Big Question Marks

Monday, December 29, 2008

Highlights from the Centre

It would probably take ages to take you through all of our road adventures of the past few weeks, so we'll just skip to the best parts. Driving in Australia is quite the adventure in itself!

* Driving the Oodnadatta Track: After a few days soaking up the nature in Flinders Ranges in SA, it seemed the unsealed road ahead open and ready for Daisy (we looked the other way from a few of the "4WD only" warnings, tee hee). Life was more and more remote as we headed north along the route of the old Ghan railway-- the new Ghan, which connects the country north to south, takes a more direct and definitely less scenic route. As town populations went from 1000 to the 100's and less, fuel became pricier and fruit more difficult to find (we raided one truck stop for all of its 4 apples and 6 bananas!). We spent a night in dusty Marree, where the Oodnadatta Track splits off from another famous Outback Track to Birdsville, QLD-- a place where the only residents are hanging out at the pub, and the only life on the street is a lonely wandering dog-- and wondered, if this was the beginning of the Track, what would the middle of it look like? The flies were getting unbearable but the sunsets were gorgeous. The next day we went further into nothing, where you'd wave excitedly to passing vehicles (if there were any) and the roadside was littered with rusted-out car wrecks and hardly a brushy plant. We hopped in and out of the car, exploring deserted rail stations, giant salt lakes, mysterious springs to swim in, and then the scariest moment ever-- we were almost at the legendary William Creek, town of population 10, on the biggest cattle station in the world (size of Belgium!) when we crested a hill and had to hit the brakes-- a river was crossing the road! We measured the depth with our ankles, and found it wasn't super-deep, but it was about 4 road lanes wide. Cold and with a bit of a current though-- and we had no idea how Daisy might fare. It was only 30 km to William Creek past there (to gas!) or another 150 km back to a detour. We were debating this problem-- we certainly didn't expect a flooded road in the dustiest, driest Outback ever-- when we heard the hum of a distant engine, and a big 4WD Landcruiser crossed the river easily toward us. The couple, a sweet older pair from near Sydney, inside assured us it would be no problem for us to cross, and if we did get stuck, they'd pull us out. With a bit of coaching to Adrian, he crossed the "creek" with no problem! There was lots of cheering and we left our separate ways-- though we don't know what we would have done without those people turning up at the very right moment. It was an easy cruise to William Creek, where we had a much-needed beer at the pub (of course a town with 10 people has a pub-- it's Australia!). And then our dusty detour was finished... it was back to the main highway (relieved!) to opal-mining capital Coober Pedy.

-Coober Pedy, SA- Opal mining town where half the population lives in dugouts (underground homes) while they mine for their fortune! The whole place looks like some sort of disaster zone... mounds of dirt everywhere from digging and many signs saying "watch where you're walking" so you don't fall in a hole!

- Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), and Kings Canyon: The big natural rock wonders of the centre were awesome when seeing them up close-- despite the hype! We did lots of hiking around them, though we didn't catch much in the way of beautiful sunsets. Our first night in Uluru rained and our subsequent sunsets and sunrises were pretty cloudy. Amazing to get to see these sights in person though. Check out the photos on Flickr.

-Etc: Chasing herds of feral camels grazing at the roadside (they're fast!). Dodging toads hopping in the road after dark in the rain while trying to get to our next stop en route to Darwin. Getting beaten by a knee-deep and very muddy river near Kings Canyon (Palmer River) while trying to take a shortcut to Alice Springs (we had to drive an extra 250 km instead). Would it really hurt to just pave a few more roads, or even build a bridge or two?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Xmas from the Big Aussie Road Tour

Merry Christmas to everyone from the sweltering-hot desert town of Alice Springs! We hope you're all having a great Xmas & have big plans for New Year's. We've been taking a few days off our hectic driving schedule to chill out (literally) in an air-conditioned villa at the Desert Palms Resort, a cute little complex of self-contained hotel room huts hidden amongst palm trees and bougainvillea. There's a swimming pool with an island in it where we spent a nice chunk of Christmas Day-- also nice. But the best part about our stay is we're away from the (a) dust (b) mozzies, and (c) flies which have been annoying us so much since crossing that invisible line to the Outback. You hear about all of this stuff prior to your trip, but it's impossible to believe how annoying life is with the combination of these elements (not to mention 40-degree heat). We made a cup of coffee a few mornings ago and before we could have a sip, three flies committed suicide into the steaming mug. Adrian especially loves to kill the flies, and will sometimes sit in the van murdering fly after fly after fly until he's got a sore arm... and then new ones just keep on coming. Dayle prefers to coat herself in Aerogard (a very strong "Tropical Grade" bug repellent) which keeps them away for a while. Some days we even wear our flynets (over our faces) to make dishwashing, etc a little less tedious!

But it's been an adventure already-- it was hard to get off the East Coast beaches but the long days of driving do pay off into some really rewarding sights and experiences! Here's a couple highlights...we've tried to recount the days since we entered the Outback (and backdated them a bit below on the blog). We'll have to leave you with a cliffhanger, as it's checkout time at the hotel-- but we'll finish and post the story of Daisy & the Oodnadatta Track in a few days. (We're heading to Uluru this morning) For now, do check out our photos on Flickr- freshly uploaded and fully up-to-date... at least you can get an idea of our last week! Merry Christmas... read on. Love D&A

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Going Outback Pt II: Ghost Towns & Mountain Hikes

By now, we were still marvelling at the silence of the Outback-- day and night, we'd barely meet another soul. We passed through Wilcannia, a former gold mining town which had a ghost-town feel to it-- dilapidated buildings and not a soul on the street (it was really hot outside though). Next it was Broken Hill, a relatively large town close to the South Australia border. It's known as the "Silver City", and the town has been built around a giant silver mine (looks quite weird to see a huge mound behind the town's buildings, and it always sounded like a construction site). There was also gold mines back in the day, and the "downtown" was full of Gold Rush-era, well-preserved buildings. It's also been a hotspot for films-- the Palace Hotel is a huge pub featured in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and nearby ghost town Silverton was the filming site for Mad Max II. Since Adrian's a huge Mad Max fan, we drove out to the spooky town to check out the tiny pub and the scenic sunbleached buildings of the town. The publican told us about the crazy dust storms that come through town, as well as the floods that close off the town from civilization when too much rain falls. We even met some wild donkeys hanging out by the (closed) museum/jail. There are a few people who live and work there-- there are a few art galleries, a house which we saw a ute pull into, and the family who runs the pub are residents, too. But otherwise, Silverton had quite the spooky, deserted air to it.

Nonetheless, Broken Hill was the closest we'd get to civilization for a while. We crossed into South Australia later the next day, through a manned quarantine checkpoint (you have to toss out your fruit & veggies just between most states here, it's crazy!) and straight into a dark storm cloud. We stopped in at the info centre in a cute town called Quorn, just below the Flinders Ranges National Park, and got the bad news we'd been dreading: the Oodnadatta Track was closed due to rains the Friday before (it was already Wednesday by then!). Norm, the biker who planted the adventuresome idea in our heads earlier that week, had told us authorities close the roads due to creeks flooding, but mostly so that vehicles don't create but ditches and ruts in the soft, wet ground. Since this was the rainier season (despite the drought), there was always the chance it would get closed down. Word is, if you travel on the road when it is closed and are caught, you'll be fined $1000 per tire. Yikes!

