A Travellerspoint blog

Up, Up, and Away in My Beautiful Balloon!

9:35 pm
Wednesday, 14 October 2009
Sails in the Desert
Ayers Rock/Uluru, Australia

Today was a big day for me, huge in fact: I crossed one of the items off my bucket list: I rode in a hot air balloon! Yes, today was ballooning day for the group.

Our pickup was scheduled for 4:00 am in order to facilitate a sunrise takeoff, which in and of itself constitutes o’dark thirty. To meet the bus at 4:00 am, one really needs to get up at 3:00 am in order to perform one’s morning ablutions, so if there is anything any earlier than o’dark thirty, we had to be up by it. If, however, one is so excited one does not know whether to shit or go blind and is morbidly paranoid about sleeping through an alarm and a wakeup call, one will of course arise at 2:30 in the morning and before one’s ablutions (face washing, tooth brushing, sunscreen slathering, and dressing) in the absolute darkness lest one wake one’s peacefully slumbering traveling companion. Miraculously, at the conclusion of this feat, all my clothes were on in the right places and (after a check in the daylight) right side out!

The bus from the balloon company picked up the 26 of us who were going ballooning as promised at 4:00 am. Mark and Nico, the balloon company driver and crew, took us out into the middle of the great beyond (once again, I was very glad to be in a large group, as this would have been a prime serial killer opportunity) to the first of two launch sites we sampled that morning. We waited for quite a little while before Charlie, the balloon pilot, decided the winds were not propitious at that particular launch site, and that we would have to move to alternative launch site number one. He figured this out by letting go of a helium balloon that contained a battery-powered LED. The balloon glowed red as it floated up, helping Charlie determine which way the wind was blowing in the dark. The second launch site was deemed a go, so Charlie, Mark, and Nico began setting up the balloon.

The first thing they did was unload the basket from the trailer. I was very interested in the wherefores and particulars of this operation, particularly how all of us were going to go up in this one balloon. It was really quite simple: big basket, big balloon. That’s right, the basket held twenty people at a time, plus the pilot, so most of our group got to go in one balloon. Charlie told us they were using the biggest balloon, which displaces 12 tons of air, for our flight. They laid the basket on its side and attached the balloon to it. Next, they began filling the balloon with cold air using a giant fan, not unlike the ones used to fill up Jupiter Jumps! (I must report that I am quite certain the noise level on that fan was in excess of 85 dB and it would most certainly fail a DuPont noise audit. And, sadly, no hearing protection was provided for anyone except the pilot.) Once the balloon was mostly full, they anchored the basket to the tour bus, then started lighting off the propane burner to warm up the air inside. If anything, this was even louder than the fan! The warmth from all that propane felt really good, though, as the morning was still somewhat cool. I cozied up to it and wished only for a marshmallow to roast!

Once the balloon started to lift off the ground a tad, Mark and Nico started loading us into the STILL HORIZONTAL basket! The basket was sectioned off into four compartments, which were fully padded on the sides and bottom. He had people climb into the compartments one at a time; in this orientation, they looked rather like the sailors’ berths on aircraft carriers that you see pictures of, with the ballooners tucked in lying on their stomachs with their heads sticking out the top (well, except for the one oldster who climbed in head first and couldn’t get turned back around!). Mark and Nico loaded about 15 people that way, saving the last five for loading after the basket was levered upright by the balloon. I guess he thought David and I looked particularly spry, because he saved us for the upright loading, which required us to clambor over the top of the basket. I wouldn’t necessary say I was particularly graceful, but I got in without falling and without sticking my butt in someone’s face like the upside down geezer!

Once everyone got loaded, Charlie hit the burners and we lifted off just as the sun rose over the horizon. It was amazing: we gently and gradually rose off the ground, with little sensation of movement at first. Then, with a long and loud blast of the burners, we began to rise! Up, up, and away, flying away from the sunrise! I was near the center of my little compartment, so I was able to sneak a peak at Charlie’s altimeter. The highest I ever saw it creep was 2600 ft, which was the absolute altitude above sea level. I asked Charlie and he told me that the elevation at Alice Springs is about 1500 ft, so we were 1000 feet in the air at our maximum height.

We flew at 1,000 ft for a short while, then Charlie lowered the balloon down much closer to the ground so we could hunt for kangaroos. And when I say he lowered the balloon, he lowered the balloon: the bottom of the basket was brushing the tops of some of the trees! (According to Charlie, he does this to brush the dust off the bottom of the basket…while I know he’s teasing, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, as the ground out here is composed entirely of red ferrous dust that gets in everything and everywhere.) Did I mention that the burner was really loud? Charlie took advantage of that noise to flush out the ‘roos. We were almost to the end of the flight and were disparing of actually spotting anything other than prodigious amounts of kangaroo poop (we knew where they’d been, but not where they were!) when Charlie briefly demonstrated the noise they make for us (a gentle clicking, in case you are interested), and that seemed to draw the little buggers out, because not 30 seconds later we spotted two adult red kangaroos!!! If spotting two kangaroos in Australia gives you this much of a charge, I can’t imagine what going on safari in Africa must be like!

