Cool Bananas, Vegemite, Kangaroo Jerky, and Other Things I Digested in Australia
First off, the flight was long. Really, really long--about 6 hours from NYC to LA and then another 14 to Sydney. Somehow, I managed to sleep most of the way. I arrived at 10:00 PM on a Friday night--actually quite refreshed--14 hours of sleep will do that for you, and met up with my friend, the ape abroad, Julie Wiskirchen. We headed out to Manly (pictured left) where Julie lives and went out to the Ivanhoe, a pub a block from her apartment. Here, I discovered that drunk Sydney-siders are like drunks in any other city in the world and not funny when you are sober. This was really no surprise. I also discovered that Australians have bad pick-up lines as well--it's just harder to understand a slurring Australian. I did notice, and it was confirmed by Julie who has been in Sydney for over a year, that Sydney seems very white. There were a few Asians, but rarely did I see someone of color.
Our next stop was the Justice & Police Museum where in addition to the permanent exhibits, which included a jail cell, a stuffed Pekinese dog, and the death mask of a famous Australian criminal and folk hero, Ned Kelly, there was also an interesting Noir fiction exhibition.
We then proceeded to shop along Oxford Street, checking out the historic Paddington houses and stopping by the Paddington market. Walking back towards the ferry, we passed by the art deco Anzac Memorial and headed on toward The Rocks, another historic neighborhood where the convicts first landed. As it was St. Patrick's day, hundreds of people had packed into the bars and were flowing out onto the street. We decided to join these people and met up with some mates from Julie's work for an all-nighter of boozing.
Hungover and exhausted, we arrived in paradise. Hamilton Island is situated in the Whitsunday Islands along the Great Barrier Reef, which Australia bills as the 8th wonder of the world--250 kilometers wide, 2,000 kilometers long of corals, exotic and colorful fish, snorkelers and SCUBA divers just off the east coast of Australia. Hamilton Island is a resort--a traveling experience I'd never partaken in. Julie and I were easily impressed as they took care of our bags at the airport, and even throughout our stay we were unable to become as trusting as everyone else seemed to be. We were always amazed to find our bags and towels where we left them on the beach. "Is my camera still there?" "Yeah" "Huh..." You can take the New Yorker out of New York...
The birds were amazing! Birds fly free in Australia that are caged here, so we ran a few experiments and here is the outcome: cockatoos prefer sugar to Equal, and lorikeets prefer apple juice to orange juice. Julie stole the sign from our breakfast table which warned: "If Polly wanted a cracker, he'd ask for one. Please don't feed the birds." Setting the tone for the rebellion that would characterize my trip, I fed the birds whenever I damn well felt like it.
Our other major on-island discovery was Neighbours, an Australian soap opera that comes on at 6:30 PM every night. You may think this is sort of pathetic that we know this, but purely by chance, we always seemed to be preparing for dinner at around that time. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the relationships between the lovable elderly couple Madge and Harold and the two teenagers they referred to as "the boys." An expedition to the show's website revealed the boys were adopted.
After the first night in which I collapsed in exhaustion at 6:00 PM (missing Neighbours), we had an agenda. Oddly enough, not only on this day, but for the entire trip I awoke really early. At breakfast, Julie convinced me that it was important to try Vegemite. I tried to get out of it, but finally agreed that it would be a very "Aussie" experience. All I will say is that I wouldn't again eat it if my life depended upon it. Then we proceeded to enjoy our island experience--Whitehaven Beach came first--one of the world's finest beaches with sand pure white from silicone so that your feet don't burn as you walk on it. We were to discover later that we suck at application of sun screen, as Julie ended up a bit red and I had spots of burn--the backs of my shoulders, the back of one thigh, and my forearms which looked suspiciously like birthmarks.