Disappointed as we were, we decided to at least check out the Flinders Ranges the next day and see if the track would reopen. It would be a detour-- the path we were taking is on the east side of some very large (and dried-out, we believe) lakes and there was no way north to join the main north-south highway, without the unsealed tracks. We'd have to detour back south for about 300km, and return north on the other side of the lakes-- a lot more time and fuel, but we'd heard the Flinders Ranges were worth it in scenery.

We drove further north, checking out historic ruins of sheep stations (abandoned because of the inhospitable conditions, heat and drought) and some Aboriginal rock paintings along the way to the National Park. We paused for the night in a wee town nestled in the mountains called Hawker, along the road where every town felt more and more like the end of the line.

Hanging onto our last bits of hope, we arrived inside Flinders Ranges National Park, to begin a hike with views of Wilpena Pound, a mountain range with a circular valley in the centre (apparently shepherds used to round up their sheep in this natural "pound"). And we got the news-- the Oodnadatta Track had reopened! As long as there wasn't another freak rain (we were told they'd had a huge amount of rain this month compared to normal), we could do it with ease, even without a 4WD, we were reassured. So with a burst of excited energy, we opted for a hike with great views and kind of overlooked that it was the only one listed as "Hard". Two hours of steep rock climbing to the top of Mount Ohlssen-Bagge found us sweaty and exhausted at the top (why do we always seem to hike in mid-afternoon?). We'd seen a few lizards but all the other wildlife was sensible enough to stay inside for the day. The views were phenomenal though and it was a much easier time down the steep trail, even with jello-ey legs.

We found a sweet campsite in the park (after "snaking" a refreshing shower from the Wilpena Pound Resort at the trailhead...) after a winding drive past emus sipping from puddles and roaming kangaroos-- by a dry riverbed and a mountain, and watched the stars from our peaceful site. In the morning, another camper came by to check out our trails map and we warned him about Mt Ohlssen-Bagge. He may have suited it better than us though, being a Bavarian who wore his lederhosen camping (we met him again in Coober Pedy, days later, in his lederhosen again!). We opted for a more peaceful trail through some grasslands and through a gorge that day... figured our energy is best put into the Outback Track driving the next day!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Going Outback Pt I: Many Miles in NSW

After leaving the Gold Coast, we paid a visit to our old home of two months last year, Stanthorpe. Everything pretty much looked the same as before, and it was just great to catch up with old friends from our previous year cherry-picking! Unfortunately it's been an even rainier year than last and the weather destroyed a lot of Cherry Park's cherries again. But the ones we did see/taste were just great. We caught up with the Minifies (who own Cherry Park) for an evening and had many laughs and a drink or two... Adrian even had a SingStar contest with the kids, that is, until they somehow broke the PlayStation with their lovely singing! The next night we took a walk down memory lane and stayed in the caravan park we stayed at for nearly six weeks last year, but this time, as tourists (what a great feeling to not have to be up at 5am!). It was still quite a nice place to stay. We met up with our fellow pickers Debbie & Katrina (and the husbands) at the local pub who cracked us up every day while picking, and they filled us in on the rest of the gossip and gave us some tips for our Outback travelling.... good times!

And the next morning it was into the unknown--we started inland on December 14 and only then truly realized how big each state is! New South Wales runs more than 1000 km from east to west, so it took ages to reach true Outback. And then suddenly it was there, all that red sand, scrubby bushes, and wild goats grazing at the roadside. It was only after about a day and a half driving south and west from Queensland, we were just starting to wonder where the Outback really begins-- Was it when we spotted a tumbleweed crossing the road? A dust devil crossing a field? When we really met no cars along the way? And then a sign appeared at the flat, dusty roadside:

Naturally, we hopped out of the car immediately and ran through thorny dried plants to pose in front of it (who wouldn't?!)... and it was about 100m past that when another sign said, "Welcome to Outback New South Wales". Aha! We had lunch in the first town we found in Bogan Shire, a nice little place called Nyngan which seemed very un-Bogan at first, until we spotted a group (family?) with two teenage girls and their babies, a brother and sister holding hands (we think), long hair and rattails on the boys and two-tone hair (think contrast: white-blonde on top and black on the bottom, or something like that), and the mom/young grandma in a really tiny denim miniskirt. The unfortunate thing about Bogan moments like this is we are usually so enraptured by the scene we usually forget to take pics (this happened on the Gold Coast with the most Bogan family we've ever encountered... too many rattails to count. We were absolutely tongue-tied). Next time, we promise!

Our first night spent in the Outback was incredible. Town were getting fewer and further between, and about every 100km there would be a rest area. It was getting close to sunset (which means kangaroos jumping out in front of the car... we'd already spotted a few emus running about, too) and we were still on the 282km expanse between towns, so we just chose a rest area and set up camp. It wasn't far off the Barrier Highway, the major route to South Australia, but we barely heard a vehicle all night. The landscape was extremely flat, and reddish with a few scrub plants and a couple of trees providing shade from the scorching sun. We thought we had the place to ourselves when a solo man in a pickup truck pulled in and just hung out in his truck. We were making dinner when we thought we saw him sharpening hedge trimmers... ("oh no, it's going to be Wolf Creek...") we thought as it got darker and we got our axe and a kitchen knife handy just in case. (Have we watched too many horror movies or what?) We spied on the guy, who was sitting in his truck, chatting on a mobile phone, and willed him to leave our camp spot. We were super relieved when a man on a motorcycle pulled up and cruised around the rest stop until he found a good place to pitch a tent. (A witness! We're safe now!) We were eating our meal when the friendly biker strolled over to have a chat with the scary truck guy... and to our further relief they were laughing and having a good conversation (Social skills, hooray!). Not long after that, truck guy pulls off onto the highway again and the biker comes by our camp to say hello... Norm was a retired NSW farmer with a craving for the open road-- he'd just been to Perth and back on his motorcycle, just for the hell of it. He told us about the scary truck guy-- a 'roo shooter, a local dude who shoots kangaroos and sells them to places like Europe where apparently kangaroo fetches a high price in restaurants! A bit more of a relief...

Norm also suggested some places to check out and planted the seed for some adventure-- we'd heard of the famous Outback "Tracks" that run up the middle of the country from South Australia, but we'd always assumed it was four-wheel drive only. Norm has taken the Oodnadatta Track not long before and said it was much more interesting that taking the paved, monotonous Stuart Highway. Daisy was probably shuddering already, but a new idea for our route was taking shape...

But what really topped off the night, after we quizzed Norm on the constellations (his wife is an astronomer at a nearby planetarium) and kept trying to spot the Southern Cross, was a very different kind of visitor. We were admiring the stars from our little table when we heard a faint noise nearby. Adrian switched on the flashlight and caught a dingo, quietly sniffing around the rest area. It was actually really small, nearly silent, and pretty cute. It slinked off into the darkness nearby soon after it was caught, but we were thrilled to have spotted yet another Aussie creature in the wild!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Conquering the East

We can hardly believe it-- phase one of our trip is pretty much complete. We've conquered the east coast and lived to tell the tale! Tomorrow we'll head inland- after one more surfing hurrah earlier today, where we battled surfing "snakes" (one who "snakes", or steals one's wave) and the fierce waves of Surfers Paradise. Not to mention tomorrow our unpowered campsite on the Gold Coast goes up to $39 a night (as if $34 for a patch of grass near the beach wasn't enough!).

