One to Grow On

February 11, 2010

Advance, Australia Fair

Filed under: animals, Australia, children, travel — midway2go @ 10:04 pm

Walking around the giant tingle trees and the karris I had lots of time to think .   Thoughts like, What kind of a name is tingle?  And, How far can I get Nora to hike without a popsicle or chocolate as a bribe?  But then I saw the sign about burls, and that got me thinking along different lines.  So, these trees suffer some kind of trauma, maybe minor like a bug infestation or something more major, like an axe hacking partially through it.  Then, it makes this special coating around the injury, healing itself and making this big knob.  And (this is the really good part), that scar tissue, when see from the inside, is beautiful. 

Maybe people are that way.   Except, hopefully we’re not singled out and hacked down in our prime for our distinctive personalities.

So we kept on going (even without chocolate), and these tingle trees got better and better.  They’re huge.  THey can live 400 years, grow to be almost 300 feet tall and (get this) 85 feet in diameter.  That’s a big tree.  But that’s not the best part.  They have very fragile root systems, which sounds really weak, right?  But it makes them perfectly suited for this little corner of Australia.  They can survive forest fires, pests, and almost anything except humans walking around their roots.  They can be eaten by bugs from the inside out, torched in a bushfire, and as long as there is a continuous living link between root and bark and leaves, they will live on.  Isn’t that incredibly hopeful?  I’ll tell you, to a woman missing her husband and family and friends and wondering if she had the resources to keep nurturing two kids, these trees were a Godsend. 

So these Tingle trees grow only in one swath of land within the Walpole-Nornalup National Park.   In order to make these trees accessible to the public while sparing the root systems (and providing a great tourist attraction in one fell swoop) the park built a tree top walk.  It was stunning.  And nauseating.   THe walkway is like (gulp) a suspension bridge through the tree tops, running from one platform to another over what they call “spans.”  Ugh.  At its highest point it’s 131 feet above the forest floor (that’s high) and the whole thing sways with the wind.  Rory and Nora, charming and inquisitive children that they are, quickly figured out that by working as a team they could rock the “spans” from side to side, enough to make me freeze up and scuttle quickly at the same time.  Cute kids.

Thanks for listening to the Sermon on the Tingles.  I’ll try to finish up with some photos of Walpole’s Australia Day celebration and some beach photos.  Yet another beautiful, dangerous beach.   And that’s Australia as we knew it.


February 9, 2010

Southwest Corner of a Big Ol’ Continent

Filed under: Australia, children, homeschooling, travel — midway2go @ 12:32 am

I have to admit, Perth has always intrigued me. It’s a city of over a million people, the capital of the largest state in Australia (Western Australia, probably one of the largest states in the world) but it’s so far from anywhere. I don’t know by what measure, but it’s said to be the most remote big city in the world.  

Well, aside from waiting more than an hour for the airport shuttle and then being overcharged, I liked Perth right away. It’s big, but really bright, with a huge park in the middle and blue water everywhere you look. The Swan River, which is massive, runs right through it, emptying into the Indian Ocean.  We spent a dreamy afternoon in Cottesloe, a little town with beautiful cottages and great cafes and an almost perfect stretch of beach.  Remote or not, it’s no mystery why people want to live here.   

 We took the commuter train from Perth to Fremantle, a cool town twenty minutes south, packed with bookshops and cafes and neat old buildings lined up in the vibrant center. We stayed in a hostel which was run by very friendly people and had great facilities but was also something like a half-way house. Lots of folks were living there while they worked; still others seemed to be living there while they considered maybe working at some point in the future. At any time of day they could be seen smoking and drinking in the tiny courtyard. I felt a little like my kids and I were crashing an ongoing dorm party. We stayed only 3 days, and split.  

We had been looking forward to Perth for AQWA, the Aquarium of Western Australia. Rory and Nora list it as one of their top 5 things we’ve done on this whole trip, but they are awfully partial to aquariums to start with. The place is set up to cover the coastline of Western Australia, from the tropical waters and estuaries of the north near Darwin to the coral reefs of Ningaloo National Park to the rough, cold waters of the southwestern corner where the Great Southern seas meet the Indian Ocean. There were crocodiles, a huge open tank with sting rays, and a whole wing called “Deadly Encounters,” where we spooked ourselves looking at stonefish, ringed octopi, and the super-venomous sea snakes. Did you know that there is a shell that can kill you? Yikes. We loved that part and had to go through it twice.  