The next day we were psyched to experience what we had been planning for a month--SCUBA diving on the Great Barrier Reef. As we rode the boat to Reefworld, we filled out our release forms and I lied... Do I have asthma? No. Have I ever had lung problems? Never (I only have one lung). Upon our arrival, we went snorkeling to kill time before our diving shift. It was amazing! Just under the surface of the water was a world of the most colorful fish I have ever seen! Julie and I couldn't get enough--we were in the water almost non-stop until it came time to meet up with our SCUBA instructor, Jacquie. She took us down to a platform that put the water at chest level and showed us how to clean our masks: "First, you spit in them. Yellow, green or brown, it does the same thing." Then she showed us how to clear the water out of our breathing apparatuses and some SCUBA sign language. We learned the signs for turtle, shark, take me to the surface, all is well, and cool bananas--the SCUBA equivalent of "awesome!" Finally, we got to go underwater. As we got used to readjusting the pressure in our ears, Jacquie took us through a school of colorful fish, feeding them. Cool bananas. We went lower, exploring a sea cucumber, some coral, a huge oyster, and a plastic shark. Cool bananas. Upon surfacing, Julie and I vowed to become SCUBA certified when we got back to New York--though SCUBA diving in the East River would be very different. "Look, a tire! A corpse!" Cool Bananas.
That night was trivia night at the resort--though we did not do well, I did learn a few things. For instance, did you know that the reason the kangaroo and the ostrich are symbols of Australia is because they both can go forward but not backward?
On our final day in utopia, we packed our schedule. We started by renting the only transportation available--a buggy (read "golf cart") which was odd because it was made like an American vehicle with the driver on the left, but you still had to drive on the left side of the road, so I got a warped try at driving on the opposite side of the road. Our first stop was the fauna park, which was pretty pathetic. We watched the grouchy crocodile get fed a quarter chicken, which was over very quickly, much like the life of the female crocodile they once put in his pen to keep him company. He ate her. We then moved on to the trained cockatiel show which featured birds named after members of the famous Kelly outlaw gang. The show highlight was Dan Kelly bicycling across a high wire. I was able to complete the obligatory koala cuddle portion of my Australian trip. Some customs officials will not let you leave the country if you can not furnish an overpriced Polaroid of yourself and a lethargic marsupial.
Our next stop was the Wire Flyer which is hang gliding but safe--you're attached to a wire the whole time and they hoist you back up when you reach the end of the wire. It was fun, but not much of a rush, so we moved on to the shooting gallery. Let me just say that if you need someone on your side in a shoot-out, it might be best not to pick Julie or myself. We each had 13 rounds and since the target was so far away, we didn't even realize we had been missing the target all along. As we packed up to go on to the beach, we chatted with the gregarious rifle range worker. He invited us out after dinner to join him where the locals hang out.
That evening after lamenting over Madge's diagnosis of malignant cancer on Neighbours, we headed out to the poshest restaurant on the island. We polished off a bottle of wine with our meal. Our gun-toting friend never met up with us as promised, so we set out to find the locals dive for ourselves. It appeared to be a dud, so we went to a tourist bar, also a dud, but with a live band, where I desperately fought sleep. We finally returned to our room where I fell asleep before my head even hit the pillow.
Hamilton Island to Sydney
In the morning, we fed the birds at breakfast one last time and then headed back to Sydney. Back in Manly, we revived Julie's plant and headed out to the Sydney Aquarium. I had seen pictures in the guide book and really wanted to walk through the tubular tunnels underneath the sharks, which we did. It was not nearly as scary as Deep Blue Sea or Jaws 3D so we proceeded home to watch a movie--Road Trip which wasn't as awful as I anticipated since Tom Green was not the central character.
The next morning we headed out to see a few historic houses including Elizabeth Bay House and Vaucluse House. We hiked to Watson's Bay for lunch and visited The Gap to look out at the view of the cliffs and ocean. We caught a bus back to the center of Sydney to explore the Hyde Park Barracks, a jail with a colorful past.
That evening, I arrived alone at Sydney Harbour Bridge, ready for Bridgeclimb. About 2 years ago, an Australian petitioned to start a business guiding people to the top of the bridge and back down again--after a struggle with whatever authorities needed convincing, BridgeClimb was begun. After signing a release form (Do you suffer from vertigo? Do you suffer from depression?) and taking a Breathalyzer test, we donned our BridgeClimb outfits and gear and were trained to use the equipment. The whole climb took two hours and the views were breathtaking! I was climbing with Australians who were intrigued by the idea of New York. They loved pointing things out for me and showing off their knowledge, which I was glad to absorb. I mostly chatted with one man and whenever I'd say something he thought was particularly American, I would hear him chuckle and repeat it to the other climbers. We hit the top of the bridge just in time to see the sunset and began the descent, turning on our swanky headlights as it became dark. I then met Julie at The Australian, a pub near the bridge. We had a few drinks, ate kangaroo pizza and called it a night.