After we saw the ‘roos, it was time to land our balloon. I was a little concerned because a couple of people in our group had been ballooning before and said that sometimes the basket will tip over onto its side when it lands. Fortunately for us, Charlie was an exceptionally good lander and our basket stayed plumb and true. Then it was time to disembark our craft, which was almost as ungainly as getting in even though it was still upright. Even I, probably the most nimble and agile of the group (which, let’s face it, ain’t sayin’ much!) needed an assist from David to get out of the basket. (He’s stronger than he looks, which came in very handy when one of the mobility-impaired oldsters couldn’t get out. David basically lifted him out of the basket.) Mark and Nico loaded us all back into the bus and drove us back to the hotel for our champagne/orange juice breakfast. (We had more than champagne and orange juice, but those were your beverage choices.) Let me just say that the balloon crew had a very free hand with that champagne bottle: originally they were pouring mimosas from pitchers, but by the end of breakfast it was straight champagne right out of the bottle!) and many, many in our group partook very, very freely---I think there were more than a few for whom it was fortunate we had a bus driver! They served chocolate cake as the final course of breakfast (it was a very odd menu: chicken legs, quiche, fruit, cheese and crackers, and chocolate cake), and I remarked that starting the day with booze and chocolate is certainly a good way to go!

Our next stop of the day was the Alice Springs base of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. This is a group of doctors based at locations around Australia who fly out into the bush and provide routine and emergent care to citizens who do not live in ready proximity to medical care. The doctors are paid by the Australian government, but the RFDS does solicit donations to help them buy new aircraft--can you imagine the screaming if we tried to institute something like that in the States?? They showed us something called a pedal radio, which was developed in the 1930s as a way for residents of remote communities to contact the RFDS. It’s exactly what it sounds like: the user pedals to generate the electricity needed to power the radio. Clever, eh?

After the Doctors, it was off to downtown Alice Springs for a spot of shopping and lunch. And saying you’re going to downtown Alice Springs is like saying you’re going to downtown Parkersburg. Mostly, it exists to serve the tourists: souvenir shops, T-shirt shops, and places to eat. We grabbed a sandwich and a refreshing iced chocolate, picked up a few souvenirs (really, y’all, I’m doing good with the shopping thing because of the weight and size restrictions…just so you know, you all are getting flat, non-breakable items that pack well.), and then it was time to board the bus back to the airport for our flight to Uluru/Ayers Rock.

Once again, QANTAS rocked my world! Because I knew about the no boarding zones thing, this time I was the first person on the plane (well, except for the handicapped people, and I don’t think that should count against me, do you?). David said he looked around and I was gone before he knew what was happening. You gotta move fast when you hang out with me. As the Varners say, only the hardy survive with me! The flight to Uluru was short, only 50 minutes, but they served afternoon tea: cheese and crackers, a little piece of lemon cake, and a container of water all wrapped up in the cutest little expanded polystyrene container. It looked like a little pencil case! QANTAS excels at sleek packaging, that’s for sure. I wonder what we’ll get on our flight to Cairns tomorrow, since it is three hours. The mind boggles.

Our hotel here in Ayers Rock, Sails in the Desert (or Sticks in the Sand as Lisa jokingly called it!) is definitely a cut above the Alice Springs Resort. We checked in, then set out for a look-see at the stuff in the little “village”. Just like in the US National Parks, everything here is owned and operated by one vendor and exists to serve the tourists, even more so than Alice Springs, so selection was limited and prices were elevated, but I bought a few (again) little things. There was even a little grocery store, where we scoped out the Tim-Tams. Turns out there’s more than one flavor!! I think sampling will be in order.

At 5:30 we headed out to view Uluru at sunset from one of the viewing locations. Uluru(aka Ayers Rock) is the world’s largest monolith--basically the whole thing is one giant rock. It is composed of sandstone, and geologists estimate that, just like an iceberg, only 1/12 to 1/10 of it is visible above the ground…the rest goes down about 4 miles. Uluru is red due to large amounts of iron oxide (rust for the non-chemist readers), which is omnipresent in the middle of Australia, giving rise to the nickname “The Red Center”.

Once again, Tauck hooked us up: booze and snacks while watching the sun set over “The Rock” sitting on little camp chairs! Luxury viewing for sure. I think some of the oldsters were so loaded on the free booze they couldn’t have told you which way west was! (I heard rumors that one of them is traveling with his own bottle of Scotch…how do you do that and prevent breakage?) Old age drunkenness aside, sunset was spectacular as it changed the shadows cast over the Rock. Interestingly, just like in Hawaii, the sunset didn’t linger very long, and neither did we: back to Sails for dinner with Sandra, Linda, and Fay at the casual dining option before an enrapturing evening doing laundry and corresponding with you, my lovely readers.

So, while I wait for the laundry to dry (I would have been done half an hour again save for the lady that had to wash her clothes twice because she’s “highly allergic”), I will say good night and sleep well. I am sure I will! Tomorrow we’re off to Cairns for the night, then to Hayman Island and the Reef!

G’night mates!

Posted by hidburch 01:09 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

G’day from The Alice

Yes, there is chicken!

2:50 am
Tuesday, 13 October 2009
Alice Springs Resort
Alice Springs, Australia

Today (well, really yesterday relative to when I am actually writing this, but to be perfectly precise, I am talking about Tuesday, October 13) we left Melbourne and flew to Alice Springs, smack dab in the middle of the Australian Outback, in the so-called Northern Territory. It was a jam-packed day, forcing me to delay telling you all about it until today!

