Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Kangaroos, Parrots, and Wombats--Oh, My!

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that my favorite places in Australia involved close encounters with animals.  While I enjoyed the wildlife of Western Australia (discussed in a later post), the two places I liked best were in Eastern Australia.

The first was at Depot Bay in Murramarang National Park, where we rented a cottage for a few days. There, we were surrounded by Eastern Grey kangaroos, who were relatively tame.  Probably because some people fed them, even though that was discouraged.

OK, so I fed one kangaroo! But I didn't feed it bread, which can kill them. Our neighbor there had purchased food that was safe and nutritious for the parrots and kangaroos.

Flocks of wild parrots kept us entertained. “This is Eden,” our neighbor, Deb, said. I had to agree. Between the kangaroos, the parrots, the wallabies, and a gorgeous beach, it was a little paradise.

One of the mob (the proper designation for a group of kangaroos) had an ear he couldn’t straighten. We called him Loppy. 

Here’s a photo of Loppy caught at our garbage can. The photo below is a little blurry, but I like the expression on his face. He seems to be saying, "What?"

Fortunately, none of the kangaroos got into our garbage. Lacking the prehensile thumb of primates, they were at a disadvantage.

We relaxed at Murramarang and took hikes in the forest and along the beach. And one night, we were invited to a campfire gathering by friendly cabin neighbors.  Dawn, a delightful woman with a captivating smile and twinkling eyes, said to me, “We were meant to meet.” We hope that’s true, because we want to see her, her daughter Liz, son-in-law Andrew, and their visiting Canadian friend Helen again one day. (Sorry, the only photo I took of these new friends didn’t turn out.)

Shy wallabies encountered on a walk.

The other place that will long live in my heart is the farm we stayed on in the Kangaroo Valley. Our host, Geoff, offers “The Man from Kangaroo Valley” guided horse treks.  He and Gail, his wife, also rent out holiday apartments (Rocky Mountains) on their large farm, situated in a green valley next to a national park.

Geoff, with a rescued pony and one of his dogs. He and Gail have rescued many horses and dogs.

Kangaroos on the farm.

Geoff seemed a lot like the seasoned cowboys I have known in Eastern Washington, who are tough and strong, but who also care about the welfare of wild animals. We really liked him. More than 300 kangaroos visit his farm in the evening, but when I asked, “Is it a problem that the kangaroos eat the same grass as your horses?,” he responded, “They were here first. And I think we should encourage native wildlife, don’t you?”  I certainly agreed. But it is kind of him, given that he has to feed his horses hay when the grass dries out. (He has to do that more often now, because with the drought of recent years the area has received only one-third of the rain it once did.)

Geoff told us where we could go­ to see wombats, which we did on my birthday.  How exciting it was to see these strange little near-sighted creatures, grazing on the grass.  Larger than a small dog, and fairly compact, ­­­they only emerge from their burrows after sunset. Kevin and I stalked them and then stood quietly while they came closer to us.

The wombats' biggest enemy is cars, for if they are caught in the headlights, they simply freeze. Perhaps even more than kangaroos, they do not know what to make of automobiles. Geoff is the designated shooter for the area, which means he’s the one who has to put down badly injured or diseased animals. You can tell that it pains him terribly to have to shoot an injured wombat that has been run over. “Many people don’t even stop to see if the joey [in the wombat’s pouch] is still alive,” he said. That’s sad because orphaned joeys can sometimes be saved.

Road signs warn motorists to look out for wombats and kangaroos.

While we were staying on Geoff’s farm, we met a fascinating young couple, Lauren and Rob, who were visiting from Wollongong, not too far away. Lauren has aboriginal ancestry. She shared some interesting stories about aboriginal people. She remarked that everyone seems to assume that all aboriginals play the digeridoo, when, in fact, only one aboriginal group does. I told her that, in the U.S., many people assume all Native Americans rode horses and lived in teepees, whereas, in our area, the Northwest coastal tribes lived in longhouses and traveled by canoe.

Rob, her husband, is a martial-arts expert, who learned at an early age how to kill someone in just a few moves! We told him we wouldn’t want to cross him! We had a lovely evening the night we stayed there, staying up late, ­­drinking wine with Rob and Lauren and swapping stories.

Their stories reminded me of a quote from Bill Bryson, who wrote about Australia in The Sunburned Country. He said:

It [Australia] has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world's ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures — the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish — are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you.... If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”


Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and that there’s nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.

