Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Gotta love California...

The headline of an ad we saw in the Palo Alto Daily News this morning:
"Wise women don't lie about their age.  They have plastic surgery!"
29 hours and counting until Oregon.  Praise the lord and pass the snakes.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

We're Stateside!

Just a quick note to let folks know that after 5 glorious days trolling the beaches of Fiji, we're back Stateside. Well, LA. I suppose that counts though I felt I made a pretty coherent argument to Becca on the plane that it should be another country--but to no avail. Spending the next week or so here and SF visiting friends and family and then we finally arrive in Portand. Sure our parents will appreciate it :-)

One quick story courtesy of the US Immigration folks. After about ninety minutes of getting through the various lines, picking up our luggage, etc we finally got to the front of the line. Once we were called forward, the following conversation ensued:

Border Guard (BG): So what countries have you been in?
Becca: We've been in 29 countries.
BG: (skeptically gazes upward) Ok, list ten that you've been in.
Becca: China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos...
Brian (interrupting in an attempt to balance the geopolitical scales): Australia, New Zealand...
BG: (exasperated look on his face) Ok, let's make this easier. Have you been to any of the following countries: Yemen? Saudi? Pakistan? Iran? Iraq?
B&B: (unison) No.
BG: Ok, then. (stamps our entry form) Welcome back.

Just like that we were on US soil for the first time in 14 plus months. It feels good to be back but after just over 48 hours on the ground it feels as foreign as any country we've been in. I guess re-entry will be a bit slower than we thought.

More blog entries including Kakadu pt. 2, Fiji, etc. as free time and internet access warrants!



Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Davis Estate is For Sale!

In October 2003 Brian and I took the plunge and purchased our first house. It was a great fit for us and we loved its charm and its location. We loved it enough, in fact, that when we decided to leave on this crazy trip we didn't sell it, which certainly would have saved us all sorts of logistical hassles. Instead, our plan was to return home and start our family there. (It has a room that would be great for a nursery!). But as we've already covered in another entry, during the course of the trip the pull of family got to be too strong and we decided to pull up stakes in Minnesota and move back to Oregon.

So.....we are posting this in the hopes that one of you, or someone that you know, or someone who someone that you know knows is looking to buy in the Minneapolis area. Please pass this entry on freely. (If you use that link they'll just get this entry instead of the whole blog.) If anybody is interested drop us an email and we will send the realtor listing as soon as the place is actually on the market (which should be early September).

In the meantime, here's some of the basics:

Charming 1940s house, orginal homestead for the neighborhood on spacious lot. Retains many original features including built-ins, arched doorways, and original moldings.

The 2,100 sq ft house features the following:

  • Five bedrooms
  • Three baths
  • Kitchen with stainless steel microwave, oven, range and refrigerator. Also dishwasher, disposal and lots of counter space.
  • Living room with fireplace and lots of natural light
  • Dining room with built-ins
  • Finished basement with gas fireplace
  • Three season porch
  • Detached three car garage with automatic opener
  • Laundry room, wine cellar/pantry, and work room off of basement
  • Central heat and air conditioning
  • Set up for wireless highspeed internet

In addition to the vintage charm of the house, what drew it to us most was its location. For active people who love the outdoors, plan to have a family, but also need access to downtown and the major transportation arteries, it's perfect.

You really feel like you are in a small town, but you are only 10 minutes or less from downtown, uptown, and the Chain of Lakes and all they have to offer. The house is on a quiet street and across from a park, so your view out the front will always stay nature, instead of neighbors.

For recreation the location offers the following:

  • One block to the right is a children's playground and free lit tennis courts.
  • One block to the left is The Grand Rounds bike and running trail (a 40-mile loop around Minneapolis and the Chain of Lakes that also hooks up with the commuter bike trails into town)
  • One-half mile south is Theodore Wirth park (featuring an 18 hole golf course with great views, 18 hole par 3 course, lake for swimming and fishing, arboretum, and miles of trails. In the winter these trails are groomed for cross-country skiing, sledding, and snowshoing)

For transportation and commuting the location offers the following:

  • Easy (3-7 minutes) access to highways 100, 55, I-94 and I-394
  • 10 minutes or less to downtown restaurants and theaters

To see photos of the house click this link. You do not need to sign in. Just click on the album and it will take you to the slide show. Please help us find a good home for our home!


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A plethora of posts... (updated 8/14)

(Less than) two weeks and counting until we arrive back in the States and we have a monster backload of posts. Plus in a day or so we'll be pretty much done posting for awhile. Our good Danish friends Michael and Jannie are arriving in Sydney on their honeymoon and we get to hang out with them for a day or two. Then we'll be off to Fiji, where, I'm sure you'll all understand, we'll have better things to be doing than spending hours on the internet.

