Hello from tomorrow,
The last time I left most of you I was in Cairns, Australia. You will be relieved to know that I successfully completed my diving course without serious mishap apart from getting wet--above the water that is. My arrival in Australia seemed to coincide with the resurgence of the rainy season in Australia's north, so that I was stuck in Cairns for a couple of days due to flooding on the road going south. I managed to get a lot of reading done, though. Eventually I got on the bus for the long over-night ride down to Brisbane. The scenery varied from lush, rain drenched rain forests and swamps to drier eucalyptus covered hills as we went south.
Brisbane itself is a green city of a million or so people centered around the Brisbane River a few miles inland. It was still fairly wet while I was there over a weekend so I decided to continue south as soon as possible. It was my first experience of a true Australian city, though, so was worthwhile in demonstrating that Australians could in fact be relatively urbane vs. their more rustic North Queensland cousins for whom a pair of shorts (and a bikini top for the ladies) was typical and wearing shoes is dressing up. I exaggerate, but you get the idea. Worth visiting in Brisbane (and all big Australian cities, it seems) was the botanic gardens, situated downtown on a bend of the river, which with its massive tropical trees was an impressive reminder that I wasn't in Kansas anymore, Toto. Perhaps the highlight of my stay in Brisbane was visiting the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, which featured Australian animals including tame kangaroos/wallabies that you could feed and pat and koalas galore. Especially popular with the Japanese tourists was being photographed--for a fee--holding a koala.
From Brisbane I got on the bus again for the short hop down the "Gold Coast" to Surfers Paradise. The joke is that in Surfers sunset comes at 3 in the afternoon due to all of the highrises lining the beach. It's Australia's answer to Florida and Myrtle Beach with theme parks galore. While it does have a great long beach, it is not a paradise for surfers so after a night there I got on the bus for Byron Bay, two hours south and mainland Australia's eastern-most point.
Byron is the antithesis of Surfers with hardly a highrise in sight and a decidedly counterculture feel with lots of bearded (usually the men), long haired, barefoot hippies wandering around the chic stores selling hemp clothing. At one point, minding my own business and trying to finish an ice-cream cone before it melted, I was asked if I wanted to make a donation to a charity that distributed free vegetarian meals in India. I declined: If there's one thing that poor Indian kids need, it's protein. I took a nice walk to the lighthouse on the top of a hill on the point that separates Byron's bays, with fantastic views of both. Better still would have been the views from the hang-gliders that took off from the nearby ridge. I took a surfboard to the beach for a few hours and rode a few waves, but mostly sunburned my nose--and lip, if that's possible. Then it was on to Sydney, home to four million people (i.e., one quarter of Australia's population).
We got a good if brief view of downtown Sydney (and the opera house) from the bus crossing the justifiably famous "Harbour Bridge" which features on just about every other postcard of Sydney, the opera house itself featuring on most of the rest. Sydney had very much a big-city feel, with multi-coloured groups of people scurrying about the sidewalks, and was undergoing a facelift to look its best for the September Olympics. Of course all of the tourist literature hyped Sydney as having the "best harbour in the world" (attributed to one of its first governors/prison wardens) and after a while it got a bit much. Of the cities I've seen, Cape Town still wins hands down for its setting. There I go again, but back to Sydney. One curiosity about Sydney, after the endless debates and forums in Toronto about homelessness and panhandlers, was the relative lack thereof in Sydney. There were some panhandlers around, but they were quite creative: one draped himself in a Roman toga and stood motionless in Ceaser's classical "I came, I saw, I conquered" pose. I had to look twice to realize that he wasn't a statue. The tray with a few coins in it as his feet gave him away. There was another variation on the statue theme from one guy wrapped in aluminium foil presumably and spray painted silver. Most creative of all was the guy in the donkey suit. The kids loved him. Maybe some of you students hard up for cash could try that in Toronto.
Despite its being such a large city, Sydney's downtown is surprisingly pedestrian friendly. First stop was Circular Quay, which most of the harbour ferries call home, then around to the infamous opera house, which really is impressive. I skipped the guided tour though since it cost $20. From the opera house I walked around the neighbouring botanic gardens which give you a fine view of the city center and harbour from very peaceful surroundings. Then it was on to the New South Wales art gallery, in the garden grounds, for a look at some good Australian art. The next day it was across the harbour on a ferry to the Sydney zoo, which is fantastically situated on the hills overlooking the harbour (there's that word again...) with good views of the city center on the far side. The zoo as such was pretty good (I'd say the Toronto zoo is better--but it's a lot bigger), but it too was under major surgery in places to look good for the Olympics. A day later I took another ferry across the--altogether now--harbour, to Manly beach. A bit of a misnomer in my absence, really. Still I got a good look at all of the other tourists and did a bit of body-surfing. Nothing to write home about really. Before heading south for Melbourne I stayed a night with a fellow that I'd known in boarding school in Pakistan who lives in Cronulla, an hour or so south of Sydney proper. His face was the first familiar one that I'd seen in Australia, and we had fun body surfing, the beach being all of three hundred meters from his apartment, and catching up on mutual acquaintances. The steak dinner that he treated me too was also a nice change from the usual backpacker's fare of fast food, instant noodles and raw fruit.
From Sydney it was on to Canberra by train, Australia's made to order capital city (since neither Sydney nor Melbourne wanted the politicians). The train ride down to Canberra was scenic passing through dry sheep and cattle grazing country on gently rolling hills and towns with names like Wagga Wagga. Canberra itself is essentially a massive park centered around a lake with roads and buildings scattered here and there. Having done graduate work in topography would also be useful to navigate the place since it's designed around several circular shopping districts with suburbs spread out concentrically around them (i.e., there are very few straight roads). All in all, Canberra is supremely unfriendly to the pedestrian and duller than even a government town has any right to be, with apologies to Ottawa. That said I got a lot of exercise riding a bicycle around for a day. The parliament building blended in fairly well to the surroundings since the roof is, no surprise really, mostly grass. For good reason, it being very hot and road being very steep, I was the only cyclist who rode up a nearby mountain. I was rewarded for my efforts with a good view of city and a fast coast down, watching out for careless wild kangaroos in my path.
The next day it was on the train again to Melbourne, my mother's girlhood home for several years. Like Brisbane, Melbourne is centered around a river, the Yarra, just inland from the coast. It's a more genteel city than Sydney with mock gothic bank buildings and lots of rowers on the Yarra. After the usual round of art galleries and botanic gardens (which border Lake Albert park, the site of Melbourne's Formula One circuit, running this weekend) I called up a high-school friend of my mother's (who last saw me when I was six months or so and embarrasing Mom since my hair wouldn't stay down--and it still won't) who showed me the schools where Mom went to and the last house that she lived in. The next day we drove a couple hours east of Melbourne to Philip Island (former home of the Melbourne F1 race) along the coast and through scenic, hilly, farm country. The highlight of Philip Island was the "Penguin Parade", the time after sunset when the "Little Penguins" (ten inches or so tall) come up the beach after a long day of fishing. Us humans probably outnumbered the hundred or so penguins that we saw by five to one. We sat on bleachers set into the hill just above the beach. The ban on photography was a little ridiculous given the floodlights, commentary over loudspeakers and yelling school children. It's no wonder that some of the penguins took a while to work up the courage, and find enough companions, to make the trip past the gawking tourists and walk to their burrows further up the hill in their peculiarly ungainly way. Good fun.
Then it was time to head back up to Sydney to fly out for New Zealand. I went on an overnight bus via the coast to a town called Wolloongong, a couple of hours south of Sydney. The scenery south of Wolloongong was especially beautiful with cows grazing in lush, green fields bordering the sea. In Wolloongong I met up with a girl that I'd known at boarding school in Pakistan (the sister of the fellow in Cronulla), her husband and their six month old daughter. They drove me around a bit and we had tea on top of a nearby mountain with a great view of the town and sea below. Then it was back up to Sydney on the train along the coast with frequent stops to pick up and disgorge hordes of teenage boys wearing little more than swimsuits and carrying their surfboards.
My arrival back in Sydney last Saturday afternoon was impeccably timed as usual to coincide with the infamous Sydney Mardi Gras parade, which bills itself as one of the largest gay pride parades in the world. Walking to church the following morning through High Park the post parade debris of beer bottles and milk crates floating in the pond around the war memorial was being cleaned up.
After a couple a nights of fitful sleep sharing a room and three bunk beds with five other, mainly nocturnal, backpackers, it was a relief to be on my way to Kiwiland. I flew into Auckland--with over one million people, home to almost one third of Kiwis--on Monday afternoon and spent the better part of the week catching up on my sleep and seeing the sights of the city basking in the warm sunlight and post America's Cup win euphoria. On Friday morning I was shown around by the former chaplain of our boarding school in Pakistan, and father of one of my classmates, to some of Auckland's more suburban attractions. Again, it was good to see a familiar face and catch up on mutual acquaintances.
At the moment I'm in a town a couple of hours south of Auckland en route to the south island. I'm staying with a retired missionary lady from Zambia and will soon be going to an evening church service with a former classmate of Shirley-Anne's. It's nice to have connections so far from home. :)
My next and most probably last letter from the road will hopefully be in three in four weeks post NZ when I should be in Vancouver. At some point I'm planning on going back to Toronto. I can scarcely say that I've been around the world unless I do, really.
Incidentally, due to the quirk of the International Date Line, I'll arrive in LA before I fly out of Auckland. Another piece of trivia: according to Einstein's theory of relativity, I'll be a couple of microseconds or so younger than you all after having flown around the world, but as Stephen Hawking said, airplane food more than makes up for the difference. It isn't that bad really, but on that thought I'll sign off.
Till next time.