four. Wow, you can imagine just how annoying that would be! But now try to imagine not three or four, but ten, fifteen or even twenty. Twenty flies buzzing, landing, flying up your nose and in your ears, in your hair, on your clothes. If you can picture that, you can understand how a few simple flies could drive me out of a place.
Helped a skink cross the road.
Having come down the coast route (highway 1) on my way down, I returned via the inland route 20. It was much less interesting than the coastal road, but it really didn’t matter. I was already checked out of Australia; my mind already in Thailand, the next stop on this tour.