We know that most of you have work and lives and don't have lots of time to read the blog and that it has worked out best when we put a little bit up at a time, instead of dropping heaps on you. But over the next two days we're hoping to get the rest of our backlog up. We'll try and let you know how many posts there are so you don't miss any of them, but feel free to ration them out until we land in California and can update folks.

We're very thankful that the British police were on top of the latest terror ring (especially as we would have been flying back to the States on the planned day of the attack) and will be interested to see how much that affects our experience getting home.

Enjoy the posts!


NEW POSTS TODAY (updated 8/14):

Kakadu Part 1
Davis Estate for Sale!
Overheard in the Outback
Only in the Outback
East Coast Swing
No more complaining

Monday, August 14, 2006

Kakadu Part 1: Lions and Tigers and Crocs, Oh My!

Kakadu National Park and Darwin were two of the areas that Brian had missed on his previous trips and he was looking forward to seeing them this time around. Kakadu is an diverse mix of monsoonal rain forests, mangrove forests, billabongs, cliffs and escarpements, ancient and modern aboriginal art, waterfalls, plunge pools and wildlife. Oh...and lots and lots of crocodiles.

As we mentioned in an earlier entry we were a little nervous about this trip with Kakadu Dreams because the company seemed overly geared towards the early-20's party crowd. As we were to find out, this fear was both justified and overblown.

Certainly the eco-tour marketed trip started off poorly when not 35 minutes into the journey we ran straight over a small kangaroo going 60 mph. Ker-thud. Ker-thud. Shocked silence in the back followed by "Steaks tonight, anyone?".

We were even more dismayed to discover a peculiar habit of Chris, our trip leader. He seemed constitutionally incapable of holding a conversation without maintaining eye contact. While that might be viewed as a positive result of a good upbringing, it was a disconcerting (if not downright dangerous) trait while driving a truck down a highway. Not only was he looking sideways at the passenger in the front seat next to him, but he would also frequently turn himself all the way around to talk to the folks in the back. There's nothing like the experience of speeding down a highway with your driver facing backwards to have everyone scrambling for the seatbelts.

Kakadu is a world heritage-listed site not only for its natural beauty, but for its cultural treasures as well. One of our first stops in the park was the Ubirr art site, an area where Aboriginal people have been making rock art for more than a thousand years. While most of the paintings have been dated at less than 1500 years, there is one of a thylacine (or Tasmanian Tiger), an animal that has been extinct on the mainland for 2000 -3000 years. My favorite painting was one of the Mimi spirit figures, but we were equally impressed by the x-ray images of the fish and animals used to teach the children how to hunt and fish.

We enjoyed a couple of other scenic stops and mini-hikes including yet another gorgeous northern territory sunset before heading off to the JimJim campground. After being able to just bush camp in the Outback it was a bit of a bummer to have to be back in a campground. Due to the emergence of large numbers of biting bugs however, we did gratefully accept a tent despite our allegiance to swags. Actually our gratefulness might just have been residual thankfulness at being in one piece. Hurrying to beat the other Kakadu Dreams truck back to the campground in the post-sunset darkness, our fearless leader didn't see that he was approaching a T-junction and the truck and trailer carved a nice skidding arc in the intersection as he turned the corner, occasioning yet another mad rush for seatbelts in the back.

After dinner we did a brief nature walk. Chris showed us how spiders' eyes reflect back blue light and allow you to find them in the dark. It was actually pretty disturbing to see how many lights were out there shining back at us, and Brian and I were glad we'd changed from our sandals to shoes. After that, we went in search of something a little bigger. Walking over to the billabong next to our campground he started systematically moving his big flashlights back and forth across the water surface. Eventually our patience was rewarded when two much larger red dots reflected back at us. Crocodile! It was a little creepy to watch it silently glide across the water's surface and then submerge. And even creepier thinking how close this was to our campsite. (That tent was looking better and better by the minute).

This wasn't our first encounter with crocs on the trip though. We actually started out the weekend by going on an AMAZING JUMPING CROC CRUISE [sounds better said with the monster truck announcer guy's voice]. This involved getting in a boat and cruising up and down the East Alligator River (the early explorers had their reptile taxonomy a little confused...) and watching the scarily numerous crocs sunning themselves on the bank or floating in the river while listening to painfully inane commentary.

From time to time a croc (recognizing that this was the snack-mobile) would approach the boat and a crewmember would dangle a hunk of buffalo meat over the side. The idea was to lift the meat just as the croc lunged, causing it to jump out of the water for better photo ops and tourist viewing. While cheesy, it was also very impressive. One of the crocs in particular was huge and gave a great menancing eye as he floated next to our water-level seats. (Let's just say that this was one river you would NOT want to fall into). All in all, the experience left us with a greater respect for (not to mention fear of) the animals, though I have to agree with a lady we met later who said she wouldn't patronize those tours as she "didn't believe it was a good idea to train crocodiles to jump".