In the fifth grade, my teacher asked the class what countries would we like to learn about. I picked Australia and the teacher gave us each a penpal from the country we had picked. I got a girl named Wendy from a farm in Kempsey, Australia. I don't remember why Australia fascinated me so in the fifth grade, but an early fascination for Australia developed into a friendship that has lasted 18 years. The chance to meet Wendy finally convinced me to give in to Julie's plea to visit her in Australia.
The following morning at 6:00 AM, Wendy and her husband Darryl picked me up and proceeded to drive to her folks' house 6 hours north of Sydney in Kempsey. It was very surreal to be in the presence of someone I had known for so long and yet had never really known at all. I don't know what I expected, but I definitely wasn't disappointed! When she got out of the car to greet me, I didn't know if we should hug, shake hands or what, but she took the lead and opened the door for me to get into the car and I was spared the decision. We chatted the whole way, with long comfortable silences that can be expected at that hour.
Six hours later, we arrived at her folks' farm. Her children ran to greet her and her mother immediately began offering us all food. Wendy's dad arrived home from milking the cows shortly after that--what a likeable man! He walked a bit like a cowboy because of knee problems and spoke like an Australian version of Boomhauer, the character on King of the Hill. I hated asking him to repeat himself, but I almost never figured out what anyone was saying the first time they said it. Wendy's entire family lives around the area. Wendy's mom brought out her "chook" (chicken) for me to pet. Massive flooding had wiped out a lot of farms a week before, and she told me about how high the water got and how everyone coped and everything got cleaned up afterwards. She asked about my job, and knowing how hard-working and honest they all are, I felt silly talking about designing a golf club house.
Wendy took me for a drive to see her hometown. It reminded me a lot of the rural parts of Idaho Falls, but with kangaroos. We visited the place her family likes to camp, Hat Head, and tooled around a few neighborhoods. We then headed to the farm to milk the cows. They patiently showed me how to hook a cow up to a milking machine and how to milk by hand. I even tasted some of the milk fresh from the cow, but it was too warm and too heavy-tasting. The calves then needed to be fed, and as they cannot drink their mother's milk, they are given buckets of milk. In order to approximate the act of suckling, you submerge your hand in the milk and the calf sucks on your fingers. It was a grotesque feeling made worse when I looked at the slobber that remained on my hand after the calf was finished. I helped sweep up a little, but was mostly useless, as one might expect a New Yorker to be. We returned to the house for dinner--really good hearty food--and everyone began retiring rather early--a 4:00 AM milking can't be easy if you haven't gone to bed early! Wendy stayed up showing me her wedding photos and chatting until we both could stay up no later.
The next day, I felt like the literal city mouse in the country when I put on the only clean shirt I had left--a black leather sleeveless top which was just short enough to totally miss covering my navel ring, which Wendy's daughter pointed out with fascination. I explained it away saying that I had it because I'm American.
I climbed on the 18-seater plain which smelled of chocolate vomit (don't ask how I know) and headed back to Sydney, where Julie met me and we proceeded to go shopping in the bohemian neighborhood of Newton and then retire for a quiet night of movie watching--The Wog Boy. Since Sydney is so white, Sydney-siders need someone to discriminate against. Thus, those of Mediterranean descent are referred to as Wogs. Nick Giannopoulus, the comedian(?) who stars in this movie, makes his living making fun of himself and his Greek heritage. The movie was terrible--even Road Trip was much better.
In the morning, I headed towards work with Julie and once in Sydney, found a cab to return to the airport. I caught the planes home with little problem. Though I had been stressing about the fact that I had been on a farm, I lied on the customs form just like I had lied on the SCUBA form. I didn't want to call attention to myself and the kangaroo jerky I was carrying back for my brother, and I knew Wendy's cows didn't have hoof-and-mouth disease. 24 hours later, I was back in New York where I easily found a cab. Cool Bananas.
For more travel stories from Australia and also Japan, visit Apes Abroad.
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