Departing thoughts
As a final Australian entry, we thought we should share a list of all of the wildlife that crossed in front (or nearly!) in our time in Australia. It is a great reminder of how much wildlife we saw and how much distance we covered!

- Kangaroo
- Emu
- Cow
- Bull
- Goat
- Sheep
- Bird
- Camel
- Snake
- Wild Horse
- Dingo
- Lizard
- Rabbit
- Echidna
- Wombat
- Wallaby
- Pademelon
- Koala
- Flightless bird
- Pony
- Brahman
- Feral cat
- Fox
- Fish
- Donkey
- Penguin
- Frog
- This unidentified animal
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And if you add in water vehicles (otherwise known as boats)
- Dunong
- Dolphin
- Sea snake (eww!)

A few more some random facts and thoughts that Jay and I wanted to share as we end our 2.5 months of travel in Australia.

- Aussies have an obsession with turning normal items into things with endearing objects with a simple nickname: mushies (mushrooms), sunnies (sunglasses), bikkies (biscuit), brekky (breakfast), specky (spectacular). There are really endless examples of these items, but we'll spare you Happy

- You don't have to wear shoes here. There doesn't seem to be the same fear here that bare feet pose a public health risk. You see people walking down the street in bare feet all the time, not to mention seeing those naked tootsies in the grocery store and in restaurants.

- The drinking culture in Australia is really serious business. We were warned before arriving that this was the case, but nothing prepares you for seeing a bar packed with beer drinking patrons at 10:15AM on a Sunday morning. No food. No athletic event. Just having a beer.
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Put It All on "the Whopper"
There's a lot they don't tell you about places like Port Douglas. When we arrived, we knew it was mostly a tourist town. We knew that the most popular entertainment was a snorkel or a scuba on the Great Barrier Reef. We knew there might also be time for a trip fishing for barramundi, a stroll along Four Mile Beach, or a crocodile cruise on the River Queen. Above all, we knew that at every turn there would be plenty of good food and ice cold Victoria Bitter. That's what they tell you. And then you get what we saw last night. The stuff they don't print in Conde Naste Traveller. The Port Douglas they don't talk about. The stuff that goes on in the shadowy bottom floor of the town's historic pub, Iron Bar.

On the surface Iron Bar looks like an upstanding establishment. Front and center on Macrossan Street, with an interesting saloon styled facade, it's a place where locals and tourists have congregated for a stubby and bite for decades. But last night we ventured beyond the pleasant varnish of Iron Bar's friendly exterior, beneath the cover band singing wasted away again in Margaritaville, and well below all the g'days and g'don-yas. It was here we stumbled across an activity so perverse that it could only be thought of and practiced in the country with the highest gambling rates in the world. These behind-closed-doors goings on featured wagering on one of the most sinister animals in Queensland, what biologists call the Bufo Marinus.

It started when Miranda got a tip from a friend and we showed up at the Iron Bar at 7:30. We were told what to ask for. We slipped the bartender a ten and he led us into the back lower level. Have a beer and wait here, he said. You'll know when it starts. The crowd grew after a while, in a semicircle around a roped off makeshift ring set on a dirty floor. There were a few Tassies and a worried looking Pommie with us, but mostly we learned that the others were from Queensland and New South Wales. We sipped our beers cautiously, eyes alert and muscles slightly tensed. I kept my hand on my wallet, glad it wasn't in my back pocket. Whatever was about to happen, we didn't think we needed to be scared, but we wanted to be ready to move quickly if we had to.

Out from a door we hadn't noticed stepped a tall man clad in bushwear, a wide brimmed dark brown hat with the tan shorts and short-sleeved shirt. His black eyes surveyed the crowd as he set two large buckets on the ground. "Welcome to Iron Bar's Cane Toad Racing! he announced. There will be three rounds, two elimination rounds, and a grand final. In the grand final there is no limit on wagering." Amazingly, he took off the lid to the first bucket and reached in with his hands bare. "Whoa!" He pretended it was loose, laughed, and out it came, the Whopper, the biggest cane toad this side of Sydney. One by one this man pulled the Whopper's competition out from the buckets, delivering each cane toad into the arena complete with a back story and loud cheers from the crowd. The Whopper's competition consisted of Mr. Amazing, The Patriot, and Liberace's Lad, to name a few.

[The introduction of the Patriot]
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A random raffle selected which of the lucky guests would be able to step into the arena, kiss their toad (an absolute requirement!), and perform the jockey duties. Jockey duties consisted of the aforementioned kiss and blowing into a paper kazoo wildly until your toad hopped off the edge of the table. At which point, the crowd screamed and you had to grab the toad and run it to the second bucket. The first to finish was declared the winner, and the lucky winning jockey walked off with a cold, private labeled Cane Toad Racing beer and a bit of notoriety. Then came the final race.

[The Kiss]
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This was when it got serious. Jockeys were able to purchase their one of six top final toads by auction. Each toad was held up by the official, while crowd placed bids on the frog. The lowest two performing toads in the first two rounds were replaced with "fresh-legged" toads, adding a real twist to the whole process. Should you bid high on previous winners, or go for the new blood? While others struggled with where to place their bets, we sat back and watched this bizarre and uniquely Australian spectacle. Sadly, The Whopper had proved to be big but not very quick, and didn't make the final on this night.

In the end, a father bid high for his young son to jockey a toad. The young boy, perhaps overwhelmed by the crowd or the toad kissing or both, ran away. His father stepped up with a broad grin (clearly having hoped for this outcome), and road Mr. Amazing to the promise land. He walked away with his head held high, an ice cold victory beer and $200 worth of prizes.

[The race is on!]
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Interestingly, feral cane toads are actually among the most destructive animals to Australia's natural habitat, and the country is spending millions to stop their assault on its fertile regions. About a hundred cane toads were introduced into Australia in 1935 from Hawaii, in an effort to curtail the sugar cane beetle population. But like so many animals that have been brought from other continents to Australia, the sinister cane toads quickly spread and thrived in a land with no natural predators, and have become a plague upon the Great Down Under. The geniuses who came up with this idea apparently were not aware that the cane toad have long lives (about 5-10 years), are toxic to most animals who try to eat them, and can give birth to up to 30,000 baby toads in one pregnancy - and can give birth twice a year. That is a lot of reproducing. It is now estimated that there are more than 10 billion cane toads in Australia, creating quite an ecological problem.
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The Great Barrier Reef 15 Years Later
Today, Jay and I did what all good tourists do when they come to Port Douglas, we took a boat out to the Great Barrier Reef. We were loaded up with about 30 other passengers and headed out for about an hour and a half before arriving at our first reef stop. (The seas were a bit rough today and unfortunately many of those onboard didn't find the sea swells too agreeable. We were armed with Dramamine and were just fine though!)

One of the unusual things about visiting the GBR is that the tour operators allow you to dive without having a PADI certification. As a result, most people who visit the reef are able to scuba dive and see the reef up close. We had a safety briefing onboard and then headed into the water with all of our gear. After some initial adjustment for both of us, we were swimming along just like fish down there!

This was actually my second time diving on the reef. My first visit was with my family when we came to Australia when I was 14. My memories are of floating through the sea, seeing the entire underwater world filled with amazing color. There was a vibrant spectrum every way which way I turned - the fish, the coral, the strange looking sea plants, all in technicolor.

Wow - what a difference 15 years makes! The reef looked completely changed from the reef of my memory. The brilliant colors that are seared into my mind from that first dive were nowhere to be seen. Although the reef remains very beautiful, it is but a faded version of what I saw on the first visit. At first, I thought I must be confused. My mental image must have exaggerated the color that I saw a decade and a half before. I asked several of the crew members about the change. The feedback was unanimous. One said, "15 years ago!" as if I had made an absurd statement, "Oh yeah, this is nothing like what you would have seen then... And in another 15 years, a lot of it won't even be around."

I had heard the the GBR was being damaged by the elevated sea temperatures, but I still had a difficult time wrapping my head around it when faced with extent of the harm. We hear so much discussion about global warming and "climate change", but so rarely have I seen such a blatant example of the destruction that we are inflicting on this planet. The last few decades we have begun to destroy what has taken hundreds and thousands and millions of years to create under the sea.

The Great Barrier Reef has already lost about ten percent of its coral, but if we remain on our current course, the whole thing will be dead in the next few decades. The reef depends on a fruitful, but delicate symbiotic relationship between algae and polyps. When the waters get above 86 degrees for more than a couple of weeks, this relationship is destroyed and the coral starves to death. With its death, goes the entire ecosystem, full of life that lives within and around it. I don't want to get too morose about the whole thing, but the change was a bit shocking...

[On a lighter note, I am not sure that the damage to the reef can explain away the absurdly shocked look on my face in our underwater picture... and the hair!... I don't think this picture was taken from my best angle Winking ]
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Land Ho!
Miranda and I spent the last week and a half on a big road trip "bush camping" our way from Broome through the vast Kimberly region on our way to the Bungle Bungles and ultimately up to Darwin. We were really overwhelmed with everything we saw, but we both agreed that our favorite part of the road trip was the adventure that was driving along the Gibb River Road. In the event that you missed Mirm's blog about the Gibb River Road, suffice it to say that it is an old cattle trail through the Kimberly. It is a very rough, 4WD-only, back-country dirt road, and it is the only way to access some of the more remote and beautiful gorges that make the Kimberly so unique.