More adventures to come from Kakadu as our internet time allows...


Saturday, August 12, 2006

No more complaining here....

Over the past few weeks both on the site and in emails to various friends and family, we'd be complaining about our lot in life. You know, world travel is so rough, we're ready to be home, we're really tired, etc. Although we garnered zero sympathy from the peanut gallery (all usually responding from their cubicles) it was getting tough; we were just running out of gas and being on the more touristy East Coast of Australia were having a difficult time just finding a place to relax and recharge our batteries.

Thankfully in our final two weeks in Australia, we found that place. (Thanks SO much to Karla and Darren for the recommendation!) We contemplated actually not mentioning it because we were amazed a place could be so close to the mainland and easy to get to, and yet be so underdeveloped and scarcely populated. But in the end, it's really worth mentioning...

Come closer so that we can at least whisper it: Great Keppel Island.

Didn't catch that? Okay, we'll repeat it; we just don't want the place to get too crowded and popular: Great Keppel Island

We spent the last four plus days here. Had we not already had a plane reservation for Brisbane it would have been more. It quickly became one of our favorite places on the trip if only for the reason that we were able to actually achieve that elusive total relaxation, spending our time walking the beach, sea-kayaking, throwing a disc on the beach, reading a book or playing cards on the deck of our tent and generally doing nothing. Pretty much everything we hope our pit stop in Fiji provides us; it will be interesting to see if it can compare.

So finally we found some relaxation in the busy homestretch of this trip. In short, we're recharged and ready to try our hands at tackling the surf of Byron Bay.


East Coast Swing...

For many people, traveling through Australia means doing the backpacker circuit on the East Coast, usually starting in either Melbourne or Sydney and going up through to Cairns with maybe a trip to the Outback as part of the trip. Nine years ago, I did just that. In doing this, you take in three major highlights along the Queensland coast: Fraser Island, The Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsundays. For us, the East Coast was actually a bit of an afterthought in our planning of Australia: we'd really focused on getting a chance to reconnect with my friends in Melbourne and Sydney as well as have the opportunity to really embrace the middle, both the red (Outback) and green (Darwin and Kakadu) parts. In fact, our East Coast portion of the trip was going to have the least amount of time out of all the areas we were to visit.

As a result, we had to make some decisions. In short, goodbye Whitsundays (too expensive and too far up the coast) a brief visit to Fraser Island and a proper day trip out to the reef.

First stop was the town of Hervey Bay, the launching point for Fraser Island. Most budget travelers do the self-guided tour where between 7-9 backpackers get thrown together, are given a 4wd and a map and let loose on the Island for three days. Due to a number of factors, we elected to bypass that option and do the more touristy but far less stressful one day trip to the island. It would still allow us to see the highlights and not worry about having someone else's driving send a major dent into our credit card.

We set off for the Island with our tour guide Sally and 38 of our closest friends in a styling 4wd bus. Fraser Island (click on the link for lots more info on the island) is the world's largest sand island, stretching 123km north to south and averaging 15km wide. It's also listed as a world heritage location for both the geological history of the island (the vegetation and the ongoing changes associated with the sand) as well as for the numerous lake systems that are plentiful on Fraser.

Unfortunately, following us to the island was the torrential downpour that had been going on throughout the night. Thankfully though it elected to play nice with what would be the highlight of the day, Lake McKenzie. Lake McKenzie is a type of perched dune lake. These lakes form in the sand dunes when a depression in the sand fills with decaying organic material. The organic material forms a type of cemented sand that does not allow the water to flow through. Subsequent rain fills these depressions leading to fresh water lakes that are crystal clear. (amazing what you can learn from a handout, eh?)

I'd remembered Lake McKenzie from my previous visit to Fraser; the white sand beaches and crystal blue waters are hard to forget. On this day though the water was a bit more green-grey due to the clouds and occasional drizzle. Sadly enough it was the nicest weather we'd have all day. As you can see though, the crystal clear beauty of the lakes even make our travel worn feet look good. Becca braved the elements to wade in. Once that didn't prove too painful she elected to keep herself dry (and warm) on top with shirt and raincoat but enjoy the lake on bottom with bathing suit. Last time I saw she was headed out across the lake.

The rest of the day was as good as it could be given the conditions. It POURED buckets the rest of the day and despite that we pretty dry (when we weren't walking in and out of the water, wading down Eli Creek, etc.). We enjoyed driving down the main 'highway' on the island: Seventy-Five Mile beach and we even got to see one of the famous Fraser Island dingos. Our pit stops at Pile Valley (putting the rain in rain forest), the Coloured Sands, Maheno Wreck and Eli Creek (where walking down the creek was warmer than being on land) were great viewing though tempered by the conditions.