First things first: we flew QANTAS from Melbourne. Here are two interesting factoids for you. QANTAS (no U) stands for Queensland and Northern Territories Air Service, and they are pretty much a monopoly for intracountry air travel here in Australia. There is starting to be some competition from Virgin Blue, but mostly it’s the Big Q. Second of all, QANTAS rocks! When we checked in for our in-country flight, we did not have to show any ID (perhaps this is a result of being part of a tour group, but it’s still dandy convenient!), nor did we have to remove our shoes prior to security. There wasn’t even any of this silly zone boarding--it was a Southwest style “Get your ass on the plane.” Since I am a speedy sort, I was one of the first in line and didn’t have to fiddle-fart with the slow people who can’t seem to heft their 80 lb carry-on into the overhead “locker” (that’s what they call them here). Then, as if all this weren’t luxury enough, they actually served us a real snack on the 2 ½ hour flight: a quite tasty chicken salad sandwich with “rocket”, which I think is lettuce. I’ll have to ask about that one. I’m not sure I was completely hungry, but on the theory that it might be a while till lunch, I ate it and enjoyed it with my Tim-Tam cookies that Lisa, our tour guide, handed out this morning. YUM! She equated it to the Oreo of Australia, but I think it’s better: two chocolate wafer cookies schmeared with chocolate filling then dunked in more chocolate. I am definitely a fan. (I was not so much a fan of the Cherry Ripe she also distributed due to my keen dislike of coconut. I tell you, there is no truth in packaging any more: anything named Cherry Ripe should taste like cherries and only like cherries--none of this coconut crap.)

I had a window seat on the plane (unusual for me, an inveterate aisle denison, but this was beyond my control), and so got to look down on a lot of Australia. Another factoid: Australia is 104 square miles smaller than the land mass of the continental United States, and 85% of the population lives along the coast. I can see why: it is desolate in the middle part. Brown and empty as far as the eye could see, which from the vantage point of a Boeing 737 flying at about 30,000 ft was pretty damned far.

Anyway, we arrived in Alice Springs, where the local time is 1 ½ hours behind Melbourne. I do not understand this all. However, I guess when you are out in the middle of the never never (as they say here in Australia…you and I would call it BFE, 40 and plumb, etc) you can pretty much declare it to be whatever time you feel like. Alice Springs is named for Alice Todd, the wife of Charles Todd, the man in charge of erecting the first transcontinental telegraph line across Australia. Apparently when the workers got here, they believed there was permanent surface water here in the Todd River (build a telegraph line, get your name on everything!), so they established a settlement. Turns out not so much on the water. In fact, the Henley-on-Todd Regatta, the annual bottomless boat race held here in Alice Springs, was cancelled in 1995 due to there being water in the Todd River! Ironic, eh? There is a permanent American expatriate population of about 2,000 Yanks here in Alice Springs because the Pine Gap listening post is here. For those of you that saw “The Right Stuff”, this is where Dennis Quaid went to be able to communicate with the Apollo astronauts. It is still in use today, and is the primary listening post for all the signals coming from the Middle East theater. However, only janitors and gardners work there, according to their declared occupations. You would really think the US government could come up with a better cover story, but still…

Our first stop in Alice Springs was a dream time luncheon held out in the bush. We had lunch and listened to a very informative lecture about the history and anthropology of the native Aboriginal people from a bloke (I’m trying to pick up the local lingo!) named Con. There was actually chicken for lunch, so I can truthfully report that I have technically enjoyed Alice Springs chicken in Alice Springs, Australia!

Con told us a lot of interesting facts about the Aborigines, such as the fact that they originated in Sri Lanka and have been in Australia for over 40,000 years, much longer than any white people. They are a nomadic and communal people who share everything amongst them. Also, there are only eight male and eight female names total in the entire Aboriginal naming system. That’s gotta get confusing when you are calling the kids in to supper! Also, Aborigines do not have the concepts of heaven, hell, gods, etc, so when someone dies, they perform a several day “sorry business” ceremony (not unlike the Jewish custom of sitting shivah), at the conclusion of which that person’s name is never mentioned again. It is as if he or she never existed.

There were several Aboriginal women there demonstrating their traditional artwork, the so-called dreaming or dot paintings. I bought a beautiful one of rain and lightening dreaming from an Aboriginal woman named Peggy. The Aboriginal people do not like to be photographed, but will consent to having their picture made with the artworks you buy as proof of their authenticity. There were so many beautiful works to choose from--it was a tough decision, but I made it quickly lest one of the oldsters in the tour group snatch it away from me!

After lunch we headed to the hotel briefly. Let me just say that we are apparently staying in the nicest hotel in Alice Springs, the Alice Springs Resort, and while it is nice enough, it is not the Grand Hyatt, that’s for sure! We freshened up, then headed back out to the Alice Springs Desert Park to learn about the animals and ecosystems of the Outback. Let me boil it down for you: it’s hot, it’s dry, there’s lots of lizards, lots of marsupials of varying size, a few species of predatory birds, and lots of big-ass poisonous snakes. That pretty much covers it.

