Travels in Oz

I'm off - for 6 months of adventure (er, research) in Australia.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Sports! Sports! Sports!

I’ve never been a big fan of sports, probably because any team competitions tend to bring up traumatic memories from my childhood (always the last picked, zero athletic ability, never quite understood the rules – all the usual stuff). The only trophy I ever won was in the duckpin bowling league I somehow found myself a member of at the age of 12, and that was for “high flat,” meaning the highest game you can bowl without getting any strikes or spares. Yes, it was a trophy for getting the best possible score if you otherwise suck at the game.

With all of that sports-related baggage, I shocked myself by spending the week watching, and actually enjoying, three different games. Living in Australia, it’s hard to avoid sports – everyone you meet plays something or supports some team or at least knows enough to engage in long conversations about sports heroes and game controversies that I always find completely incomprehensible. Since my time here is getting shorter and shorter, I figured that I needed to jump right in and find out what all this talk was actually about.

I started with an AFL (Australian Football League) game last Saturday night; the Sydney Swans were playing the Saint Kilda Saints, my friends were already going, and tickets were cheap. About ten minutes after we found our seats in the bleachers, it started raining steadily, and didn’t let up for the rest of the game. I discovered that feeling cold and soggy isn’t the best way to appreciate a new sport (there’s nothing quite like sitting in wet jeans for two hours), and besides that, I had no clue what was going on. Guys were scrambling around, sliding on the wet grass, pummeling into each other, kicking the ball, throwing the ball – it was all very confusing. Something like a cross between American football, soccer, and rugby, with perhaps some gymnastics and synchronized swimming thrown in for good measure. After it was over (Sydney lost by two points, but don’t ask me how), my friends declared that it had been a boring game, and we all went home.

Monday night was a different story. Australia was playing in the World Cup for the first time in 32 years, and everybody I knew was ridiculously excited about it. Even though the game didn’t start until 11pm on a school night, the pubs were packed. The crowd was pretty tense though – Australia’s team is better this year than it’s even been before, but it’s still not amazing (I guess you don’t miss out on playing in the World Cup for three decades for no reason), and a number of people told me that this would probably be the only game that they stood any chance of winning. The first half went terribly – Japan quickly scored a goal, while Australia took a few shots but never came close – and when things weren’t picking up in the second half, I thought the guy next to me was going to start crying. A friend of mine turned to me and said, “I just want to see Australia score one goal in the World Cup. They don’t have to win. I just want to see one goal,” which I found endearing in a really pathetic way. But just when everyone was about to give up, the team somehow rallied, and scored three goals in the last ten minutes. It was beautiful – strange men were hugging each other, everyone was cheering, and I got a free beer from the bartender (which I have to admit was probably the most exciting part of the evening for me).

To complete my sport trilogy, I decided to watch the second game of the State of Origin competition with my roommate on Wednesday. It’s a three game rugby series that’s been played for years between Queensland and New South Wales, and even though I was watching the game from Sydney, I chose to root for Queensland. Most of my friends are from up north, and in any case, they had prettier outfits. My god though, that game was intense. The guys playing were ridiculously beefy, and spent an hour and a half slamming each other to the ground, and then pummeling their opponents’ heads into the dirt for good measure. Tackles that would have killed most of the people I know were just shrugged off, men kept playing with bloodied faces and broken noses, and of course there wasn’t any padding. After the first 45 minutes, I was exhausted. But – and I hate to admit this, being an academic and all – it was great viewing. Plus, my side won, which made me feel accomplished even though all I did to support the team was sit on the couch in a ball, grimacing and saying “that looked painful” every now and then.

So, in sum, I’ve learned a few things: 1) sports are better when you are dry. 2) sports are best when accompanied by free beer. 3) brutality is fun.

The big news is that my parents are currently flying across the Pacific on their way to visit, arriving tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn. We’re off for two weeks of traveling – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Cairns – and knowing my mother, many hours spent touring the gift shops of Australia. I can’t wait!

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Trip Out West

Here I am, back in Sydney, where it’s been raining nonstop for the past five days. This strikes me as incredibly unfair – Australia is, after all, the driest continent on earth, and I don’t want to spend my last few weeks in the country feeling waterlogged. The most ironic thing of all is that even though it has poured here (literally, poured) every day this week, it hasn’t helped the water shortage whatsoever. Apparently, Australians are adept at building dams in places where it hardly ever rains a drop.