Not so great viewing was Becca and I being subjected to a massively obese Aussie couple and their two kids. Their kids were absolute prats, and we were subjected to Dad's non-underwear wearing... space while eating lunch (and going for seconds and thirds) -- not the type of natural scenery we had planned. Overall though even with the conditions it was just about the right amount of time at Fraser for us. The weather gods even had a bit of fun with us as when we were taking the ferry back over to Hervey Bay we were treated to our first clear sky of the day...

We had dinner that night with our friend Thorsten aka The Merc and shared our travel adventures post Outback. He was headed back to Melbourne pretty much straightaway, leading to the health concerns and mental sanity issues that arise when being on the bus for something like 30-40 hours. During our dinner though, he offered to let us borrow his swank mask and snorkel for our trip to the reef. This ended up being a huge gift that we were quite thankful for down the road.

Our next stop were the tiny towns of Agnes Waters and 1770, our launching point to Lady Musgrave Island and the Great Barrier Reef. We had chose this location due to the fact that it was off the major tourist track and gave us a chance to see the reef in a closer in location. As with most of our trips in Australia, it involved another tour (because really are YOU going to rent your own boat, snorkel equipment, etc.?) but one that had us confident that we'd get a good experience.

Our boat ride out was a bit... dodgy. The captain had promised a smooth ride out to the snorkel site but instead we got a two hour ride that was very choppy at best. We had double digit people using their barf bags downstairs (the Chinese tour group being the majority of the victims) and Becca and I wishing we hadn't had our muesli bars and yogurt for breakfast.

We got out to the tour's designated pontoon and over the next five hours did a few different stints in the water snorkeling amongst the reef, took in a tasty lunch (including another shot at prawn sandwiches), did a 30 minute tour of the island itself (named after the wife of the Queensland governor whose claim to immortality was that she gave good tea parties for politicians at the capital) and just generally soaked in the beautiful surroundings and views.

The one disappointment was the reef itself. From the locations where we snorkeled, the reef looked a bit... tired. There's no other good way to describe it. We'll have pictures up from here and Fiji when we get back to the States but it just lacked some of the striking colors you expect from the famous Barrier reef. In talking to people though it sounds like part of that may be due to our decision to snorkel; evidently the sharp colors are in the outer reef where only the divers go.

For me that was just fine; I'm not the strongest swimmer in the best of times but thanks to Thorsten's nice equipment I had one less thing to worry about as I floated along the water trying my best to a) enjoy the scenery and b) convince myself that having my head face down in the water was ok. (Since Becca was more comfortable in the water she got to deal with the leaky rental masks and snorkel.) Again, I'm no Ian Thorpe. And putting me in a diving suit is going to happen about the same time I convince my brother to run a marathon.

In all though it was worth the trip. The ride back was a lot smoother and both of us enjoyed the experience enough that we'll try to snorkel a bit more when we get to Fiji. For us though the trip out to the reef was a major milestone. It was truly the last "tourist" place to go/thing to do on the trip. The rest of the way we are just... being. To finish up on the Reef and Fraser Island though was a great experience. Just enough of the backpacker route to see the highlights but not too much as to get burned out/tired of the life. Less than two weeks to go until we hit American soil...


Friday, August 11, 2006

Only in the Outback...

Things overheard in the Outback...

"My name is Sebastian. Like the happy crab in Little Mermaid"
-Sebastian introducing himself

"It's Brokeback Mountain!"
-Wei Leng in response to a picture taken of Thorsten and Sebastian and their matching bush ranger hats.

"Look, it's Dr. Who!"
-Our friendly, less-than-sober Queenslander at first sight of Sebastian in the William Creek Pub. All three of us who'd heard of Dr. Who were in disbelief that we hadn't made the connection first.
"Oohh! Oohh! I take video!"
-Seh Leng after catching Drew taking a bathroom break on the side of the road by the Dingo Fence.

"I have good news and bad news"
-Brian to Becca after losing my wedding ring in the hot springs.

"I got it! This was easy!"
-Wei Leng after getting a math sequence that made the rounds in the truck. To be fair, she got it without a hint but it did take her three days to do it, making the easy part a little less believable.
"Big Rock"
-Thorsten upon seeing Uluru.

"Dancing and drinking"
-Chu in response to Brian's inquiry as to what she liked best about South Korea

"Mind weak, body strong"
-Seh Leng's reasoning for not walking quicker to catch sunset at Uluru.

-Seh Leng, Wei Leng, Jenny and Becca's answer to Chu's query as to the definition of scatterbrained.

"We are the champions... we are the champions"
-The back of the bus singing along to Queen on our way to the Western MacDonnell ranges.

"I'm too full to dance" -Seh Leng
"You're too full! I'm the one who ate two meals!" -Chu
-Exchange overheard on the dance floor the final night after Che had eaten a plate of lamb shanks and a big bowl of Laksa, hit the dance floor and didn't stop until 2:30 am and only then when the place closed down.

