Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ayers Rock, Australia

Stars glisten overhead in an obsidian sky as the convoy sets out. A line of headlights; camper vans and tour buses, park service pickups and hired cars, rumbling in single file across the desert. In the east, the first gray hint of twilight outlines The Rock.

Uluru, Ayers Rock to the sunburnt, half-starved latecomers who stumbled in a hundred generations after this land’s Aboriginal founders, stands as one of the world's largest monoliths. It rises 1000 feet out of an ocean of red sand, its imposing presence drawing your eyes like a magnet.

A quarter mile of park road turns into one massive parking lot for the spectacle of dawn. Half of Tokyo spills out of one bus, an entire Boca Raton retirement home hobbles out of from another, joined by an army of dusty euro backpackers and campervanning Brits.

Dozens of LCD screens glow in the dark and a hundred pop-up flashes evaporate into the desert night. The sky lightens and the clicking reaches a crescendo. At 6:37 the sun casts the first orange light onto the Rock. At 6:39, the buses start their engines. By a quarter to seven, I have the place to myself.

The flies seem happy enough for me to stay on. Most everyone here walks around with ridiculous looking mesh headnets against their onslaught. I chucked derisively at first. I tried toughing it out, but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to get anything done while waving both hands about your head and swearing furiously.

As the sun spins overhead, color suffuses the Rock. Dawn's warm glow gives way to a rusted brown under scalding midday light. In late afternoon, with the temperature pushing 105°, the Rock seems to burn in the colors of rich flame. At sunset and into dusk, it glows like an ember of coal before slowly fading into utter blackness on a moonless night. Its absence cuts a hole in the sky, and the southern stars glow brighter beyond its hulking shadow.

I wait until the last of the day’s cars, trucks and buses have gone home and stand in the desert, savoring the warm wind and the southern stars circling slowly overhead.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Stuart Highway, Australia

Emily, the British voice inside my GPS, chirped the directions. Turn Right...Continue...636 miles.

If I’m going to make Ayers Rock, it’s going to be a long day.

I take a look at the seemingly endless highway, the red sand and scrubby brush, and step on the accelerator. In the absence of authority figures or the judgment that age is said to bring, I take the car up to 130 and keep it there. Okay, it’s kilometers, but still.

Eighties all-hit weekend and classical music fade, leaving only Aussie Rules Football scores burbling into the static. I punch the scan button and numbers roll through the entire radio spectrum again and again. In the shimmering distance, a mirage appears, taking the form of a monster road train, 189 feet of truck and three trailers barreling down the highway. As we pass, we give the outback salute, a single index finger wave. A sudden buffeting of wind and noise, then I’m alone.

Around noon, I pass Coober Pedy. Opal mining dreams are heaped in a thousand piles of tailings and dust. I once stood in front of a line of passengers boarding the day’s only departing plane with a $100 bill in my hand, trying to buy a seat out of there. For three long days I couldn’t find a taker.

I keep the engine running as I fueled up. No sense taking chances.

After eight hours, I hit my left turn signal. Emily says it’s 147 miles to the park entrance. If I step on it, I might still make it before sundown.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Flinders Chase, Australia

There comes a point in every trip where I pull out the map and make a considered judgment of time and distance and how to cover as much as possible before heading for home.

I reached that crossroads in Adelaide. I could turn north (Ayers Rock and all the cool stuff in the tropics), west (go for a complete lap of Australia, stupid but kind of cool in its reckless ambition) or south (a small pissant island that has managed to flummox me on two prior visits). All the really cool stuff was north, so I duly signaled a left turn and headed south for Kangaroo Island.

In its ability to disappoint, the island once again did not disappoint.

I watched as the day’s blue sky gave way to clouds gathering to the south, sighed as they gained momentum while aboard the car ferry across, and mumbled darkly as they settled in for the long haul upon arrival. About then, I also remembered that this is a bloody big island. Flinders Chase lies at the far western tip, nearly 100 miles away. A newly paved two lane promised highway speeds, but I tried hard not to add to the roadside marsupial slaughter.