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Anyone who has witnessed the spectacle that is me driving may be wondering why we decided to venture off of paved roads and into "the bush" on wheels. After all, I am the kind of driver who regularly passes on spots in between two cars at the grocery store, and who still asks Miranda for help parallel parking. Ok, now cut the wheel here. No, cut it all the way. When I'm actually driving (versus parking), I am generally safe and am often inclined to regale my passenger with stories and charming conversation (if I do say so myself), but I do have a mild tendency to wander away from the planned route. Or, rather, I should say that there is a special, haphazard force that compels me - sometimes suddenly - to take massively wrong turns, to insist I'm headed in the right direction, and to follow those turns until I'm hopelessly lost. To summarize, if I were a professional chauffeur, my oversized business card would read something like this: "If you say 'Home James,' you can count on me to be cheery as I bring you comfortably and safely to a place on the opposite side of town, where I will circle the block of someone else's house until I've exhausted our gasoline, having been unable to park."

Living in New York has shielded me from my own driving for the most part, fortunately, due to the fact that I don't have a car, and also that the MTA won't allow me to operate the B train. So now, even if you haven't been a passenger on the Albany Express, I think you'd agree that I would not seem to be a natural candidate for "adventure driving." It turns out, however, that my weaknesses were somewhat neutralized for our trip into the more rugged parts of the Kimberly. We set out down the Gibb River Road on the first day it was opened after the Wet season, when there were barely any other cars, of course no lined parking spaces, and really only one road to drive on (most of the turnoffs on the Gibb River Road require actually getting out of the car and opening a gate, which puts a damper on my desire to take random turnoffs). Driving the Gibb River, what was really needed was the following: 1) the dexterity to negotiate sand, mud, big rocks and holes in the road; 2) the ability to dodge the numerous cows, bulls, wallabies, and dingos that run across your path at top speed- actually it would probably be OK if you hit a dingo, but running into a giant wild brahman cow would be a car-smashing, trip ending experience; 3) the wherewithal to bring plenty of food and water in case you fail to avoid the previously listed obstacles, and most importantly 4) the stupidity to drive into a really big river and hope you make it across.

Actually, to give credit where credit is due, it was my lovely wife Miranda who possessed this last, key ingredient. She was a brave and determined river-forder, whereas my style was more of the eye-closing-keep-driving-and-hope variety. You might say I was the yin to her yang. Well, it wasn't very far into our trip before both water crossing methods were tested.

On our first full day on the road, we decided to camp at a wonderfully rural cattle ranch called Mornington Station, which was the closest spot to Dimond Gorge. We arrived at the turnoff for Mornington late in the afternoon, a little tired and with our car caked in red dust and mud. When we got to the turnoff, we stopped and radioed in to the station that we would be camping there. Take it easy, they told us, as they explained that the 90km trip was going to be a three hour drive on a "rough 4WD road." Weren't we already on a rough 4WD road? I asked into the radio. I was answered with a laugh, a "not like this" and a promise to come look for us if we weren't there in the morning. And so, with just a little time before sunset and not a little amount of trepidation, we sallied forth. The drive was muddy and bumpy and filled with these crazy cows and bulls that would appear to be moving out of our way at first, only to freak out and run at top speeds right in front of us just as we were about to pass them. It was ridiculous. They were begging to become road burger.

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Anyways, our first couple water crossings weren't too bad. Then, just as we were feeling confident, we came to one where I considered invoking the eye-closing strategy. I want to preface this story by saying that right before we left we saw all these trucks with something called a "safari snorkel" sticking out of their car, which moves the engine's airtake much higher on the vehicle, reducing your chances of flooding your engine in really deep water. When we told our 4WD rental place of our river fording plans, somehow this did not come up as an option. Instead, we were given a wry smile, an emergency beacon (gulp!), and the following advice: "You could walk into any water before you cross it to see how deep it is. If you think it's going to be higher than 3/4 of your tires, maybe you shouldn't try to cross it. 'Course there are salties (saltwater crocodiles) in most of those rivers, and they're nasty, so maybe you should just wait for someone else and see if they make it." Thanks. So, there we were, on our way to Mornington, the sun about to go down, knowing we would never be able to drive this road at night. There was no one else coming to follow, and we have read that there are crocodiles in nearby Dimond Gorge. But this was a big river, and we had no idea if we could cross it in our snorkel-less state of being. Stuuuupendous. I did not feel like moving from the passenger seat in an area where there might be crocs, but we needed to go, so I gingerly and quickly hopped out of the car and into the water to examine the terrain. It seemed like we could make it if we headed towards a rockier part on the left. I didn't see any crocs, but then again I might have been closing my eyes....

So less than ten seconds into that river, the water was way over 3/4 of our tires. It was over our tires altogether and onto our hood. Or so I am told by Miranda, because, by this point, my eyes were definitely not in a looking mood. This was it. We were either going to be bogged, dinner, or both. While our lives hung in the balance, several thoughts ran through my head. A conversation with Miranda's Dad right before we left on our trip. Don't worry Jeff, I had said. I'll take good care of your daughter. Nope, we won't take any unnecessary risks. I also wondered how long it will take Nick Saban to have Alabama in the hunt for the SEC Championship. (I decided next year would probably be a failure if he didn't win at least nine games). And then, finally, my thoughts fixated on this: Man, I wish we were in the Beast. For those of you who didn't go to high school with me, the Beast was a monster truck style souped up SUV that a classmate of mine named Hardy Johnson drove in Birmingham. He may drive it still because the Beast can't die. If we were in the Beast this would not have been a problem... And yet somehow, our plan to head in an arc towards the rocks on the left started to work. Our trusty car gained a little traction and started creeping slowly onward, and finally, land ho!

Over the next two days we had several more water crossings, but that first major one was definitely the scariest. One night we camped at a place called Elizabeth Station, where we woke up to find a bull standing right in front of our flimsy little tent, staring at us through the mesh with interest. Did we need to issue him a formal apology for the T-bone we had grilled the night before? Elizabeth Station also stood out because it was one of the few places on our trip that had a toilet. The task fell upon me to go out and explore this oddity. How is it? Miranda asked. The thing was, it looked OK at first, and so I said so. It definitely looked usable, I said, except that there's a giant albino lizard in there. Needless to say, Mirm passed on her chance at the commode. On the bright side, Elizabeth Station let us camp for free since we were their first campers of the season.

We headed to the well-known El Questro Gorge on our last day driving along the Gibb River Road. El Questro was great - there was a good gorge hike with a cool, shady swimming hole. We also had a great camp site right next to a giant boab tree. But we had to work to get to there. In the last 150kms before the El Questro turnoff, we crossed the two hardest rivers on our trip, the Durack and the Pentecost. The Pentecost is the one that is on Gibb River Road postcards because it is so long, but crossing the Durack was just as formidable in my opinion because it was deeper. If we had seen rivers like these on that first evening I think we would have turned around. The water was onto our hood again on the Durack, and when we saw how long the Pentecost was, we were seriously wishing we had invested in a safari snorkel. Fortunately the Durack went pretty much without incident. There was another truck that had just made it across coming from the opposite direction, so we tried to copy the path he took by looking at the tire tracks entering and exiting the water.

When we got to the Pentecost we found a nice Aussie couple about our age pulled over in a high suspension 4WD. We chatted for a few minutes. They were up from Broome, they had their dog with them and were looking for a place to camp the night, did we know whether Home Valley Station was open? We had actually just been there. It was closed because the road was still flooded. They asked us whether we had binoculars. We did. They said if we used them we could look down river to see a truck that tried to cross the river two weeks before but got bogged and washed downstream. Cool, thanks, we'll do that. Eventually the conversation slowed. There was a pause. We looked at them and they looked at us. They didn't budge, and it became apparent that, while they were nice as could be, they had absolutely no intention of crossing the Pentecost before seeing if we made it...

Well there's really no mystery here since this picture was taken from the far side of the river- we made it! It was a great trip!
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[Not much for scale here... but the other side is the little spot in the far distance in the middle of the picture...]
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The Bungle Bungles
As Jay mentioned in an earlier posting, traveling to the Bungle Bungles had become the symbol for all that our trip was about. The Bungle Bungles do not have the usual characteristics of a dreamy "destination" place.

First of all, they are truly in the middle of nowhere. You don't just get here by accident. It requires that you drive far, far away from anything else. And then, once you have driven several hundred kilometers from the nearest supermarket, you turnoff the highway and drive another three hours on a rough 4WD track to reach the visitor center. Only to be told it is another 30-45 minutes to the campsites, where you arrive to find there are no facilities.

You only have the opportunity to reach this place a few months of the year because for most of the year the environment is wholly in hospitable to human life - torrential rains and insane heat. That is not to say that the heat is acceptable once the park is open. On the walks around the park, the temperature regularly reaches 50 degrees Celsius. For those of you who don't remember the formula from high school, that is a blazing 122 degrees. (We were lucky and the temperature for us was a cool 110 on our walks...)

And you do all this to see a bunch of rocks in unusual shapes. That's it, there is no other attraction other than the huge rocks.

So, the journey to this place had become a symbol of our trip. Everything you wouldn't do on a two week vacation, but somehow a place we dreamed of seeing. We weren't disappointed one bit. The isolation and remoteness of this place adds to its mystique. When we finally pulled up to the national park sign after bouncing along the dirt road for several hours we both felt a great sense of victory. We had set our sights on these pages in the Lonely Planet so many months ago and now we were standing at the entrance to the park.

