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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Wet Heat, Dry Heat: The Northern Territory.

While the cities of Melbourne and Sydney have stolen a good deal of my attention, it was the last two trips that truly captivated my senses: Darwin and Ayers Rock. Both part of the Northern Territory, the two regions share many similarities: World Heritage protected, Aborigine-owned National Parks, visibility of prehistoric cultures and people, a tourist clientele, oppressive heat, original art galleries, and a respect for nature in all of its many forms. But, that’s where the similarities end. Darwin, part of the tropical wet, is painstakingly humid; Ayers Rock is painstakingly dry. Darwin is coastal; Ayers Rock is desert. Darwin’s Aboriginal culture is part of mainstream society; Ayers Rock’s Aboriginal culture remains invisible, confined to the bush, the outback, and the land. Differences aside, I had a similar fondness for these two very special places, vastly unknown worlds that helped me appreciate the beauty of Australia, away from the cities.

I was remiss in thinking that the tropical wet would only be represented by my sub-par experiences in Queensland’s Daintree, as Kakadu National Park (north of Darwin) was an abyss of beauty and reverential surrender to nature. A shit-kicker town dubbed “The Top End” because of its northern location, Darwin is the closest port to Asia and bustles in the way a port city does. The wharfs are active, the population is transient, and the water is a clear blue that reminds me of Bali’s southern shores, a semi-stone’s throw across the way, especially appreciated in Fannie Bay, a bit east of the city itself. I arrived during the beginning of “the wet,” a season that provides the year’s rainfall averages. Like in Port Douglas, I got lucky, avoiding the torrential floods and late day downpours associated with such a season. For that I’m grateful, as I got to explore Kakadu National Park in most of its splendor. Kakadu is in parts swampy marshlands that feed off a system of rivers flowing out into the ocean. In other parts, it is towering rock formations boasting century old Aboriginal artwork, the most beautiful (that I saw) being Nourlangie Rock, a lookout point that encompasses as much of Kakadu that the eye can see. The juxtaposition of the dry regions and the wetlands are remarkable, the colors of the vegetation are constantly changing while the colors of the rocks completely astounding, and the variety of wildlife interesting (and endangered, most). Who knew bird watching could be so worthwhile?

Begrudgingly, since I was short on time, I went on two tours in Kakadu, and both were absolute pleasures, restoring my faith in the tour guide. Kerry, the park ranger, is my new email buddy. Go figure. Granted, the heat was uncomfortable and the entire group was drenched throughout—seats of pants soaked through, darkened t-shirts clinging to torsos, matted ponytails, glistening forearms. And the flies! Australian flies are the true definition of pest. They obstinately refuse to be dismayed by swats, coming back and attempting to probe any exposed orifice for a bit of nutrition. It’s insanity. The park rangers wore nets over their faces; it’s that much of an issue. Had I seen a fly net hat, fashion victim or not, I’d have purchased it! To further illustrate the heat, any movement from indoor to outdoor venues in Darwin necessitated a 15-minute holding period for picture-taking, as my camera fogged and needed a brief acclimation before use. It’s unbearable weather. Tip for future travelers: come in the dry.

My second tour was a crocodile-feeding boat cruise. I had been foiled in Cape Tribulation, foiled in the Kakadu wetlands, and refused to leave 6 weeks of Australian holiday without a proper croc encounter. So, I signed up for the most croc-worthy adventure I possibly could: The Adelaide River Feeding (to wild crocodiles). Using pork chops guides lure the beasts out of the water. Natural jumpers, they spring out of the water for the bait. Well…it was worth every damn tourist penny. These creatures, that look Jungle-Cruise fake, stealthily glide over to the boat, flash their crooked, sharp-toothed smile and then, spring out of the water and snap that chop! Priceless, priceless. I didn’t win the boat’s lottery to feed one myself, though was praying like a grandma on the local church’s bingo Wednesday for a score. Can’t have all the luck, I guess.

Satisfied with all of my adventures in Kakadu, I moved onto Ayers Rock, or the Red Centre as the desert outback is called. An arid, dry heat festers here, in stark contrast to Darwin’s humidity. 33 degrees in Darwin renders one sweat-soaked merely by breathing; 33 degrees in Ayers Rock is breezy, enjoyable but potentially deadly without a water bottle close at hand. The reason to come to the Red Centre is spectacular Ayers Rock, a 40 million+ year old landmass rising 1100 feet high and a 5 mile-trek around the base. Made of sandstone, Ayers Rock is a desert mystery. Why, in the middle of this red sea of sand, did this structure prevail? Aboriginal culture renders it holy; the scientific community labels it a geological anomaly, and the Australian tourist council calls it a goldmine. However you want to define it, Ayers Rock is hands-down amazing. To contemplate this massive red rock, to walk the base, follow the lines and witness the ever-changing colors that beat off of it throughout the day, is one of the more appreciated experiences I’ve had yet in Australia. But, better than Ayers Rock (called Uluru by local people) are The Olgas (Kata Tjuta), 36 rock domes of conglomerate nearby to Ayers Rock. Entrenched throughout the domes are valleys and gorges, crevasses of hike exploration, and be sure that I tried to explore every last piece of it. This was my highlight – Kata Tjuta.