We've surprisingly grown quite fond of the Gold Coast, the flashy party beaches at the very south end of Queensland, and we've now been here for four days. Perhaps it's that mix of city comforts-- and skyscrapers-- combined with a tropical climate and a gorgeous, wide, squeaky-sand beach. It's supposed to be THE place in Oz for nightlife and restaurants... though we still prefer Melbourne for that. But if we did get really bored, at least we know we can go to a shooting range, mini-golf, cosmic bowling, a haunted house, and to countless brothels all in the same day.

The Gold Coast has been quite the contrast from our last few stops. After Coffs Harbour (where we first caught the surfing bug) we headed north up the coast to Byron Bay, a must-do on the backpacker trail, and as we found, a laid-back surf town with an interesting mix of hippie and yuppie. We resisted the urge to buy some tie-dye in what is truly the land of the VW Kombi, as well as resisted the surf (we'd heard the bay's full of sharks). But the people-watching was superb!

After Byron we headed for the mountains just inland to the otherworldly Nimbin... a sleepy town of rainbow-painted shops selling incense, patchouli oil, books on world religions and UFOs, and even some Hello Kitty trinkets. The pot dealers were out in swarms in front of the Nimbin Museum (a cobwebby, claustrophobic couple of dim rooms plastered in murals telling the story of the town), and there were lots of funny smells coming from the cafes. Some might say Nimbin is still living in 1973, when the legendary "Aquarius Festival" drew in students and hippie types from all over... some who perhaps never left. We decided to experience Nimbin slightly outside of town, in a privately-owned campground (er, hippie commune?) on a hill called Rainbow Retreat. We camped by a tree with a dreamcatcher hung from it and relaxed while a wallaby hopped around the grounds, and at dusk, searched for the elusive resident platypus. Everything from beer to internet to freshly-baked muffins was sold by the"just put the money into the box" method and it was pretty much the most chilled-out place ever, run by a man named Duck (we think?!) who got nostalgic to us about his days road-tripping through B.C. and Montana in his younger days. And at night everyone from the campground (except for this one guy who wore rainbow tiedye and lived in a neighbouring tent, we think for quite some time) gathered in the outdoor living room-- comfy old chairs around a big TV and black light decorations, just minus walls-- and watched Thelma and Louise with surround sound. Truly surreal, right up to the hand-sized Huntsman spider in the half-outdoor bathrooms at night. (eek!)

One thing we've been lacking on the east coast is some real characters, which perhaps we would have found had we stayed longer in Nimbin... the closest one we've found was a dude at the bottle shop here in the Gold Coast who informed us as we bought our Coronas, that the real reason for putting a slice of lime in the bottle is to keep the giant flies of Mexico out of the beer. Hmmm...

Another thing we're excited for in the Outback is the creatures! Yesterday we took a trip up to the Australia Zoo, home of Steve Irwin. There were lots of cool animals to check out (though many of them we've already seen in the wild... kangaroo...cassowary...crocodile... have we been here too long?) and we learned a bit as well. We saw crocs that were more than 100 years old-- Steve's dad started the zoo in the 1970s as a haven for crocs that were neglected in zoos or being nuisances in residential areas-- We finally got to see a Tassie devil, and the poor thing wasn't very fierce at all (and didn't spin in a tornado, either)-- but instead gallopped, piglike, in figure-eights around its enclosure-- impossible to get photos but quite funny. We also got to pet extremely tame kangaroos, and we even saw a fat wombat being led around on a leash! It was a pretty good zoo, aside from the endless Bindi Irwin songs played on the speaker system. Animal cruelty!

It's been a busy few weeks, but it's been exciting as well. We'll keep you posted from the Outback the best we can, as we dodge snakes (not the surfie kind), road trains, and feral camels...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Point Break Becomes Reality

Yesterday we got to finally live out our dreams of learning to surf!

We'd heard Coffs Harbour, about 6 hours north of Sydney (and 4 or so hours south of Brisbane) on the east coast, was a spectacular place to learn, with waves for beginners and pros alike (we could have taken a lesson down in Victoria but it always seemed too cold). The water here in Coffs is minimum 18 degrees all year-- and around 24 at this time-- and very clear, the beaches having some of the softest sand we've ever felt. It's very tropical, with lots of palms, colourful flowers, and green mountains surrounding the town-- and felt very much like we were in northern Queensland again.

Since we've arrived just before high season, our surf lesson had only five of us in it-- three "Schoolies" (kids who just graduated high school last week and were celebrating with a trip) and us. It was a bit of a windy day on Diggers Beach, so carrying the boards out to the beach was a bit of a feat-- they were massive Malibus (a type of big board easy to learn on) which seemed to double as sails. We learned the basics from our instructor Brett, who's been a surfing nut for years, taking on waves as big as 20 feet high in 'Jungle Surf Camp' in Indonesia. And it wasn't long before we were in the water, on one-foot waves which seemed plenty big to us, anyway.

By the end of the 2 1/2 hour lesson, we both had managed to stand on the boards more than a few times (though we still fall off pretty easily) and didn't lose any limbs to sharks, which Dayle though was a pretty amazing feat. (Actually, it turns out you just shouldn't surf around dawn or dusk, when it's the shark/fish feeding time. Otherwise you're all cool. And we can see why the surfers don't worry about the sharks-- there's so much to think about while catching waves, your mind is entirely elsewhere.) But our gangly office-worker arms were shaky and sore from pushing ourselves up onto the boards, our knees chafed from sand and salt, and we realized after that despite all the sunscreen we put on, we still got sunburnt in some not-so-funny places... lips, ouch! back of knees, ow! back of hands, yeow!

Nonetheless, we were already anxious for more and booked a second lesson straight away...

PS. Please rent Point Break, for further references.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Big Ups *updates that is!

We can hardly believe it's already more than a week into the trip, and we're 2000 kms along. We've been excited to do the New South Wales east coast for ages, after having to speed past it last year to make it to Melbourne to meet our friends for Xmas last year.

After having a few days in Sydney, we've started to wonder if we should have given this gorgeous city a chance to be our home. It's definitely a prettier city (sorry Melbourne), being on a gorgeous harbour and having really old buildings like The Rocks district, and fantastic beaches like Bondi. But Sydney's really expensive-- like if you want to cross the harbour by ferry you'll pay (perhaps not as a local) $5.20 one way. There's a great train system, sort of a multi-line subway mixed with an aboveground train, but it's pricey and confusing as well. Melbourne's definitely got it figured out there-- your ticket is good for 2 hours in Melbourne, and you can hop on as many trains, trams, and buses as you want... none of this no-option one-way crap! Nightlife-wise, Melbourne seems to have way more of our scene (as people had told us prior to our move there)-- little eclectic, hidden bars and drinking spots... and there's definitely more of an artsy vibe in Melbourne. Sydney seems to be more about flash and appearance (you wouldn't believe how much people get dressed up for a Friday night!) while perhaps with not as much substance (sorry Sydney!). It's a real toss-up... no regrets though!