No doubt the highlight of the aquarium was the Tunnel of Doom. That’s just what I call it. I can’t remember what they called it, but Rory and Nora squealed and bounced and oohed and writhed in delight BOTH trips through. We stood (well, I stood- they raced back and forth) on a moving sidewalk and passed through a tube inside an enormous tank. All around us swam sea turtles, giant rays, sharks, any number of fish. I can say that’s as close as I ever want to be to any shark, I don’t care how harmless it’s supposed to be. Rory and Nora thought it was heaven. A big, toothy, predatory heaven. Hmmmmm…  

We rented a car (bigger than the tiny red thing) and headed south. I had my heart set on four weeks languidly exploring the shore north up to Broome, but time schedules and the vicious unfairness of airline ticket change fees kept us closer to Perth. We cruised down to the Margaret River area, driving south on a road that paralleled the ocean but never revealed it. Why would anyone plan a road that way? I think we got spoiled for sweeping ocean views and stunning cliff-side driving in New Zealand. This road passed through a few towns and some scrubby looking farm land. Around Margaret River we turned off, heading across the peninsula. We drove past vineyard after vineyard, and then suddenly I spied a sign for Flinder’s Bay Vineyard, a label Brandon and I used to buy as a treat at Earthfare in Greensboro. We loved it, but they stopped carrying it, and it was one we always looked for in wine shops back home. And here it was! Here I was! At the source! I slammed on brakes and turned right around. We went in, hoping to have our photo taken in front of the sign for Brandon, and the lady there couldn’t have been nicer. I told her our story, and she gave me a poster of wine labels from the region to send to Brandon in lieu of a bottle of wine, which is on the no-no list for deployments. I’m sure he’ll love the poster just as much. I’m sure. Really. And it was very kind of her.  

We were determined to see kangaroosthe wild, and we did! They have the good sense to stay tucked away quietly under trees for the heat of the day, but as dusk came on we spied them nibbling on the edges of fields and lazing in groups under the gum trees. We watched this mom and joey for a long time, until we finally scared them off. The next day an emu crosssed the road in front of us. An emu! I nearly wrecked out of sheer delight. Let me tell you, that is one big bird.  

We spent the night on the coast on the tip of Australia. The next day we visited the lighthouse there, where the two oceans, Indian and the southern reaches of the Pacific, meet. It was breathtaking and very, very windy.  

Stay tuned: Musings on trees! Lots of pictures! Not as dull as it sounds!  

February 6, 2010


Filed under: Australia, children, travel — midway2go @ 11:30 am

Talk about hot.  I stepped off the plane and felt the dry heat suck deep down into my lungs.  Hot mama.   Surprisingly it turned out to be great weather for tent camping.  The days were blistering, and we hid in our air conditioned rental car or floated in the pool, but the nights were crisp and clear and perfect for sleeping without a rain cover, open to the stars.  We found, again, that our tent site was a bit modest compared to our neighbors.  Some of the families we met had driven 2,000 miles, mostly on dirt roads, to get to Uluru.  I guess I take some extra gas and a spare trash can, too.

Did we climb Uluru?  Heck, no.  Not only was it too hot, but the original owners ask visitors to respect their sacred sites and not go wiping their feet all over it.  We cruised around it a couple of times and admired it endlessly at all times of day.   We did try a walk at the other famous rocks, formerly known as the Olgas.  It didn’t really go that well. 

 See, we had gotten up hours before dawn to leave Cairns, and the kids were so tired they both fell asleep in the rental car.  I drove around, deeply impressed with the redness and the fierceness and the permanent feeling that the landscape had and the impermanent feeling I had there as a person.  I mean, the land all around feels so old, and you really fell that people here are just a blip.  Anyway, I killed two hours waiting for these kiddos to wake up so we could get out there and be a part of it.  Of course, when they woke up they wanted a few minutes to get themselves together.   We ended up hiking the gorge trail at the Olgas at 4pm.  Basically, I force marched two drowsy kids a half mile back into a bakingly hot canyon to see a dried up trickle of water.  The upshot was that we met two other moms travelling with their kids.   Naturally, they were cool with terrific kids.  The people always turn out to be the best part.

 We ended up hanging out with Simone and her daughter Laura and Jenny and her son Jack for most of our stay.  We scored some time at their hotel’s gorgeous swimming pool and kept bumping into Simone and Laura on the dunes, watching the sun set, then rise, over the outback.  They even introduced me to the concept of a grill-it-yourself BBQ buffet dinner.  I love Australians, but I’m still a little confused about why anyone wold pay to go out to dinner only to cook their own food.  Simone and Jenny were similarly baffled, but we had a great time together.