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We watched the colors of the sunset fill the sky over the beehive domes and knew we had made it. We set-up our camp and felt a sense of pride that we were able to confidently and comfortably camp based entirely on what we brought in. We were self-sufficient, as they say.

Our hikes among the rocks were intense. The heat was pounding on us. Jay happily snapped pictures as I devised ways to maximize my time in the shade among the domes.

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Once we had seen the rocks from the ground, we headed to the airstrip and jumped in a helicopter. We flew (doors off!) over areas of the park that you cannot access by foot or car. The sky gave us a completely different perspective on the park. The immensity and beauty of the area was quite impressive as we swooped and turned over the landscape.

It is hard to imagine how this place was "undiscovered" until the 1980s because the terrain looks so unusual from up high. it really speaks to the isolation of the whole area. It may not be a dream trip for everyone, but for us it was pretty special - the distance, the heat and the enormity of the sandstone formations.
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Let the adventures begin!
There are two seasons in this part of the world - the Wet and the Dry. The Wet stretches from Oct/Nov - April/May. It is marked by soaring temperatures, even higher humidity, drenching rains, and dramatic lightning storms. Much of the region in the Kimberly becomes impassable during this season - all of the roads are literally closed and areas can only be accessed by light plane. We have come at the end of the Wet and have stayed a few extra days in the hopes that the Gibb River Road would open up for the season. Our wait has paid off and by the middle of the week, the entire length of the road is expected to be open. The Gibb River Road is considered one of the world's last great adventure drives, which can only be attempted by high-clearance 4WDs over the rugged unsealed road and various river crossings.

For whatever reason, we have decided this is the adventure drive for us. (predicated on the assumption, of course, that there *is* an adventure drive for us...) We are most apprehensive about the river crossings. My only knowledge of trying to ford a river is playing "Oregon Trail" and having my wagon turn over as I tried to cross the river. I'm banking on this trip having little to nothing in common with the Oregon Trail. We will follow local advice for river crossings - if it is more than 3/4 up the tires, don't attempt it. If you aren't sure, wait for another vehicle to cross successfully before trying it. While this could take a day or so, it is preferable to being swept down river. The usual advice elsewhere is to try to cross the river by foot first, to get a sense of the depth, but this is not advisable in the Kimberly because the river systems are filled with vicious and massive saltwater crocs.

Many locals say this drive is no longer the adventure it used to be because it has become more well-traveled. News I welcome Happy (Not to mention the fact that they say it can take a day for the next car to come along...) Popular or not, it is not like any road at home. The Gibb River Road is 655kms, and it cuts straight through the heart of the Kimberly. The Kimberly is a region four times the size of Texas with a population of only 25,000 people, making it one of the least populated places on earth! Needless to say, once we leave "cosmopolitan" Broome, we will be *out* there. Beyond the obvious lack of mobile phone coverage, there are not even public phones on the Gibb River Road. Once setting off, it is recommended that you carry enough food, water and fuel to last you several days beyond your expected journey in case there is trouble. We are feeling well prepared with all of our supplies (emergency beacon and all!) and are looking forward to the journey. We expect to be on the road for about 6 days before reaching the small town of Kununurra on the other end of the road.

Not sure if this entry has sounded like a sales pitch or a warning about this trip or maybe just flatly absurd, but either way, we're going to give it a try. As Jay says, it appeals to the cowboy / cowgirl in all of us. I have never considered myself much of a cowgirl, but here goes!
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Broome Time
For the last week we have been in Broome in the northern part of Western Australia (WA). Broome has been both a destination and a pit stop for us in between our road trip up WA from Perth, and our upcoming road trip into the heart of the "Top End" - Darwin. With a population of just 15,000, Broome is the largest city in the Kimberly, the beautiful and isolated northwestern part of Australia, with an incredible mix of gorges, mountains, plains and rugged coastline. It isn't hard just looking at a map to get a sense of Broome's remoteness - it is the largest city for 2,000 kilometers in any direction. At one point on the drive up here we passed a road sign warning us to stock up, as the next place for supplies of any kind wouldn't be for 632kms. Once here, the town is like an oasis, nestled on a small stretch of beach facing the Indian Ocean. The environment is relaxed. The locals are friendly and easy going, and the days pass slowly just as they should when you're sitting by the beach with a stubby in your hand waiting for a breeze. They call this state of being "Broome Time" now, but apparently this has been a place of tranquility for Australia's inhabitants long before Captain Cooke landed. Aboriginal people in the Kimberly sent their sick to Broome for resting and healing. Different tribes would even meet in Broome as a safe place where they could peacefully settle disputes.

As for us, well, we came here to celebrate my 30th birthday and to see the red sunsets on the famous Cable Beach. We have rested, recouped, and replenished our supplies. And now we are about to return to "the bush" for one last big camping trip, across the Kimberly along the beautiful pack of dirt, sand, crocodiles, and mud that is the Gibb River Road, to a place called the Bungle Bungles, ultimately headed to Darwin. A word on the Bungle Bungles. In case we haven't told you, seeing the Bungle Bungles is one of the main reasons we came to Australia in the first place. They are supposed to be an awesome formation of sandstone rocks located in Purnululu National Park, which is located precisely in the middle of nowhere. So middle of nowhere, in fact, that thirty years ago it was actually nowhere - the Bungles weren't "discovered" by white Australians until the mid-1980s. That's right, they were not on the map at all until the 1980s. One of the main inspirations for our decision to break away from New York, from the security of our jobs, our apartment, came from learning about the Bungles. I have the clearest image in my head of Miranda sitting on the floor in our apartment in Brooklyn, reading aloud to me from a book about Australia, and telling me about the Bungle Bungles. It's not just the colossal sandstone domes that drew us here. It's more the fact that it seems to represent what is fun and adventurous and even a tad scary about Australia. Australia is a place so vast, nearly as big as the continental United States but with less than ten percent of the people, and a place with such a harsh climate that you get the feeling that even now there is so much left to explore and find out there. And that's kind of how we feel about ourselves, that there's a thrill as we veer off the maps we drew for our own lives, even if it's just for a few months, and find out what's really there.
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The Big 3-0
Jay entered the world of adulthood yesterday and he successfully found a way to make it one of the longest birthdays to date. It began the night before... not sure why, but it did. Then we celebrated on his birthday day and agreed it would continue until his birthday had ended in the US, which was noon on the 28th here. We had a great day, although we missed celebrating with friends and family. I did my best to sneak away from Jay, so there could be a couple of surprises.

We spent the afternoon sailing on a replica pearl lugger boat. The water and wind were perfect for our 4 hour cruise and just as the sun was setting they brought out a cake and Jay was serenaded by the crew. It was followed by a tasty dinner at the best restaurant in town.

If you haven't had a chance to wish him happy birthday yet, it's not too late! Feel free to drop him an email Happy

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Have you seen a lot of frogs?
[Let me preface this entry by saying, that it is somewhat borderline subject matter for our blog. I particularly can be a bit prudish these sorts of subjects, but it seemed too good to miss sharing it with you...]

You don't always get questions like "have you seen a lot of frogs?" within the first few minutes of meeting someone. We did, however, experience it today. The proprietor of our B&B was showing us around the place just after we arrived. We had switched to the B&B to celebrate Jay's birthday and enjoy a few creature comforts. He pointed out the light switches and the location of the air conditioner remote, pointed to the breakfast area and the fridge for our use. Then, he added casually, "have you seen a lot of frogs?"

So, we thought about the question. No, we haven't seen lots of frogs. Where does one normally see frogs? But in fact, we did see one just last night at the movie theatre (it's an open air cinema). "Oh" he exclaimed, "let me show you one." (Apparently our cinema frog sighting wasn't intimate enough...) We followed him hurrying out of our room and into an adjacent room. We were in a bathroom. This was going to be interesting.

"Here it is!" as he flipped open the lid of the toilet seat. And there it was - a bright green Australian Tree frog hanging out in the toilet bowl. "They live in here." To me, this statement meant that this was not actually a functional bathroom, but rather a frog aquarium of sorts. Apparently I was wrong. He flushed the toilet explaining, that this is normally a good way to get them to hide and frog started kicking madly against the current of the flush. (I will add at this point, that the frog was not a tiny little tadpole... it was about the size of my fist.) The frog stood his ground and refused to be flushed. "Well, if that happens, try to push him down with toilet brush and if that doesn't work just go ahead and do your business and don't worry about the frog." He didn't flinch, he wasn't joking.

Don't worry about the frog?! What?! No, seriously, WHAT?!

We're a long way from New York...

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Tomato Sauce Doesn't Start with "K"
At first glance, there are far more similarities between Australia and the US than differences. Yes, there are many more people in the US - 300 million versus the 18 million in Australia. But they are very similar in size. Australia is the same size as the continental US. Fashions and food are quite similar. Both countries seem to share a passion for strip malls and gossip magazines. And of course, we both speak English.

We knew there would be some language differences when we arrived. I mostly expected to hear a lot of British terms: serviettes (napkins), boot (trunk), petrol (gas), university (college), chips (fries), crisps (potato chips). We became accustomed to these terms pretty quickly and made a conscientious effort to use them when speaking to the Aussies. Although periodically, I do slip up when trying to buy gas and get a very strange and quizzical look if I ask if the gas pump is open... And I get even stranger looks if I ask someone if they are on line rather than in the cue...

However, there are a whole slew of words that we have begun using on this trip that we have never needed to use very regularly in the US. These words have started to slip into our lexicon without effort and without thinking. This puts us at risk for one of the biggest travel injuries you can suffer - coming home sounding affected.

