Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lessons in Road Travel, Part III (New Years in Nature)

It doesn't take a genius to point out the obvious similarities between the coast of southern Australia and the coast line of California. This doesn't make too much sense to me though, because the sensible thing might be that since the east coast of OZ and the west coast of the US share the same ocean (Pacific, for those trying quickly to picture mental map.) But no, the coastline closest to Antarctica (I swear, I can hear penguins cawing...or rustling...or chirping. What do they do exactly?) looks just like driving down Highway 1, the highway my great-grandpa helped build.

What are these similarities, exactly? Well, it's a bit cooler - though they are at this very moment experiencing a heat wave of almost 45 degrees, which is like sitting in your oven with a snowsuit on. The ocean water has a bit more chop and is certainly cooler to swim in. The beaches are covered in long kelp bulbs and tidal pools are abundant as you peer down the sand. The road is ocean on one side and rocky cliffs on the other (think, Half Moon Bay), covered in mosses and grasses. And when you drive just a smidge from the coastline, you are in Point Reyes, expecting to see elk or something bound out of the brush, when in fact kangaroos line the roads at dusk, faking you out, making you think they will be your next favorite hood ornament.

This is what the Great Ocean Road looks like.

***I interrupt these stories for a quick blurb about bread. I love Australian supermarket wheat bread. Hell, it is expeeeeeeennnnsive - about five bucks a loaf (although adjusted for the OZ dollar inflation, it's more like three). But it comes in so many delicious good-for-you flavors and it is MOIST. When was the last time you ate dense, moist, thickly cut wheat bread from a supermarket? I'm eating it right now. My poison of choice: Burgen bread.

Anyway, the Great Ocean Road. There are the most beautiful, idyllic seaside towns on the Great Ocean Road, the kind you would sell your own home and buy one of these homes for, just so you could live this peaceful seaside life, full of greenery and salt air and fish and chip shops. I wanted so much, though, to like the city of Lorne, but it was overrun with teenagers attending a music festival, and they were all dragging around beer cases an taking up my walking room on the sidewalk and shouting an smelling musty, etc. So I didn't like it too much. Plus, I scraped my back on a pole and it really hurt, compounded with the fact that a tapas restaurant I really wanted to go to was closed (even though I had talked to them the day before and they said "See you tomorrow!") and then I was hungry. Cranky Caitlin almost burnt Lorne down. Thank goodness it's still there, for you to possibly see it one day, and pick up my tapas torch.

We ended up finding this campground by chance using the "Campground Search" function on the GPS, and I liked the name because it was listen as "bimbiparkcampingunderkoalas" - and because I like run-on words so much, and it sounded so silly, we went for it.

What I would like my readers to appreciate a bit was how much trouble we had over the two weeks finding places to stay. Because the seasons are flipped, we are now experiencing summer holidays here, where families are off work and kids are out of school, and apparently every sheila and her brood likes a nice seaside caravan park. So most of the time, we would call them up and ask if they could just...squeeze us in. And squeeze we did. Luckily, squeeze at Bimbi Park wasn't too bad, since they had some "non-designated" grassy space we comandeered. And guess what? It really was camping under koalas. As in, at any time of day, you could see a koala somewhere, doing its thing - eating, sleeping, climbing, etc.

I remember seeing koalas at the San Diego Zoo when I was nine years old and I also remember being very disappointed. They looked like muppets, or puppets, and they didn't do anything. They looked like Lawrence Hall of Science dinosaurs, you know the ones that move only their heads very slowly in the same motion.

Real koalas are much more exciting. They move, they climb. I saw one climb down from a tree and cross right in front of us, literally running on the ground while grunting this awful koala grunt. Koalas make disgusting noises, and they do it all day and all night. It's like...a squak/grunt/rumble. It is a mating call. I saw them mate. You hear an awful, awful screaming noise, and that's the female. He grabs her from behind, while she tries to scramble away, and...does his thing. It's just disgusting. That was New Year's Eve.