January 24, 2010

Flying to the Red Center

Filed under: Australia, children, Planes, travel — midway2go @ 2:41 am
How may times do I promise myself that I will remember? How many moments do I close my eyes and try to store them in my mind, permanently, so I’ll never lose them? Now, from the airplane, I promise to remember the clouds; they look like a huge, creamy fleur-de-lit, repeating over and over above the Outback. On the ground I see rivers of red dirt, miles and miles of scrubby trees. Bushes in every direction, as far as I can see. A thick, muddy-looking river snakes into the distance. By it runs what must be a road, red dirt skinny and determined, cutting across hills and creek beds. In all this vastness I’ve seen one thing that might be a roof, one dwelling. One place of shelter in all that emptiness. 

Here white interrupts the bush in what looks like lightning strikes on the face of the earth, jagged, branching lines cutting across the hills. Now we must be over a sheep station,

Kata Tjutas from the air

 geometrically straight lines connect perfectly rectangular pools. They must be irrigation pools or watering holes. Their not-naturalness is shocking imposed on the curving, undulating landscape. 

Leaving Cairns we swooped out over the Coral Sea. The mountains slope down into the water. They’re so green and the water is so blue. Out from shore the Great Barrier Reef shows up brown under the water, and the water puddles around it in green aprons. Rory and Nora and I gasp as we come up just high enough to see the sun rising over the cumulus clouds, turning them silvery and orange. I reach for my camera. I can’t stop smiling. 

There’s something special about an early morning flight. Any early morning endeavour, really. At dinner last night Rory had a laundry list of things he hated about travel; he said he’s wanted to go since we got to Australia. He hates the heat and he hates the changes and he doesn’t even want to go to Asia. He wanted only to go home. But, this morning, as we walked out of the airport, into the muggy dawn, we were all three squealing and squeezing hands and eager to be on the move. For a moment it looked like we would be climbing metal stairs to board a plane with massive propellers tucked under the wings. I nearly swooned with pleasure. Alas, we climbed up onto a regular plane, albeit one old enough that it has ashtrays on the outside of the lavatories. Imagine. Anyway, we were a quiver with the mystery and allure of boarding a plane headed into the remote Outback. I for one would like to banish gateways connecting gates to airplanes in smooth, aseptic banality. I vote for a return to walking out into the weather and climbing metal stairs. You know you’re going somewhere. 

Our flight left Cairns this morning at 6:30 am, which meant all last night was dedicated to the tasks of leaving one place for another. Clothes, freshly laundered, were sorted into piles and rolled, squeezed into our packing cubes and wedged into the suitcase. Food had to be sorted: canned food shoe-horned into the smaller suitcase, unopened rice thins and cereal bars tucked into a snack bag for the plane. I set aside enough food for breakfast in the airport: two soy yogurts, what’s left of the cereal and opened soy milk, leftover corn on the cob. We still have mangos, given to us by friends we made in Yungaburra. They wrote messages to us on the skins and wrapped them up like presents in newspaper. We’ve been waiting for them to ripen. I couldn’t leave them behind, so in the bag they went. I tossed in a few carrots each. All the rest of the food got left behind. After Rory and Nora fell asleep, already dressed in the clothes they’ll wear on the plane, I did last minute things, charging iPods while we had plugs, topping up the battery on the cellphone. Boring, tedious tasks that, if undone, add to the tedium of travel. I went through all the backpacks one more time, throwing out scraps of paper and leaving behind anything we could spare- a couple of books, a plastic spatula, a huge serving spoon left over from camping in New Zealand. I got backpacks zipped, suitcases lined up, and fell asleep with my cell phone in my hand, the alarm on it set to go off at 3:30am. 

I probably checked the time on my phone ten times before I finally just went ahead and got up at 3:15. When I went to put away the computer I realized that I have had a good wireless connection from the room. How had I not figured that out in five nights there? I checked my email, wrote to Brandon, and still had plenty of time to get in a call to Jill. Not a bad way to start the day. I woke Rory up talking, and soon after that Nora opened her eyes. We were downstairs, lined up and ready to go, at 4:15am, fifteen minutes before the shuttle was due to pick us up. 

