Travels in Australia 1999

by Marc H. Mehlman

written 9 August 1999

June 24: Darwin

Good day mates and family,

I met Wayne at the Darwin airport. He was in reasonable shape after traveling for 20 hours. I had signed us up for a 3-day tour of Kakadu Park, Crocodile Dundee country, for the time we were in the Top End. It is their winter, and it is in the 80's. In their summer (Dec-Jan-Feb) it is in the 100's, high humidity and it rains like crazy. The entire area floods and crocs have access to most of the territory. At the moment everything is drying out. Tremendous quantities of ducks, geese, kites, eagles, pelicans, herons, egrets and other birds gather at the water pools and rivers. There is a 28-foot tide that backs up rivers as far as 100 kilometers inland. In fact, even in the Dry and this far inland, many bridges are only passable at low tide.

The ground is flat and covered everywhere by sickly eucalyptus and paper bark trees and thousands of giant termite mounds, about 4 meters high. There are about 50 types of termites here. They even have magnetic termites. The termites always build their mounds north/south to catch the east/west sun. Termites are the biggest grazer here and eat everything but flesh. There is sword grass here too, but constant burns keeps it well in check. And, of course, there are tons of giant man eating crocodiles.

We have been taking 4-wheel drives with a tour into the backcountry to fantastic waterfalls and swimming holes. All the water in the park is crystal clear and full of fish and turtles. The swimming holes are constantly checked for salt- water crocs (the fresh water ones are relatively safe).

Arriving in Darwin, I noticed that a lot of the Aussie men were tattooed, overweight and some had pierced ears, noses, etc. I believe this is not an all- together accurate impression of Aussie males. Perhaps I was seeing a lower class part of Darwin. The Top End Aussie male seems to be a select type. They tend to love sports, fishing and beer. In particular, they are fanatic about Aussie football, which seems to be a combination of American football, volleyball, rugby, martial arts and aerial ping-pong. It is played with no body protection and very few rules. The Top End Aussie male certainly works to live instead of the other way around. They seem to pride themselves on being colorful characters that can tell interesting stories. A top end story sounds something like this:

"Me mate, Brian and I were hanging our legs off the side of our boat while fishing for giant barramundi. We were enjoying Fosters piss beer and a Koala bear bar-b-q when a large glob of ketchup fell from Brian's mouth onto his leg. In a dingo instant, Smilie, a 22-meter buffy, white croc, leaps out of the water and removes Brian's leg, seasoning and all. Let me assure you, it was not a pretty sight. After catching a few more barramundis, I immediately rushed Brian to a hospital. They kept him for two weeks and he comes out with this wooden leg."

"Now this bloke Brian bears no bloody grudge against Smilie. In fact, we returned to the very same bog a week later. After a dozen or so Foster piss beers, Brian takes a nap on the shore. When he awakes, he notices his wooden leg is two thirds eaten away. He is cursing at Smilie for snacking on his leg twice. But Smilie remembers how bad Brian tasted. It turns out to be God damned termites that ate his leg the second time."

I made this story up. I certainly added somewhat more exaggeration than the locals typically do, but I believe I got the flavor correct. I'm sure if I went to a bar and I told my story to a local that my story would become part of the Top End Folklore. However, the prime star fleet directive prohibits me from messing with other cultures.

Having a great time,

Marc

July 2: Cairns

Good day mates and family,

Because of tidal flows, rivers here are infested with both large crocs and two meter reef sharks. Crocs sometimes even show up on local beaches. One paid a visit to downtown Cairns a few years ago. If Mark Twain were an Aussie, Jim and Huck's river trip would have been a very short novel indeed.

Crocs can remain submerged for hours. They are capable of nautical trips of hundreds of miles. They are also capable of traveling overland for great distances. Crocs can go without eating for an entire year. Thus they can afford to be very patient hunters. They often will observe a single animal for up to 100 days, learning its habits and waiting for just the right moment. As a result they rarely fail in non-opportunistic attacks. Most attacks on people are opportunistic and most often on someone who does not have anything positive to offer to the human gene pool. Multiple empty cans of beer are almost always found near the watery scene of attack.

When I was leaving Darwin for Cairns I got bit on by mosquitoes (mossies as the Aussies call them). Wayne claims that crocs are impervious to mossies except when they are sunbathing with their mouths open. Then their tongues are vulnerable. He apparently knows more than our guides since they had not heard of this phenomenon.

