Friday, October 30, 2015

The Melbourne Cup; The Super Bowl of Horse Racing

Tuesday, November 3rd, the State of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, will shut down for a "Cup" holiday so everyone can party and follow the running of the Melbourne Cup.

According to the Cup website, "The Melbourne Cup is Australia's most prestigious Thoroughbred horse race. Marketed as "the race that stops a nation", it is a 3,200 metre race for three-year-olds and over. It is the richest "two-mile" handicap in the world, and one of the richest turf races. Conducted annually by the Victoria Racing Club on the Flemington Racecourse in MelbourneVictoria, the event starts at 3pm (daylight saving time) on the first Tuesday in November."

Think Super Bowl, the 7th game of the World Series and the Kentucky Derby all rolled into an event that will bring the state and most of the nation to a halt. In recent years over 100,000 spectators have crowded the race course to witness the event. This year the total purse will exceed $6,000,000.

It is more than a race. It's a fashion and social event. There may be as much attention directed to the fans as the horses. And, while the focus is on the "big event," there are a number of races over the ten days of the event. For example, Saturday was Victoria Derby Day.. Rather than bright colors in the crowd it was "black and white day" at the races.

"Only" 85,000 attended Satuday's race. We saw a lot of black and white and big hats on the streets of Melbourne Saturday after the races. It is a really big deal in the State of Victoria.

Sunday morning we noticed TV crews outside the nearby Catholic Church. We inquired and learned there was a special Mass for the Victoria Racing Club.

It is and interesting and exciting time to be in Melbourne.

Melbourne: Vibrant and Alive

After a week in the small towns of Tasminia, Melbourne, with a population of over 4 million was a bit of a shock. The streets near our old town hotel are jambed with cars and trams and the sidewalks (foot paths) are alive with pedestrians. Old and new buildings blend, narrow alleys sport outdoor seating for adjacent cafes and 19th century shopping arcades weave through buildings.

We did a quick walk through of Queen Victoria Market--think Pike Place Market on steroids--and will need to make a second trip to do it justice.

Melbourne is a "free colony" as opposed to Sydney which was settled as a "penal colony." They are proud of that difference. They didn't need prision ships to populate the city; the discovery of gold nearby in the mid-1800's was enough to attract people and generate great wealth. They claim the gold extracted from the area exceeds the California gold rush output many times.

Signs of the wealth abound. The city was mster planned and claims that 20% of the land area is park or open space. Wide streets radiate from the city center. Large, ornate public buildings and churches still occupy key locations, protected by rigid preservation regulations.

As a history buff I appreciated the Shrine of Rememberance, the memorial to Aussies and Kiwis who served in their armed forces. It's kind of a big block of stone from the outside but the interior tributes are touching and well done.

Dined at one of the alley restaurants and tried our first kangaroo. Not sure if it was ranch raised or road kill but it was delicious. (Kangaroo hides are available in the Q. V. Market!)

Launceston, Home of the Platypus House

Our last stop in Tasmania was the riverfront northern town of Launceston, home to over 100,000. The town is unremarkable but they have done a nice job of preserving their 19 century architectural heritage.

We began our first day with a hike that included crossing a 90 year old suspension bridge which spanned the ominously named Cataract Canyon. We passed without incident!

We then headed down river to the Platypus House, where researchers are trying to learn more about the little monotreme and it's odd looking relative, the echidna. Beauties they are not but, as monotremes, they share one characteristic found in no other mammal anywhere but Australia. They both lay eggs. Very interesting.

The Tasmainian phase of our trip is winding down. Tomorrow we jet over to Melbourne, on the mainland, and the next phase of our journey.

Random Thoughts
Driving: Americans tend to say "Australians drive on the wrong side of the road." It's true they, like their British brethren, drive on the left.  But rightfully they are quick to point out that is not the "wrong" side of the road. It is the "other" side of the road. It's just a matter of perspective.

Gas Prices: People often ask about prices in Australia. Here is one example. Gas is about A$1.40 a liter. Converting to US dollars and gallons that comes to about $3.80/gallon. Not too different from home.

Coffee: Seattleites think they are the big coffee drinkers. The Aussies can't be far behind. In towns large and small coffee shops are abundant and the coffee is good. Here a "flat white" is coffee with cream. A "long black" is just black coffee. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Australia and America--Two People Separated by a Common Language

Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw are credited with saying "England and America are two nations separted by a commmon language." The same applies to Australias and Americans and that's what makes travel in Australia so much fun

You don't call someone, you "ring them up." If you "love up" an old house if you are renovating it. You are "knackered" if you are tired and if you want some candy ask for some "lollies."

Some of the differences result from the Australian tendency to shorten words or to economize. Aussie rules football is "footy." A pickup truck is a "utility" or a "ute." A camping trailer is a "caravan" or simply a "van."