Out the window the Outback of my imagination has taken over. Giant lakes spread out under us, but they can’t be water, because in the middle there’s a real lake, or pond, that is full of water. What can the other be? Sand? Dirt? It stretches as far as I can see out the window, and with no clouds at 34,000 feet, that’s a good distance. A ribbon of trees runs through it. I love to travel on the ground. This summer’s trip across country was dreamy. Nora and I plotted our progress on a map, after each drive coloring the road in with a blue marker. We could see our line stretching toward the Pacific, then turning north into Canada, then making our way back to Georgia. It’s a not-so-secret goal of mine to go around the world on the surface, to see it, to appreciate the bigness and the space of it. So, I’ve been pretty bummed out that we’re doing so much flying in Australia. Here’s a continent similar in size to the continental US, and I hate to miss it. But, today, from way up here, I feel better about it. Partly because I look down at the Outback and fancy driving across it on my own with two kids. Can you imagine a breakdown out there? But more than that, I would hate to miss the view from up here. The bushes dotting the dry creek beds, curling and writhing across the redness, look like dots and swirls that make up the Aboboriginal artwork. The land is the huge; maybe it’s right to see it from on high. We’re almost to Uluru. I can’t wait. 

January 12, 2010

Cairns: Rhymes with Fans

Filed under: animals, Australia, children, food, Planes, travel — midway2go @ 6:28 am

The flight to Cairns from Sydney was bigger than I thought, in almost every way.  For starters, it was around three hours.  We were shown a feature length film and were served a meal.  We apparently left culture in exchange for something like wildness.  And, to top it off, we changed time zones.  All this, flying from a city on the southeast coast to a city on the northeast coast.  Same side of the country.  This is a big country.  Huge.   Getting off the plane we walked down wide metal stairs.  I love that.  I wish I were wearing big white sunglasses and had a bouffant.  What a great way to enter this tropical land.  We’re spending a few nights in Cairns at a hostel.  The hostel is in a renovated heritage hotel, with wide wooden floorboards and a deep second-story veranda that runs along the front and the side.  The paths around the grounds are verdant and rich.   The kitchen, where we spend a disproportionate part of the day, is open and the tiny swimming pool is at the end of the tables.   When I was in Sydney, calling around about rooms and prices, I finally thought to ask about air conditioning.  Keep in mind, the highs are in the low nineties and the lows are in the mid seventies.  The humidity is always around 75% if it’s not actively raining, which it is five or six times a day.  This is Savannah in July.  So, I asked if AC was available.  He assured me that it was, but cost $1 an hour.  “Ohterwise,” he said, “people would just want to run it all the time.”  Yes, imagine that. 

 In our hostel AC is free.  Of course, the remote to turn it on is only available to be checked out from 6pm until 9am… 


The view from my poolside chair

our dining room

 I was reading Bill Bryson’s book about Australia my last week in New Zealand.  I do love his writing, but he does get carried away.  He’s particularly concerned about all the different stuff in Australia that can sting, burn, eat, or find some other way to kill you.  About Queensland, the Australian state we’re in now, he was warned that the residents are “madder than cut snakes.”  Well, I don’t know about that, but I glanced through the weekend paper over coffee, and the following three stories caught my eye: 1.  A local family pulled a snake out of a hole in their backyard that measured over 4.2 meters.  Check my math, but I think that’s longer than 15 feet, and, I don’t have the paper in front of me, but I think it was a python.  And,  while the family is glad to have removed that hazard, they are concerned because it layed eggs and soon they’ll have to round up the offspring. 

 2. Cane toads, a classic case of an introduced species run amok, are invading neighborhoods to the extent that the columnist I was reading couldn’t go outside at night without stepping on them.  Now, this isn’t a small critter.  They are toxic at every stage of life, from toadpole to adult, and have no natural predators. They poison household pets merely by passing through their water bowls.  And their size?  They are about 10 inches long and weigh almost nine pounds.  That’s a lot of poisonous toad.  

3.    Three local men have been bitten in separate instances by flying foxes, a large bat.  Two became ill (seriously ill?  Is there any other kind?) by a virus carried by the bats.  I thought, hmmmm, then walked up the block to discover that the rustling Rory and Nora and I heard was made by the wings of the flying foxes roosting in the trees above us.  How did I figure that out?  A little sign stating that if you came across a solitary young please not to touch it but to notify someone immediately.   Oh, it’s child-rearing time for these charming creatures.  At dusk we see their dark outlines swooping around, their long fingers in their wings made visible by the illuminated sky.   Their wingspan must be 18-24 inches.  Beautiful, but I sure would love to know how those three guys got those bites. 

So, Bill Bryson, if you’re reading this, sorry for doubting.  I’m a true believer now, boy.   

flying foxes at rest

Pelicans and Spoonbills

Rory reading to Nora in his bunk

Waiting for the airport shuttle, they find "play" all around them.

 Despite the tacky tourist shops and the ugly concrete buildings, I love this place.  And we haven’t even done the good stuff, yet.  I love the weather, I love swimming with the kids after breakfast, then before lunch, then after dinner.  I love the ceiling fans.  I love that in a thrift shop today I could not find one dress with anything like a sleeve.  This is a town deeply committed to the tank top as a way of life.  I love that, too.