The Aussies in Cairns are real nice people. I like them. They are honest, friendly, and healthy and have a great sense of humor. Even the bus drivers are pleasant and cheerful. Wayne and I are staying in a "backpackers hostel". We have a double room with a bathroom down the hall. All for about $22 a night ($11 apiece). We are among the oldest people staying here, but I don't think anyone else has noticed. The place is plenty good enough, though the patrons tend to party into the night.

We've gone out to the Great Barrier Reef twice now and snorkeled both times. The first time was on this ultra modern high speed, jet powered catamaran. The most noticeable difference between here and Hawaii is that the coral is more healthy, plentiful and very colorful. There are lots of different types. The fish are pretty neat too. A huge fish that weighted almost as much as me approached me. It seemed that all he wanted was to be petted (I obliged).

The second day on the reef was much different. We went out on a 64-foot ancient sailboat with 20 others. The crew was quite a colorful lot. Unfortunately, there was a 32-knot wind that day and 2 to 2 1/2 meter waves. Quite a wild time. About a third of the passengers lost their lunches to the sea. Very wet and wild. Snorkeling with a wet suit in choppy seas was not optimal. We were too buoyant on the surface of the sea. We went to a sand island, but I could only take a few seconds of sand blasting. Just the same it was an adventure worth surviving (and having).

We also took a bicycle tour of the tablelands above Cairns. This is a formerly volcanic area that was rainforest and, now that the Aussies chopped down most of the trees, is now mostly cow and sugar cane country. It is unbelievably green and beautiful. The Aussies, in an attempt to restore some of the rainforest, are reforesting some of this land through tax incentives and public awareness.

Today we took a 4-wheel drive tour of Daintree Park. This is some of the oldest rainforests in the world. At least in the sense that this region has been rainforest for hundreds of millions of years. Ever since the breakup of the super continent, Pangea, this region has been at approximately the same north/south longitude. We saw gorgeous mangrove swamps, lots of snakes sunning themselves in the trees, weird birds and more. At one stop, I made the acquaintance of a tame flying fox bat (fruit eating) that chose to roost on me for a while. She was a really nice bat with a 30-inch wingspan. A smart and pretty animal. As on the other land tours, we had the chance to swim in an invigorating (Aussie for cold) swimming hole. The guides assure us that there are no crocs about and sometimes they even go in the water with us.

Unfortunately, many of the trees in the rainforest are totally dependent on a flightless bird, called the Cassowary, that is well on the way to extinction. The bird eats seeds and poops them out where they will later germinate. The Cassowary is a goofy looking bird, about four feet tall, with a large horn on its head, an intensely blue long neck, and large piercing eyes. It is a very friendly bird with little fear of humans. Thus it is very vulnerable to cars and dogs. The Aussies are trying to save it but, at the moment, they are not succeeding. It is kind of weird how dependent man and nature can be on this goofy bird.

Wayne and I came up with a question that none of the tour guides here know the answer to. Why is there hundreds of species of trees in the rainforest, all interspersed with each other, while other forests consist of just two or three tree species? Possible answers we thought up:

Perhaps the answer is some combination of the above. If you have any plausible theories, or even know the answer, please let me know.

Onward to Sydney and colder weather,

Marc

July 6: Sydney

Good day mates and family,

I might have given the wrong impression concerning crocs. More people die here from lightning or bee stings than crocs. That is the sad truth. However, the crocs command a lot more respect than the number of human meals consumed might suggest.

Sydney is a gorgeous city. It is as nice a city as any in the world. We have seen something new here - Aussies wearing business suits. What an amazing country! Our first night here we went to Darling Harbor and caught the Fish Opera. It is a 10-minute laser/sound show of fish performing Wagner, Mozart and Puccini. Pretty culturally nutritious. The food here is pretty good too and reasonably priced. Same for the hotels. Wayne and I are staying at the Best Western at a good location in the city for about $52 ($26 apiece). There is lots of public transportation, subways, ferries, monorail and buses - all cheap. Thanks Alan Greenspan for the strong American dollar.

There are lots of neat parks here and a huge botanical garden near the opera house that is full of nocturnal flying fox bats and diurnal cockatoos. Wayne and I also took the ferry out to Manly beach. Great beaches too. We also visited the zoo. It is a Los Angeles class zoo with great views of Sydney.

It is hard to figure out what is happening in the world out here with Rupert Murdock controlling the media. There are several different flavors of the "National Intruder", but nothing of substance. I haven't been able to find even the Herald Tribune. The irony is that it was easier to find out what was happening when I was in China. Who knows, we might have a new war and Clinton a new bimbo.

Wayne and I have been figuring out why water spirals counter clockwise down the toilet in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern. Wayne figured it out. It has to do with the rotation of the earth and conservation of angular momentum. We also figured out why hurricanes/typhoons move away from the equator. We are now trying to figure out why Americans drive on the right and Aussies on the left. (Ancient Romans used to travel on the left. For self- defense, it is more natural for pedestrians to want their right arms facing passing strangers.)

At the Maritime Museum they had a model of the American battleship, the USS Virginia, except it was flying the Aussie flag. Even after I complained they refused to raise the stars and stripes over our glorious warship. However, they were polite, even after I told them to expect an angry phone call from the American ambassador.

In the big city there seems to be less danger than in the outback. A bum politely asked me for money claiming he had lost his wallet. However, I didn't believe him and he went away. A more dangerous encounter was with a smoothie I drank. It turned out to be made from milk. Fortunately Sydney has lots of clean bathrooms too.

Tomorrow we are off to Hobart where we plan to rent a car. It will be our first opportunity to play bumper cars with the drive-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road Aussies.

Time to sign off and get some shuteye. We need to catch the airport shuttle early tomorrow.

Marc

July 12: Tasmania

Good day mates and family,

I love Tasmania. It is among the most beautiful places in the world. Wayne describes it as like the 17-mile drive in Monterey without the tourists, locals, and buildings. There are a lot of different ecological environments here in close proximately to each other. Alpine lakes, pastures, protected bays, rainforest, sandy and rocky beaches, gorgeous rivers and lakes - it is all here. Gorgeous.

It is winter here (it would be our January), but everything is green and wonderful. It is plenty comfortable during the day. Hobart was the only place I felt invigorated (Aussie for cold). Since this is off-season there are very few tourists. This is the best time to visit!

The Tassies are even more friendly and laid back than the mainland Aussies (which is saying a lot). The island is relatively under-populated. Several times I have had a pleasant conversation with a local and then ran into the same bloke or luv the next day in an entirely different location.

Hobart is a beautiful small city with snow-capped mountains behind it. It has handsome old buildings, superb seafood and a nice harbor. The "Aurora Austrailis", an Aussie icebreaker was in port for repairs. A pretty impressive 7,000 tons.

Driving on the left side is somewhat challenging. Besides the occasional head- on collisions there is a less obvious problem. An American driver sitting on the right hand side tends to forgets that most of the car is to his left, not his right. When I was driving, Wayne's side of the car seems to be in constant danger of going off the road. Wayne had the same problem when he drove. To further complicate things, we got a manual transmission. The turn signal is on the right of the steering wheel and the windshield wipers controls to the left along with the shift stick. The red reflectors on the road indicate the direction you drive; white is the wrong way. Wayne also noticed that the telephone wires are always on the left side of the road.

The seashores are fantastic. There are beautiful bays with sandy beaches, sheltered bays with perfectly flat water and rocky shores with the sea at war with the land. Wayne and I went night hunting for fairy penguins with a torch (Aussie for flashlight). We found some of the tuxedoed little fellows sleeping in the bushes by the shore.

There are wonderful rainforest remnants hidden away inside large gum tree (Aussie for eucalyptus tree) forests, usually in large gullies. While less diverse than the tropical rainforest about Cairns, this rainforest is even more beautiful. The rainforest consists of giant tree ferns, sassafras, celery topped pine and myrtle trees.

Wayne and I visited Port Arthur. We assured the locals that the recent massacre there by a lone madman could never of happened in our country. The history of the penal colony is quite interesting. It was true that a prisoner's life (or a soldier's for that matter) was quite harsh. Many of the original Tassies were guilty of only minor crimes in England and transported for social reasons. Most transported convicts were sold as indentured servants (British for slaves) to free men in Tasmania. The incorrigible, repeat offenders mostly ended up at Port Arthur. The conditions and punishments were plenty sadistic. Floggings eventually were replaced with solitary confinement that could last for years. This was even more sadistic. There were also progressive policies. Prisoners were taught a trade. The recidivism rate was much, much lower than modern days (not even to mention the USA).