In the three days that I spent in the Red Centre, I was in awe. I was reminded of Bryce Canyon – the colors are remarkably similar and I saw every sunrise and every sunset over these formations, one more spellbinding than the next. After climbing Ayers in early morning, I spent a day wandering around by myself, in the heat of midday, prompting concern from the shuttle driver who dropped me off. Kata Tjuta, however, defies conventional descriptions of beauty. I initially went with out there with a tour but during the first 15 minutes my guide let everyone know we’d only be walking into and out of the main gorge as he brought the pace of a leisurely stroll down to a crawl. No way. So, I explained that I needed to stray from the group and do my own full circuit of the gorges. “I wouldn’t advise that,” said my worried leader. Noted. “What time do I need to be back at the bus?” I asked. “10:15, but you’ll never make it,” Ian doubted. Noted. Ever up for a challenge, I hiked the whole 10k circuit of Kata Tjuta, a tough, rocky, yet stunning terrain that had me panting at points, but never sweating (I love this kind of heat!). Two hours later, at 10:15 AM on the dot, I arrived back at the bus. I could barely breath through my dried out nostrils, my body was beet red, regardless of continuous SPF applications and I was out of water. But, I made it! Better…nobody else was there yet! My mission was victorious. 20 minutes went by before the Italian group I had passed along the way (turning back because they couldn’t continue forward) returned. No, no…the Americano! “You are here!” they uttered in halting English. “No way, you are here!” I won’t say I told you so, kids…

On my last night in Ayers Rock, I opted for the Sounds of Silence—a dinner under the desert stars. Owned by the same people who created Truman/Hamilton Island, Ayers Rock Resort itself was all about the tourist dollar, so I was wary of the likely kitsch factor. Yet, I’d heard it was a “must” and for all the solo time I’d had at the rocks, a little socialization might be good for me. I’m so glad I went. A lot of these tourist traps find me paired with seventeen couples of 60+ years. They ask if I’m still in school and when that fails, they ask if my parents worry about my travels. Blah, blah, yawn. This dinner had a singles contingent. Shocker! At the champagne and canapé sunset, I met Sarah from 8th Street/5th Avenue, also traveling alone. Then, Henry from Toronto, and Jack from Montreal. Two artists from South Korea who didn’t take photographs but sketched the landscapes of the cities they went to (!!), and a young couple from Sydney. Voila! A kids table. We were at a beautiful outback wedding, paired with the cousins and work friends who didn’t know the bride/groom very well, but had a blast, regardless. We drank lots of wine after hearing that the dinner was a bush selection of crocodile caesar salad (very gummy, the croc – yes, I tried it), kangaroo steak, lamb sausages, emu filets (gamey, yucky) and barrimundi skewers. We listened to the eerie didgeridoo play in the background (by a white guy in a polo shirt, NOT an Aborigine, of course), and had an astronomer take us through the night sky full of glittering stars. The coolness of the weather, the company, the setting (did I mention the wine?), were all fantastic.

After a quick weekend in Sydney for Australia Day (our July 4th, except a LOT more patriotism, painted faces in Aussie colors and flag-wearing ensembles), the Australian Open final and a trip to the Zoo, I’m now back in Melbourne for my final week in Oz. I can’t believe I’ve past the month mark and am headed onto the next leg of my journey soon. New Zealand. But first, Melbourne beckons once again.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Tennis for Tourists

Melbourne, Australia. Once the capital before it was moved to Canberra, Melbourne is a world city in its own right. No, it’s not as pretty as Sydney, it’s not as hot as Cairns, it’s not as industrial as Brisbaine, and it doesn’t have beaches like the Gold Coast or the Reef, but Melbourne is most definitely the coolest of them all. Different for having four seasons, it has an underground vibe, an air of chic, and a penchant for the arts. It’s multicultural—everywhere else in Australia (that I’ve seen) is very white—with an intense appreciation for art, literature, architecture, and music. Boasting great universities in a cultural playground, the palate is world-inspired, the fashion sense is trendsetting, and the quality of life makes it all affordable. In a constant fight for bragging rights as Australia’s best metropolis, Melbourne wins.

While not immediately coastal, the Yarra River, which cuts right through the center of the city, gives Melbourne charming tranquility. The city is most active along the riverbank; there’s great people-watching near the promenade on Southbank and the up-and-coming Docklands or in Federation Square—a Melbourne hub across from the Flinders Street Station (with it’s recognizable clock façade) boasting restaurants, pubs, museums, and various outdoor spaces to watch the big screen broadcast of whatever major sporting event has the population of Melbourne momentarily transfixed. I spent the entire weekend in central Melbourne, getting to know the city a bit, riding the trams, walking the side streets. The center is an easy grid: Collins, Bourke, Flinders (Matthew Flinders circumnavigated the coast of Australia, so there’s a Flinders street in every city), backed by the winding alleys off of Little Collins, Little Bourke, et al. While the center is fantastic and kept me thoroughly busy, it’s really the suburbs (meaning city neighborhoods – like our Chelsea and East Village versus our Westchester and Long Island “suburbs”) that pulse. I met Ben one night in Collingwood, which is a grungy little suburb with rows of bars along Smith Street, a very different feel than the fancier Southbank or the laidback ease of waterside St. Kilda.

The weekend in Melbourne was a quick trip, a tennis diversion, if you will. Being that I’m annually obsessed with the US Open each year (similar to my love of all things Yankee at playoff time…), I decided to further my fan-dom and make a real go at becoming a year-round aficionado. So, onto Rod Laver Arena I went. Tickets for two sessions (a day and a night) purchased on Ticket-Tek, Australia’s answer to Ticketmaster. For all the cringing that goes on when I see camera-toting tourists at the U.S. Open, I WAS that girl. The foreign fan, camera at the ready, buying souvenir towels. here in Australia. Yep, I admit it. That was me. I was snapping pictures of players on warm-up courts that I wouldn’t have given a second look in the States. Ooooh, Tommy Robredo, shirtless on Court 6. Run, snap, snap! Ooooh, Federer in a night match. Run, snap, snap! Look, it’s Fernando Gonazlez, the new hot Chilean. Run, snap, snap! I even found myself, true to my love of ALL things South American, mumbling along with the Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le! Vi-va! Chi-le! Every time Gonzalez took center court. (I’m thinking of getting myself a poster of him for my apartment, he’s THAT dreamy…) I was giddy with tennis fever, a giggling sidecourt fan. Who AM I? Appalled with myself, that’s what I am. I’ve seen these players play hundreds of matches and yet, here, in Oz, I’m a “Yankee” loser with a wild cheer and a Canon Elph.

Rod Laver Arena, with it’s retractable roof for rain (WHY don’t we have this?), is intimate, likely ½ the size of Arthur Ashe Stadium. I sat in the last row for one of my matches (the aforementioned Federer night match) and I might as well have been in Ashe, tier two, front row. It was fantastic, every seat felt close to the action. I asked an usher on the outside who was chatting me up (because I guess US Open tradition had to be tested) if I could pay to lower oneself down. Shocked, he responded politely: “This isn’t America. You can’t just buy your way through.” Ahem. Got it. The matches themselves were great. The protocol is the same, the antics are intact – the wave, the country chants, the overpriced food court, the corporate sponsor boxes. The only thing missing was the Ralph Lauren polo outfits on the ballboys. I didn’t miss them…at all.

In addition to Ben in the world, I met Caitlin & Vanessa in Melbourne, courtesy of Sarah. It’s amazing how keen everyone is to be out and about. It’s almost an effort to keep up. We went for divine Chinese in thriving Chinatown (you kinda forget that Australia is part of Asia), where we killed two bottles of fabulous NZ white before the matches after which we headed to Richmond (another suburb). But being a Sunday night, it was quiet. Plan B: onto Fed Square, where we met a whole new rolling posse. Gotta love the collective spirit of the Aussies; they’re ready to go out for allnighters with absolute strangers in their own town. Like we would ever do that in New York! (Sad…) Two guys in our new contingent were New Yorkers, but upon hearing I was from New York “City” dropped their smiles. When the girls inquired where exactly they were from, in a whisper, not meeting my glance, they replied, “Poughkeepsie.” “Where’s THAT?” Caitlin asked. “Pou-what?” asked Vanessa. “It’s upstate,” I offered. The pair just shook their heads, kicking the dirt at their feet, hands stuffed in chino pockets. “We hate it when we meet real New Yorkers,” they muttered. “Blows the ‘Poughkeepsie New Yorker’ right out of the water.” Ha.

Back to the tennis for Day 2. Man, was I lucky. For all of the first week’s issues, Sharapova’s meltdown, the challenging of the weather policy, the race riots, and a sex offender preying on kids in the bathrooms, it was uneventfully gorgeous during my time in Melbourne. 70 degrees, cloudless, breezy, the optimum conditions for some sport. I watched Hingis steamroll Li, Clijsters clobber Hantuchova, and Blake get his ass-whupped by my new love, Fernando Gonzalez. Stopping for dinner in Southbank, where I indulged in some Australian cuisine – kangaroo, which was delicious – I hit The Crown, a massive casino complex in Southbank, filled with high-end shops, restaurants, and a swanky hotel. Of course, it was packed. (I’m told there a bit of a gambling issue here in Oz, especially at “pokie” machines, or slots, which are everywhere.) I wound up next to a guy from Brooklyn, and wouldn’t you know it, he was with the Blake party. Soon after, the dred-locked brother Thomas showed up, then Blake for a quick spin at the tables before retiring back upstairs after too much unwanted attention on the day’s loss. Sucks you can’t take photos in casinos, otherwise my inner-tennis-tourist would’ve been back on display…

Overall, a blast. Can’t wait to return to Melbourne without the tennis distraction. A winner in my book, for sure.

More soon.