I will share a few of the dangerous words and see if you find them a bit catchy too. Bitumen - I actually had to look this word up soon after arriving. Bitumen is an asphalt or paved road. This comes up when someone tells you the bitumen continues for another 30 kms and then you have to drive another 10 kms on an unsealed road. Which brings me to another example: sealed and unsealed roads rather than paved and dirt roads. Needless to say, we don't spend a lot of time in New York talking about the quality of dirt roads in the near vicinity and whether they are passable, but the quality of the unsealed road comes up quite often for us these days. RVs are called caravans or at least they are the closest relative of a caravan in Oz. RVs are the stuff of folk lore here and there is a perception among camping folks that the US is nearly overrun with giant mobile homes.

When you are packing up a lunch to go to the beach, you bring an Esky, instead of a cooler. You use a torch to find your way in the dark... no one would have a clue what we meant by flashlight. You grill meat on a barbie, but it is not like an American grill. All of their barbies are flat top grills. Hot dogs are called sausages and they have nothing on a good Hebrew National. They don't, however, put tomato sauce on their sausages. I know what you are thinking, we don't either. But in fact, we do. Tomato sauce is ketchup although Heinz is in short supply. Ketchup is completely unknown as a word here. We were a bit reluctant to ask for tomato sauce for our hamburgers at the beginning, but eventually realized it was our only hope.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this entry. Last night we were at a fish and chips shop eating our first meal out in over a week. The fish was great and we were merrily eating right along until we dipped our fries in the provided red sauce. It just didn't taste right.... (I admit I am a little picky about ketchup, I normally try to avoid Hunt's ketchup if I can.) So we started joking that we should have brought our own - we had Heinz in our car after its joyous discovery in a grocery store last week. I continued on with the joke and said the restaurant should be B.Y.O.K. (Most restaurants in Australia are BYO for beer and wine....) Jay looked at me blankly. K? What's would be the K? Knife? Knish? Koala? "Tomato sauce doesn't start with K," he exclaimed before a brief stunned look and his head fell into his hands...
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Travel Games
This week we are in the midst of a big road trip up Australia's Highway 1 from Perth to Broome, which is about an 1,800 mile journey. The roads in Western Australia are mostly simple two laners that stretch calmly into the horizon. We can drive sometimes for a few hours without seeing as much as a building or a sign - although we are usually treated at least once a day to the odd animal trying to cross the road (yesterday it was "feral goats"). Alternating between views of the Indian Ocean and a barren, dry inland, the landscape continues to impress us. But frankly, with that many hours in the car, we've been trying to come up with ways to pass the time, and this has involved a lot of game playing. One thing, though, is that there are only eight states in Australia, so the license plate game doesn't really make the trip fly by as quickly as it did when we were kids...

One game that has brought us endless amounts of joy is something we call the Howdy-Do Greeting Game. This game is played on low-travelled roads (perfect for our trip!), where Aussies have the friendly habit of nodding or waving at one another when they pass a car on the road. The game is simple. When a car passes us, we wave. But oh, which wave will we give our road neighbor, and will the other car wave back? So many choices, so many ways to say howdy-do....

There's the basic hand on the steering wheel wave. Simple, laid back, not overbearing.
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There's the "I Know You Hi!" Full Wave (This one doesn't get used very often...)
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The American cowboy style hello
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The British technique
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The I've been in the car too many hours and have seen nothing
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And finally the *special* fingered waive. The one that says, you should have turned your brights off...
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Flies, flies, everywhere there's flies
There is an open secret about Australia that is pushed under the rugs in most guidebooks - there are heaps of flies here. We haven't talked much about it on TN so far because frankly, when we are in the midst of this kind of adventure, who cares that we had to bat away a few flies along the way? Most of the time this approach works. We were quickly introduced to the common saying that swatting away flies is the Aussie salute. We have even giggled to ourselves watching the other tourists wearing fly nets, thinking we are somehow superior for being able to endure the flies without resorting to putting a net on our heads.

But some days, the joke seems to be on us, and the fly problem stops seeming like a harmless nuisance. While the fly problem may not fall into the same category of ecological crisis as the feral goats or destructive rabbits that haunt Australia, ecological problems are not the only problems to worry about. (In fact, I don't think there is an ecological problem with them at all...) The fly problem is destructive to the sanity of a harmless American wandering through the country hoping to soak in its beauty. These nasty little beasts will buzz around you until you think you just might go insane. This phase lasts briefly until a new revelation comes to mind: the delusion that you might be able to enter a Zen like state and peaceably live with them. This lasts for an even shorter period because as soon as the swatting stops, one lands on your cheek, lips and sunglasses and the process starts all over again.

We arrived in the Kalbarri National Park yesterday, ready to venture around to see the various natural attractions of the park, mostly namely a gorge called Z Bend. When we got out of our car and headed up the trail we were were swarmed by flies. This day was not your average fly experience - this was different. This was not merely batting a few flies away. We were under attack. They buzzed incessantly and maliciously. There was nothing left to do but make a game of the absurdity as we prone to do these days. The game was called "don't talk with your mouth open" ... for fear we would encounter some unwanted protein. I know, you sitting at home are thinking, wow, not talking with your mouths open - fun game. Well, we take what we can get. We were playing along, discussing what the rules might be. The loser is the one that laughs, exposing themselves to the very real risk of oral fly invasion?

And then it happened.

Quite suddenly and without warning.

A fly went straight up my nose! Game over - I lose! Now we really knew the rules of the game. No more fun to be had. I hightailed it back to the car, refusing to see any more mother nature in this park.

(Look at Jay's back for the visual of the infestation...gross!)
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The Red Center
So, as we depart from the middle of Australia to head west, I'd like to make a few observations about the very hot and sparsely populated place we have been for the last week.  It's all very "outback" here.   There are lizards and flies galore, humidity is something the folks here have only read about in fairy tales, and people actually sport those dark brown cowboy type hats.  But I think for me the most notable part about being here in the middle of the country is the way the color is so much more pronounced than during our ventures into the South Australian outback. The Aussies call it "The Red Center."  This is named appropriately.   The land in the center is no longer "turning red;" it's not a patchwork of tans, oranges and reds.   It's brick red sand.   The rocks aren't pinkish - they are red. Now, I know geologists would probably say this is due to hues or minerals or what have you.  But I am convinced that, after the last climate change, the ground out here just didn't bone up on its SPF 30.   Maybe it tried to get by with SPF 8, because this place is (as the Aussies say it), sunburnt!

The hub of the Red Center is a little town called Alice Springs.   Alice Springs is the biggest city for hundreds and hundreds of miles in any direction, and is built around an old telegraph station, which is right by what is generously called the "Todd River." I say "generously" because, as far as I can tell, the Todd's river days are far and few between.  Perhaps it should be renamed the Todd Ditch. Just a suggestion.

The claim to fame here, or at least one of the claims to fame besides "we're the closest place to Uluru" (Note - Uluru is also called Ayer's Rock, and it's a really big and spectacular red sandstone rock about a five hour drive farther into the desert), is that Alice Springs is the town that is "closest to all of the beaches in Australia." The folk around here love to say that.  In case you're wondering, the polite response I continue to give to this joke is to give them my most bewildered American look and wait for them to chuckle and guffaw. "Ha-ha! Get it? The Red Center...it's in the center of the country mate! Closer to every beach!" Well, I'll give them points for their positive attitude and for teaching geometry in the desert, but the only things resembling the beach here is sand, sand, and red sand. Did I mention while we were here we saw some wild camels?
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The ROCK
[For those of you that are wondering if we have lost our minds, this isn't a post about a cheesy wrestler turned pseudo action star...]

The incidents over our first couple of days in Alice Springs (the ones mentioned in the previous posts and several others that I won't bore you with) made us start to question whether this journey to the center of Australia was worth it. It was a big trip to a very hot place where everything is overpriced to accommodate the tourists and the distances between attractions averages about five hours. The last 24 hours have made it all worth it, though. On our way from Kings Canyon to Uluru (Ayers Rock) we saw some mammoth creatures crossing the road in the distance. We slowed the car as we have been trained to and squeezed our eyes to identify the four legged giant. Yep, you guessed it. A pack of wild camels! Seeing camels in the wild had been a goal of ours ever since an Aussie told us there was no chance we would see one. It turns out that in fact Australia has the largest population of wild camels in the world. A few were set free in the Outback after they had served their purposes in the early expeditions in the center of Australia. The rest is history... OK, so back to our trip.

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After hours of driving along, the long stretch of road to Yulara, we saw it emerge on the horizon. Uluru stood tall and apart from the rest of landscape. (For those of you that have not been studying Australian travel guides, Uluru is the traditional Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock located in the desert center of the country. The rock is the giant red tabletop rock that competes with the Sydney Opera House for most iconic image of Australia.) We had finally arrived. Now we have definitely been to Australia.

We stepped right on the metaphorical tourist train and immediately started the requisite sight seeing activities. The rock has to be viewed at sunset and sunrise to fully capture its power. It changes dramatically in color of the course of the day and most substantially at the beginning and end of the day. We lined up in the parking lot along with dozens of other cars and waited, watching the giant rock. This is not the first time on the trip that we have been amongst a huge crowd all staring intently at seemingly nothing except this time, the object wasn't even moving. It's a giant rock and we were surrounded by many other people who had all made the same arduous trek to the center of the country - a couple thousand kilometers from any city in any direction.

