Monthly Archives: April 2011

Australia 2011: Day 16

Today is our last day in Australia before heading home.  We went with family to St. Kilda’s, a suburb south of the central part of Melbourne.  St. Kilda’s over the years has gone from a region for the wealthy elite, to a seaside retreat for city dwellers to an area of trendy shops and cafes.  It also has an amusement attraction, Luna Park, similar to Coney Island, which features an old wooden coaster similar to the Cyclone at Astroland.  A ride operator actually stands on the train as it travels the whole track, braking the train manually.

The beach at St. Kilda’s faces out into the Melbourne harbour, with large container ships readying to be brought into port to be offloaded.  The ships bring imports from around the world into Australia and as we walk out on the pier, they sit silently in the distance, grey shapes out in port.

We have had a wonderful time on our trip to Australia.  The people here are friendly and the scenery has been beautiful.  It has been a fantastic opportunity seeing the wide contrast between the urban centers and wildernesses of the continent and the inherent experiences in both.

Australia 2011: Day 15

The lush hills of the Yarra Valley glow in the Australian sun as we drove out with family to see both wineries and the Healesville Sanctuary, a preserve to see indigenous animals.  The valley is known for growing grapes for wine making and cheeses made from the sheep that dot the
rolling landscape.

Our main attraction today was seeing the Healesville Sanctuary, a zoo where they keep indigenous animals in a natural habitat for visitors to see.  Of course, we had seen our share of crocodiles, wallabies and emus up in Northern Territory.   In addition, I wanted to see koalas and kangaroos.  The former I first saw in 1997 at the Sydney Convention Centre, strangely enough.

This time the koalas sit in trees with gum tree leaves placed there by handlers.  To be honest, koala bears can be vicious, despite their sedate and cute looks. Some of the trees on the Great Ocean Road are ravaged by wild koalas, completely devoid of leaves.  These guys sat, somewhat lazily, eyeing the replenishment of fresh branches, then leapt to the new tree with calculated flop.   It’s not a bad gig, to sit in a tree, eat your favourite meal and be photographed by hundreds of adoring fans.

The kangaroos, similarly, were quite relaxed:  A pack of them sat, asleep in bales of hay, until a sound suddenly drew them all to attention.  It was the opening of a gate behind a fence, by a worker, which signaled them that lunch was ready. Their immediate association and attention
probably indicates a routine they’ve become used to.

Another exhibit shows the Australian native dingo, a wild dog.  The pair on display seemed quite majestic and regal on their habitat’s rock, despite whatever maligned reputation they have in popular culture.  There were habitats for adorable field mice, dormant wombats and scurrying Tasmanian devils, who apparently are endangered.   There were also some unusual Australian animals like the echidna, who we previously thought was a hedgehog, of which there are none indigenous to the country; and the bilby, a rat/rabbit like creature which is nocturnal.

There was an extensive live bird show, featuring birds of prey and parrots of different kinds, all native to Australia.  But I was most pleased to get a good photo of the galah, another native Australian bird.   I had never really considered nature and animal photography, but after this trip I have learned the joy of capturing the pseudo-wild animal, even if it is prompted by a handler holding food.

Later in the day, we drove back to Melbourne, and stopped into the Chandon winery in Coldstream, Victoria.  This offshoot of the famous Moet-Chandon company is based in Australia, and Siobhan and I enjoyed the beautiful view out the sloped hill from the shop and cafe. There is a magical landscape here in Australia, so often transformed and unlocked by the golden sun.

Australia 2011: Day 14

Melbourne is calm and cool in the morning sun as we walk towards the Queen Victoria Market at the north of the central part of the inner city.  Like in most markets, it is already abuzz with activity by the time we arrive in the morning.  Outside near the car park is a large flea market featuring sellers of various objects en masse.  For example, do you need to give coworkers a souvenir of your trip Down Under, but you work on a trading floor of a hundred associates?  No problem, get a 20 pack of clip on Koala bears holding Australian flags, appropriate for clipping onto Worlds Greatest Finance Analyst mug handles or the spindle that holds up your Plantronics headset.   Only $3 or 60 for $10.

We continued in the market looking at the meat section, featuring several butcher stalls.  There we found the worlds most interesting rail system*, the meat rail.   Metal tracks from the loading docks extend around the aisles of this market shed, into the side doors of the different shop fronts, allowing sides of beef or other items to be slid from truck to shop.  Sidings are activated by flipping a track down to reroute the meat, hanging from a hook guided by a butcher, from main line to each front for eventual cutting and division. The rails even extend inside the shops to cutting boards and additional spur lines.

* sorry to disappoint Iain, I knew you were expecting a maglev or automated railway.

The butchers are loud, calling out specials on cutlets and tenderloins to passing shoppers.  One stall has even favoured a silent approach, stating, “we don’t need to yell to sell”.

For breakfast, we had burek, a Turkish/Greek pastry rolled and filled with cheese.   We also went for a Tony Bourdain featured meat in tube form, bratwurst, covered with sauerkraut and with English mustard.   We also stopped by a cheese shop in the deli hall, Curds and Whey, to get a sampler of a few Australian cheeses to try, including an Australian white cheddar, a smoked chevre and a blue with spicy rind.

This afternoon, we went to my cousin’s wedding.  So, in lieu of wedding coverage, I will return you to your alternate Meats and Cheeses programming:

Apple picking

In the Yarra Valley, they offer apple picking.  I thought this was a unique Canadian activity but I am wrong!

Sushi

The sushi belt system, or kaiten sushi, is very popular in Sydney but not so much from what we can tell in Melbourne.   These sushi restaurants are very popular in Japan and downtown Sydney.  Sometimes I wish they would have that in Toronto, if only for the clever sushi track.  However, I appreciate affordable and individual portioned “shots” of sushi even more, so the Melbournian a la carte rolls are just fine.

For lunch

Today for lunch we kept ourselves fed on cheap thrills downtown, including our cheese course sampler, as well as Chinese egg buns, sushi rolls and a can of Strawberry Fanta, which, most curiously, was imported from Thailand and sold at the Asian minimart.

The importance of the ladder

The hired stringer for this wedding set up a group shot and didn’t have a ladder.  As you all know, the ladder is crucial for good photography, and despite full frame sensors, expensive lenses and nifty gadgets, is the single most powerful tool today in the business.  How I wished I had brought my own to lend her!

Australia 2011: Day 13

Today we venture out on the Great Ocean Road, a seaside route away from Melbourne.  It is a scenic path, just like Route 1 on the American Pacific coast.

A surprising scenic view were the rolling green hills and valleys to our right side.  Despite the inspiring and visceral ocean crashing into the shore on the left, parts of the trip were dotted with lavish emerald greens of the countryside.

Along the way, we stopped at coves and beaches, stylish modern vacation homes facing the sea, until we made it to the Twelve Apostles, nine rock monoliths which sit out in the ocean.  These stone blocks are never quite stable, because over time, most recently a few years ago, they can collapse into the ocean.

Fourteen years ago, I was debating whether or not to go down scuba diving when on a cruise to the Great Barrier Reef.  It seemed like a lot of money, but a good experience.  I thought, when would I ever return to Australia again?  So this time, when presented with the chance to go on a helicopter flight around the coast and see the Apostles, I also decided to go.

The helicopter tour company operates a few Robinson R44s and a Eurocopter nearby in a field aside the Apostles.  Three people can fit in each aircraft along with the pilot.  Inside the R44 there isn’t a lot of stuff– a very spartan machine.  We lifted off and flew over the cliffs, then up towards the far end to see the London Bridge, a set of rocks that used to form a primitive archway over the water.

The tour company says you can’t bring your bags, so I figured I’d have to make a quick decision on what to take.  I took up my 70-200mm and a 17-40mm, figuring the ultrawide lens would be useful in the air and the telephoto for reach picking up and compressing the rocks.   I pulled off
the hoods so I wouldn’t hit the glass.  Looking through the viewfinders I was concerned the stabilizer weren’t giving me the same fluid frame of view they usually did:  there is a lot of vibration in a helicopter, they don’t fly through the air, they beat it into submission!

I had a great time, the novelty of flight and the chance to capture some really special landscapes from unique vantage points.

The couple who also flew on my flight didn’t bring a camera at all. The ground handler and pilot were both amazed.  They didn’t want any photos by themselves or me.  I wasn’t really sure what that was about, but maybe their goal was to remember their flight completely as an experience alone.  Certainly after two weeks of seeing throngs of tourists, each with a digital camera, I could see the purity and uniqueness of being camera-less.

That philosophy does make sense: sometimes the memory is stronger than the end result.  I was disappointed shooting Ayers Rock from a distance, despite having a longer lens to do so.  Part of the reason is distortion from the atmosphere itself, blanching out the rock due to dust and heat from far distances.  So my memories of Uluru are in fact more vivid than the pictures I took.   Maybe the camera-less couple has a point.

Australia 2011: Day 12

Today we met up with friends for lunch at a bistro here in Melbourne. Melbourne is a city of laneways and grid-like streets, at least in the centre.  Surrounding are expanses of suburbs linked by rail and tram.  If Sydney is New York, Melbourne is Chicago, the Second City of
Australia, built of labourers and industry, of less flash.

There doesn’t seem to be a world class attraction like the Opera House here to attract tourists, just small laneways of eclectic cafes and boutiques.   You can sit and have a coffee in the street, musicians busking away jazz standards in the background.  If you close your eyes, you might think you were in Europe.

In the afternoon we took a train to the suburb of Camberwell to find the place where Siobhan’s parents got married.  The trains drag through the suburbs, heavy rail EMUs like the trainsets which ply the greater surrounds of London and Paris.  Caught in the rush of business workers
fleeing for the Easter long weekend, we eventually made our way to the now gentrified suburb, now filled with private schools, boutiques and eateries, much like Yonge and Eglinton.  The suburb has a character to it all its own, and with the well balanced public transit network, trams and trains stretching outward on the undulating hills away from the core, it makes the description of Melbourne as one of the most livable cities in the world quite apropos.

A meat and cheese observation:  here, there are walk up sushi shops which sell rolls individually.  Ever have afternoon snack hankering for some maki rolls?  For $2.50 you can have a set of them.  The strange thing is people purchase and eat the roll uncut– folks walking around with what would be four or six pieces worth of maki, but all together chomping down like a hot dog.

I am allergic to something here in Melbourne.  I began sniffling and sneezing in the baggage pickup.

Tonight, we walked out in the downtown of Melbourne to find a exciting and loud nightlife on our way to and from dinner.  A mass of people were out on the long weekend going to bars, movies and the like, through the Chinatown area which happens to be in the middle of the downtown core.  Melbourne has a easy going, industrious attitude to it.  Dining brings good food and a lack of pretense. The streets are tree lined and casual, the formality of other cities dashed by its European flair and suburban neighbourhoods.

Australia 2011: Day 11

Today we flew out of Uluru after watching the sun rise, back to Sydney, then to onwards to the southern city of Melbourne in Victoria.  Because of storms in the area, we ended up staying in flight for another hour, circling around for a chance to land.  Here are some more adorable Australian animals:

Australia 2011: Day 10

The town of Yulara is resort built around the area of Uluru.  The eponymous rock, also known as Ayers Rock sits resplendent in the setting Australian sun, basking in the warm rays.  It is a unique place: There are no clouds in the sky, a light blue opaque dome that reaches over you like an IMAX screen on the preshow before the movie starts.

Yulara is literally a town in the middle of nowhere.  If Las Vegas is considered a Disneyworld spectacle in the middle of the desert, Yulara has a small scale version, built solely to service visitors to Ayers Rock.  A small airport with single gate serves the area, with only a handful of flights each day.  So small that the Qantas Boeing 717 actually turned around at the end of the runway and taxied back up to the apron.  Several hotels and inns of various price points surround a ring road.   A single cell site serves the compound, with microwave backhauls pointing in the distance and a fibre optic line off to Alice Springs.    Today the link was down, the front desk reception and girl at the grocery store acknowledging we were effectively cut off from the rest of the world:  No mobile phones, landlines, internet or credit transactions.  It underlines the remoteness of Australia’s outback, despite the disparity that an ice cream bar here is actually cheaper than downtown Sydney, given that it needs to be trucked into the middle of the country.  To us, it doesn’t really matter:  the real reason why people visit is the rock in the background.

In the middle of the compound, encircled by the two kilometer ring road, is a representation of the outback, just like the desert expanse that surrounds us for hundreds of miles.  Siobhan and I refer to it as the “inback” of which there is a lookout hill in the middle.  We trekked out there last night to watch Uluru in the sunset.  Trek is probably incorrect, I’ve walked further to find a bank machine.  What’s also incorrect is the term desert, which requires shifting sand and less
precipitation.

This morning we went on a tour around the rock itself, led by Aunjuru, the aborigines of the area.  The natives here speak of Tjurkurpa, the myths/stories that explain the basis of the land/nature/people.  For example, the rabbit-like wallabies here are referred to as Mala, and as
creation-beings they have an intricate story that explains how the rock formations came to be.   Sadly, the animals around the area have disappeared, largely due to the tourist growth around the locale:  The helicopters that fly overhead scare the animals, as do the buses and trucks.

In every place I’ve visited, there is an offer to climb up to the top of the tallest object in town:  A minaret in a mosque, the stairs of a duomo, the observation tower of a skyscraper.  The Aborigines don’t want you climb the rock, though about thirty percent of the visitors to the
site do, and about forty people in the past have died doing so.  The whole issue is strange:  Visitors want to climb it, the natives don’t understand why, the government doesn’t want to lose tourist dollars, and there’s really no reason other than to say you’ve done it.  And to see
the Australian outback, of which there is miles and miles to the horizon.

Watching television here in Ayers Rock is a little peculiar too.  There are three channels and the content is broadcast from the slick studios in Sydney, except the commercials, which appear to be locally made and inserted:  Ads for pressure washers, cowboy shirts, and local pizza places, highly unlikely to be Clio winning campaigns but still highly entertaining.  There is one where a young man points at you through the camera, then points to his clothes he’s announcing the specials at his employer’s clothing shop.  Its hilariously corny– spokesperson, model and likely backroom stock checker all in one.