New Year's Eve was also fish and chips, pasta made on the Trangea, relaxing under the koala sex, drinking fruity white cask wine in camping mugs, then watching Home Alone in the outdoor movie theatre (full of kids, of course, and then us with our wine), and having a nice loud count down with a rousing round of Auld Lang Syne, whatever that really is. It was so different. I loved it.

That's all for my poor fingers for now. (Eventually the whole story will come out.) I forsee a special edition posting on my opinion of Australian English later today. But for now, I would like all of you out there to listen to the 500 Days of Summer soundtrack, like I am doing, and revel in the good things - health, happiness, sunshine, wheat bread, home lip-waxing kits, intellect - just like I am. Until then.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lessons in Road Travel, Part II (A Lesson in Wine)

I bet you're wondering what it looks like. Well, unless you've been here, and then you already know what Australia looks like.

The Pacific Highway is a stroke of road genius. It stretches the entire length of the east coast from Brisbane to...well...Eden, I think. And this is no joke. The last coastal city before the car turns inland to the south is Eden. It weaves through Jurassic Park forests and through gum trees that smell like the Oakland Hills. The ocean is sometimes green/grey but usually turquoise fading into dark blue.

The east coast is dotted with tiny drive-thru towns (literally driven through, at about 50k an hour) that look like the color versions of what old black and white films used to make movies of. Two of my favorites? Milton and Portland. Oh wait, Portland is on the south coast, but nevertheless, they are one banjo towns with seamstress shops and bakeries and general stores. Oh yes, I bought a set of knitting needles and three skeins of yarn in a Haberdashery Emporium. Have you ever heard anything like it in your life?

Bakeries: you hardly buy bread in bakeries. You know what you buy in bakeries? Pies. Meat pies. Meat pies and sausage rolls and something called a pastie, which I have yet to explore. A bakery in Bundamba sells pies with ham, cheese, bacon, and an egg baked into the center in a weird hard/not hard texture. Eating a bakery pie is like opening up a sea salt grinder over your open mouth and just going for it, for maybe five to ten minutes, depending on what kind of a vacuum eater you are. The only solution: cover the entire thing in ketchup, which is not ketchup but tomato sauce, and is usually not free. It is so not free that they don't even leave it in a tiny tub for you to grab handfuls, not even at the drive-thru. Because there are drive-thru pie shops, just as there are drive-thru liquor stores. Bought my first six pack, icy cold, delivered to the passenger window. What a world.

Anyway, we made our way down the coast at breakneck (though not too fast, because the highways here have speed cameras everywhere and they actually work. We stopped in Nambucca Heads, where a nighttime walk led to hearing what must have been thousands of crabs clacking on the sand in the pitch black night, we stopped...well, did we stop? On the 29th, of course, we were in the Yarra Valley, one of the lovely, Napa-y wine regions of Australia (there are many.)

Yarra is special, or perhaps just plain unfortunate, because it is in an area that though only two hours from the coast gets very hot, and last February had a terrible fire people here refer to as Black Saturday, where hundreds of people died because the gum trees sparked up so fast and the houses were so rural. Anyway, Yarra winemakers are hurting from the lack of tourism ever since then (though to be honest, you can't really see too much of the damage a year later. It is just beautiful). So we decided to pay them a visit.

I don't know too much about wine, but I can assure you I have a lot more to compare to now than I did before. It's great fun to pretend like you know what you're doing. You stand at the counter, request two glasses, start at the top of the list, but make sure you don't try everything. This makes you look young and naive. Always start with the whites and move to the reds. The wine-givers, as I will call them because I forgot their proper names, in the Yarra really liked to tell you what the wine tastes like. I had a problem with this. I'm pretty darn sure my taste buds are tweaked a tiny bit differently than yours, buddy. The people at Chandon, which is a lovely location and really nice green grass, kept trying to describe me their wines, but I felt like everything had once been wine until they mixed it with three parts water. Really, if I wanted watery wine I would just backwash a few times.