But, wow was it beautiful. Uluru is a rock like one we have never seen before.
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Stuck between a big rock and a hot place
Liza deserves credit for this succinct summary of our first adventures in the center of Australia. Now before I begin, I must predicate the following statements by saying that I am fully aware of how fantastic this opportunity is to travel and see the world. (And I read many travel blogs while researching our trip and always thought the whiny blogs were so annoying... but I can't stop myselft.) Having excused myself, I will say we have just encountered our first real bout of travel fatigue.

It snuck up on us very innocently. The flight from Adelaide to Alice Springs included an expected stress. There was a hectic effort to force all of our sprawl from our two-week outback road trip into a couple of backpacks. The trick on flying days is that all of our heavy items must be stashed into our carry-ons (2 bags each), so our backpacks (which we check) don't exceed the maximum allowable weight. This was not a problem when we left the US, but now, traveling with camping gear (and a tiny new collection of cooking supplies to accompany our camping stove), we are packed to the brim. Consequently, our carry-on baggage exceeded any weight I would attempt to lift at the gym (fortunately, I also packed a husband). When we got on the plane, we figured it would all be fine now, just an unpleasant little blip.

Once we arrived, we had an uncomfortable and restless night in a hostel. Anyone who has ever stayed in hostels knows it is a bit of a toss up. Most of the time it's just fine. Sometimes you're pleasantly surprised. And, on rare occasions, you end up just waiting for the night to end. This place handed us a padlock and sent us to sleep in an old caravan stationed among the weeds at the end of their backyard. Let's just say this was a night that left us pondering if we were perhaps too old for this lifestyle. We packed up quickly and headed out hoping to pop back into our typical trip perkiness.

Unfortunately, our first bout of travel fatigue coincided, perhaps not coincidentally, with my first bout of trying to lose things. And I selected some choice items to misplace. The first was my money belt. I know what you are thinking, its a money belt, which means by definition it should be on your person at all times making it very difficult to lose - unless you've lost yourself too, which apparently I did... Well, I managed to hide it from myself overnight leading to a panicked search the next day. In the end, the belt had slipped behind the mini fridge and into the coils of it. Relief!

Jay found this quite amusing since historically in our relationship, he has spent much more time precipitating a frantic search for a lost item. In fact, it happens so often, it rarely even gets a rise from either of us... It just kicks off a methodical search. The next incident, however, made us start to question if I was developing a new and unfortunate pattern. Overall, we have been able to keep track of our things well on the trip. We haven't even lost a sock yet! In the second occurrence of my forgetfulness our new camera was the victim. I left it carefully tucked under the table at dinner as we left the restaurant. It took about an hour and return to our hotel to realize our third wheel had not made it home from dinner. A mad dash back to the restaurant ensued. When the server said that they had it behind the bar, we both let out a huge sigh of relief. Both items are now safely in our possession again and the hope is that I will be able to keep track our things for a little while now. These situations have actually worked out quite well for Jay because I can't tease him about misplacing anything again for at least the next few days Winking
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Flying and 4WDing through the Flinders
Jay and I have spent the last several days far from the urban jungles to which we are accustomed. Sure, I know you are all thinking, I know the population of Mildura (pop. 25,000) and it's not a huge town... Well, let me tell you, 25,000 looks like Mexico City when compared to towns with a population hovering in the single digits. We have been in an area of South Australia called the Flinders Ranges about six hours north of Adelaide, which must surely qualify as the Outback.

Our first stop was Wilpena Pound. The pound is a natural amphitheater, 17 km long and 8 km wide and teeming with wildlife. We went on a half day hike to get a view of the pound from up high and then drove around it on unsealed roads for about 4 hours. There were moments when we doubted the intelligence of driving our rented Hyundai on the "road" which was only densely packed rocks the size of grapefruits in some parts... But the kangaroos and emus were amazing. It seemed every time we looked at an area of trees for a few minutes we could spot one or two or three kangaroos grazing for dinner. We saw so many, we started getting snooty with our photo shots, only stopping for kangaroos that were well lit Winking

After spending a couple of nights there, we were ready to return to a real bed. (Not to mention that all of our meals were coming from our tiny camp stove without access to a refrigerator and with ingredients bought from a store with the equivalent stock of Store 24.) But this was Easter weekend, a notoriously busy 4 day travel weekend in Oz. We weren't too optimistic, but decided to call the Prairie Hotel in Parachilna to see if, by chance, they had space. A cancellation - fantastic! - we're in! We had read about the hotel in a few different places and sounded like it was just the sort of place we would enjoy. A touch of luxury in the harsh outback and a restaurant with "innovative bush tucker" (Outback food). We're always happy to partake in a bit of luxury and some innovative food!

We made the slow drive on unsealed roads through the beautiful Parachilna Gorge. (This gorge is actually very significant in geological terms. Apparently rocks they found here led to the identification of a whole new geological era - the first new era defined in 120 years - and the only era based on rocks found in the southern hemisphere... But since I know nothing about this stuff, I was mostly just enjoying looking at the amazingly colored rocks.)

After relaxing our first afternoon at the hotel, relishing being able to nap on a real bed and take a hot shower, we went over to the bar. There, we met John and Cilla, a couple from Melbourne. We had a great time chatting with them and ended up sharing a table for dinner. Jay had the FMG for dinner. "FMG" stood for Feral Mixed Grill and he sampled the kangaroo steak, emu patty and camel sausage. The next morning, Hardy (the chef at the hotel) took the four of us on a 4WD tour. It was my first time ever to travel in an SUV where a 4WD was actually legitimately required for the terrain. We bounced up and down along the dirt track through an old sheep station, now home to 700 heads of cattle on 500 square miles (a small-ish property for the area...) Passing vibrant red sand dunes, we finally arrived at Lake Torrens. It was once a full lake and is now a vast plain covered in a delicate crust of salt. The lake is over 200 kms long and 40 kms wide, so the white stretched as far as the eye could see.

At this point, I was thinking this was a great day. We saw a whole new view of the countryside on this tour and had some magnificent views. But it turns out, this wasn't going to be the highlight of our day or even our trip to the Flinders after all... Once we returned, John asked if we would like to go for a fly over the area after lunch. John had flown his own Cessna up from Melbourne for the weekend. We enthusiastically accepted and an hour later were able to get a whole new view of the amazing landscape from 7,000 feet! We both loved it. We had also spent a few days in the area, so we were all about to identify lots of the places we had been from the sky. Fantastic!

Another great dinner last night at the Prairie and then we did the long drive to Adelaide today. Tomorrow we fly out to the center of Australia to start the next leg of our big tour of Oz.

A giant thanks to John and Cilla for such an amazing addition to our trip! And thanks for teaching us the proper pronunciation of emu - it's e-miu rather than the north american e-moo...(I will post their picture next time I download pics...)
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He Who Hops with Kangaroos
I want you all to know that, despite my naturally keen vision and a burning desire to see the flightless bird in its natural habitat, sadly, I didn't see any wild kiwi in New Zealand. And, despite the fact that it's hard to come across a wild kiwi - the kiwi should really be extinct if it weren't for the incredibly diligent, concerted, almost inhuman efforts of New Zealanders to keep some of them alive - I took my lack of wild kiwi sightings hard. I didn't actually sulk (because I'm on an extended trip after all), but I did spend a few seconds in the car or before going to sleep every now and then, wondering whether it was a bad omen. Did it say something about me? Whether I was a bad adventurer? Would I fail to live up to my aspirations as a 21st century yuppie American explorer, returning home from the Great Down Under with my only kangaroo sightings having been with them asleep, stoned, or bored in zoos or other controlled for-hire environments? Would the pinnacle of my animal viewing be the aforementioned "Penguin Parade?" [link]

My friends, just call me Captain Albano (or perhaps "He Who Hops with Kangaroos"), because I can say to you: I have now seen the wild kangaroo in all its glory. I have seen the big Red and the medium sized Grey, territorial males and pregnant females, adults and joeys, mobs and loners. I have seen them hopping softly and I have seen them hopping at the speed of my car. I have looked into their wild red eyes and peered into the depths of their... marsupialness....

Over the last week and a half or so, Miranda and I were very much rewarded by the gods of nature for driving up from the southern coast towards (and into) the outback. And as we have done so not only has the temperature risen, the earth turned red like the sunburned clay in Birmingham, but we have also moved into the sparsely populated areas where kangaroos outnumber humans and emus roam the land, balancing weirdly on their scrawny non-flying legs like awkward lawn furniture. By the time we arrived at the top end of Flinders Ranges National Park, and not counting an organized kangaroo feeding we went to earlier, I think that we have seen enough wild kangaroos over the last week to bring our daily average (arithmetic mean) to 1.5 "roos" per day we have been in Australia.