But since we don't have enough time to plant roots in the great city of Sydney, we channelled our inner tourist and hung out on pretty Bondi Beach, drank cocktails on the fifth storey of a pub/nightclub in Kings Cross, strolled through the green Botanical Gardens, had an overpriced breakfast right on the harbour (like, next to the railing!) with a great view of the 'Coathanger' (the bridge), and did the walk across the Harbour Bridge to the northern suburbs. And what a fantastic city it is for a tourist...

On Sunday it was time to say goodbye to Sydney and head for the hills... er, the Blue Mountains, that is. First order of business was to locate a new camping fridge (while trying to dodge Sydney's mnay toll highways!), as ours had the great timing to conk out just before we left Melbourne. We scoured the first K-Mart we found and lucked out-- so we have cold food again, this time in a round fridge (which is surprisingly easier to pack than our previous box-shaped fridge). Not that we needed so much refrigeration in the Blue Mountains... it was quite cool as we travelled higher into the mountains.

On Monday we visited the Three Sisters, one of the famous sights in Oz-- three sandstone pinnacles carved naturally out of the sandstone cliff, high above a tree-covered valley which once would have been a great river system. The size of the valley was huge-- kind of like a green Grand Canyon! We camped in a very remote spot in a national park that night and found we were steps away from another Grand Canyon scene-- just amazing. We did some hiking along a few trails but unfortunately didn't find any wombats, and fortunately did not find any deadly funnel-web spiders (they're only found in Sydney & the Blue Mountains and they're the deadliest ones in the country... venom which kills in a few minutes, if I remember correctly). We did see one wombat, belly-up on the roadside-- they're pretty tubby and almost bear-size!-- and some Huntsmans, where else, in the campsite's dunny! Old news... though Dayle has to get used to them all over again. Eeek! Eeek! Along the way, we also visited the Jenolan Caves, a spectacular cave network which snakes through the mountains (ie. you even drive through a cave to get to the office), as well as a little ghost town called Hartley... just a wee bit spooky.

We were meant to make Coffs Harbour on Tuesday, but didn't realize the length of the drive from the Blue Mountains up the coast. More dodging of toll highways (not so successfully!) and then northward along the Pacific Highway, which despite the name isn't really close to the ocean at all. If we had more time we'd probably explore more turnoffs and little beach towns along the way... but we're trying to keep on schedule the best we can so we can time our Christmas and New Years well around the centre. We made it to Port Macquarie that night (too far to Coffs Harbour, our original plan), which is a large beach town and the second-oldest prison colony town in Oz. We watched what looked like it would be a cool lightning storm-- but fizzled out to sea, and got our first mosquito bites of many to come. It already felt like the tropics!

Wednesday morning we visited the oh-so-cute koalas at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, where injured/sick koalas are cared for (usually injured as a result of dogbites, car collisions, falling out of trees, and burns from bushfires, but also some suffer from cataracts and others from chlamydia!). We watched a baby koala have surgery done on a dogbite wound through a window at the hospital, and cruised around the enclosures where the rest were being pretty lazy. We still thought "Koala Hospital Unit" might make a pretty cool reality TV show! It was then onwards to Coffs Harbour, where we've been relaxing ever since... great surf but no koala hospitals...
Yes, that's koala boogers.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Canberra, Sydney... and Dookie

The big Aussie road trip is officially underway-- two days and 4 1/2 hours later than planned, we managed to get Daisy fully packed and ventured into the Melbourne rush-hour gridlock on Wednesday at 9:30am (doesn't anyone go to work at 9 these days?). It was a long and monotonous drive up the Hume highway to Canberra, broken up only taking photos with funny roadside signs-- pity the fool who lives in a town called Dookie!--by snacking on leftover pizza. We were more than happy to get to Canberra in the early evening, and did a couple of loops around the Parliament building's numerous roundabouts to celebrate. We even got an angry pointing-at from a French diplomat's car (not sure what that was about!) while hooning around the futuristic monstrosity that is the Aussie Capital Hill.

Canberra is a bit of an oddly designed place-- made of cube apartments and futuristic building designs. Everything was really clean and sparkly looking, and there were heaps of trees everywhere, and wide boulevards. We couldn't stop thinking about Sim City! The CBD is pretty unexciting, so we retreated to our first caravan park of the trip and had a surprisingly wonderful sleep... and woke up shocked we were no longer in our little riverside apartment in South Yarra.

On day 2 we headed straight for the Parliament building-- first the new Parliament building, which was finished in 1988. It's a space-agey place (with grassy lawns on the roof!), mixed with that Washington feel of long grassy 'malls' and symmetry, ringed by mountains which surround the city. We figure there must be some cool bomb shelter underneath the giant hill it's built on... well, you never know. On the way into the building, Dayle was caught by parliament security for accidentally carrying a boxcutter knife around in her purse (it was a long and sleepless move-out from the apartment!), and Adrian and the security guards laughed at her a lot. That's the trouble with large purses-- you never know what's lurking at the bottom!!

After that, we took a guided tour of the building, watched some government dudes hurl insults at each other ("Mr. Smith(?), your points are about as damaging as getting hit by wet lettuce..."). A very creative bunch they are here! We decided to book tickets to watch Question Time, since the House only sits 18 weeks of the year, and we'd get to see the PM Kevin Rudd up close, and see how much he actually resembles TinTin (he was depicted as TinTin in many a political cartoon prior to the election last year). The PM was kind of sassy in person, (which was cool) but unfortunately we didn't catch too many snappy comments (or lettuce-slapping) so we snuck out after a half hour and headed first to the Canadian embassy to snap photos by the totem pole-- the building itself is really unexciting compared to other consulates!-- and then onto the really cool National Museum of Australia for a bit more culture & history (everything's free admission in Canberra, which is awesome!). The it was a dash for Sydney in a thunderstorm, since we had a (budget) hotel booked...

Yesterday we met up with a couple of Dayle's parents' friends from Sydney (they've been exchanging Xmas cards for 30 years after meeting on a European bus trip!). The Isbisters were super sweet and took us for a wonderful driving tour around Manly & Sydney's northern suburbs... without them I don't know if we'd have even ventured out there! We saw many giant houses, huge boats, and ate a beachside lunch watching the surfers toughing it out in the rain.

Later we used our ferry daypasses to head way up into the Parramatta River, where it was mangrovey and didn't feel like Sydney at all. We made it back to the city in another thunderstorm, bought a giant umbrella, and headed out for the evening to the Rocks area (the oldest area in the city, with old warehouses converted into shops, restaurants and pubs) and found ourselves drinking giant Lowenbraus with a bunch of Germans before the long walk back to our Kings Cross hotel past many of Sydney's finest prostitutes (gee, sometimes you forget you haven't see one in ages!)...

Today it's off to Bondi, maybe a trip up the Sydney tower for some views, and then who knows! Tomorrow we'll head off to the Blue Mountains for some hiking and some natural scenery, just west of the city... it's shaping up to be a good trip already!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Downsizing... a very time-consuming exercise

Yup, that's our clothing being turned into clothing jerky. Hooray for vaccuum-seal bags!

So... yeah, we're horrible travelers. Somehow we're 2 days behind and still at our place in Melbourne -- BUT we have resigned to leave today at 7am!