Sure enough. We discussed funnel web spiders. Rob even taught us how to extend the time you have to seek medical treatment before death or serious illness results from a bite, from just minutes to an hour. Apparently, if you are bit on an arm or leg, you simply wrap a compression bandage horizontally over the bite, then wrap another down vertically from the top of your leg or arm, to keep the poison from migrating to your heart.  If you get bit on the head, then you need to wrap the compression bandage tightly around your neck until you can’t breathe. (OK, I am kidding about the last one.)

Rob and Lauren did not mention an uncle who had been bitten by a funnel web spider, but Lauren did tell about her father, who was bitten by a red-backed spider, also venomous. He didn’t go to the hospital when he was first bitten. Instead, he went the next day, after his arm had swollen to an enormous size, and then he had to stay in the hospital for nearly a week!

We felt lucky to escape from Australia without stepping on a snake or getting bitten by a spider. Nor did I chance picking up pretty shells of any shape, although I knew the poisonous one is conical.

On the farm, we were awakened in the morning by kookaburras, whose calls sound like raucous laughter. Kevin and I couldn’t help but giggle, even though we were barely conscious. Everyone should be woken by kookaburras at least once in their life.

A kookaburra in a tree on the farm.

Among the many birds we enjoyed in Australia were the flocks of cockatoos that appeared even in the downtown areas of the small towns we visited.


With so many wonderful animals, birds, and people, how could we not love Australia?

Note: See update to the Rarotonga post, which I forgot about and only added recently. I also made addenda to "Surprising Sydney."

Joanna, Mort, Baci, and Aboriginal Art

Several times, over the years, we have found that a mistake made while traveling often delivers unexpected experiences that become highlights of your trip. That was certainly the case with our meeting of Joanna, Mort, and their charming cat, Baci.

I had neglected to reserve a room in Sydney on our return from Perth. When I realized that, I immediately began searching for accommodation on AirBnb.  We found a room at Joanna’s and Mort’s house in an attractive residential area with many trees among the Victorian- and Edwardian-style houses and bungalows.

Joanna is a writer in the field of health and wellness, so we swapped stories about the joys and trials of writing for a living. Baci, who must surely have some Burmese in his background, delighted us as well with his friendly demeanor and antics, including crawling into his own kitchen cupboard where he hides out from the world. We had needed a “kitty fix” and he certainly filled the bill. He is gray-blue with golden eyes and bit round, and sadly, my photo of him did not turn out! (And yes, "baci" means kisses in Italian.)

Here, however, is our photo of Kevin with Joanna and Mort, who is also a writer, as well as a musician, and expert in indigenous cultures and art.

Mort is holding his children's book Stumpy, The Talking Tree. Note the artwork behind them
It was almost as if the universe had sent us to their door. We had visited several museums in both Sydney and Perth to view aboriginal art. The Seattle Art Museum had hosted a marvelous show on Australian aboriginal art a few years ago, and we felt certain we would encounter more high quality artworks in Australia, but it seemed that everywhere we went, we kept missing special exhibitions. We did see some excellent work, but we hungered for more.  Meeting Joanna and Mort was truly serendipitous, for they had some of the finest aboriginal art we had seen—even a large canvas by renowned artist Betty West.

 Mort is a personal friend of Betty West and has spent a lot of time teaching music and circus performance (for example, the high wire) to aboriginal youths. He has a deep appreciation of the native Australian cultures.  As he says, “Can you imagine that the Europeans called the aboriginal people ‘uncivilized’? Yet they lived here sustainably for more than 50,000 years!”

In 1958, several Tiwi artists were commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales to create these 17 Tutuni or Pukumani grave posts.The artists used traditional carving designs, but a different wood than the one that they use for ceremonial purposes. These striking posts were considered ground-breaking, establishing Australian aboriginal cultural creations as an important, and now recognized, part of the art world.

I don’t pretend to understand the rich symbols and spirit in the culture of aboriginal Australians. Artists draw on the rich symbology of The Dreaming or Dreamtime, which can't really be expressed in English. Dreamtime is eternal; it exists before the individual and after, it is “time out of time.” I may not fully understand it, but I find when I closely observe a work of aboriginal art and am open to it, I can sense the spirit infused in the work. Yet, as Mort recounts, when the artists are creating their work, the canvases just sit amid the dust and distractions of everyday life; dogs and children may walk right over them. It makes me realize that, as in most ancient cultures, there is no separation between the spiritual and the everyday; it is integral to all of life.

Currently, Mort is tracing the ancestral stories from many cultures, in Australia and around the world, that are concerned with the star cluster the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters. I find it fascinating that so many different peoples have similar mythologies about those stars, as though there is some primordial shared knowledge that we, in the modern world, have forgotten.