If you really want to impress the wine-givers, you swirl your glass and sniff like you're using Vicks. Then you take a tiny sip. If you like it you guzzle when the employees look away. If you don't, you give a sigh and pour it into the spitoon. Ah, I love me a good spitoon. And since James was playing birthday chauffeur, I got to do a lot of finishing seconds, and using of spitoons.

I had an awesome lunch at a winery/brewery in...a town in the Yarra, including (and this is mostly for the benefit of my mother, who probably likes to know how many toilet paper squares I use each time I take a toilet break here) smoked trout and endive salad and woodfired mushroom feta pizza. The best part? Surprise flourless chocolate almond cake with a candle in it. The metrosexual waiter brought it out nice and smiley, without any embarassing singing. Perfect!

I would be doing my first wine tasting experience a disservice if I didn't mention my favorite winery, Sutherland Estates. And to my parents, who think they can find it online, not a chance. You can't even ship the good stuff within Australia, let alone overseas. This place was amazing, with a giant glass wall overlooking the whole valley (in writing retrospect, I think a glass wall is known as a window...). And the best thing ever, to this day debated because neither James nor I can remember the grape, was either a champagne or a pinot chardonnary that was possibly the best fluid I have ever consumed. I wish you all could have some. It was like creamy nutty fruity bubbly heaven. And he was only letting us taste it for free because he had run out of bottles to sell. Oh, the humanity and the bottle that got away.

That night I'm pretty sure we ate crackers, brie and olives on the fluffy hotel bed and drank a bottle of chardonnay (not the heaven one, but still great) from Sutherland. Oh yes, and there was chocolate ice cream. Happy birthday to me!

...And the thing that really gets my goat is that Sideways was on two nights ago and there were some really great wine quotes I could have been floating around all day, such as "The wine is...quaffable...but hardly inspirational" and "We are not drinking ANY FUCKING MERLOT!" I invite you to relive these moments in your DVD player, or just imagine me saying them.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lessons in Road Travel, Part I

I'm back and better than ever, fresh from the road and full of beautiful images and stories. Bear with me: to properly chronicle the past two weeks, I'm going to have to use a very fancy device, the sub-heading.

Christmas Day

What did you do on Christmas day? I bet it was cold. I shiver every time I think of all the people i England, the last place I had my foot down in Europe, bundled up in their cookie-cutter Harry Potter suburb houses in weather that is apparently only two degrees warmer than the North Pole. Santa must have loved delivering presents this year.

I spent Christmas eating prawns the size of my hand, drinking wonderful beer held in little beer cosies (everyone uses them..the proper term escapes me), sitting in a cold hot tub, and eating my very first Christmas pudding. For those not familiar, it' kind of like dense fruit cake with rum, covered in ice cream and whipped cream. Absolutely delightful.

This way of doing Christmas is highly recommended. You eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner all day with your family. You listen to music, have a dunk in the cold spa, exchange a few presents (I had a UNICEF chicken purchased in my name - just like Mom does with Heifer International), watch a movie, drink a LOT of champagne and beer, and make silly home videos.

What do you think, family? Sound like a plan?

The "Plan"

The initial plan was the hoof it down to Victoria, Australia, to go wine tasting on my birthday. To get a sense of the distance, it is 22 hours non-stop, no traffic from Brisbane to Melbourne (so, from about halfway up the East Coast to the bottom of the East Coast, plus over a bit). Of course, for anyone who has ever gone on a road trip, this is a virtually impossible non-stop distance, especially for someone as curious as me. There are simply too many weird and interesting and beautiful things to see.

The most constantly fascinating observation for me is how different the flora and fauna are here. There I go, using odd terms like flora and fauna. But saying "plants" and "animals" is just too plain. They aren't just plants and animals. It's things like...the particularly stunning moss growing on a rock, or the oddly colored blue mosquitoes (oh, the mosquitoes). Or it's seeing cockatoos flying along the side of the road like we would see turkey vultures on the way to Tahoe - they are simply everywhere, even though in my slowly-expanding mind those birds should definitely be overly expensive and caged. And loud. Oh boy, do those things make NOISE.