But as anyone who has been keeping in touch with Mirm and me while we have been traveling knows, we can't go anywhere without discussing the road signage. There are many road signs up here that warn you to break for kangaroos. At first I thought they were like the watch-out-for-deer signs in the US. You know, the ones that are kind of test of your appetite for risk. To me they seem to say: "You should really keep a lookout because it will mess up your car if you speed recklessly and hit a deer, but it's OK to drive the limit at night if you need to get somewhere, because the odds of your actually crashing into are pretty low." Not so here with kangaroos. They are everywhere. Once dusk comes around here, you need to seriously slow down because some big mobs of kangaroos are running wild and they could care less about roads or cars or you. A few locals told me that they don't even drive at night in some of the places we have been because it is so hard to avoid hitting them (others drive trucks with something called "roo bars" on them - ouch). Thankfully, Mirm and I were warned aggressively by the manager of our campground before we drove to the Wartook Valley in Grampians National Park, because there is no doubt in my mind I would have committed marcupialcide otherwise, which I believe would make my name He Who Pays to Fix his Rental Car...
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Dadswell Bridge Has Nothing on the Vulcan....
On our trip to the "Walls of China" in Mungo National Park, one of the things we learned about was that, many thousands of years ago, before the last ice age - whoops, "climate change" - the outback was verdant. Super-sized killer kangaroos, giant wombat thingies, and flightless birds four times as big as an emu roamed the land here. Here's a rendering of what the giant wombat thingy (called a "Zygomaturus") might have looked like:

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And I believe it, because it looks like what I imagine Ziggy might look like if he were hairy and a something-a-turus.

Alas, there were no super kangaroo renderings. The kangaroos (called "Procoptodons") were 12-foot tall and were fierce hunters. They were carnivorous of course. They were not tofu hunters. And they were not leaf and grass eaters like today's friendly neighborhood kangaroos, which only top out at about six feet due - probably due to their low-protein diet...

Speaking of leaf eaters, these sightings came on the heels of sighting this colossus, located in a very tiny town called Dadswell Bridge:
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Fear not, this is only a fake koala. It's part of a thing in Australia about having the "world's largest" of many animals. This is the world's largest bronze statue of a koala - "Giant Koala" - and it stands at about forty feet high. Large statues hold a special place in my heart because Birmingham is home to the world's largest cast iron statue, the Vulcan. I strongly encouraged Mirm to drive to Giant Koala after discovering that we had driven very close to but missed "Big Lobster." After as up-close a look as you can get without paying the entrance fee, I have concluded that if there were ever a Godzilla-type movie called Vulcan vs. Giant Koala, Vulcan would win - spear or traffic lantern.
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The Birth of civilization in Oz
Yesterday definitely falls into the "pretty cool" day category. We are staying in the town of Mildura which is in the northern part of Victoria right near the NSW border. We came to this town in search of great food. I read an article early in our travels here about an oasis in the middle of nowhere with several great restaurants all started by the same man, Stefano de Pieri. It seemed like one of those fun and random things that you get to do on a trip like this, so off we went. We drove about 300 km through a lot of quiet land before arriving here. It was the first real area of green in many hours. The roads are lined with palm trees and many of the street names are things like Avocado, Lemon, Almond, etc.

We decided to take a day tour to the Walls of China, which is located in a national park about 100 km from town. It was a side note in the article I read and all we knew was that it was supposed to have beautiful sand dunes. We made our reservation with the recommended company and off we went. When we got in the van, the guide told us that it was the first day that he and his brother had owned their business out right. And in fact, this ownership is quite historic in Australia. They are the first Aborigine owned business to operate separately from the governmental and umbrella organizations that oversee all of the indigenous owned businesses in the country. They have been quite successful and were able to buy themselves out of the big bureaucratic structure and go out on their own (and our trip was their first day in their new standing!)

Back to the tour... We began the drive out to Mungo National Park, which part of the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage site. After about 20 km all of the trip was on unsealed roads, making for a very bouncing trip in the van. We got out of the car in the desert and the Walls of China stretched out before us. I should mention that the Willandra Lakes Region dried up about 25,000 years ago and it is all now semi-arid land. The last ice age caused a huge climate change in the region. It went from tropical conditions to semi-arid conditions (as did much of Australia). This change in environment killed off all the vegetation and as a result there was nothing to secure the soil and the prevailing westerly winds blew all of the sand and soil up to the highest point, forming a 22 km long sand dune known as the Walls of China. Eventually, new vegetation emerged that could withstand the dry conditions and the accumulation of the soil stopped and the slow process of erosion has been taking place over the last several thousand years.

In the late 1960s, the first archaeological discovery was made on this site. It was the skeleton of a woman (known as Lake Mungo 1) that has now been dated back to 40,000-42,000 years old. There have since been many discoveries at the site including what may be the oldest homo sapiens ever found estimated to almost 60,000 years old (although this seems to be the subject of some debate). The land is governed by a group of Aboriginal elders and they have come up with a collaborative solution with the local universities to do research here. This is a sacred site for the Aborigines, so they don't want a big excavation project. Instead, every time it rains at least 2 inches, 6 teams go out and survey the site to see what the rains have uncovered. In this manner they have made many discoveries. We were able to see calcified trees, hairy-nosed wombats, tasmanian devils and open fire places - all from tens of thousands of years ago - as we walked around the site. It was also strikingly beautiful. The bright blue sky (it was over 100 degrees!), with the red sand, white sand and amazing clay pinnacles that have been left behind as the result of erosion.

[We did end up going to the restaurant that originally drew us to Mildura for dinner last night. It was a great meal, but it couldn't compete with the beauty of the day for top billing on turkeynose Happy]

Here are a few pictures from the park. I have posted some more on the Victoria photos page. The park is actually in NSW, but since we were staying in Victoria, I left them there for simplicity...

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Mobs of Kangaroos in the Grampians!
We arrived in the Grampians to do some hiking and see the natural beauty of the area. What was not mentioned to us is that there have been two big bush fires here and much of the forest has been burned. It offers its own beauty though because seeing the green emerge from the forest of char is quite amazing. Many of the trees remain standing, fully blackened, but covered in new growth. Our visit here has been pretty quiet (minus some very loud bird squawking!) We are staying in a small cabin at a campground in a "town" where the campground also serves as the only petrol station for miles and the only general store.

Another reason we made our way to this area is because we heard you could see lots of wildlife. We hoped we would get a quick glimpse of something while we were here and we were not at all disappointed. There are road signs all over Australia that tell you to watch out for kangaroos, but here in Wartook Valley, they are really not kidding! There are roos of all sizes visible in the late afternoon. (They sleep in the morning and start to eat in the late afternoon.) As we drove down the road, returning from our hike, it seemed nearly every paddock had a mob of kangaroos. (We learned that mobs is the official term for a group of kangaroos.) They are quite a sight all together, particularly when they decide that they want to get going and they all start their amazing hopping together, speeding down the pasture.

Last night, we came back to the cabin and Jay went to talk to reception at the campground. I hung around the cabin. I waited some time for him to return and finally decided I would venture out to see what was going on. I came around the corner and saw Jay along with about 40 kangaroos! Apparently the owners of the campground have been feeding a small group of kangaroos for about 30 years and every evening they come for their daily ration of day old bread. They are quite a sight! There were baby kanagroos in their mother's pouches and other toddlers sticking their heads back into the pouches for a quick meal. The kangaroos came from all directions when they were coming and going, hopping right through the campground.

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Strolling on the Great Ocean Road
We have spent the last few days meandering down the Great Ocean Road. The road runs along the coast (as the name would imply) for about 300 kilometers on the southern coast of Australia, west of Melbourne. The trip began with a ferry ride from the Mornington Peninsula (after our visit to the Penguins) to Queenscliff. The we drove southwest to the beginning of the Great Ocean Road in Torquay. We have been taking it easy along the trip. The weather hasn't totally cooperated with the image of a sunny, warm trip down the beach road. It has been rainy and unbelievably windy, although I have been rather pleased with the weather because it frees me from the guilt of not seeing every single sight!

After camping in Phillip Island and in Aireys Inlet, the last couple of nights we stayed in Glenaire in the Otway Ranges in the forest in our own little lodge. We were a bit weary from the camping and decided to treat ourselves to a secluded log cabin getaway. There was a log fire and an electric blanket. We were really living the high life! But today we are back on the road again. We saw the 12 Apostles this morning (probably the most famous landmark on the GOR). They are a series of limestone rock formations in the ocean off the coast. There are actually only eight of the rocks (one has recently collapsed and no one is sure if there ever were actually Twelve, but that's another story...) We pulled into the parking lot, which was already filled with many sightseeing vehicles, and realized the situation as soon as we got out of the car. The wind was blowing like crazy! Jay could barely get his jacket on in the furious winds, but we decided this was not a sight to be missed and headed down the path.

Seeing the Apostles was an impressive sight. They stand tall above the roiling ocean. However, on this day, the rocks were far less impressive to me than the show that mother nature was in the midst of putting on. The wind continually knocked us off our path as we tried to fight our way along the cliff top walk - you could feel the erosion happening with every step! Bracing myself for photographs was nearly impossible, so I am sure most of them are blurry. But through it all, we were mostly laughing because the whole situation was so absurd. And we couldn't have driven the great ocean road with out at least trying for one great shot of its most famous landmark Happy
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Why'd the Koala cross the road?
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Not sure, but we were pretty glad to be there when he did!
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Penguins Know Drama

Before setting out to drive the Great Ocean Road we decided (after some debate) to make a side trip about an hour and a half southeast of Melbourne to a very popular tourist destination called the "Penguin Parade." The Penguine Parade takes place on Phillip Island, which is home to about 60,000 Little Penguins. The Penguin Parade is one of the most bizarre but strangely entrancing tourist attractions we have ever seen. Each night just after sunset, thousands of tourists gather at a place on Phillip Island called Summerland beach to watch penguins "parade" in from their fishing expeditions, rafting in from the ocean and then waddling over the sand to their nearby burrows.