How tragic that in colonizing other places, the Europeans destroyed so many of the native inhabitants throughout the world, including the Americas and Down Under--nowhere more so than in Australia, where 99% of the aboriginal peoples were eradicated.  If we look at modern European-influenced cultures from the dawn of the Industrial Age forward, I think it highly unlikely that they will leave a sustainable world for 50,000 years, particularly when we seem to be hanging by a thread. What have we lost?

This thought-provoking installation by Fiona Hall. Called "Slash and Burn, includes sculptures of heads and body parts tied to videos of war films. It is part of an exhibit at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The exhibit, called "When Silence Falls" showcases works by artists worldwide who, through their work, speak for those who have been victims of massacres, ethnic cleansing, or political events.
Note: I  can also highly recommend the book, European Passengers, an historical novel by Matthew Kneale, which won the Whitbread Book Award in 2000. A heartbreaking story, it tells of the early Europeans in Tasmania and their treatment of the Tasmanian aboriginal people.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Surprising Sydney

Note: We stayed in Sydney before we flew to Western Australia and then again on our return. In this blog, however, I will group the blog posts for each region together to make them easier to follow. I am also using American spelling, rather than the Australian “Harbour City.”

Sydney is a beautiful city with its water views, extensive green spaces, and tree-lined suburban streets. We liked the way that the old blends in with the new, and we were surprised that Sydney did not feel like a huge city, mainly because it’s a collection of neighborhoods.  

The trees are a type of fig tree. Aren't they beautiful?

Among the older buildings, the Queen Victoria Building is an absolute standout. We were thankful that efforts some years ago to have it torn down had failed, leaving Sydney with a unique shopping space.

Sydney is a very walkable city, and when you want to go farther afield, the metro and bus services get you quickly where you want to go. If you buy Opal cards, like Seattle’s Orca cards for public transport, you can get around quite easily and relatively inexpensively.

Our first day in Sydney, we took a tour of the Sydney Opera House. Another surprise was discovering that the opera house did not open until 1973. It is such an iconic building, and it seems like Sydney really didn’t become a world-class city until after the opera house was built,  though perhaps Australians would disagree.  The building was supposed to take 3 years and 7 million Australian dollars to build, but it took 16 years and over 100 million dollars.

The Sydney Opera House has become a fitting symbol of the city.

Part of the problem was that the Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, had provided little more than sketches when he won the competition. He only won because the Finnish-American architect Eric Saarinen joined the award panel and revisited some designs that had previously been rejected. With his support, Utzon’s proposal won.

Another reason for the cost overruns was that Utzon was a perfectionist, who demanded that everything be “just so.” The costs eventually saw Utzon deposed as head architect, so he returned home to Denmark, no doubt feeling a bit depressed. He was vindicated, however, when UNESCO named the building a world heritage site in record time, while he was still alive. And, in spite of the huge cost overruns, the resourceful Aussies paid off the debt in only 18 months, through a lottery.

We found the building much more stunning in person than in the photos we had seen before we came.

The architect had visited Central American ziggurats, for instance, and as you ascend the steps, you get the sensation of leaving everyday life behind and approaching something special, almost like entering a cathedral or other sacred space.

The details on the inside contribute to lifting your spirit.

And take a look at the close-up of the tiles that cover the roof:

The ladies room has an undulating sink bed that tilts to control the flow of the water.

They’ve also had some unusual concerts* at the Sydney Opera House, including one for dogs that played sounds only in the range of a dog’s hearing! (That concert was held outdoors, so there were no worries about the pooches fouling the interiors.)  We attended a performance there too, but in the concert hall. The acoustics were marvelous (Utzon wasn’t responsible for those). The concert was Kevin's belated birthday gift, because we had decided to celebrate his birthday in Sydney a few days late--and it was a night to remember. We heard Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, as well as Scheherazade .2 by the American composer John Adams played by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. (We much prefer Rimsky-Korsakov’s version.)

Other highlights were our visits to the Australian Museum and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  We were particularly interested in aboriginal culture and art work. I will write more about that later—and the wonderful people we met—in another entry. For now, just enjoy the photos.

Boomerangs for the tourist, not very authentic, I'm afraid.

Addendum: Another surprise!

We were taken aback to see a UCLA Store in a mall in Sydney. I stopped by to ask if it was official. The young man who was managing the shop told me that it was official and that UCLA has several stores throughout Asia too. (Sorry, I somehow lost his email address. Maybe he'll stumble across this blog?)

And speaking of attractive young men, here's the friendly fellow who cut my hair in a barber/salon for men and women: