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!


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

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.

Australia 2011: Day 9

This post comes to you faithful readers* from the Alice Springs Airport garden.  As Alice Springs seems to receive flights from all over Australia, travelers have a few hours to wait out before departing to Uluru or elsewhere.   The Airport has built a delightful garden just outside the passenger drop off doors, making a natural habitat for native birds and a beautiful and convenient waiting spot.

As today is a transit day, I will continue with further quirky observations and unusual technical details.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll finally settle down

During the course of our Kakadu tour, many dingoes were spotted along the route.  I finally saw one alone in Cooinda at the camp we had lunch at, cursorily poking around the edges of the tents.  Dingoes are some sort of canine, like a dog but also like a wolf.  Presumably they are
accustomed to humans, but for the most part they are feral.  Maybe this one will help people out then head to the next town on a weekly episodic basis.

Focus on bugs

One the most enjoyable photographic subjects here in Australia has been insects of different kinds:  spiders, butterflies and dragonflies.  This is great because with the 70-200mm I can blow out the background with a narrow field of view.  However, I chose to bring an old Rebel body to
use on the 70-200mm to reduce weight instead of my usual 40D, which means it is very difficult to focus accurately especially on insects which have little contrasting area to let the autofocus in on.

Ice cream map

The first day on the tour of Kakadu and the Northern Territory, we gathered around a giant wall sized map of the area at a truck stop.  It called out key conservation areas, wildlife to expect, key roads and most notably, locations where you could buy Smiths ice cream.  I thought this was important in a land of snakes, floods and wild flora and fauna, as frozen treats are crucial to any expedition.

The drive up bottle shop

In Australia liquor stores are termed bottle shops.  Many are colocated with bars.  In Katherine, there is a drive up liquor store, where two lanes of vehicles can park in front of a completely open storefront and load up on alcohol.  My conservative Canadian senses are flabbergasted.

The tree frog danger

At the campground we were warned to flush before sitting down on the toilets: apparently the tree frogs in the area tend to like to hide under the rim as the toilets are suitably cold and wet.   They surprise tourists at night I’m told.

The eagle has landed

On arrival to Darwin Airport, a single F-15 landed right behind us, speedbrake open.  This not unusual in that the Airport shares a runway with a military base.  This is unusual in that Australia does not have any F-15s in their air force.  It might be an American plane or maybe
from Singapore.   On return to Toronto I will be stopping into St. Louis, so maybe I will see more F-15s, as the old McDonnell Douglas plant is there.

The difficulties of the public library

I suspect being the librarian in a remote place like the Northern Territory is hard.  Many of your constituents probably aren’t that interested in reading, those who do probably want something obscure like the Monarchy or technical references to fix their diesel generator. Then you have to order it and have it flown in.

I have become that guy

In 2005 I laughed that Canon’s Lens Work book suggested the use of a 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm would be a light collection of lenses for traveling.  How could anyone carry that kind of weight and expense?   I have now, sadly, done exactly that.   I have become that guy.

* Who is reading this?

Australia 2011: Day 8

We awoke to strange sounds outside the tent, light quick steps on the leaves in the ground. They are the wallabies foraging around the camp. The night sky here is filled with vibrant stars against the dark sky, they are formed of constellations of the southern skies that are unknown
to us but well remembered by the Australian travelers here.  The morning sun rose from the horizon, creating a silhouette of black lace from the trees on the edge of camp.

Driving through the town of Katherine, on a deserted Sunday morning, it is an interesting portrait of a country town.  A bright cheery sign identifies the Katherine Public Library, while the Toy World has a display of Lego sets out front.  An employment centre, a car parts store. Partially for tourists like the native art boutique, partially for locals like the Target mail order

We started today’s tour at Katherine Gorge, a crevasse in the landscape where the Katherine River runs.  As we went up river, our path took us deep down along this tear in the rock foundation of the countryside. Millions of years of formation then erosion has created these walls of stone.

The animals of Australia continue to amuse and delight:  Today we found many a wallaby, both in the field and at various places where we’ve stopped and the animals have become used to humans.

One wallaby we met was taken care of by a local woman who raised them, then returned them to the wild.  This one for some reason wouldn’t leave, preferring to stay with his chicken and emu penmates and fishing for food and pettings from tourist visitors.   We also saw a pair of
emus, who apparently like lunging at potential snacks.

Another stop this afternoon was Edith Falls, a natural waterfall gathering into a pond. Despite it being a local retreat for Darwin families, it was closed off due to crocodiles.

In Pine Creek, a gold mining town, there is a curious mix of attractions:  A miner’s park features old steam boilers set amongst trees.   A hotel is themed to the railway, with one building shaped like a diesel cowl cab locomotive.  Across the street is the hotel reception and offices for an engineering firm.   There is a shop named Ah Toy’s Store.  I was really hoping it sold Lego, but in fact it was general store run by Chinese immigrants during the gold rush.

Australia 2011: Day 7

We are in the wet season here in the Northern Territory, which means random rain in different directions.  The Aborigines call this Banggerreng, or Knock’em Down Storm season.  The floods and fires replenish and renew the land.

We woke up this morning and broke camp in Jabiru.  It seems that each of these sites has different types of accommodation, however remote.  The tour company has a permanent campsite with fixed tents and a cooking/dining area lit.  I can tell you now there is nothing quite like roughing it with a mobile broadband PC card in a campsite. For the more comfort oriented, there is a crocodile shaped Holiday Inn here.

Our first stop was Nourlangie Rock, where natives often stayed due to protection from the rain.  Because the rock outcroppings provided shelter, it was an ideal place for them to paint on the walls of the natural caves.  For thousands of years they painted there, similar to painting in the garage on a summer night in Etobicoke.

From the rocks, you can see through the vegetation and the savannah below.

As we venture south, towards Katherine, the landscape of this region is strange in so many ways:  the soil and rocks are reddish, and when water pools in it, it makes an orange liquid like carrot juice put through a juicer.  Termites build giant mounds in the grassy fields, ranging from
two to twenty feet tall.  Millions of these creatures, only a few millimeters long, digest bits of grass and other biomatter and construct these unusual mounds both at once organic and formless as well as intricately complex and organized.  Active colonies are smooth and kept
humid and warm, dead ones seem to hollow out.  The height of grass surrounding an active termite structure is noticeably lower as the bugs are out devouring for building materials.

Surprisingly, the area is actually owned by Aborigines and signed back over on lease to the government to run as a park. Our tour stopped at a cultural centre set up with museum exhibits to explain the history and culture of the Warradjan people.

In the afternoon, we went to a watering hole at Gunlom and went swimming under a waterfall which comes from the rainwater collected from the side of the hill. As we venture south, the vegetation and climate seem to be less tropical and more like what I expected Australia’s Outback to be.

We ended the day in the town of Katherine, shopping for snacks at the local Woolworths supermarket.  In it is a collision of local and global cultures:  On one hand, we see Aborigines representing thousands of years of Australia, on the other, Doritos with a Meet Rihanna in Concert contest.