"Do brown and blue go together?"
-Elena's fashion question to the group about halfway through the trip. The question did actually involve a brown shirt, not just any other random piece of clothing which had turned brown by this point.

and finally...

"Germans DO NOT like The Hoff"
-Thorsten's impassioned defense of German culture when David Hasselhoff came up. Sorry Thorsten but by referring to him as "The Hoff" me thinks you might be hiding something...

Brian & Becca

Outback Part 5: Canyons, Big Macs and too much techno

(In order to keep the Outback story from becoming an opus of Cervantes-esque length, we've elected to split the up the ten day adventure into five two day stories for your reading pleasure. Here is the final installment. Hope you've enjoyed it!)

The penultimate day of the journey meant our hardest hike of the trip: doing the hike around Kings Canyon. The hike was supposed to take three and a half hours. Not surprisingly our photo-happy group finished up in about four hours.

The Canyon itself was formed as an after effect of an inland sea that existed 200-400 million years ago. There are still pieces of the sea's existence visible, the best example being the Garden of Eden. In it is a variety of plants and trees, including a fern that is 150-200 million years old. Beautiful stuff and one of the true quality resting places on the trip. Especially so for Becca who'd finally reached her fill of watching people crawl and walk out to the edges of the canyon (despite the fact that she gave it a go herself). I'd give her more grief about it except for the fact that I spent a good half an hour making sure Chu didn't walk her way off a particularly dicey edge.

Our trip towards the Western MacDonnell ranges suited our collective mood. Smooth with the occasional bump here and there. For the most part though the mood was one of a group that was just about done. We gotten through the rough parts and were on the home stretch. Hence behaviour like group singing at full bore in the back as we rattled our way to our campsite. Who says life in the outback is so rough after all?

The final morning of the trip started the way any camping day should: a full cooked breakfast, complete with eggs, bacon and hash browns on toast. I was in heaven since breakfast in Commonwealth countries usually involved baked beans, a definite non-starter for this traveler. I'd rather have the damn deep fried spider I tried in Cambodia again...

Actually, the food on the trip has been fantastic. A little too fantastic as all of us ended gaining a few kilos. Expecting your basic bland campfire food, we instead were pigging out on Indian (Butter Chicken), Thai (green curry), Southwestern (burritos), midwestern comfort food (tuna cassorole), Aussie fusion (Kangaroo goulash, or 'roolash') and more. Drew was a master of campfire technique, and secret ingredients and we all took turns stirring the sautes and the sauces. (In addition to being a required chore, it was a good way to stay warm on cold nights!)

A pit stop at Gosse Bluff gave folks a chance to see what sort of formation results from a meteorite hitting 200-300 million years ago. From there we found finally found sealed road again and the Glen Helen Gorge. Part of the group took flights over the Finke River (the oldest river in Australia) while the rest of us tested out our rock skipping skills in the river itself. A nice relaxing venture while the other folks were flying around the gorge.

After folks got done playing Junior Birdman, we made our final stop of the trip: Ormiston Gorge and Pound. Just beautiful views, a nice hour or so walk and a swimming hole that on a warmer day would have been tempting. Today though it was filled with kids on school holiday and dead fish. Yep, dead fish. Evidently in this area the fish stress out over the rise in water temperature, allowing a bacteria to grow in their gills that eventually leads to their death. They were also present in the Finke River as well, making for an extra degree of difficulty while skipping the rocks.

After lunch and the obligatory filling out of trip ratings, Drew drove like a man who knew he had a rum and coke waiting for him in Alice, prompting a few of us to heckle him about changing his safety rating.

With that though we arrived in Alice Springs and the end point of our trip. With the end point came a glorious, glorious shower (especially important for me as I'd failed to take advantage of the two available on the trip and had reached a particularly high stank saturation point) and a night out on the town. After over 3000 kilometers on the road and being half way around the world we arrived in the center of the Australian Outback to...

...have dinner at a US country-western themed bar, complete with peanut shells on the floor and live web-broadcasts. We were disappointed to realize that the time difference meant that no one would be awake at home to a) see us on the web cam or b) buy us drinks via the internet. (We did get to watch Jenny and Michelle receive song dedications and messages from friends and families in England and Holland.) We still had a great time though as the group had one last outing together, complete with peanut shell fights, huge plates of food (with Chu blowing us all away by putting away two full meals), plenty of drinks and a even a bit of nightclub dancing, complete with WAY too much techno. I mean unhealthy amounts of techno with the occasional DRINK MORE and GET DRUNK signs popping up on the video screens. Well, most people danced; anyone that saw me at our wedding knows I stayed FAR clear of the dance floor.