But I really shouldn’t complain, since my mini-vacation in WA last weekend was pretty near perfect. Andrew and I started out bright and early on Thursday morning, picking up the rental car in downtown Perth, which came with the weird stipulation that we weren’t allowed to drive at night. It turned out that there are so many kangaroos in the region (who tend to get confused and hop towards headlights) that it’s easier for the insurance company to bar tourists from driving after dark than to keep replacing totaled cars. I mentioned that this was actually great news for me, since I was on a quest to see as many marsupials as possible, to which the rental car lady replied, “Oh you’ll see kangaroos. Dead ones.”

Well, that was a little disconcerting. But what did we care? We were on vacation! We started by driving south down the coastal highway, passing through a number of small seaside towns with little boutiques and shops selling great fish and chips. The beach in Western Australia is absolutely beautiful, stretching for miles and miles with huge waves pounding the shore. It’s unsurprisingly very popular with surfers. We stopped off at a cape and climbed around on the gigantic rocks on the shoreline, having fun finding crabs and urchins in the tidal pools, until – with my natural sense of grace and coordination – I nearly fell into one. Next it was off to look at thrombolites, which are billed as prehistoric “living rocks” of the kind that used to exist on earth before fish started climbing out of the sea. They were kind of neat, I suppose, but didn’t really do much.

As we were driving to find a place to stay that evening, Andrew pointed off to the left and said nonchalantly, “Oh look, there are some kangaroos.” And yes, there they were, about 50 of them of all different sizes, hanging out in a field eating the grass. I was incredibly excited, although they didn’t do much either, until a loud motorcycle passed by and they all started hopping nervously into the trees. It was great. That evening, we stayed in a tiny town called Bussleton, and after a Chinese dinner in the one restaurant that was open, we headed to the local pub. Luckily, it was karaoke night! The bar had about a dozen regulars in it, which by Bussleton standards meant it was packed. And as the new kids in town, we got a lot of attention. Andrew and I did an extremely poor rendition of the theme song from Dirty Dancing, which I followed up with a few hits from Journey, and Andrew with Dancin’ by the BeeGees. The DJ gave us second prize in the competition (although sadly, I think we were the only ones competing), and after a few games of pool with the local surfers and a long conversation about life with a couple of old guys at the bar, I decided that Bussleton was a surprisingly happening place.

The next day we got to the Margaret River Valley, which is one of the best wine regions in Australia. It produces about 1% of the nation’s wine, but counts for over 10% of the premium vintage market. I started to feel bad about making Andrew do all the driving – especially if he was going to have to cart me around from wine tasting to wine tasting – so we decided to get around the issue of a designated driver by renting bikes and cycling to the wineries. I had forgotten how much fun bike riding can be – and also how sore it can make you – but it was a great way of seeing the scenery. The problem was, my bike was the one with the basket, so that towards the end of the day I was peddling up hills carrying the extra weight of seven bottles of wine. Thankfully (and somewhat miraculously, given the amount of free wine we had drunk during the day), I didn’t topple over, and the precious cargo made it back safe and sound.

Saturday we went east into the Tall Timber Country, an area that used to have spectacularly big trees until most of them were either logged in the nineteenth century or burned down in the bush fires of the twentieth. Still, there were some really beautiful ones that had managed to survive, and it was relaxing to spend the day driving through forests. We spent the evening in a town called Mandjimup, which if possible, was even smaller than Bussleton – and since even the pub closed at 9pm, passed the time with a hard-fought game of Scrabble. It was up early the next day to climb the Diamond Tree, a 65 meter (a little over 200 feet) tall karri tree that has a ladder winding up the trunk that takes you to a fire lookout above the canopy. The book made it sound like a piece of cake, but when we got there, we found that the “ladder” was just some iron spikes stuck into the side of the tree, with nothing underneath to keep you from falling to your death. There wasn’t even a forest ranger on hand to call in the ambulance. It was, by far, the most dangerous tourist attraction I’ve ever seen. But, not knowing how high 65 meters actually was, I figured I might as well give it a try. About halfway up, I started seriously freaking out – it turns out 65 meters is high – but I eventually made it up to the first platform about 55 meters off the ground. Since my legs were still shaking from the climb, I was perfectly happy to stay at the lower platform, but Andrew managed to keep going to the very top, and said that the view was amazing.

On the way back to Perth, we stopped off for a very quick swim in the ocean. It was freezing, but I’d never been in the Indian Ocean before, so it had to be done. We got to the airport just in time, and were rewarded for sitting still on the five-hour plane ride with a perfect aerial view of Sydney harbor at night. Best of all, for the entire trip, it didn’t rain once.

Kangaroos!

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Nellie with Ye Olde Historic Lighthouse

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The coastline

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Andrew sees a rock

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Margaret River

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Action shot

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Climbing the Diamond Tree

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Ridiculously happy to have made it to the top

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