Travels in Oz

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

Monday, July 17, 2006

Final Post - Part II

Well, I’m happy to report that I’m officially over jetlag. Now when I sleep until 10am, it’s just plain laziness. I would have finished this up earlier, but a computer meltdown delayed this final post. I suppose I should count my blessings that the laptop held together through six months in Australia, a year before that in the UK, and countless run-ins with my cat, who doesn’t tend to distinguish between a computer screen and a scratching post. But the fact that my computer was considerate enough to die on domestic soil doesn’t make the pain of shelling out a few hundred dollars for a replacement any easier.

In any case, back to the trans-Australia parental extravaganza. After a day or two winding our way through forests, we picked up the Great Ocean Road, which runs along the coast for almost 300 km. It’s a beautiful drive, and reminded me a lot of Big Sur in northern California – lots of twists and turns along cliffs, with gorgeous views of the ocean. The area is known for its ocean rock formations – huge pinnacles in the water that somehow remained while the rest of the cliff eroded and receded. The most famous are the Twelve Apostles; gorgeous orange and pink rock towers that are peppered along the coastline. Actually, I think there were only 10 or 11 of them to begin with, and now one or two have fallen down, making the official title a bit of a misnomer. Although I guess “The Rock Formations Formerly Known as The Twelve Apostles” is too much of a mouthful. We arrived just as the sun was setting, which set off the colors in the rock beautifully. It was fantastic.

The next morning we got up early to watch whales swim past a beach near our hotel, but the whales didn’t show up. The nerve. So it was on to South Australia and the Barossa Valley, one of the oldest wine producing regions in Australia. But first, we made sure to pass through a little town called Kingston, which has achieved world fame for a tourist attraction called the Big Lobster. It is…wait for it…a big statue of a lobster. Yes, we actually went out of our way to see this. Although, to be fair, it was extremely large – about 50 times bigger than a real lobster. And it had a gift shop, so all in all, it was a successful detour.

After a very relaxing day in the Barossa Valley, tasting wine, eating a gourmet lunch and channeling our inner yuppies, we flew north to Cairns. The city itself doesn’t have too much going for it – in fact, the closest comparison I can think of is that it’s kind of like Alabama (no offense to any Alabamans out there, I’m sure it’s a lovely place). Cairns, however, is a great jumping off point for trips out to the Great Barrier Reef. My mother isn’t too fond of boats, or water, or people who like boats and water, so she decided to spend a day relaxing with a book while Dad and I joined a tour that offered both snorkeling and diving. Now, I know that many of you who know me won’t believe what I’m about to write, but I actually conquered my fears – of sharks, and eels, and seasnakes, and estuarine crocodiles, and giant killer minnows – and gave diving a try. Actually, I couldn’t really believe I was doing it myself until I was in the water. But my friend Nadine had once told me that diving is easier than it seems, since it feels so abnormal – you have to put on a strange outfit, the only thing you can hear is yourself breathing, and even the way you swim feels different – that you sort of forget all of your usual fears of the ocean. And she was absolutely right. I didn’t freak out at all. It also helped that we were only underwater for about 25 minutes, so before I could start to panic, it was time to resurface. The fish were astounding, and the coral was very pretty, although not as brightly colored as in the aquarium. I did see a shark, but it was only about a foot long, and seemed to be sleeping. Still, that counts for something, doesn’t it? The whole experience was incredible and exhilarating, and that evening we celebrated my newfound status of fearless underwater adventurer by eating a lobster dinner. What can I say, it just seemed appropriate.

We flew back to Sydney happy, tired, and with my parents’ bank account considerably depleted. After a final day in the city, my parents jetted off to Hawaii, and I was left with four days to pack, wrap things up, and say goodbye to people. I had a fantastic going away party at Retro, a dance club that specializes in 70s and 80s music, and then a final dinner in a restaurant in Customs House, which not only had great food but a beautiful view of the harbor. Before I knew it, it was time to go. These past six months have been an amazing experience, and I’m so lucky to have met such wonderful people. I’ll miss them all – and Australia – for a long time to come.

But now it’s back to real life, and hopefully a completed dissertation and professorship in the near future. I’d keep this blog going, but I’m pretty sure that my trips to the library and back won’t excite even my most devoted reader (i.e., my mother). So that’s all for me. Thanks for reading everyone!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Final Post - Part I

It’s been ages since I’ve written, so I’ll have to break this final post up into two. I’m now back in the States, settling in for the transition back to reality after an action-packed and wonderful final two weeks in Australia. My parents arrived excited and jetlagged, and we spent the first weekend in Sydney doing all of the typical tourist stuff (a play at the opera house, dinner by the harbor, drinks in the revolving restaurant at the top of the Australia Center Tower). Bright and early Monday morning we were on a flight to Melbourne for the start of the road trip. My mother turns into a narcoleptic in the car, so my dad and I did most of the driving. And actually, I found that driving on the other side of the road isn’t as hard as I’d imagined. The only problem was that since the steering column was on the wrong side, so too were the signals – meaning that every time we went to signal a turn, we inevitably hit the windshield wipers. I never realized how instinctual driving was until I changed lanes while cleaning the windshield for the 30th time. But the up side of our ineptitude was that our car was always spic and span.

We started out by heading east to Healesville, a tiny town that happens to have a huge and beautifully kept wildlife sanctuary. They provide free guides if you call ahead, so we were shown around by a friendly and very informative woman who spent three hours giving us interesting facts about the animals and answering our (sometimes very inane) questions. Kangaroos, echidnas, wallabies, dingos, koalas, emus, platapus (platapuses? platapi? whatever.) – we saw them all. I had heard somewhere that much of Australia’s koala population suffers from chalmydia, and it turns out to be absolutely true, although you’ll be happy to know that the Healesville koalas are disease-free. What might be less than true was my dad’s announcement a few days later that the koalas first contracted chlamydia by eating dirt – I’ll just leave that one up to you to decide.

Next it was off to Philip Island on the southern coast to see little penguins. During the summer there can be upwards of 2000 of these miniature birds crossing the beach every night, but during the winter they hibernate, so there were only about 400 making an appearance in our “penguin parade.” They come ashore to sleep and lay eggs, but are vulnerable to predators while out of the water, so they only make the trip under cover of darkness, in groups of 10 or 20. It started a few minutes after the sun set – we began to see a few huddled together on the shoreline, where they waited nervously until the leader suddenly got up the courage to go. The group ducked over en masse and waddled like mad to the long grasses on the other side of the beach. A few times one or two would get spooked and the entire group would abort the mission, plunging quickly back into the water until the coast was clear. Afterwards, we walked along the boardwalks by the beach, and got a fantastic close-up view of the penguins settling down for the night. It was adorable, and well worth sitting in the freezing cold for an hour. Plus, I’m pretty sure that none of them had chlamydia.

From Phillip Island we looped back past Melbourne and started heading west, through the forests of Victoria, where my dad – the ecologist – took approximately 837 pictures of leaves. He could describe this part of the trip to you in detail, but all I can say is that there were many nice paths through the woods, a few waterfalls, gigantic trees and thankfully, lots of little towns with coffeeshops. It was very relaxing.

I’ll leave it there for now – will wrap up the trip (adventures with giant lobsters and other sea creatures) after the jetlag starts to wear off…