There are subtle differences in road signs as well. A passing lane is an "overtaking lane." A yield sign is a "give way" sign.

Instead of "deer crossing" signs you see signs tuned to the local, nocturnal marsupials. And since they are nocturnal, the likelyhood of squashing one on the road is alarmingly high.

None of this comparison is to suggest that there is a right or wrong way to refer to a thing or activity. It's just fun to see the differences. So far we have always been able to find common words and get along just fine. In reality, the Aussies likely think we speak with a strange accent!

Cradle Mountain, The Little Known Gem of Tasmania

We arrived at Cradle Mountain National Park late Tuesday and had little time to appreciate what a special place it is. The rugged terrain around the park was a surprise after a day crossing the rolling farmland. The park reminded me of Mt Rainier National Park in Washington.

The lodge, though newer, has the same rustic qualites found in the Mt Rainier's Paridise Lodge. The ground and trails around the park offer variety for all skill and energy levels and, like Mt Rainier, the view changes at every turn. Cradle Mountain lacks the scale of Mt Rainier but is impressive from many viewpoints.

We even discovered some normally nocturnal wallabies who were still out on a frosty morning.

We had no idea Tasmania offered this kind of terrain and were sad to leave it after only one night.

Australian Understatement

Australia is home to some of the nastiest snakes on earth so I found this sign, at an historic site in Ross, Tasmania, humorous.

A Different Tasmania; Hobart to Cradle Mountain

“It’s good to have an end to journey toward but it’s the journey that matters in the end.”

We spent our first few days in “Tassie” along the rugged south coast, a coast that reminds me of Maine. In fact, Tasmania is about the size of Maine; just a bit smaller. Tuesday we headed north and discovered a different Tassie. The fairly straight road carried us across rolling ranch and farmland. Flocks of sheep were enjoying the nice green springtime fields. We were reminded of eastern Montana.

Our first stop was Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, where injured or orphaned birds and marsupials are cared for. We got up close to kangaroos, wombats, koalas and the Tasmanian devil. Operated as a non-profit, it was well worth the stop.

We visited several charming mid-19th century towns—Ross and Oatfield—with their stone main buildings resembling England of that period. Most of the road and bridges, and many of the buildings, were built with convict labor who were put to work on “public” projects to speed their “rehabilitation.”

Near the north coast we turned west and then south, entering a rugged mountainous area before settling in for the evening at the Cradle Mountain Lodge in Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Claire National Park. What a gem! The highlight was an after dark “spotlight” ride with the ranger to visit the parks wandering marsupials, which are nocturnal. We spotted wombats (look like beavers without the big tail), wallabies (look like small kangaroos), and several types of possum (which are much better looking than the USA possum.) All are marsupials, which means, among other things, they carry their young in a pouch like a kangaroo.

After our successful “hunt” we returned to our rustic, but contemporary “cabins” under moonlit skies with the promise of frost in the morning. 

Sheep vs Gore

Tuesday, as we drove to the north coast from Hobart it would be easy to conclude there are more sheep than people in Tasmania. The road passes by flock after flock of sheep. But that is changing. With the demand for wool slumping and for Gore-tex products soaring many ranchers are moving from sheep raising to gore raising. This change has many ramifications for the local economy as the sheep and wool related industries supported many jobs in the past. Most gore hides are simply shipped overseas, primarily to China, where they are used to produce Gore-tex jackets and other products, prized by Europeans and Americans.

Further, there are conflicts within the gore ranching community itself over the merits of free range vs ranch raised gore. Proponents of free range gore claim their hides have are more impervious and less harmful to the environment; many of the ranch raised gore spend their lives in feedlots. The ranch raised advocates claim the feedlot approach is not harmful and produces larger, more uniform quality hides. 

One thing is certain. The gore phenomena will have a long term impact on sheep production in Tasmania.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Port Arthur, the Penal Colony

Monday we traveled two hours to the World Heritage Site of Port Arthur, the location of a 19th Century penal colony. I expected to see a prison but it was much more than that. When built in the 1830’s it was an entire community complete with a range of convict staffed businesses. They cut and milled their own lumber. They mined coal. They quarried their needed stone. They ran a shipyard. They grew their own food. In short, convicts staffed the community overseen by military guards and civilian administrators.

Life was harsh for the convicts and it's easy to look back  and wonder at the cruelty of the British system of “justice.” Then it is pointed out that life was cruel in the English slums and prisons at the same time. So was transport to a penal colony in Australia cruel or, in some distorted way, a good thing? I shan’t go there but suffice to say, being a prisoner at Port Arthur was not a great experience.

Tomorrow, on a cheerier note, we head inland.