Then there are the road signs. Australia is really, really committed to reminding you to try to be a better driver. Every minute or so you will see "How Fast Are You Going?" or "Stop Every Two Hours" or "Even A Roadside Nap Is Better Than No Sleep." Some nearly yell at you about drunk driving. I think this is particularly brilliant, but I have no idea if it actually works. Australia is also really committed to having the weirdest city names in the world. Wagga Wagga? Condong? Toowoomba? I felt a bit rude for laughing when I found out that most of the names are Aboriginal words. But really. Maybe the Aboriginals just have a really good sense of humor.

Back To The Learner's Permit

James gets the "Most Tolerant Passenger Seat Companion of the Year" award. He let me drive. Well, he let me drive sometimes. And sometimes I simply elected not to drive. We would generally try to swap every 2-3 hours, just for change of stimulation and a stretch of the legs. James' mom told me cute story that reminds me, when driving on the Australia side of the world, "Passenger in the ditch!" meaning, keep the passenger in the gutter. Oh boy, do I know how to keep the passenger in the gutter. A bit too much, perhaps. My left arm likes to pull the car left...into the ditch. Sometimes this results in the white line making that noise at me. Sometimes there is gravel in the ditch. In city driving, there are always other cars parked in the ditch.

The worst was driving through Sydney. We accidentally took the route that put us directly into urban traffic and ran us straight through the city. The lanes are made for clown cars and people drive like they are all driving their urgently water-popped wives to the hospital. Well, they aren't. They are just speedy and the lanes are just tiny. Needless to say, there was some yelling. Do you remember the scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off when jennifer Grey is driving with her mom and she is pounding on the steering wheel yelling "I CAN'T DRIVE WHEN YOU'RE YELLING AT ME STOP IT!!!!" Yeah, it was something like that.

But I am improving. I avoided hitting an echidna taking its sweet time crossing a rural highway. I drove in the pouring tropical rains. Of course, I took an opportunity to stop at every Driver Reviver stop on my shift. The government pays for volunteers to give out free coffee, tea, lemonade, and cookies about every 100k down the major highways during the holidays. BEST. IDEA. EVER. Thank you, OZ government, for all the bickies. Oh yeah, bicky=cookie. Short for biscuit. Biscuit is both a cookie and cracker. They do not have biscuit biscuits. But that is another story for another time.

In short, we drove a LOT. And we read a lot of maps. And sometimes, car tension rode high. But at the end of the day, after you pitch the tiny tent and set up the chair and pull out the box of wine, there really can be no complaints.

Making My Father Proud

My dad's idea of camping was never like other families. No caravan, no Colman stove (well, hardly ever). No blow-up mattresses and no multi-room tents. God, I always wanted a multi-room tent so big you could stand in it.

My dad would be ultra-proud to learn that I went camping for nearly 11 days in a tiny two-person (one and a half is more like it) tent, using only a tiny backpacking stove, two tiny ground mats, a plastic knife, and no pillows. We forgot the pillows. We bought some at Woolworths...

And boy is camping here variable. We had at least two nights of torrential rain. It was MISERABLE, mostly because it was so loud and right above your head. We had at least two nights of miserable sub-tropical heat. We ALSO had a few nights of bizarre freezing temperatures. Oh yes, and at least two nights, there were awful colicky babies right next to our tent. And at the end of every hardly-slept night, we would roll everything up, throw it back in the car, and do it all over again.

Actually, I really liked it. It was pretty much as roughing it as you can get when you're in the car every day. Toward the end, we stopped caring if the campsites had showers. We cooked pasta and thai food and we barbecued (because everyone knows that's what the Aussies do) on this tiny pot stove thing and hey, we drank a smidge of wine. The Aussies love that too. But more about wine later, I think. A LOT more.