Overall the trip was an amazing experience. We were certainly worried at the start whether ten days would be too long. In fact it was just about the max we could do as part of a group. But thanks to Sebastian, Seh Ling, Wei Leng, Thorsten, Michelle, Jenny, Chu, Drew and Elena it went heaps better than we could have ever imagined. To get to see parts of the Outback that most people never even dream about with a great group made this one of the highlights of the trip. For us the defining image of this trip will be waking up in the mornings that we camped in the wilderness. Nothing around but the sunrise starting another amazing day in the Outback.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

Happy Happy Birthday!!

A big happy birthday to Becca's mom, Molly who turns 62 with as great a love of life as ever. (And still looking fantastic, if I may add...)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Outback Part 4: The Rock

(In order to keep the Outback story from becoming an opus of Cervantes-esque length, we've elected to split the up the ten day adventure into five two day stories for your reading pleasure. Here is part four. Enjoy!)

The big rock. One of the most anticipated sights (for me at least) of the trip. Waiting was the hardest part though as we had to pass Mt. Conner (aka Fooluru), visit the shops and have lunch at the Cultural Center before visiting the big rock itself.

Just under nine years ago I came to visit Uluru and this area. I remember it for its other worldly feel and what a profound impact it had on me as a person. It is a spot that in my mind makes one appreciate one's spot in the world. That you are just a part of a much, much larger thing. What that larger thing is is in the eye of the beholder.

It turns out all of that time away hasn't diminished those feelings at all. It still for me remains an emotionally important place. For that I'm terribly thankful.

I just wish I could feel the same way about the situation of the Aborigines. Drew's stories of the pressures they are under to keep Uluru open (in some cases in open defiance of their laws and traditions) so that money-bringing tourists can climb the rock and how much of their culture has been pillaged is both depressing and disgusting. They do have ownership of the land once again but the cost seems very, very extreme.

Our experience was (hopefully) a good balance of curious tourism and respect. Shunning the thrill-seeking (and in my mind, selfish and thoughtless) folks heading up the rock, we set off on a nine kilometer hike around the base. Drew led us for the first kilometer or so, providing us with information on some of the sacred sites and on the geology, and then peeled off to have some quality time with his dune buggy mags while we hoofed it the rest of the way around the hot, dry track. It was a photographer's dream (or nightmare!). Every corner, every next view brought more cools sights that we all burned up our memory cards (though as usual Thorsten was taking pics at a 10-1 ratio). So many different colors, shapes, textures and pictures give you a sense of a million little pieces making up the greater being. In fact, we took so long taking pictures that we almost didn't get back around in time to head off to catch sunset from the viewpoint.

Sunset was what sunset always is at Uluru: an unique experience. Watching the colors of Uluru change as the sun departed reminded me of what a special place this is. And sipping champagne (even in plastic mugs) with new friends just added to the experience. It's a difficult place to get to (Uluru is 400 km from Alice Springs though you can now evidently fly into the resort of Yulara as well) but well worth it for anyone making the trip to Oz. It really meant a lot to me to show this to Becca and have her experience such an amazing place and I'm just glad I had the opportunity to experience it again.

Day eight started very, very early for us: a 5:30 am wake up call to catch sunrise at a location that gave us both views of Kata Tjuta (aka the Olgas) as well as Uluru one last time. Our lack of sleep was rewarded with a plethora of colors. Of course the same lack of sleep caught up with us later as we hiked the Valley of the Winds. I hadn't remembered whether I'd actually done this hike on my previous trip until I saw this view and then it all came back. This time around though I was happy to be hiking it in 20-25 degree Celsius temps vs. the 45 degrees it was last time around. Becca especially liked this hike. Something about the views kept a smile permanently on her face (that is when she wasn't mother henning Chu for not bringing any water).

One thing struck me the most about our hike through the Valley of the Winds: the contrasts inherent in the Outback. These massive large imposing dry rock formations set off by the very green eucalyptus trees and other bush surviving at their base, all working together to create a striking color balance. This was especially the case at Kata Tjuta and was all the more impressive given the lack of a permanent water source in the area. The Aborigines were truly impressive to have lived (and in some cases continue to do so) in such a harsh environment. We think we have it rough living out of the back of a 4WD for ten days...

We left the area happy to have seen the All-Stars of the Outback. Despite my strong feelings towards Uluru however, we found ourselves already missing the deep bush with its big empty spaces, little human interaction and just pure emptiness. Two more days left in the voyage: Kings Canyon and the West MacDonnell ranges separate us from Alice Springs. In many ways we're disappointed to be so close to the end but we're both also looking forward to a proper shower and clean clothes. :-)


btw... I'm convinced Seh Ling and Wei Leng are standing on something in that picture. No way they're that tall. :-)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Outback Part 3: Hot water and pink roadhouses

(In order to keep the Outback story from becoming an opus of Cervantes-esque length, we've elected to split the up the ten day adventure into five two day stories for your reading pleasure. Here is part three. Enjoy!)