When we arrived at Summerland beach the first thing I noticed was the size of the parking lot. The road is crowded and the lot has about four long bays, all of which are nearly full, and I started to get a feeling similar to when I've gone to a big sporting event. OK, remember where I parked the car. I wonder if there is a way to leave a touch early to beat the crowd.

We walk from the parking lot to a large gate complete with souvenirs and a concession stand that sells fresh popcorn. After paying a high entrance fee, we follow throngs of other eager spectators along a windy wood planked path that leads us toward a large set of bleachers built right on the beach. There are two sections, each of which seat a little over a thousand people I am told, with a pathway between them for the penguins to have a "natural, unobstructed" route from the ocean to their burrows in the sand dunes.

We sit with the others staring at the ocean waiting for the penguins. When the sun sets, large flood lights illuminate the beach like a baseball field. Miranda turns to me and says "Does this feel strange? We just paid like twenty bucks to sit in bleachers to stare at the beach." Strange indeed, and yet somehow there is something that intrigues me about how this natural occurance - a penguin coming home after fishing - can consistently attract such large crowds. And what can these penguins possibly be thinking when they emerge from the water to find that they are being cheered on by two thousand humans? Are they excited? Are they humming "Eye of the Tiger" to themselves for motivation as they prepare to march from sea to sand?

A few minutes after the lights come on an announcer begins to tell us what is about to happen over a PA system. He says that in fact the penguins are nervous. (I'm sure the floodlights and the fans help with that). He says that when the penguins reach the shore they will be hesitant at first, and may turn back several times before finally running at full speed through the pathway in between the bleachers that leads to the safety of their burrows.

And then finally our little blue gladiators make an appearance in this beach colloseum. In addition to us, tonight the penguins also have a natural foe to contend with, a cluster of pesky seagulls, who no doubt have been attracted to the area by the fresh popcorn and concessions. The seagulls bully the penguins as they come into shore, blocking their way as they attempt to make it to their burrows. I turn to Mirm: "We have front row seats for the Nature Channel's When Seagulls Attack." As predicted, the penguins are nervous. Initial tries to reach home are repelled by the birds, and a surprising amount of drama builds. We want to cheer for the penguins, to encourage them somehow. I want to shoo the seagulls away, but we have been told we cannot interfere with "nature taking its course." As more penguins come to shore, they work together, congregating in groups of about ten to twelve, and then they make a collective move towards home. Slow at first, then they charge in a mad dash! The seagulls give way. Victory. This happens several times over the next fifty minutes, and each time the crowd is elated with the penguins' success. There are even a few heroic penguins who make it on their own. We are riveted. This is the kind of action, afterall, that fills the seats!

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Away and Up & Up
After our plan for a three-day stop morphed into a week of indulging ourselves with fantastic food and drink, we finally escaped the epicurean jowls of Melbourne. It was difficult to leave. Melbourne is a wonderfully beautiful, friendly city with an impressive variety and quality of cuisines readily available. On our last day, for example, we went to "Wicked Sunday," which was the highlight of the two-week long Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. "Wicked Sunday" consisted of a nearly unending row of booths with cheap or free local food and drink available at every turn. A street was blocked off with unlimited wine tasting available from over 70 vineyards. At its conclusion, a sweet aroma was leading crowds of jolly tasters across a bridge to another street blocked off and equally full of coffee and dessert - including some very fine pistachio gelato! We thought the gauge in our tummies read Full after making it through these streets, however, when we turned the corner there was also a Greek Cultural festival, and we found room for lamb souvlaki from the best place in town, Stalactite's. Not surprisingly, this was one of the first cities we have been to where we turned to each other and detected a grain of seriousness when we said "I could see us living here for awhile."

But we did make it out of Melbourne on Monday, deciding to drive south towards Phillip Island. And to pay penance for our excesses, rather than flogging ourselves, we decided to pull over and embark on a popular trail in the Dandenongs National Park called "The Thousand Steps." From the name of the track we suspected that we were probably in for a challenge, even though it was only supposed to take an hour and a half return. This was confirmed when the friendly park ranger at the visitors center smiled a nice greeting, tipped her hat, and told us that a lot of Australians walk it to "train." We left the car park knowing that we needed to get a little burn in, and after fifteen minutes or so, it was not too long before our calves were calling to us. Then we saw the steps. Collectively we must have had a lot of guilt about eating so much in Melbourne, because I really don't understand why we decided to continue onward against the pleas of our up-goer walking muscles.

Our calves rang again. "Excuse me, you haven't used us in a week. Did you see that nature trail full of lyre birds that was the same distance but flat?" We still had time to turn off there. Onward we climbed. Then the thighs joined in. "Pardon me, but I'm on fire. Is this really necessary?" Protests from the up-goers continued for another fifteen or twenty minutes or so before they acclimated. On the way up we did indeed see several Australians "training" - happily, we noted that they were breathing heavily, too! And although this wasn't the prettiest walk we'd ever been on, there was a sweet sense of accomplishment nonetheless at step 1,000, hands resting on our knees in fatigue, just like our Aussie brethren.
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Gluttony and Deliciousness!
We have continued happily eating our way through Melbourne. Wonder of wonders, it turns out that this week we have stumbled upon (read: meticulously planned to be in town for) the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, which just happened to coincide with our decision to prolong our stay here in "the most livable city in the world!" In addition to this fortuitous coincidence, we have also taken advantage of the many culinary wonders available in the city, going on foodie-targeted tours each of the last three days.

In order to fully enjoy the spoils that the city has to offer, we decided that a wine tour was the right place to start. We went on a wine tour of Yarra Valley, most known for the cooler climate grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz, although like many other new world wine regions they grow a much larger selection of grapes in small quantities. The "cooler climate" didn't exactly materialize for our tour, though, because it was about 100 degrees... but the heat here was extensively discussed in our last blog entry. And besides, after a few wineries our senses were numbed sufficiently to persevere! We tasted lots of great wine - perhaps not the most fantastic, but it was very enjoyable nonetheless. The nice part was that we were on a small tour that actually had three members of the US Air Force on it as well as a French-Canadian couple and a couple from Australia.

This morning we headed out of our hostel to meet a smiley little energetic chef named Allan in central Melbourne. Allan was our guide for a wonderfully gluttonous and delicious walk he called the "Foodie Tour of Melbourne." Thus began our day of death by slow but consistent eating. We met Allan at Max Brenner Chocolates (an international chain with a store in NYC) at 10AM, where he met us with terrificly tasty Venezuelan Dark Hot Chocolate as well as a tasting of chocolates with praline... mmmm. Allan led our eager group of about 20 adventurous eaters through Melbourne's alleyways, wending our way on a quest for culinary delights. Melbourne has been highly influenced by several waves of immigration, so there is an amazing variety of foods and tastes from so many different cultures. One favorite stop was at a Hong Kong style bakery for something called an "egg tart". The name sounded a little off, but it was fantastic. The shell was like a very delicate butter cookie with a rich and light custard on top, served warm. This was actually the third in a series of four incredibly rich tastings including two chocolate stores and an Italian coffee shop - perhaps revealing the key to Allan's high energy! In the afternoon we had a taste from one of the fish and chip shops that competes to be the best in the city, and ultimately wrapped up the tour at a Japanese Noodle House for some gyoza and edamame. A very tasty adventure.

We planned on venturing to Chinatown for some highly recommended fare after the tour. (What piglets, I know! The tastes were wide ranging, but small on the tour - and it was 2PM!!) But as it turns out (and this was a legitimate coincidence), the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival was in full swing in Federation Square right where the tour ended. There were stalls all along the Yarra River with a huge range of food to munch. A Turkish dish, much like a crepe, filled with ground chicken, feta and spinach was the highlight. Needless to say, we had a go at several booths and then had souvlaki at an acclaimed Greek restaurant , spoiling any chance that we may have had at dinner.

(So instead of dinner, we have been drafting this blog entry jointly from a bar with free wi-fi access. Aren't we cool, hanging out at a bar and typing on a computer at 9PM on a Saturday?!)

For those of you that are interested, there is also a new page up with the photos from Victoria (as well as the last of our Tassie pictures) in the Photos section... We will add more as we move along... All this eating and drinking doesn't photograph that well Winking


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Foodie Heaven
Let me start with a few random side notes about our visit to Melbourne... The women here have great shoes. It is very rare that I would bestow such a compliment on a city, but these women do really have great shoes. Melbournian women also wear their high heels everywhere, much like women I see in New York that perplex me by wearing 3.5 inch heels running through Grand Central...For those of you that may be wondering, I have not indulged my shoe addiction. I have not even walked into a single shoe store because I know what kind of trouble that could cause in trying to zip up my backpack when we go to the next place! I have to keep telling myself that I love the comfort that wearing hiking boots brings, even in a metropolitan city.

My next note is dedicated to those of you that are feeling stuck in the last throes of winter. If you are in the winter then you probably haven't heard me complain about the heat in awhile (and your name probably isn't Jay...), so I will fix that right now. Today we decided, after visiting an amazing market (more on that later), to head to the zoo. I am not such a fan of zoos, but Jay really wanted to see some Australian animals that you rarely encounter in the wild and we read that this zoo was particularly humane, progressive, etc... On our way there, the heat was oppressive. I was thinking to myself that I was melting and decided to look at the handy temperature / compass combo clipped to Jay's backpack. It said 98 degrees. What a relief, I thought to myself, because at least I am not a total wimp... it was legitimately hot. Jay insisted the thermometer was wrong and that it really wasn't that hot. He's reminded me that being from Birmingham, he knew real heat and this wasn't it. I agreed to soldier on through the zoo, which like most zoos is largely asphalt, I might add. Jay read each sign carefully and searched until he found the animal that was supposed to be on display. I walked intently from each little spot of shade to the next, wondering if Jay would feel guilty if I melted. At one point, I hid on a shady bench while Jay went on a water mission, but otherwise, I held it together. We debated throughout the day about whether the thermometer was accurate and in the end, I was vindicated. We looked up the high today and it ranged from 95-99 depending on your location in the city Happy I know you must be wondering what I am going to do when we get to the desert a couple of weeks and frankly, I'm not sure....