Dinner last night was an Outback barbeque, again hosted by Con. We drove out into the big nowhere (frankly, I was glad we were in a large group, because in the movies these types of scenarios usually end with the luscious American lass getting axed by the serial killer!), where somebody had constructed a picnic shelter type arrangement. The evening was absolutely delightful. Con kicked off the evening by demonstrating how to make a traditional Outback campfire dessert called a spotted dog, which was basically a sweet quick bread with currents and red wine mixed in. He baked in in a Dutch oven over the coals. Believe me, his techniques are not approved of by the head baker at Empire Edibles: he didn’t measure anything, much less weigh it! It was literally a handful of this and a glug of that! My overly anal retentive baker’s heart was seizing in terror, especially when he didn’t even grease his Dutch oven. I couldn’t argue with the end result, however: drizzled with a little golden syrup, it was quite yummy, if a little smoky tasting. I asked him if it ceases to be a spotted dog if you actually prepare it in an oven (and measure stuff!), and he reassured me it did not, that he frequently makes it for his grandkids that way. Perhaps I will have to find a recipe and try to replicate it for you.

A friend of Con’s, a singer named Barry Skipsy, (Skip for short) entertained us before and during dinner with traditional Australian songs. It was obvious that he and Con are old friends who have been doing their tourist act for a long time because their schtick, while a little predictable, was truly hysterical. Of course we had to sing a round of “Waltzing Mathilda”, which, while not the legal national anthem (“Advance Australia Fair” for those of you following along at hom), is considered by most Australians to be their national song. I think it is very telling of the Australian national character that this song is really about a suicidal hobo dancing with his bedroll, don’t you? In addition to his guitar, Skip brought along two native instruments for us to play: a wobble board and a lagerphone. The wobble board is very simple: a thin piece of flexible MDF board that you flex in rhythm with the music and it makes a “wop wop wop” sound. The lagerphone was a little more complicated. It was a broom handle to which were loosely screwed dozens of beer bottle pop tops, and when you shake the stick they jingle almost like bells. That’s not all, though, because you can create accents by whacking a board at the top with a serrated stick, or pull the serrations across an “alyuminium” rod. Very complicated, that one.

Now, to the food. More chicken, of course, but the big news: I ate KANGAROO! I bet you didn’t think I would do it, did you?? Well, you were wrong, because I did and I can report that it tastes nothing like chicken! It actually was quite tender and tasted like sweet beef. Not bad at all. Con and Barry told us the government is trying to encourage Australians to eat more kangaroo (apparently it’s low in fat and cholesterol) because it is a native meat and the animals are considered pests, sort of the equivalent of deer for us. Plus, eating more ‘roo means fewer cattle need to be raised, which is better for the local environment. In fact, you could say that ‘roo is a “green” meat!

We wrapped up the evening with star gazing with Andrew, a local amateur astronomer. This was some serious star gazing, people, because it was not only dark out there, it was damned dark. Ink dark. Can’t see your hand in front of your face dark. Developing pictures dark. You get the idea. Anyway, with no light pollution on a perfectly clear night, you could see everything beautifully. I actually spotted the Milky Way on my own--it’s never been that clear or obvious to me before. Andrew also showed us several constellations, including Scorpio and Capricorn, pointing out the stars with the ULTIMATE geek toy: a laser pointer with a 5 km range!!!! He actually had to be carefully not to point it near a plane coming into the Alice Springs airport, it had that much range. I asked him about where one could procur such a device (imagine my geek street cred if I showed up to a meeting toting one of those puppies--no one could ever complain they couldn’t see what I was pointing at!), but sadly, he said you actually have to have a license to buy one in Australia. Bummer. He also showed us the pointer stars for the Southern Cross, but said that it was too low on the horizon to see the actual constellation. He did say we’d be able to see it really well in the morning when we go ballooning.

That’s right, tomorrow is the sunrise hot air balloon ride. That’s right, friends, by the next time I correspond with you, I will have crossed an item off my bucket list. I’m so excited I don’t know whether to scratch my watch or wind my butt.

Until then…

G’day mates!

Posted by hidburch 01:07 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

You can put a price on love, it turns out!

And frankly, I don’t love you that much.

overcast 17 °C

Monday, 12 October 2009
Grand Hyatt Hotel
Melbourne, Australia
9:00 pm

We had a lot of adventures today, some of which I will tell you about in a bit, but the biggest one for me was buying opals. Ninety-five percent of the world’s opals are mined in Australia, so I thought opals would make wonderful souvenirs for several people on the “prizes” list, as well as for me. I asked the ever-helpful tour director Lisa to recommend somewhere to buy opals, and she named a store called Altmann and Cherney, with convenient stores here and in Sydney. Let me clarify a bit: there are stores everywhere in in Melbourne that sell opals, but I get the feeling that most of those places are selling the equivalent of the $10 New York City street corner Rolex watches, if you know what I mean. I wanted somewhere reputable so that I knew what I was buying was, in fact, an opal. This store definitely fit that bill, plus Tauck tour members get a 10% commission discount there, which was an added cha-ching in favor of A&C. So, after the bus dropped us off at the hotel, David and I walked the three short blocks to the jewelry store. We explained our mission to the sales clerk, who very patiently explained about the different types of opals (fire, the traditional style that most people are used to seeing, black, and a third I can’t remember at the moment….hey, I’ve been up since 3:30 this morning. Give me a break, okay?) and started showing us earrings (my personal preference, so that’s what everybody was going to get. Hey, next time you go to Australia, you can pick out the kind of opals you want, okay?) OH HOLY CRAP!!! Apparently I was seriously naïve about how much stuff costs, not unlike an 80 year-old man who thinks a suit should still cost $10!!!! There was NOTHING in the store in the way of earrings that were less than $300 (and these were not large earrings, either!)!! That’s when the opal plan got thrown out the window, and how! I love you all, but frankly, I didn’t take you to raise! However, since it really is all about me, I got myself a dainty pair of teardrop-shaped fire opal earrings. If you ask me nicely, I might let you borrow them some time.

Today was our day for the bus tour of Melbourne with the tour group. We boarded the bus at 9:00 am--there were some who were tardy, and believe me, I took note of the laggards. Tardiness is a character flaw, people! I am trying to make allowances for the geriatric set, but frankly, if you know you walk slow, start earlier! This was your classic “R&L” (riding and looking) tour--here on the left you see Parliament House, and on the right Fitzroy Gardens, etc. Our first actual stop was St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, the seat of the diocese of Melbourne. It was quite a nice church, but after seeing Notre Dame and Sacre Couer, pretty much everything else is a bit of a letdown.

I learned a new phrase on the way to St. Pat’s. We passed an…ahem…local institution called “Ladies for Gentlemen” that is exactly what you think it is (apparently it’s legal here), and tour guide Lisa used the phrase “Ladies of Negotiable Affection”. I LOVE it!

After St. Pat’s it was off to the Royal Botanic Garden and the Shrine of Remembrance. These two attractions are right across the street from each other, and we had about an hour and a half to divide between the two as we saw fit. I powered through the Camellia Collection and attempted to view the greenhouse containing the tropical collection, but the door was locked, even though it was supposed to be open. I really think the caretaker who saw me standing there with my face pressed against the glass should have let me in, don’t you? For heaven’s sake, I flew almost 10,000 miles to see those flowers! Apparently he did not share my viewpoint, so it was off to find the Rose Pavilion. This was a completely unsuccessful quest, so I power-shopped the gift shop (you know I never pass up a good gift shop!), then headed across the street to the Shrine of Remembrance.

The Shrine of Remembrance is a monument to all the soldiers from Victoria (the Australian state in which Melbourne is located) who were killed in the Great War (WWI), particularly those who died at Gallipoli. It was built entirely with funds donated by the private citizens of Victoria. The monument in very moving: there is a sanctuary in the center of which rests a slab of marble engraved with the phrase “Greater Love Hath No Man”. There is an occulus (look it up) in the ceiling, and on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the sun enters the sanctuary through the occulus and transects the stone. (The introduction of Daylight Savings Time here in Australia has, of course, fouled up the lovely symmetry, but engineers solved the problem by slapping a mirror up there…now, the ray of sun transects the stone twice on November 11: once at 11:00 (faked with the mirror) and once at noon, whose true sun time is the old 11:00. Since the actual event is so rare, they perform a remembrance ceremony several times a day using a spotlight. They play a bugle call that is called “The Last Post”, then the light moves across the stone. It is incredibly moving. I also learned that red poppies are used as the flower of remembrance because they were the first flowers that began growing again on the battlefield of Gallipoli.

After our opal excursion, David and I set out for more walkabout. Lunch was a fast-foody picnic in Federation Square (more on this in a moment), then we rode the City Circle tram (that actually goes in a square) all around the Central Business District. It was basically a free Gray Line tour --more R&L tourism! After that, we set off to the Eureka Tower to take in the city views from the 88th floor observation gallery. At 90 stories high, Eureka Tower is the tallest residential building in the world, and the 88th floor observation platform is the highest in the Southern Hemisphere. And, for those of you who loved “Leaving Las Vegas” or “National Treasure” (the only movie of his I can honestly say I ever liked) Nicolas Cage owns the penthouse! Anyway, we dutifully paid our $16.50 to be conveyed up into the lower stratosphere to take in breathtaking views of the Melbourne skyline. Even with my issues with heights, I can handle observation decks since they are enclosed. I did bow out of the Edge Experience, which is like the Grand Canyon skywalk, a glass cantilever that lets you look down under your feet. We ended the day with a little retail therapy. I think I bought a little notebook to write these witty bon mots down in, but after my purchase this afternoon, I was feeling sufficiently shrunk and didn’t buy much.

Today was another good food day. The magnificent breakfast buffet awaited us this morning at the hotel. For lunch, David and I went to a little shop we’d seen near the train station called Lord of the Fries. At first, it seemed like a normal burger joint with a wide variety of French fry dipping sauces available for your order. I ordered a mini-burger combo Aussie style (ketchup and vinegar on the fries), while David had the Indian curry dipping sauce. While we were waiting for our order, we began to notice that something was amiss with this “burger joint”. It was the sign that said “100% vegetarian. Ask about our gluten-free and vegan options.” That’s right, it was a vegetarian “hamburger” joint. And that, my friends, is simply just wrong! Fortunately, they put enough toppings on my textured vegetable protein patty that it was palatable. That, however, is not an experience that ever needs to be repeated.

Dinner was at another New York Times-recommended place, a Thai restaurant called Cookie in the Curtin House on Swanston Street. We got several small plates to share, including a fried shrimp cocktail with chili mayonnaise, a roasted pumpkin dish, Thai sausage (who knew?), and something with bamboo shoots rolled up in rice noodles. Everything was yummy save for one little problem: the shrimp were fried with their heads on! I’m afraid I had to give that a big ol’ pass. And, oddly enough, the sausage tasted like lime. An experience we had the other night at Gingerboy was repeated at Cookie tonight, so I’m starting to think this is typical of Australia: if you show up without a reservation, they will seat you but will tell you what time they need the table back! It really makes you feel like you are playing beat the clock to eat your vittles and git! While on the one hand I admire the efficiency, I’m not completely sure I’m not being given the bum’s rush!

Today’s Australia observations: I needed some more ibuprofen (you try waking up at 3:30 am every morning and see how much no steroidal anti-inflammatory you need to down to stay functional), so we had to stop at the chemist’s, not the pharmacy. And weirdly enough, ibuprofen is behind the counter. You don’t have to have a prescription, but you do have to ask the pharmacist (chemist?) for it. Also, shopping arcades are very common here in Melbourne. It looks like one or two little shops in a nook or cranny, but you walk in and suddenly there’s an entire building full of stuff! It’s very pretty, and very unique.

Tomorrow we leave to go to the Outback, specifically Alice Springs. I think the bug-eating barbeque is tomorrow evening. I can tell you this for certain: Heidi-san does not eat bugs, and they can’t make me! By the way, Hugh didn't call today, either. Don't know what's wrong with that boy.

G’day mates!

Posted by hidburch 03:59 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

Another day of walkout in "Melbun"

and Hugh still hasn't called!

overcast 18 °C

3:45 am Monday, 12 October 2009
Grand Hyatt Hotel
Melbourne, Australia

I simply do not understand it. I have been in Australia two whole days and Hugh hasn’t rung me once. What is wrong with that man? Could it be that he realizes I am simply having too much fun in “Melbun” to chat with him right now? Yep, that’s how they say it here. Apparently I have been grievously in error by actually pronouncing the “r”. Please forgive me, Melbournians.

As you can see from the time stamp, we have not managed to overcome the time problem yet. I pursued a different strategy last night: sleep until I woke up, then take a sleeping pill. However, by the time I woke up, it was too late to a sleeping pill but frankly, it’s really too early for normal humans to be awake. And David is worried we won’t be able to get up for our 4:00 am balloon departure. Don’t really think that’s going to be a problem, do you?

We spent most of yesterday going walkabout again. We had breakfast at the hotel (more on this in a bit), then set out on a walk along the Yarra River, the Ohio River of Melbourne. You know that saying, “I went to a fight and a soccer match broke out?” Well, we went for a walk and a marathon broke out! The Melbourne Marathon was yesterday morning, and it ran along the river, so we got a closeup view of the runners, some of whom were not unattractive. We watched them run for a bit, which is frankly like paint dry, then proceeded with our walk. We visited the Rod Laver Arena, site of the Australian Open (I did not see Patrick Rafter…such a disappointment), then the Melbourne Cricket Ground. (It is named after some famous cricket player, but I did not retain that information. There is only so much room in my brain, and that doesn’t qualify for retention.).

We circled back around and hit the cutest arts and crafts fair that is apparently held every Sunday along the river walk near the National Gallery of Victoria. You all know how I love a good arts and crap fair, and this one certainly qualified as a good arts and crap fair. I did manage to restrain myself somewhat, but it was really difficult and I really was only able to manage it knowing the amount of space available in my luggage for schlepping stuff home. I talked to several of the artisans, including a food vendor making ebelskiver pancakes (the little spherical ones you make in the special pan). I tried to study her flipping technique, because hers came out much prettier than mine ever do. As for what I bought, well some of you will just have to wait until I get home to find out.

We wanted to go see the aboriginal art collection at the National Gallery of Victoria since it is free and we were right there. In we traipsed. Turns out the aboriginal part of the collection is in a separate facility that is actually much closer to our hotel. But on the theory that a little art appreciation never hurt anybody, we viewed the modern portion of their collection. I can see dead Egyptian stuff anywhere, frankly, so we gave that a pass. The collection was small, and not totally my cup of tea (Musee d’Orsay is still my number one all-time favorite walk-till-I-drop museum), but we met the nicest docent. We were the only ones in that part of the gallery, so she gave us a personal tour of the art and told us all about what she liked and disliked about the various pieces. That was nice. It was a little disappointing, however, because we apparently JUST missed a huge Salvador Dali exhibition that just closed last weekend. That I would have enjoyed.

After a buffet lunch at the hotel (more on this, too, in a bit) with the tour group, we went back to the Queen Victoria market. David wanted to pick up some souvenirs, and not being personally averse to shopping, I tagged along. If anything, there was more stuff to see than yesterday, including the mother lode of Uggs. The only problem was, I couldn’t tell which were real and which were fake, so I opted for none. On the way back, we saw a sign for Borders, which you know draws me in with an electromagnetic force, so we popped in. They actually have an Australian baking cookbook! However, I was strong (figuratively) since I am not strong (literally), because that sucker’s a monster and I am not carrying it all over Australia. (Don’t fret, little campers, I’ll pick it up in Sydney so schlepping will be minimized.) I also found Australian office supplies! You know my love and fascination for foreign office supplies, much like Monica’s hotel shampoo collection on “Friends”. That I did not resist, (though I did limit), because a pen doesn’t really take up much room at all. It’s not completely abnormal, is it, to covet office supplies from other countries? It sprinkled on us on our way back to the hotel, but it was okay because we saw the loveliest rainbow afterward. I think it’s a sign that, overall, our trip is going to be good.

It was not an immediate indicator of the success of our next adventure, dinner on the Tram Car Restaurant. This is where you go for a ride on a 1945 tram car and they serve you dinner as you clickety-clack around town. Dinner was good (macademia chicken with sweet potatoes and sticky toffee pudding, a new dessert for me, to end), and the entertainment, and Joe the singing waiter serenaded us with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra tunes as we ate. We met two lovely (if older) couples during dinner: Bob and Betsy from Vermont (he’s an electronics engineer and she’s an occupational therapist) and Neil and Betsy from California (he’s a PVC salesman and she’s pretty much a whiner). However, as we were eating, it became apparent that we were no longer moving--the tramcar had broken down! Joe the waiter, the chef, and the driver all got out and tried valiantly to fix it (don’t know how much Joe and the chef contributed to that enterprise, but at least they tried), but alas, the tramcar would not clickety-clack down the track any more that night. They had to call our bus to come pick us up out in the middle of Melbourne! Oops. (This is not unlike the time on our Hawaii trip where our bus got into an accident on Mount Haleakala…perhaps I am a bus hex?)

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you about our tour director. Her name is Lisa, and she’s very sweet. She’s Canadian, dontchya know (insert Canadian accent here), and seems to run a pretty tight ship. I like that in a tour director! We also met two women who appear to be traveling by themselves (my future fate, I am certain, since David is getting married soon): Sandra, who is about my age and is from Denver (occupation currently undiscovered) and Linda, a retired public health nurse from Riverside, California (she says to get your H1N1 vaccine, by the way). We met them at lunch yesterday, which brings me to…

THE FOOD. Oh my gawd, the food here at the hotel is spectacular and I know that for a fact because I ate most of it! We had the breakfast buffet yesterday morning (and let’s all say a little prayer that the front desk clerk wasn’t yanking our chain that it was included with our room rate, because it was $76 for the two of us, so I made sure to get my money’s worth, just in case) and it was epic. Now, I love a good breakfast buffet, and this was better than most: egg station for omelettes, fruit display, variety of breads for toast (lots of spreads, too, including Vegemite. David tried it and reported that it’s very salty. I stuck with peanut butter and lemon curd…don’t make that face, it was on two separate pieces of toast!), waffles, yogurt, juice of all kinds, scary Asian breakfast stuff, cheese station, charcuterie (look it up…it’s a word you need to know). It just went on forever. Like I said, I got my money’s worth, and even though we tramped all over Melbourne, I was barely starting to get hungry when it was time for the LUNCH buffet. Oh dear God, it was a thing of beauty. Of course there was food of all types, but that was only an annoying prelude before you got to the centerpiece of the thing: the dessert buffet. It was glorious: churros and chocolate sauce, scooped-to-order gelato (I had chocolate, David the vile strawberry), brownies (kind of dry…Mrs. Varner’s are better), individual crème brulees and chocolate puddings, a chocolate fountain with marshmallows for dipping, macaroons (I had a lemon one), cookies, chocolate tartlets (excellent ganache in those), lemon tartlets (redeployment of the morning’s lemon curd if I don’t miss my guess), something with strawberries in it (you know its fate with me), more waffles, a cinnamon crumb cake that I was simply too full to even taste…there was probably more but I have forgotten in all in the sugar coma! They did have HUGE blocks of Callebeu (this is not spelled correctly, but Microsoft changes other spellings to weird words!) chocolate as part of the display--I had severe chocolate envy--but David would not steal one for me to bring back for the stash. Something about weight and melting…he has obviously never had the chocolate pudding I make with that stuff, or he would have packed it out on his back!

Australia observations for today: they really do say “No worries mate.” Also, they have dual flush volume toilets with a little handle that selects half flush or whole flush (I will let you conclude for yourselves what you are supposed to do with that!). I am not a fan, as the half flush really doesn’t flush much away. I am being environmentally rude and using the whole flush every time.

Today (Monday) is our Melbourne city tour, then I think we might go on a river cruise or the City Circle Tram. Unfortunately the National Gallery is closed, so no aboriginal art for us. And maybe tonight I’ll figure out a medicating strategy such that I’m not up at 3:30 in the morning blogging! Then there’s always Hugh stalking…

No worries, mate!

Posted by hidburch 10:49 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

Melbourne, 10 October 2009

No Hugh Jackman Sightings the First Day

3 °C

3:30 am
Sunday, 12 October
Grand Hyatt Hotel
Melbourne, Australia

Up to eight hours of restful sleep my ass! So far, my Ambien experiment has complete repeatability: I sleep well for 6 hours, then it’s up and time to make the cookies. Only I have no oven and no ingredients, so I will have to settle for telling you about our first day in Australia as a diversion. (David is awake, too, and no, I didn’t wake him up. Physically our bodies think it’s 12:30 in the afternoon and time to be up and about.)

The lack of sleeping notwithstanding, Melbourne is wonderful! No issues with customs or immigration, save that they seemed extremely concerned that David’s middle name was not on his electronic visa and that we didn’t have some little green stamp on our entry cards to let us out the special exit. (Don’t really know what was so special about it, because once the lady determined we didn’t have it, she asked us if we were carrying any food--roasted almonds, which are apparently kosher, though raw are not.--then gave us the stamp anyway.) We had a scoche of trouble locating the Tauck driver in the airport mob scene, but we found another traveler from our tour, so we knew we had not been left on the proverbial doorstep. I finally managed to locate him on one last desperate pass through the terminal before giving in and calling a hotel shuttle. He was an interesting fellow: an Italian who immigrated to Australia over 25 years ago, so imagine an Italian/Australian mixed accent!

We’re staying at the Grand Hyatt right in downtown Melbourne, and have a room on the 20th floor (sshhh, don’t tell my mom) with a magnificent view of the Yarra River. Quick calculations revealed that it had been over thirty six hours since my last shower, so quick showers were the order of the day. (Excellent bath amenities which are absolutely worth stealing, if only the FAA and their Australian counterparts weren’t so peskily anal about that 3-1-1 liquids rule, by the way--I do like me some tiny little hotel shampoos!), then simply because it was easy we grabbed lunch at the hotel. We shared steamed dumplings and some sort of stir-fried beef with noodles, which were both good, but the big find was the iced chocolate. I ordered it thinking that it would be similar to something I’d had in Tokyo, literally an iced hot chocolate. Oh no, when it came, it was orders of magnitude better: it’s a cross between chocolate milk and a milk shake! Thick, but not too thick, made with chocolate syrup and vanilla, rather than with chocolate ice cream or milk. I downed the whole thing before our lunch even came, and got another one to boot when we stopped for a tea break during our walkabout that afternoon.

Thus cleaned and fortified, we set out an a walkabout around town. The tour came from an article I’d copied out of Natural Geographic Traveler (finally a subscription that has proven useful!). We walked to the Flinders Street Railway Station and watched street performers, then visited the Campbell Arcade and Desgraves Street, where we (of course) had to sample a cupcake from Little Cupcakes. (Strawberry for David, Teddy Bear for me). We continued our walk through several lanes and so-called arcades before ending up almost where we’d started. All along the way we saw lots of hip little shops and restaurants, but more significantly, we saw at least 5 chocolate shops! And I don’t mean candy shops, I mean serious chocolatiers that were conching chocolate and dipping truffles on the spot. If this is not that unusual, I think I’m going to like Australia! They could be my peeps!

Sara had clued me in to the joys of the Australian Post Office, and since I wanted stamps, when we passed on along the way, we popped in. Sara did not exaggerate one bit: the Australian Post Office is so much more than a surly clerk selling stamps and delivery confirmation. They sell post cards, packaging materials, calendars, posters, office supplies (they were good, but none were really worthy of bringing home…I’m trying to restrain myself, you know!), even little stuffed animals. I managed to get postcards and stamps only, although there was a lot more I wanted to buy. Damn Tauck and their one suitcase restriction! (But I’ve found a loophole: the airline lets you have two, so if I get desperate, I’ll buy an extra one the last day in Syndney!)

After our postal find, we hiked to the Queen Victoria market. This market is vast, with over 1700 stalls selling everything from fruits and vegetables to knock-off (or possibly genuine…I couldn’t tell) Ugg boots to DVDs and ticky-tacky Australia souvenirs. It’s a cross between a farmer’s market, a gourmet food store, and a flea market. We wandered the market for a couple of hours, then headed back to our hotel to change for dinner.

We had dinner at this wonderful restaurant called Gingerboy. It is on the top 10 Melbourne restaurants list, was in my New York Times “36 hours in Melbourne” guide, and made it into David’s Lonely Planet guidebook. We tried to make a reservation, but the only one they had was at 10:00 (by which time I was no longer conscious), but said we could eat at the bar. So off we went. When we got there, we were early enough that they still had a table, which they forewarned us they would need back by 8:00 pm. Ordinarily that would have bothered me a little bit, but it was so early and we were so tired (the earth was spinning under me occasionally at that point) that it didn’t even register on my rude-meter. The food was wonderful: shrimp dumplings, wagyu beef dumplings, son-in-law eggs (more on these in a moment), then kingfish cooked in a banana leaf with lemongrass curry, accompanied by rice and what they called corn cakes…you and I would have called them hushpuppies! We also split a piece of silken tofu 5-spice cheesecake with pineapple jelly. The cheesecake was surprisingly good given its suspicious tofu ancestry, but we both could have done without the pineapple jelly. It tasted fine, but the squishy-chewy didn’t fit with the cheesecake. Now to the eggs. We got them because they were considered a house specialty by the New York Times. It is a soft-boiled egg that is then breaded and fried. The idea is to pop the whole thing in your mouth at once and to “enjoy” the yolk squirting out. Frankly, I know I have a big mouth, but I can’t fit a whole egg in there at once, so I enjoyed it in several bites, letting the icky yolk part (which I don’t like anyway) drain into my bowl. They were good, but I think once was enough!

It was while walking around that I observed two things about Australians: yes, there are fat, ugly Australians…based on television coverage, I was expecting an entire nation peopled with Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman (neither of whom I have seen yet) lookalikes. Not so much. Also, they have no concept of “keep to the right” or in their case, the left, when walking on the sidewalks or crossing the street. It is just a higgledy-piggeldy free for all when the light changes! Knowing me as you do, you can imagine how this cranks on the anal retentive little nerve!

I’m still not the least bit sleepy, so I think I’ll post this and maybe go take another shower…you can never be too rich, too thin, or too clean! More tomorrow. On tap for the day: dinner on the Tram Car restaurants, where unlike Brian, I will endeavor to stay sober.

Also, while I did not meet Hugh Jackman today, I am sure he's out there waiting on me with baited breath, perhaps waiting to surprise me on the tramcar. If so, cancel the cable, sell the car, I won't be coming home!

Posted by hidburch 10:50 Archived in Australia Comments (3)

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