First things first: Becca absolutely bailed my behind out at Dalhousie Hot Springs, our halfway point of the trip. I was already enjoying the warm waters of the hot springs and went to place Becca's beer (yes, we know this is a rough life) in a safe place on the shore. Right before the edge I slipped and put my left hand down in the water to catch myself. As I pulled it back out of the water, I felt a yoink!. I promptly looked at Thorsten and had the following exchange:

Me: "Crap."
Thorsten: "What?"
Me: "I just lost my wedding ring in the water"
Thorsten: "Oh..." (stealthily swims away to join the rest of the group)

After a few minutes of frantic searching on my part and Drew trying to convince me to put off the search until nighttime when the ring would show up better via flashlight, Becca arrived, allowing me to have the following conversation:

Me: "I have good news and bad news. Good news is the water is great and here's your beer."
Becca: "Can you wait a sec until I'm in the water?"
Me: "Bad news is I just lost my wedding ring."
Becca: "Okay....well.... let me come help look."

No riot act, no nothing. In fact she did more than just help. As I thrashed around the area more than likely burying it further, she ran back to the truck, got a flashlight and plunged in in search of the missing ring.

After about five minutes of feeling around blindly in the muck and in what could only be described as a Gollum-like moment, she stuck her hand again into the mud and amazingly pulled it out of the water with the ring around her finger. Yes, she had bulls-eyed the ring. Crisis amazing averted and I safely put the ring on my other (bigger) ring finger until we got out of the pool. As if my wife didn't have enough talents, I guess treasure hunter can now be added to the list.

The springs were really nice, otherwise. A fantastic place to watch sunset and (even better) sunrise, as long as you didn't mind small fish nibbling on various parts of your body. The really gung-ho members of the group also added a late night star-gazing dip, but we were happy to be old cold fogies and hang out by the fire and snuggle into our wam swags.

The hot springs in the end were a welcome relief and a good respite between two very long days. Day five started with our first real hike of the trip: a little steep hike that gave us views of the Painted Desert. The physical exertion gave a quality reward: views that were quite colorful in the morning light (due to the having been created over millions of years into today's combination of sandstone, siltstone, clay stone and silcrete) and made the hills stand out from the desert in the distance.

From there we rattled into Oodnadatta, visiting the two hot spots: the Pink Roadhouse and the Oodnadatta Medical Clinic, which serves as a Flying Doctors Clinic outpost. The Pink Roadhouse (and yes, despite the picture it was all pink) is an icon and bit of an institution: a gas station/mechanic/post office/supply shop/canoe rental/restaurant/hotel. In short what any place you find in the Outback has to be. Everything for everyone.

The Medical Clinic in many ways serves the same role. The work they do up here dealing with everything from Aboriginal health issues to wayward travelers to education on how to avoid accidents on the Outback roads is truly yeoman's work. In fact, the English nurse that gave us the tour recommends that younger folks only work up here for no more than two years at a time, fearing burnout otherwise. An interesting issue to have in a quiet town like Oodnadatta.

On the way to the hot springs we hit the ruins of the Dalhousie settlements, which made us rub our eyes a couple of time to be sure we weren't seeing things. Fed by the same aquifers that power the nearby hotsprings, this farmstead was like the stereotypical desert oasis, with date palms, reeds, and pools. The rich green colors were quite a change after all the reds of the Outback.

Day six was the big ugly. 500km plus of travel with almost all of it being on unsealed roads. Conversation was a bit more at a premium today; instead people find peace more in their books and sudoku puzzles or gave up and napped. The only real highlight of the day was having lunch at the geographical center of Australia. The mark is commemorated by a funky flag pole and a guest book that everyone signed. Plus a few of us took advantage of the location to run 'around' Australia. For such a herculean effort I felt surprisingly spry. :-)

Today was our official introduction into the Northern Territory. Tomorrow brings Uluru. The big rock. The part of the trip that everyone in so many ways has been waiting for. Hope that like Melbourne previously it lives us to the impressions it made on me nine years ago.


Saturday, August 05, 2006

Outback Part 2: Crazy people in the outback

(In order to keep the Outback story from becoming an opus of Cervantes-esque length, we've elected to split the up the ten day adventure into five two day stories for your reading pleasure. Here is part two. Enjoy!)

The theme of day three was what happens when you spend too much time by yourself in the Outback.

First stop: the new Federation of Australia populated by Cornelius (aka Talc Alf) and Mr. Bojangles. Cornelius pontificated for quite a while on his theories regarding the alphabet, and all the meanings inherent in their shapes and history. As Drew mentioned/warned us before he started his spiel, the guy has some crazy and interesting ideas on languages. Certainly an eccentric fellow but to some members of our group he was even more important: he had the 2-0 score line that sent our German contingent into a funk and Germany out of the World Cup.