Onto more important topics, the food of Melbourne. Melbourne is well known as a foodie city. They take their restaurants and specialty shops quite seriously. Yesterday, Jay and I spent the afternoon doing a walking tour of Melbourne's food sights. I found a free audio tour online and thought it could be a fun way to see the city and Jay kindly indulged this desire. Off we went, sharing the iPod and listening to the tour. Unabashedly tourists! It took us down great little nooks and alley ways in the city. Much of the culture here is hidden in small alley ways and arcades. We saw some beautiful shops - the chocolate shops in particular were amazing - and made stops for coffee and beer along the way.

Last night, we had one of the best meals on the trip, to date. We ate at a place called Lau's Family Kitchen. They serve Cantonese food and it was great. The service was probably the best we had on the trip, the waiter went so far as to offer to hold one of our main courses until we finished the first one, so we could let him know if we were still hungry before he actually put the order in! He also saw we were debating between two desserts and he offered to give us both on one dish. Very kind. The food was also delicious and we really enjoyed ourselves.

This morning we went to the Queen Victoria Market. It is primarily a giant food market that is held 5 days / week here. They have vendors selling everything from cheese to cured meats to veggies and fresh fish (and lots more!) There are 150 vendors in all and it was quite a spectacle. We walked through the market and snacked on a few items for lunch. It was mostly a looking tour though because we don't really have a need to be buying groceries at the moment. These sorts of places make me wish that I liked the idea of cooking in a shared hostel kitchen more than I do... Actually, that's not true. I don't wish that I wanted to spend more time in a shared hostel kitchen than absolutely necessary. Instead, it makes me wish that I had my kitchen teleported along with me throughout my trip (and that I had hungry friends and family to feed too!) Happy

Tomorrow we are continuing our food adventure here. We are going on a wine tour of the Yarra Valley. Wine tours aren't always the best because sometimes they bring you to cheesy places rather than small, interesting places, but at least you don't have to worry about who is driving!
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Back from the bush! (Jay)
We are back in Hobart after a camping, driving and hiking trip into some of Tasmania's beautiful national parklands. We began on the east coast, where we went for a short but steep hike to Wineglass Bay in Freycinet National Park. The terrain in Freycinet was stunning - an incredible contrast of the tranquil white beaches and blue waters of Wineglass Bay lying beneath a group of tall cliffs of pink granite rocks called the "Hazards." The weather was very hot for this hike, but we were rewarded by good scenery and a couple friendly encounters with wallabies along the way.

After Freycinet we journeyed onward up the east coast of Tasmania to the Bay of Fires where we made our first camp site. Our tent was in a secluded spot right off a spectacular beach with brightly colored rocks. It was the perfect camping spot. Sitting by our small fire under the southern hemisphere's stars on a quiet beach in a land called Tasmania, we couldn't help but think that this is about as far from New York City as we could possibly be... and it was right about that time that two cheeky possums came over and tried to steal our dinner! (unsuccessfully I might add).

The next day we drove from Bay of Fires across to Cradle Mountain & Lake St. Clair National Park, stopping in Launceton on the way for lunch and to stock up on our rations. We camped by Cradle Mountain for the next couple days in weather that was close to freezing, so we were pleasantly surprised when we found that our new campgrounds had "facilities." These included a communal shelter with a large fireplace and stovetops for cooking. Even though all we had was a Leatherman knife, one very small pot, and some paper plates, Miranda was somehow able to conjure up some incredible meals out of what seemed to me like thin air. On the last night we were there when I looked around at the other campers I almost felt bad. They must have been incredibly jealous when they looked over from their ramen noodles to see that what smelled so good was Miranda making a full mexican meal of steak and cheese quesadillas and a delicious avocado, tomato and onion salad.

The walking in Cradle Mountain and Lake St. Clair National Park was pretty challenging, largely because of the weather. The conditions were not great, as it was cloudy, windy, drizzly, and very cold while we were there. The big hike we did started out at the beginning to the Overland Track, before veering off to climb Wombat Peak. By the time we reached Wombat Peak, the drizzle had stopped and the clouds were showing signs of clearing, so we were encouraged and embarked upon another climb upward to Marion's Lookout. The climb to Marion's Lookout was very steep, and we had to fight heavy gusts of wind, but it was well worth the effort. On the way up we had a great view of a rainbow over Crater Lake, and the view from the top of the lookout was fabulous, too. Instead of retracing our steps, we headed down a steep path that linked into the Dove Lake walking track, which was the most popular walk in the park because of the great views of Crater Mountain from Dove Lake. We have posted some pictures of the hike, but I will include one here from Marion's Lookout:
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Back from the bush! (Mirm)
I sort of pictured that we would ease into the whole camping thing. I am not exactly sure how I figured that one "eases into camping", but I thought that is what we would be doing. But no, we were camping for real. Just us and our tent and the stuff we brought in our car. (Granted, we did still have the car nearby, so we didn't have to carry everything to a far off location...) We actually managed pretty well, but I will leave Jay to tell the stories. We have now returned to Hobart and will spend the day seeing the Southeast of Tassie, hopefully including some stops at wineries and more casual sightseeing than we have done the last few days before we fly to Melbourne tomorrow.

We have been busily trying to plan the next part of our route. It will likely involve some more driving and camping as well as some flying for the long hauls across Australia, but we are trying to figure out the best vehicle for the trip. Camping was fun, but somehow, I think it will be even more fun with a few more creature comforts. Jay is under the mistaken impression that it won't count as camping, but I hopefully will be able to convince him that sleeping in a van that has a little heat and cooking on a camping stove will still count Happy Stay tuned for our next move.
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Tassie
We have just finished our first day of hiking around Tasmania. The day wasn't too intense, but we saw some gorgeous scenery in Mt. Field National Park. I have added a Tasmania photo page and will update it as we have internet access. Starting tomorrow we plan on being a little further out and trying camping. I am not sure how this part of the adventure will go, but it is worth a try to see how we like it... At the very least it should make for some humorous stories...
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Bacon with a side of bacon
This part of the world loves bacon in a way that can hardly be conveyed with words. The only way to truly understand the obsession is to experience its pervasive nature on menus, particuarly the budget friendly places. Most prepared sandwiches include bacon as does every possible breakfast dish including the very strange bacon and banana croissant that we saw in New Zealand.

Now, I like pork more than your average joe. In fact, most of you have probably had a conversation with me at some point about barbeque and listened to me discuss how much I enjoy seeking out fantastically prepared pig. But Australia and New Zealand take the bacon thing to a new level. And bacon doesn't mean the traditional American bacon that we all know. Bacon seems to encompass a wide range of sliced pork - it may be "streaky bacon" or "shoulder bacon" or "American bacon" or something similar to Canadian bacon that seems unnamed or even at times it appears to be some variation on proscuitto. Most of the time you don't know what kind of bacon will appear on your dish until it arrives.

I am not complaining... just an observation...bacon rules the menu here Happy
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This is your lucky day
Australia at last! A little over five weeks in and we have reached kangaroo country. We flew into Sydney on Thursday from Christchurch, NZ, where we were greeted by prostitutes, beetles and pimps at our hostel, the Highfield Hotel in Kings Cross, just like we were at home in New York. On the bright side, we were a short walk from downtown Sydney and haven't spent much time at the lovely Highfield.

Over the last two days we have walked all over Sydney, and the report is that the city is lovely. The area by Sydney Harbor is particularly nice, with the Sydney Opera House and Royal Botanical Gardens on one side and the Sydney Harbour Bridge - the largest steel arched bridge in the world - on the other. We also had a fun exploring Chinatown and Darling Harbor, especially with Miranda doing some culinary research to lead us to the best eats in the area. Last night we had delicious Peking Duck at BBQ King, and this afternoon we ate a fantastic soup at the Japanese noodle shop, Ramen Kan, after touring the Chinese Gardens in the morning.

This afternoon, we decided we would go ahead and bite the bullet and take the bus tour of the city. We had put in a solid eight hours walking yesterday and were close to reaching that again today. Before our feet gave out completely, we figured we would pay the price and get on the Sydney & Bondi Explorer bus, so we could get a little more site seeing in... When we got on the bus, the driver asked for $78 for the two hour audio tour. We were a little surprised at the price, but it was near the end of the day, and for some reason the guy said "Looks like it's your lucky day. Go ahead and sit down" without taking any payment from us. That was a nice twist! We got to take our trip across the bridge and then hop off the bus without feeling obligated to listen to the audio-recorded commentary. Tonight the luck continued. We had stumbled upon free tickets to watch a simulcast of La Traviata at the Opera House tonight. It was pretty cool to sit there watching the sunset, listening to the performance and sitting with 4,000 other people.

Tomorrow we are off to the Blue Mountains to enjoy what Mother Nature has to offer in this area.
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