Can you spot Darth Vader’s Sunday Best?

Filed under: animals, Australia, children, food, travel — midway2go @ 3:28 am

Ibis on the playground with Nora playing
Here they are, in all their confused, jumbled splendor, some photos from Sydney.

The horn is really a tooth!  It’s from the male narwahl, probably the source of the unicorn legend.

Rory and Nora in front of the new, improved EndeavorThis 18 inch lizard, a gecko, was just hanging out by a bench. Yikes.

Mini-Swordfish, anyone? Only $14.95 a kilo?
Yummy Food Lady

January 9, 2010

It’s getting hot in here…

Filed under: Australia, children, weather — midway2go @ 4:54 pm
Yesterday we went to the Sydney Opera House to see a show. It was no opera, but it was incredible. We saw the Tom Tom Crew, Australia’s hip hop circus. The Crew consists of four very talented acrobats, a drummer, a Dj, and a human beatbox. Together they were magic. The acrobats moved like gravity didn’t apply to them, flipping through the air and flying over each other. Most of them trained in something called the Flying Fruit Fly Circus. I don’t know what that is, but I think Rory and Nora and I would like to sign up.

Here’s what Nora says about the Tom Tom Crew:

They were doing back flips, spinning on their heads, breakdancing. And they could stand on each others’ shoulders three people at a time.

Rory says:

They did this kind of see-saw thing, and blasted 10 feet into the air, and sometimes 20 or 30.

I don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about the crazy turntable antics and mixology that went on by Sampology, the DJ, or the drummer, who was the linchpin of the whole show. Tom Thun, the human beatbox, seemed like such a likeable fellow that I hate to call him a freak, but… what would you call someone who can make all the sounds of a jazz band while doing a beat background? Yep. Very entertaining, and incredibly talented, but a freak. Oh, and he can breakdance, spinning on his head, while beatboxing. So cool. Rory was jumping up and down in his seat. Look it up on YouTube. It’s that cool.

And we got to see the inside of the Opera House. The acoustics may be world-class, but the looks are nothing to scream about. Oh, well, the elevators have no ceiling, just open to the roof . That’s interesting, in a terrifying sort of way.

We came out of the Opera House into the sunshine I’d been dreaming of. The sidewalks and jetties were jammed with Sydneysiders and tourists making the most of the sun and the Friday afternoon. Everyone had a drink in hand, the conversations were at top volume. It looked like fun, like a whole city of people getting ready to have a really big time. I was happy to be a part of it, walking in the sun with Rory and Nora, trying to make up raps and beats and asking each other who we liked better, Beastie Boys or Tom Tom Crew (me: the Boys; them: the Crew) and if you could have the ability to drum like that guy or to flip through the air like the acrobats which would you pick (all agreed: the acrobats) and if you could be a lizard or a snake which would you choose (a lizard). The good feelings lasted the bus ride back to our neighborhood, through a quick dinner of Thai, and onto the dessert the kids have waited days for, gelato from a little place near our guest house. Rory went with lemon; Nora with mango, and I went for unlimited tastes of theirs. It was delicious, but not, we agreed, up to Valentino’s in Auckland. They’re still the best.

Today was our last day in Sydney (for this trip, anyway), and we finally were able to get in touch with a couple we were friends with in when we lived in Virginia. Nathan and Elissa very gamely threw their 2 kids in the car and rushed right over to hang out. No small feat considering the kids are two and one and Elissa is expecting their third. We had a great morning drinking coffee and catching up. Their daughter took a shine to Nora, insisting in a very sweet way on holding her hand everywhere we walked. Rory pushed their younger one in his stroller, and on the whole I think they both enjoyed playing the Big Kids for a morning.

This afternoon we had planned to go into Hyde Park to see the opening day of the Sydney Festival. Family-friendly performances were scheduled from 2pm on, but I found myself overcome by daily life on the road: the need to get groceries for dinner, the need to wash the few warm weather clothes we have, the need to sort through books and papers and schedules. The need to be still and move slowly in the first hot weather we’ve had in months. So now the kids are in bed, sprawled across their beds, sticky under the ceiling fan, while our wet laundry is strung up all around our heads. It’s taking forever to dry in the humidity, and I don’t mind one bit. Four nights ago I was huddled in a down sleeping bag under woolen blankets, sleeping in a hat. Now I’m in a tank top, my hair pulled up to try catch a breeze across my neck. Only two time zones but such a change.

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