Lunch was in Maree and was only of note because we crossed paths with the Groovy Grape bus (a bus tour of the Outback). They had a small group (two Swiss women and three US college women's lacrosse players who put the nox in obnoxious) who were already getting on the nerves of the guide to the point of him threatening to leave them in the desert. We'd see them a few more times over the next few days. We also met a man who was walking his camels across the desert. Why? No reason why really just because. Again, a little too much sun goes a long way.

We had a warning about what kind of country we were entering though as we left Maree. This kind of a sign definitely gives off a "don't mess with me" vibe.

Right, back to the crazy people. Our next stop was a sculpture park in the middle of the Outback, near Alberrie Creek. Evidently a group of locals and an artist from Melbourne use the sculptures as a protest towards the Uranium mining in the area as well as at one point a spot for a rave. Odd sculptures (airplanes on their tail, a funky dream catcher, etc.) but impressive when we found out from Drew that they were all built by the one sculpture without any help. As you can tell by the pictures, to do that takes a lot of time and some serious focus. Or to be slightly off-kilter.

The one semi-normal stop of the day was lower Lake Eyre (or Lake Eyre South). At 1250 square kilometers and 12 meters below sea level, it's an impressive example of a salt lake (or salt flat, currently). Well, it would be except for the fact that upper Lake Eyre checks in at 8500 square kilometers and 16 meters below sea level. Leaving the truck perched high on a dune over looking the lake (Drew subsequently gave us all heart failure careening down off said dune.) we headed out crunchily across the lake. It was a cool feeling to walk across the crispy salt encrusted top. Now try to imagine that that underneath the salt and mud are fish that hatch and reproduce when the lake fills up every 12-18 months. As Becca says, "Science is cool."

Off-kilter continued as a theme for the evening as we took in a few drinks at the William Creek Hotel. We all took in a few pints as we mixed with various groups passing through (including the Groovy Grapers who were getting even closer to being dumped by their guide...can a leader mutiny on his troops??). My own personal lowlights were getting punked telling a joke to a 10 year old (him giving the punch line three words in... little brat) and nearly getting chased out of the bar for putting on Johnny Cash (but not so for putting on Gorillaz). Oh and a drunk Queenslander pointed out Sebastian's similarity to Dr. Who, causing those of us who knew of Dr. Who to be kicking ourselves for not thinking of it first.

We're not sure if it was the beer or the slightly warmer temps (nighttime clocked in at a balmy four degrees Celsius) but day four started with a solid night's sleep and waking up to beautiful purple and yellow hues brightening up the flat outback skyline.

After a lazy morning (involving SHOWERS!!! One of only two opportunities and very exciting to most of the crew) we headed off for a solid morning of driving on the flat red roads of the Central Outback. Our one brief stop was at the Dingo Fence (a 9300 km fence protecting the cattle of South Australia) which provided some entertainment not only in photo ops but also in the antics of our own energizer bunny twins: Wei Leng and Seh Ling. In this instance the hilarity ensued in part from the fact that their feet were so small they couldn't actually get across the cattle grate (and was helped along by Seh Ling's efforts to capture Drew's nature break with her video camera).

Photo ops taken, we plugged ahead to the mostly underground town of Cooper Pedy. Cooper Pedy is the Opal capital of the world and in terms of a wild west feel and hazards makes Phnom Penh look like a small town Americana. Their active use of dynamite seems to be now limited to their claims though we did hear stories of it being used on competitors' claims, rival restaurants, police cars and even the competitors themselves.

Our visit was quite a bit more peaceful. We had some time to explore town (we checked out the underground bookstore and the only underground pokies in the world) before meeting up with the group again to take a tour of the Umoona Opal Mine and the model of the town's unique underground homes. (It's so hot you can't really (or wouldn't want to) live on the surface).

Mining in Cooper Pedy is best described as gambling. There is no way to scientifically find Opal so it's mainly just people digging in random places trying to get rich. A result of this is that people are not allowed to drill for Opal in town. Instead people file for "housing extensions" and hope for the best. One house in Cooper Pedy has 21 rooms and has evidently found enough Opal to pay for it.

Impressive but I'm fully expecting the town to collapse upon itself any day now. In the meantime, the coolest part of the town (and the tour) has to be the rooms they showed us. The walls were treated in a way that meant there was no work to be done on it. I like the low maintenance houses. Of course to change wiring looked like it would take a jackhammer to do so. Not so good. Never mind thinking what might happened if your roof caved in...

With those claustrophobic images in my mind, we headed off into a glorious sunset to spend the night under the stars in the Simpson Desert. I'd much rather take my chances with the scorpions and snakes than a rouge Opal trader who's spent a bit too much time in the scorching sun of the Outback...


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

out of touch..

Hey folks-
We're chilling here on wonderful Great Keppel Island. It's peaceful, it's beautiful, the weather and water and beaches are great, but internet is $10/hour. So you won't be hearing from us again for a few days.
Much love to all.