We!just can't get enough of this apartment! We've cut through all our clutter and donated heaps. Now its a matter of stuffing it all into the van and going... which we're working on.
Stay tuned.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Aussie road trip map route

Ahoy, hoy! Well this is it our route for the next little while - it makes a nice "figure 8", or as Adrian says; "It looks like the mask of an angry superhero looking down and to the right."
Everyone's a critic I suppose.
From Melbourne we head East up the coast to Canberra, Sydney, & Brisbane. Then cut West to Adelaide (that's where the middle of the "figure 8" meets). From there we blast north up to Darwin and follow the West coast down to Perth. Finally we head back to Melbourne along the South coast (once again through Adelaide), and back to our quasi-home of Melbourne.
There is lots of adventure afoot, so please keep tuning in!

Off we go! (Well, sort of...)

The long-awaited day has arrived-- it's time to hit the road!

After 11 months in Melbourne (we arrived on December 23, 2007), it's finally time to ship out and see the rest of Australia. Time to venture to the Outback, visit Uluru, take a cruise around Sydney harbour, and explore the little-discovered west coast. We're super excited and have been preparing for ages...

But as we keep learning, there's never enough hours in a day! Yesterday was spent feverishly cleaning (the apartment and Daisy), packing, and tying up loose ends, in anticipation of an early-morning departure today. We thought we could get our mile-long to-do lists done--no worries!--but it was around 9pm or so last night, when we were eating one last pizza delivered from our favourite pizza joint, Crust, and watching CSI Miami (hey, no more TV for ages!) in a VERY messy and chaotic living room, thinking about the late night ahead... when we thought, hey, would it really hurt our schedule THAT much if we just left on Tuesday?

The thought of enjoying our solid walls and our fiery gas heater (yes, it's gotten cold here again!), a TV, internet, our own bathroom an kitchen, and perhaps one more beer on the balcony while watching the sunset over the city was pretty enticing. Not to mention the chance to sleep in! It wasn't a very tough decision at all...

It's true, we originally planned a Sunday departure (the 22nd), but as Adrian just finished work on Friday, we thought it would be too chaotic. Monday seemed like a good idea. But now, Tuesday seems like an even better one!

So here's the plan: Tuesday morning we'll head off early, drive about 6 1/2 hours northeast to Canberra. We'll check out the leafy city of civil servants (which apparently has the biggest concentration of porn and drugs in the country, is what we keep hearing... too funny!) and see the sights before heading off to Sydney on Thursday morning (about 4 hours east). We've booked a budget (ghetto?) hotel room cuz we're sick of hostels... and we'll stay there, enjoying that good city life til Sunday morning, when we head off to the nearby Blue Mountains. We'll post our whole (rough) itinerary on the blog here so everyone can follow along, but as we know, plans change, and if we've learned nothing else on our travels, it's to be flexible!

So stay tuned, and we promise to bring you lots of stories, photos, videos, and more of our trek around the great wild world Down Under. But for now, we'll just be enjoying one more chai latte from that trendy teak-couched & silk-cushioned cafe down the street! We'll miss this city...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Pimping it up at the Races

As we'd suspected, Cup Day was a grand old time. It was a gorgeous spring day, full of sunshine, blooming rosebushes and a crowd of more than 100,000 happy people-- perhaps helped along by the continuous flow of Fleur-de-Lys champagne!

Melbourne Cup, now in its 148th year, is the country's major thoroughbred horse race held on the first Tuesday of November-- it's a public holiday in the Melbourne area but also shuts down most of the country. Naturally, we were ecstatic to be in the city for its biggest annual event. And although it's supposed to be about the races, it's just a big fashion show for many- us included- and a great excuse to strut around in a fancy outfit and ridiculously large hat, sipping champagne out of plastic flutes!

There were 10 races happening throughout the day at Flemington Racecourse, so there was plenty of time to explore and people-watch (and take photos- check ours out on Flickr). Of course, there were a few jokers wearing Santa Claus suits, and the odd tuxedo-printed t-shirt, which we had been told to look out for, and lots of good pimp costumes (coincidentally we heard Snoop Dogg made an appearance). Not to mention the heaps of old ladies doing their Queen Elizabeth impressions, and high school girls with patchy orange tans hobbling around in giant heels, ironically like newborn foals. We also watched in awe some of the gravity-defying fascinators some of the ladies wore, and wondered what poor exotic bird died to put its feathers on some fashionista's head. (We were also shocked to find out, while shopping for outfits prior to the race, that an average to low-end feathery fascinator at Myer goes for $110 and up...yipe!)

We even tried our hand at betting on a horse or two (hey, you've gotta get into it!) but didn't make any sweet winnings. At least we learned what a trifecta was-- well, sort of. Perhaps there's some skill to it-- but then again, all of the horses who were hyped up to win the big 3.2 km Cup race didn't even place in the top three. (FYI, A horse named "Viewed" won the trophy, in an insanely close decision which had the crowd in suspense for ages) I guess our strategy of betting on the silliest names doesn't always win. Though "The Fuzz" and "Big Daddy Cool" still rock for horse names. But it was definitely the best place to be in November!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It's Cup Day!

Today we're super excited to be heading off to the biggest event of the year in Melbourne (it's even a public holiday in the city!).... and maybe even the biggest in Oz. It's Melbourne Cup Day!

Cup Day is now in its 148th year and it's a day of horse racing... but really, it's all about dressing in silly, expensive outfits, getting really drunk, and gambling. Hooray Australia! Before we get all dolled up for the races we're brushing up on words like "trifecta", etc., so maybe we won't look so foreign! Dayle got a sneak preview of Cup Day while working at the races on Saturday (Derby Day, which they call "DAHHHHHBY Day" for some reason). There were already lots of feathery fascinators, fake hair, and frilly hats-- Marie Antoinette would feel right at home! The ride home on the train was something out of a Hunter S Thompson novel, but that's another story.
Stay tuned for lots of photos and more...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A bit of context

Whoa there! For anyone who's checked out our Flickr photos lately-- don't worry, we're still in Melbourne. We've just been doing a bit of catching up with our uploads before we hit the road in November and go snap-happy again.

We've also just recently gotten our 8 or so rolls of film developed which we've been collecting since we left Canada. We often forget to use Dayle's SLR Olympus film camera, as it's a little heavy to carry around, but it's still taking wonderful photos (and has been since her Dad bought it in 1980!) Digital's great-- easy, instant, and you can fix your focusing/lighting errors right away. But we do miss that visual quality of film, and the anticipation of what may be in the prints envelope when picking them up from the camera shop! There have been a few surprises, including a very lewd humping-monkey picture we still aren't sure whether or not to post (is it porn??). Ahh, the joys of film...

So the film pics, which we've tried to label the best we can, span our travels from Thailand to Cambodia and back; from Far North Queensland to our side trip to Hong Kong; down through Sydney to Melbourne and most recently, chilly Tasmania.

The other photos are from late August to the present, random snaps of the goings-on in Melbourne, including:

- Culture Week at our ANZ: Apparently this is a huge event which happens in our office building in Richmond annually in September, and a good reason for office 'teams' to do something more fun than bank work. Each team is designated a country, decorates their area and eats lots of the national cuisine. At the time, Dayle's department was still insanely busy, so Indonesia got a bit neglected. Adrian's section did really well as Japan--there was origami, kimonos, flags, and even a Japanese prison camp encased in barbed-wire, yipe!-- and he even got recruited to wear a costume in the fashion parade. (They definitely have more fun!) This Culture Week thing is SO awesome it brought out the CEO of ANZ, who we've learned recently gets paid $9 millon a year (hopefully he does more than make appearances at costume parties for that kind of dough). Adrian got to shake his hand. Wowee!!