I reached the park boundary and headed for Remarkable Rocks, sandstone boulders carved by howling ocean winds. They are nice rocks. Perfectly lovely rocks to be sure. But remarkable? That struck me as a bit of a stretch. Still, as twilight descended and the cloud deck dropped, they were the only rocks I was going to get.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Port Campbell, Australia

Can someone please explain to me the universal human urge to take the world’s most beautiful icons, our most sublime landscapes, and turn them into an Atlantic City boardwalk?

When I first visited the Victoria coastline 15 years ago, I parked along the road and made my way down a dusty track to the cliff’s edge. Scrambling down to the edge of a 200 foot drop into the Tasman, the view of limestone pinnacles emerging from a stormy sea greeted me. Known locally as the Twelve Apostles, I could never make out more than six, but with the setting sun, the ragged coastline, the prospect of falling to my doom, I was not one to quibble.

When I arrived this week, I was greeted by Wal-Mart sized parking lot, a new ‘interpretive centre,’ and a tax-funded paved pathway to fenced-in boardwalk winding along the cliff. Two hundred yards of platform may struck some as excessive, but only until the RV’s and tour buses started to pile up.

I showed up early enough to grab a spot for my cameras, but only just. As the sun dipped, an invading army joined me to meditate on nature’s spectacle. Their reverence took the form of jockeying for position, making out with their travel partners, and using cellphones to take pictures while yelling into the cellphone “I’m taking a picture...” And then the summer school camper bus rolled up and things livened up considerably.

I understand, in my darker moments, that I play some tiny part in this. I go to a place and take nice pictures. Those pictures are (infrequently) published and turn up in magazine advertisements that seduce a generation of armchair travelers to hop on a plane and see it all first hand. Even though the world might be a better place if they just stayed home and watched reruns of The Simpsons.

After a while, the sun set, the crowd cleared and silence returned. Stars appeared out of the gathering dark, and a lone wallaby appeared out of the shadows. We silently eyed each other and after a while I tried to apologize. “Dude, I swear. I had no idea...”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Great Ocean Road, Australia

The Great Ocean Road winds up, over and around the corrugated Victoria coast. I was on a mission, which as usual meant I was driving too fast through lovely country to arrive ten minutes too late at my destination. But a mission nonetheless, and I was not to be distracted.

Then I saw the koalas.

There might be something cuter than a koala, somewhere, but in the absence of seal pups or unicorns, they would do. While rounding a corner along a winding stretch of narrow two-lane, I nearly drove into rear of a line of cars, stopped, and onlookers, gawking upwards. Like children at the zoo, they were spellbound by a gathering of herbivorous cuddliness.

I need to state for the record that Koalas are not bears. A real bear, a proper American Bear, raised on the Protestant work ethic and a steady diet of Fox News, gets up early each morning and goes out to hunt and eat and kill.

Koalas are instead marsupials, whose life mission is to sleep, chew on eucalyptus leaves, sleep, mate, and then take a much needed nap. If there was ever a vision of contentment, it can be found in the crook of a tree, dozing in the sun with a full belly and brain half-baked on eucalyptus fumes.

A local peered up as one nipper dozed off with a mouthful of leaves in mid-chew and grinned proudly, “That’s the Aussie spirit.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Murramurang, Australia

Like any television-reared child of the 60’s, I watched Skippy. Yet in spite of that training, I was still doing something wrong.

Every time I sidled up to one of the kangaroos, stepping quietly, avoiding sudden movements and murmuring in a reassuring tone, they grew tense and did the whole hopping away in blind panic thing. Finally, I saw how the other tourists did it. The preferred method includes running straight up while screaming with delight, offering a handful of potato chips and trying to hitch a ride on their backs.

The funny thing is, once I stopped with the stealth crap, the ‘roos relaxed and we got along just fine. One even curled up for a nap and I was all but spooning him, down in the sand and grass and the nuggets of dried poo like everybody's best mate. As in Australian for buddy, not in any unhealthy cross-species sense.

I only found this place because of the ‘Prize-Winning Pies”sign. It sounded like a welcome break on the drive south from Sydney’s rains. I gambled on the spicy beef curry and quickly got to chatting with Michael and Ian, two blokes sitting one table down. I mentioned I’d been hoping to find kangaroos. They knew just the spot.

“It’s just past Wolongong, on the way toward Murrmurang, hang a left at the dead wombat, pass Kalgoorlie on the track through Wagga Wagga around Oodnadatta and bob’s your uncle you’re there.”