Doo Town
On the way to Port Arthur we passed through a little place called “Doo Town.” It seems that in 1935 a resident in the little unnamed wide spot in the road put a little sign “Doo 1 99” on his cabin. His neighbor responded by putting up a Doo Me sign. Another named his cabin Xanadoo. Now nearly every home in the community sports a sign and some are very clever. Consider… 
Doo-Little, Da Doo Ron Ron, Didgeri-Doo, Yabbaa Dabba Doo, Wee Doo, and so on. It’s all very clever and a nice relief on the road to a penal colony

Sunday, October 25, 2015


We made it. We are now settled into our Hobart hotel room absorbing the lessons of the day. Little Hobart sits on the south shore of Tasmania which sits off the south shore of Australia. So far we have discovered two claims to fame.
1. It began as a penal colony for the British convicts that were too unruly to live in the penal colony in Australia. (More on this later as we tour the prisons tomorrow.)
2. It is the finish line for the annual Sydney to Hobart sailing race.
I’m sure there is more but that’s all we have so far.

We have also learned:
That “sticky date pudding” is quite good even if you don’t like dates.

It’s alleged that “Fosters” is the export beer. The locals prefer their local brews. In the case of Tasmania Boags or Cascade are the preferred blends.

Tasmainians refer to their home as Tassie.
Australians like “soggy” rather than crisp bacon.

We are looking forward to our first full day “in country.”

Flying to Australia
Delta flew us to L.A. in a Boeing 717 (think old Douglas DC 9) which they picked up at some used plane auction. They had refurbished the interior and, hopefully the engines, and installed the industry’s smallest tray table. The surface are barely fit a drink glass and a Kindle reader.

I was not looking forward to the long flight on the Qantas Airbus  380. It is an ungainly double decked monster. However, I must confess, once you are on board you have no feeling for the scale of the plane. All you see is your deck and the ride and features were very customer friendly. Good job Qantas.

Luck put us on a second Boeing 717 for the last flight of the day. For airlines, “pitch” is the distance from seat to seat on the plane. I must have been “pitch perfect” for my knees were pressed against the back of the seat in front. Not a great way to spend 90 minutes but we made it and are glad to be here.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Airbus to Australia

We are off to Australia.

There was an old commercial that said, “getting there is half of the fun.” I can’t imagine a 15 hour flight described as “fun” but, we shall see. We will be spending that time in a Qantas Airbus 380, a double deck uber-plane with a flying population of nearly 500. That exceeds the population of over half the towns in North Dakota.
An Airbus 380 soars over Sydney 
(We will be climbing the bridge, sitting beneath the tail, later in the trip.)

Compared with the first permanent Australian settlers, who arrived in 1788, ours will be a very fast trip. The “First Fleet," consisting of two navy ships, three supply ships and six convict ships, carried over 1000 convicts, sailors and marines. Their voyage lasted over 250 days. I suspect their food did not match the Qantas fare. And, while we have a return ticket booked, they went south with a one-way ticket.

The "First Fleet" arrives in Australia.

So, on reflection, I have no cause for complaint and I do have plenty of Ambien.

The time change will also tax my math skills. I believe I may need most of the flight to figure out what day and time it is when we arrive. We leave Los Angles, late Friday evening. We fly 15 hours and arrive in Melbourne Sunday morning. Somehow we miss Saturday all together. I’m told we will get it back when we return. I hope so. At my age I can’t afford to waste days.

As near as I can calculate Sydney is 18 hours ahead of Seattle. I find it easier to think that they are six hours behind us, tomorrow. Think about it!

So off we go, fortunate to live in 2015, rather than 1788.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Headed Down Under (or Up Top?) Australia is the Destination

I thought I could describe our planned trip to Australia and New Zealand very simply. We are going "down under." Then I thought, what makes it so? Who decided that north was "up" and south was "down?" After all, we are just spinning in space.

Through the history of cartography, or map making, it turns out that "up" and "down" decisions have been made by the map maker. Usually the map maker put their city or country in the middle of the map and the rest of the worlds places, once they were discovered, filled in around the edges.

Additionally, since most of the early cartographers were Greek, Roman or European those areas tended to be "up" and everything else was over or down. It appears that, because Australia wasn't viewed as important by the "northerners" until late in the 18th Century, they picked up the label "down under" and it stuck. Since no one seems to mind the moniker I will just accept it.

We are going down under for a few weeks of travel. It should be interesting, with just 16 people and a guide in our group we should be able to move around and cover some ground. It should be fun.

I suspect our poor grand kids are in for kangaroo Christmas with lots of kitschy souvenirs under the tree. Perhaps someday they will appreciate them!

For now we are off to Melbourne and on to Tasmania, where the trek will begin.