- Our apartment: The many stages of our little flowering balcony garden... and that pesky Huntsman spider which set up camp outside our apartment door for a few weeks. Thank god he's gone now!

-Visiting the Dandenongs: Our pics from when we took Daisy for a spin to visit the cool, rainforested mountains & William Ricketts Sanctuary just east of Melbourne.

- Exploring Melbourne: the many places to eat, drink, and relax in town; cute houses and cool window displays. There's still so much to look at here!
We hope you enjoy them...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The monthly update

Oops-- we didn't mean to abandon the blog again! It's just we've been trying to take a decent photo to post with our updates and... well... this was the best we could do. As you all know, we're quite photogenic (!).

So what's new? Lots. And since another evening has been half-consumed by TV cop dramas again, we'll have to update you all in point form (damn you, television!).

** The big road trip: We've been scheming and mulling over our maps and calendars and we've cooked up a loose plan for our jaunt around Oz. We've spread the driving over 9 weeks or so and plan to leave Melbourne somewhere around November 23; we'll make it back here to part with Daisy (boo hoo!) at the beginning of February and to fly out to Vietnam on February 19th. And it looks like it'll be Christmas in Alice Springs and New Year's in Darwin. We plan to kit Daisy up with our twinkle lights to try and feel a little festive in the 40-degree Outback heat!

** Work: The countdown's on! It turned out our employment agency remembered we could only work 6 months for the same company (yarrr) on our visas, so Adrian finished up at ANZ at the end of September and Dayle will finish on the last day of October. Luckily, Adrian had no problems scoring himself a new job, which conveniently kicked off exactly the day after he finished at the bank. He's now working in the payroll department of Myer, a huge and historic department store chain in Oz, kind of like The Bay is to Canadians (minus the fur trading legacy). He greatly misses goofing off with his pals at the bank (who would have thought bank work could be fun?), but as we're learning more all the time, a job's a job, though we'll both really miss the friends we've made at work. Adrian will work at Myer until close to our departure day (22 days left!) and Dayle will finish at ANZ next Friday (7 days!) and be in charge of packing and sorting the many loose ends which need to be wrapped up before we head off. And then-we hope!- it'll be no more work for the next 6-8 months or so...

** The apartment: The balcony garden was finished a few weeks ago-- it's awesome-- and a few plants, like these cute daisies, have already been devoured by bugs. Nonetheless, we've been enjoying many a Corona on the balcony on summery days (we've learned a Melbourne spring day can be anything from 11 to 27 degrees...sometimes on the same day). We're dreading the packing of our stuff, which has surely expanded quite a bit over the past 11 months in the city! And no sign of the Huntsman family... at least for now. Phew!

And the little victories:
- Finally reaching someone at the Vietnamese embassy to get a price for our visas, which we're required to pre-arrange (what a headache!)
- Buying tickets to Melbourne Cup-- the horse-racing/drinking/fashion extravaganza which shuts the city/country down the first Tuesday of November. Now we have 2 weeks to find ourselves something to wear!
- Seeing a big Aussie band on their home turf... proving there are definitely way more Living End fans in Melbourne than anywhere else.
- Visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens finally- a really awesome park with plenty of plants and funny ducks.
- Locating, after 8 months, our favourite wine in a store. We first had One Goat Shiraz at an Italian restaurant in February, and loved it. We've been asking around for it at bottle shops ever since and no one's heard of it (didn't help that we only vaguely remembered the name!). Recently we had another dinner at the same restaurant and copied down the label details this time (and yes, it was just as fantastic as that first bottle we had). We learned the vineyard's actually just 2 1/2 hours from the city but luckily they could name a few obscure bottle shops around in which to purchase their wines, and last weekend we bought every bottle we could find at Duncan's on La Trobe Street... which was two bottles. Hooray, we win!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Throwing a Sickie... well, sort of

Though I've been itching to chuck a sickie for ages (that's Aussie for taking a sick day off work when you're actually fine) but today I was unlucky enough to catch the flu bug that's been plaguing the office lately. On a Friday of all days! Eventually I had enough of the room moving around while I was completely stationary at my desk, and went home to get some rest.

That didn't work so well... I had a bit of a nap in but was woken up by (a) thoughtful phone calls (b) a thunderstorm complete with really loud hail and (c) nightmares about Huntsman spiders [btw: thanks everyone for your comments on the last blog... again our hallway friend has made himself scarce, so no need for the spider-killer spray. But here's a great Oz tourism video to watch, thanks to Sean.] So, forget sleep, I made some soup and got on the internet-- and found some interesting things...

Last week I found a great book on travel writing (something I'd love to do more of professionally) and it's gotten me pondering alternative forms of travel. Many of us think immediately of "holiday" when it comes to travel... whether it's a relaxation trip, week on the beach, or a sightseeing trip. Some of us have experienced the "working holiday", a totally different way of getting to know a new place. It's certainly worked for us! One thing that we haven't tried yet is volunteer travel-- which we would do in a second if it weren't for the enormous membership costs of many organizations and/or big time commitments (weeks/months). If anyone knows of any good links, do let us know!

While checking out the travel writing author's website, I was reminded of WWOOFing (short for Willing Workers on Organic Farms), where you get to stay & eat at people's houses/farms for free in exchange for a few hours of work each day. We've looked into ranch experience/farmstays here (to satisfy someone's cowboy urges) and they're all pretty pricey, but perhaps WWOOFing is something we might try to fit into our big Aussie road trip. Anyway, I wouldn't mind frolicking with sheep for a day! After a bit more searching, I found myself on WWOOFing sites for Italy, Hawaii, and Mexico... where I found my most favourite sample listing:

"I am interested in establishing raised beds for an organic vegetable and flower garden. I cannot be there from April until October and would like to find someone with gardening experience who would make a six month commitment to this project. The house is small and brand new, with lovely curves, sleeping alcove in one large room, kitchenette and composting toilet. Rent is normally $330 per month, but I would only ask for $150 and work trade. It is a wooded property, located in a friendly rancho outside of San Miguel Allende in the high desert country. I bought it 8 years ago, and it has taken me this long to pay off the original loans and raise a small but magical house. There is a well with good water. Property is about 1/3 acre. Have access to irrigation water from artesian spring that abutts property. Now I really want to put in a garden, but I have to go home to work for six months. Looking for the person who can love this spot of earth as much as I do. Rainy season will begin around May or June. Now the country is blossoming sweet perfumed yellow mesquite and guisache."

Anyway, enough dreaming for now. My travel writing author likes to suggest eating meals and staying with local families as one of the best ways to really absorb a foreign culture. Now this is something that weirds me out personally (not to mention the awkwardness of having to get out of eating meat dishes politely!) but I was surprised to learn that there are not-for-profit organizations out there (probably heaps of them too) that organize homestays-- such as Servas, and IMEC (where you pay $3-$7 per night to stay with a family in Kathmandu and the money goes directly to the family). Interesting concept, even just to think about.