Wayne and I have discovered the dark side of Aussie land. It goes by the name vegemite. It is a disgusting spread that Aussies put on their bread and in their sandwiches. As someone who has recently drunk the bile of a snake, believe me when I say that G-d showed mercy by not smiting the Egyptians with vegemite.

The island is home to all types of hopping marsupials - wombats - as well as wallabies and possum. Flocks of green blue parrots are also common. One gets a true outback experience here. Many of the roads are dusty (Aussie for dirt). Several times we drove for hours on a dusty road with no other car traffic or humans about. One night we drove a hundred kilometers, in a cold rain, on a dusty road with no other lights about besides our own headlights. Our only company was occasional wallabies and wombats (who are too stupid to leave the road). Fantastic! If only we could find some country music on the radio.

Our rental car got so muddy that it became two-toned. I saw one lady, after spotting our car, turn to her husband and exclaim "My G-d". Wayne and I had a story prepared concerning two trucks that passed us on the sealed (Aussie for paved) road, one on each side, on the way to the rental return. However, for some reason, the Hertz rental bloke didn't ask questions.

We just got into Melbourne and it is time for me to get some shuteye. The trip is going by so fast,

Marc

July 17: Melbourne

Good day mates and family, Three corrections/additions to my remarks concerning Tasmania:

Melbourne is a modern, comfortable city. Like Sydney, there are Aussies wearing business suits. Melbourne is missing famous landmarks like Sydney's opera house or harbor bridge, but it is plenty urban. It has fantastic restaurants and great public transit (trams). The zoo is Los Angeles class, but the botanical gardens are first rate. Like Sydney, the botanical gardens had nocturnal fly fox bats sleeping in the treetops, but it lacked the diurnal cockatoos.

We rented a car again and drove the Great Ocean Road, west of Melbourne. The coast started out OK and ended up on par with the Oregon Coast for the last 50 kilometers or so. On the way we found waterfalls and another remnant rainforest consisting of tree ferns, myrtle beech and lots of green moss, all tucked away in a large gully. The countryside most of the way was rolling, very green, grazing lands along with patches of eucalyptus forest. Gorgeous.

We also made the acquaintance of some new animals. Off the coast we got a good view of a large Southern Right Whale (Wayne said it was as big as the Humpbacks off Hawaii) along with her calf. We took a nice hike inside an extinct volcano and ran into some wild roos. We got close to a male roo who must have weighted over 300 lbs. He seemed more interested in a sexy female roo than us. We also found this lone emu that must have weighted at least 120 lbs. Wayne went to the car after a while and I went for a closer look. Big Bird started making noises that sounded like either a growl or purring - I couldn't decide which. He then approached within 2 meters of me as I executed a strategic 35-meter retreat to the car. I am sorry now that I did not stand my ground and find out the true intentions of the emu.

I might mention that Aussie wildlife looks good on the table too. Both crocs and roos are delicious (and farm raised). I did not find any eating establishments offering wombat or koala bear though. In general, the food in Aussie land is quite good.

We ended our Aussie trip with a tour of the gold fields near Ballarat. Some of the history of the Aussie gold rush is like California's. Two exceptions. First, the British governor over taxed and over regulated the miners to the point that they rebelled in the bloodshed referred to as the Eureka Uprising. Second, instead of destroying the environment with hydraulic hoses the Aussies dug deep underground into quartz veins using Welsh and Cornish miners. The history of gold fever, company exploitation of workers, rags to riches stories, etc., is quite interesting. There is even a semi-abandoned synagogue here.

Since we are below the equator, one cannot navigate the country roads here at night using the Big Dipper and the North Star. Luckily Wayne knew about the Southern Cross (found on the Aussie flag) and how one would find the South Star if such a star existed. As a result of this and his map reading abilities, we have not been lost too often at all.

Wayne left for Hawaii this morning. He is a good travel companion and I'll miss him. I am off for a four-day romp in Kiwi Land (New Zealand) before returning to the Americas.

Marc

July 22: Postscript

It turns out that those wombats that turned out to be bandicoots are really possums.


Copyright 1999 Marc Mehlman
Last revised: 14 August 1999


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