Or something like that. My eye glazed over after ten or fifteen minutes of directions and a laundry list of other sites demanding my attention. My meat pie grew cold, I began to collect social security. The earth ceased to spin on its axis and the sun turned supernova before slowly fading to a black cinder.

“...and you’ve got to check out Woolloomooloo, just head across the Nullabor and you can’t miss it. Bloke carved a perfect replica of every man, woman and child in the shire using nothing but a chainsaw...”

That’s one thing you can say for kangaroos. They really don’t have much to say at all. They’re just happy to share your potato chips and a shady spot on the beach.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sydney, Australia

They call me Weathermaker. Wherever I tread, droughts break, the skies open and the good rain falls upon the earth.

Good for the crops, crap for photography.

After a long morning walking Sydney’s sodden streets, dodging umbrellas and puddles, I retreat to the Aquarium. It was on my list anyway, and six inches of acrylic separate me from the deluge. Standing in the winding queue, I sense I wasn’t the only one with this idea.

After coughing up my $30, I wandered past endless tanks of critters grand and small, saltwater and fresh. Sometimes, if I waited long enough for the screaming toddlers, field-tripping school kids, sullen adolescents, impatient parents and doddering pensioners to clear, I could even see them.

They save the best for last of course, but I eventually fight my way to the shark tanks. In a crowded, airless tunnel, a throng stands shoulder to shoulder, stroller to shin, staring up and taking snapshots. I join in the scrum, but my heart really isn’t in it.

The Aquarium reminds me of all the reasons I love scuba diving. They share a vast array of marine life and pleasing aqua-themed colors. But with scuba, there’s all that cool gear, an absence of small children, and above all, quiet.

Underwater, no one can hear your annoying cellphone ring tone.

Still, the variety of life astounds. And the fish are cool too. After some hours of this, I emerge blinking into daylight. Or at least the gift shop. In the interests of economizing, I make my way to the cafeteria, and think about lunch.

What’s on special? I hear the fish and chips are nice.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Enroute Sydney, Australia

For ten hours, the view out my window does not change. Silver wing, blue Pacific, white clouds. At least I have time to focus on work. The sum total of my research material, an outdated Australia Lonely Planet, sits thick as a phone book on my lap. I read and underline and scribble notes of anything that might make a decent picture.

The blue sky vanishes as soon as we near Sydney. The city lies under a thick deck of purple clouds, and rain slashes the window. It takes hours to sort out rental car, cellphone and hotel, thanks to a small miscalculation of arrival dates. What’s with the whole dateline thing anyway?

Emily, the high-borne British woman inside my gps, seems flummoxed by Antipodean navigation, and starts sounding cross as I weave up and down one way streets in downtown rush hour traffic. Even the cabbies give me a wide berth.

For $35 I park the car in the hotel’s bowels and consider leaving it there for the duration. My four star room looks out on an air shaft, and I gently nudge a roach back into the hallway. Lacking the requisite power adapter, I recharge my laptop in the shaver outlet, grab camera bag and tripod as darkness descends and hit the streets. Time to get to work.

The further I walk from the hotel, the harder it rains, until a monsoon hits at Circular Quay. Soaked and sullen, I manage to hail a cab and slink back to the hotel. I smell smoke in the room. The outlet is blistered and smudged black from the small electrical fire I've set. The roach is on its back, waving its little legs. 

I'm worried it might be smoke inhalation, but least someone seems happy to see me.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

I’ve been thinking some about the significance of birthdays. Their meaning, what omens they might portend, and the fact that I seem to be accumulating ever more of them.

For a long time, I’ve made a point of fleeing the country during mine. A February birthday is one of life’s little jokes. Happy birthday, here’s some sleet. And maybe a side order of existential dread. Last year, I spent the big day chasing lizards in South Africa. Other years have been spent sweating through Kalahari lightning storms, shunning prostitutes in Manila and cruising New Zealand’s fjords. This year the arrival of my baby brother’s text message, “Wow, you’re sure old...” woke me from a sound sleep in Kona, Hawaii.

I looked at the message on my phone, sighed and then took a snapshot of the palm trees outside my patio at dawn, sending the picture back as my reply. I may be getting older, but by God I’m going to do it with a tan.