And on another note... while browsing the Canadian WWOOFing website I found a really good reason to visit the UK in summertime-- check out this website!
Thanks for reading :) Back to bed for me now. - D.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Life With Spidey

It seems we spoke too soon-- not two days after posting the blog about that spider being gone, "taken care of", whatever... he's reappeared back in our building. Except this time he's decided to set up camp right outside our apartment.

Needless to say, it wasn't a very pleasant surprise to come home from work Monday night and find that Huntsman-- bigger than we remembered, actually-- just chilling out in the ceiling corner right across the hall from our apartment door.

Now, it might be hard to get a good perspective from these photos (it's difficult to take pictures when shaking with fear!) but you may notice the blob of light on the spider (click on the first photo for a chilling close-up)-- yup, it's big enough that its eyes reflect the camera flash. Yikes!

Since no amount of convincing could get Adrian to kill it ("It's got bones! It's like killing a kitten!" he says. Well, if a kitten came in through a vent we wouldn't mind so much.), and Dayle was too afraid it might leap if she tried to whack it with the mop, we pulled out the next best solution-- the masking tape. Unfortunately for us, Oz houses/apartments have a very strange architectural feature in nearly every room: bare slots/vents in the concrete walls placed close to the ceilings, presumably for air flow. Whoever came up with this idea was obviously unconcerned with the critters which might sneak in (some of you may remember a time when a Huntsman wandered into our caravan, through a similar air vent in the door?). And so, while it may seem frivolous to pack masking tape on a trip around the world, it has sure come in handy in desperate times like these.

So between our guilt and fear preventing the murder of our new neighbour, Adrian's other motive for keeping old Spidey around is a new harebrained theory that maybe the critter can help us predict the weather-- perhaps a little crazy, but we have noticed our spider friend hanging out on one wall when it's sunny, another on a rainy day, and upside down on the ceiling when it's windy. [Though maybe we could figure this out by looking out the window, ahem.] And while we do keep willing our spider friend to kindly exit the premises and continue his creepy ways OUTSIDE, we feel a little bad for him. Perhaps he's terrified of getting swept away by the gale-force winds we've had all week-- winds that have pushed our new balcony plants into a slant and have carried away (without any trace) an empty bag of potting soil and a tray of birdseed we'd left on the balcony. We don't really want flying Huntsmans now, do we?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Spring flowers... in September

It's a really weird thing, coming from Canada, to feel spring fever in September. Last year at this time we were on the road in Queensland where it's forever hot, like Australia is supposed to be-- according to tourist brochures anyway. But after surviving winter in cold-weather-denial-city Melbourne, with all of its uninsulated housing and people wandering the streets in t-shirts when it's 4 degrees, the arrival of warm spring sunshine really does have us excited!

Yesterday we took Daisy on a mini road trip out to the Dandenongs, a smallish mountain range on the eastern fringes of Melbourne, about 45 minutes from our suburb. We'd spent this week getting her all fixed up for our road trip-- she was a little overdue for an oil change and service. We called up the really good mechanic who fixed Daisy up that time she wouldn't start back in June, and she's now running better than ever. Richard the mechanic said she's in fabulous shape for her age and should have no problems doing the 18,000 km we hope to cover. She's even got a working horn again, so we can amuse ourselves by honking at sheep in the Outback. Plus, Adrian surprised us both with his secret soldering talents and now we have full stereo in the car as well!

Daisy did well yesterday in the mountains too-- we'd been reading about the Dandenongs for a while and thought it was about time to visit. We were surprised to find such a different scene not far from the city-- roads winding through rainforests of giant ferns, enormously thick trees, and cute little villages. We were hoping to do a little bird-watching-- the area's known for having Lyrebirds, which can imitate nearly anything-- but no luck this time. (Check out a video of one here!) We took a mosey through William Ricketts Sanctuary, the interesting former property of a nature-loving sculptor who, inspired by his years spent with Aboriginal people in central Oz, created a forest wonderland of pathways dotted with ceramic sculptures of people, possums, and other creatures which blend perfectly into the forest. His poetry was a little nutty, the faces sometimes a bit creepy, but the concept was pretty cool.

And while poor Adrian ended up at work on this sunny Sunday morning, I got to spend a couple of hours getting our balcony garden started. There was quite a bit of weeding to do, and a couple of pretty dead plants to pull which didn't survive the winter, but we were lucky to be left with a very hearty mystery succulent plant in one corner. Aside from that, it was a blank canvas. We'd picked up a few flowering plants from a little market yesterday in the Dandenongs-- not nearly enough, I've realized-- but we now have one of our three flower boxes planted and ready for the nice weather. We'll take pictures of our new flower friends as they grow (fingers crossed they thrive!)
Our newbies, left to right: Linaria "Fairy Bouquet"; Blue Marguerite; Parade Roses.

* There are a lot of conflicting opinions online about when the 1st day of spring is here in Oz (we've read everything from the 1st of August to September 23), we're pretty sure it's September 1. The other way to tell is that there are now many people wandering around in flip-flops (or thongs, as they call 'em here). We've even seen some guys in board shorts, and a few bogans in a grocery store wearing tube tops and shorts yesterday... that's the real way to tell the season in these parts.

Another sign of spring

Yep, we thought we could escape them in the city... but an old friend has come back to haunt us.

It wasn't nearly as huge as some of the Huntsman spiders we'd seen while living in our rustic little cottage in Stanthorpe, but after looking up at the stairwell ceiling one day on my way up to our apartment and spotting it, I haven't slept the same. I ducked every time I had to run underneath it. A snail on our mailbox door made me scream. I saw this critter move from corner to corner, happy that at least it was lurking on the floor below us, until one day this week it was gone.

We're not sure where it went, but I'm still finding myself checking the upper corners of every room, of the laundry room, and not sticking my hand into any dark cupboards... -D.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hello, Tassie!

We weren't sure if it was crazy to take our already-shivering-in-Melbourne selves even closer to the South Pole for a mini-vacation-- but a visit to Australia's 7th and littlest state turned out to be a super idea and a gorgeous place to visit, even in the dead of winter.

Tasmania (or Tassie, as they call it here) is a small island off the southern coast of Victoria, with a population of about 495,000 [June 2008]. A lot of travelers here talk about going to, but as it takes a bit of effort (a lot of locals have never made the trip)--10 hours on the ferry from Melbourne or an hour's plane ride-- many backpackers skip it. Everything we read prior to going said it's a wild and pretty, but tiny island-- so we figured we could see a good part of it in 4 1/2 days-- but it's usually freezing cold and stormy in winter, another interpretation we found to be only partially true...

Another Tassie draw in this season is the cheap flights-- we paid $49 a person from Melbourne to Hobart, $29/pp back-- with only carry-on baggage for the deal. (Helpful tip: Dayle's strategy was to wear her heaviest clothing in layers, and to sneak the travel books and the hair dryer into Adrian's bag!). Jetstar's bargain flight flies at sunrise, so we had to drive up to the airport at 4am, meaning we got lost once or twice and even got on the toll highway by accident, oops! Luckily, our bags did fine for the 10kg allowance-- in fact, we actually had about 5kg each!-- and we got a gorgeous view of the sunrise as the plane reached the northern coast of Tassie.

We arrived in Hobart, and with hours to wait before we could check in to our little hotel and have a nap, it was time for some sleepy exploring. Maybe it was just the cold talking, but Hobart had a little bit of Canada in it, we thought--an air of Vancouver, with the town laid out around the mountains surrounding a bay, and a bit of a Maritimes feel with all the fishing boats and old warehouse buildings around the docks. Many of Hobart's old buildings are really well-preserved, with the former warehouses now converted into restaurants, art galleries, and bars. We didn't see many Popeye types (we're guessing they were on vacation from the cold) but we imagine the docks would be pretty lively in the summertime. On a Friday morning... not so much. We quickly grew bored of the CBD though-- it's pretty small and has that feeling of Oz country town-- so we thought we'd tackle the snow early on in our trip and make a dash up Mount Wellington, just outside of the city.

Now, on a scale of mountains, Mt Wellington's not really all that big. At 1270m, it's an anthill in the list of the world's tallest mountains, but it's still a pretty cool sight to see a snow-capped mountain looming over Hobart. We hopped in our little rental Getz and started the climb. On the way we stopped at the famous Cascade Brewery (Oz's oldest) for photos, not for beer (no matter how long we live in Australia, 11am just still seems too early to drink!). We were sad to find the road to Mt Wellington's summit was closed about halfway from the top-- guess no one has snow tires in Tasmania-- though perhaps also a blessing since they're kind of stingy with the guardrails in Tassie. We hopped out at the end of the road and decided to take a walk through the woods, and got to make snowballs and wee snowmen for the first time in a year and a half-- quite the thrill. Eventually we reached a scenic lookout (Sphinx Rock), and as we snapped photos of the snow above, and Hobart below, the weather went from sunny to rainy to a snow flurry to sunshine and a rainbow, in about 10 minutes. Bizarre! We thought we'd try another route back to the road and ended up lost hiking up a very steep and muddy/snowy pathway which seemed like it would never end... (bringing thoughts of "Into The Wild" and being stranded in Alaska to our minds) until suddenly we emerged on the deserted highway, jeans and Converse sneakers dipped in dark mud and our toes frozen. The park rangers had thoughtfully built a stone hut with a log fire inside by the parking lot, where we hung out for a while after that, thank you very much!

Later on it took a bit of motivation to leave our warm hotel room to get some dinner in the cold, but the waterfront area on Friday night was hopping (with people not wearing coats, a puzzling phenomena we see in wintry Melbourne a lot too). There were art gallery openings and packed restaurants and warm pubs and live music... not bad at all!

We had planned our trip around a Saturday morning in Hobart for the famous Salamanca Market, a huge market held weekly along the strip of old sandstone warehouses by the waterfront known as Salamanca Place. We were hoping to find some bargain brie (Tassie's the place for cheese!) but there was none to be found... though had we not had a great breakfast included at our hotel we could have eaten our way through the market- there was everything from coffee to strange jams to locally-grown tempura mushrooms (couldn't resist those). The quarantine laws are pretty strict, even for the Tassie-to-the-mainland crossing (we'd had a fruit-sniffing dog inspect our bags in the Hobart airport) so we weren't sure if we could bring any cool plants or wooden crafts back... so it was a light shopping trip.

We set off for the Tasman Peninsula and the quaint little town of Richmond, along the "convict trail" after that. [See a map of our Tasmania travels here.] At the south end of the peninsula is the former prison colony of Port Arthur, where the repeat offenders and real baddies (though sometimes for what seemed like the silliest little crimes) went between the years of 1830 and 1877. The site has gone through a major restoration over the past 30 years or so, and is now a spooky complex of crumbling sandstone buildings and cute (but maybe haunted) houses. We took a nighttime ghost tour-- under the full moon!--with group of non-believers mixed with jittery screaming girls and equally jittery guys on a bachelor party... which was quite a good time. The buildings were very creepy at night, especially when our guide had us all pile into a solitary confinement cell and stay dead silent (some of us heard a faint hammering noise, and spotted a flickering light in the empty (?) cell across the corridor, eek!). It was getting to the point where a bandicoot dashing across the road would make us jump, so it was probably for the better the tour was only 1 1/2 hours. The next day we explored the site by daylight and it didn't have the same eerieness, that's for sure-- it was pretty and green, with big leafless trees and green rosellas chirping and flying around... almost more like a park than its former gritty, awful prison. (Not to mention the rainbows that kept coming out every hour, which sort of stole the site's creepiness as well).

We hit the road that afternoon in a mad dash north-- Tassie was turning out to have way more to see than we were going to get to in 5 days-- and pretty much had the road to ourselves, aside from logging trucks and endless paddocks of grazing sheep and frolicking lambs. The towns along the way to our next destination, Freycinet National Park, were tiny and far between... but we discovered a new and exciting activity in honking at sheep. (Something we never get to do with Daisy because her horn only works sometimes!) Still no wombat or Tasmanian Devil sightings, as falsely advertised on Tassie postcards, but the scenery up the east coast was pretty nice anyway. We stopped in a little seaside resort town called Swansea, probably overpriced and crowded in summer but a total ghost town in August. We chose the pinkest, kitschiest-looking motor inn and cranked the heating.

On Monday morning, our second-last day, we took the short drive from Swansea to Freycinet National Park, home of the much-photographed aqua-blue Wineglass Bay. None of the books mentioned it would be an absolutely gruelling hike (ahem, "moderate", as the park signs called it) up the mountains to the lookout. I don't think it was just us being out of shape... we met a lot of people along the way who looked like they were going to call it quits before the top. We originally thought we'd hike down to the bay but the thought of having to come back up again kind of cancelled that ambition. Instead, we met a couple of very-friendly wallabies in the parking lot (one with a joey, the other one with a gas problem... video to come shortly!), which was about the extent of our Tasmanian wildlife-spotting.

And since we figured we wouldn't make it to anything that new and exciting before dark-- cheese factories, caves filled with glow worms, more snowy mountains and picturesque gorges, and a place called Dismal Swamp!--we left a lot of Tassie untouched and ended back in Hobart that night... that's right, back in Customs House, in the same room we had the first night (but even the manager said he thinks room #12 is the best one in there... it's one of the original rooms, all refurbished, on a corner so we had windows facing the waterfront on one side and Parliament House on the other side. Awesome!). We flew back on Dayle's birthday in an even-more ghetto airline (rattly plane which had to land at "terminal 4" in Melbourne's airport... basically a big outdoor shed, where the passengers disembark and have to walk along a 2km chainlink-fenced concrete pathway out to a remote bus stop. So that's what $29 gets you! But perhaps we needed the walk-- we were too stuffed from eating many a dessert in Tassie to go out for an official birthday dinner :) It was good times.

Just few things we really love about Tassie:
* All of the hotels we went to were really thoughtful and planted an electrical heated pad under the sheets on both sides of the bed. What a marvellous idea!
* The air is great and the roads are quiet-- the first thing we noticed when getting back on the road in Melbourne is how much people love to use their horns here (and not for sheep). Ugh!
* Tassie is the land of rainbows, at least from our brief experience! The weather was anything but stormy... it was rainy, but it would only rain for a few minutes before shutting off and turning to sunshine again- over and over. It was for the most part, quite enjoyable, and it made everything really green!