Travels "Down Under"by Mary Hartman
The signboard in front of the cafe beckoned us. Once inside, listings on the menu almost choked us:
Camel porterhouse steak and roast emu. Filet of shark. And the clincher: home-smoked kangaroo with wattle seeds.
Talk about feeling like strangers in a strange land!
But, this was Australia, for goodness sake, where everyone speaks English, and there's an American burger joint on most every corner. We'd made the trip Down Under to photograph the Roos, not to eat them.
Still, when in Australia, do as the Aussies do...but not when it comes to dining on kangaroo.
Barrie and I had talked for years about how to "do" Australia without living there for months. After all, the place is as large as the United States. How does a foreigner "do" the U.S. in two to three weeks?
Finally, we found a way -- at least one suitable to us. Part bus trip, part train, a few flights here and there, then onto a cruise ship and we think we saw Australia about as well as anyone could in three weeks time.
From the git-go, it helped that, after nearly 17 hours on planes, we arrived in Sydney without jet lag -- a miracle roughly equivalent to the airlines removing a few rows of seats so economy passengers could actually rest en flight. (That will be the day!) After a two-hour siesta at our downtown hotel, we beat a path to Sydney's harbor and stayed there for the next five hours. By the time we crawled into bed that night, we'd walked the entire waterfront, marveled at the Opera House, explored the historic Rocks District and -- drum roll here -- made a modest dent in purchasing the requisite Australian souvenirs.
And, yes, when nine o'clock came, we were ready for some shut-eye. That's how our days went: Go, go, go from dawn to dusk, then fall into bed, grab some sleep and go again the next day.
Under the mothering of Australia Pacific Travel, we spent three days in Sydney, also sneaking in a trip to the Blue Mountains and its famous rain forest. Along the way, our guide called our attention to the dead dog tree -- "that's the tree without bark," he quipped. By that definition, Australia is filled with dead dog trees -- the native eucalyptus shed their bark much as a snake does its skin.
One of our goals had been a visit to Canberra, Australia's national capitol and one of only a few planned capitol cities in the world (Brasilia and Islamabad, Pakistan, being two others). "Go to Australia's War Memorial," we'd been advised, and the advice was right on target. From its gold-interior dome, to the Tomb of the Unknown and Hall of Memory, where 102,000 names are inscribed, the memorial is a model for how every country might honor its military dead. Of special note: the entire city of Canberra was designed, beginning in 1912, by Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin, who had never been to Australia. He along with all architects competing for the honor of designing this city, received a large painting of the area. From this, he designed away, later moving to Australia to oversee the capitol's construction. We spent two hours in the World War II Museum on the capitol grounds; we could have spent two days.
When undertaking a trip such as this, one must carefully pick and choose what is important. In Melbourne, as in other Australia cities, we took the city tour, thus marking other sites to visit. Passing the Queen Victoria Market, the decision was easy -- at least for me. (Barrie was perfectly happy in the hotel with a book while I spent nearly three hours in shoppers paradise.) The more than 1,000 stalls in this massive market offered something for everyone: t-shirts and caps, fruits, vegetables, fish, meat -- and live meat -- baby chicks, laying hens and ducks. (Bird flu was not an issue here yet.) A special note about Australia's markets, which can be found in virtually all major cities: Not only is the merchandise varied and abundant, it's also half the price of that in souvenir shops. Example: A stuffed kangaroo that sold for between $15.95 and $19.95 in downtown shops, could be had for $7.50 at the market. Baseball caps ranged from $3 to $5 and t-shirts were a steal. I did half my Christmas shopping at the Queen Victoria Market.
A highlight of the trip -- heck, a highlight of our lives -- was riding the famous Ghan Train, the "Living Legend," as Australians call it. Our destination: Australia's Outback, home of the Aboriginal peoples and site of the famous Ayers Rock, now called Uluru to reflect the rockâ€˜s name in Aboriginal language. Tell any Australian you've traveled the Ghan and visited Uluru and another version of oohing begins. "You haven't seen Australia until you've seen the Outback," so goes the saying.
We boarded the Ghan in the southern Australian city of Adelaide and, in comfort usually reserved for royalty, traced the route of the historic Afghan camel drivers who, 150 years ago, blazed a permanent trail into the Outback -- thus the name "Ghan" train. The original wooden rail tracks, built in 1929, were besieged with termites, bush fires and flash flooding. New tracks laid in 1982 remedied these problems and provide one of the smoothest train trips on the planet.
Listen up Amtrack. We were greeted courteously at the station and, when we boarded the train, a friendly attendant showed us our sleeper cabin. Pleasant waiters and waitresses served us in the lounge car; another attendant provided a history of the Ghan. Dinner was a palatial affair -- pre-paid as part of our train ticket. Tables were set with white cloths and special Ghan-stamped china. Service was punctual and the food was outstanding. We had boarded the train shortly after 5 and -- this being the Austral summer -- the sun did not set until past 10:30, giving us a lot of time to see the passing scenery.
Of course, the Aussies have a joke about that, too. "Board the Ghan train, then wake up the next morning and discover you've gone nowhere!" This refers to the sameness of the Outback, which -- in truth -- doesn't look the same at all.
So, there we were on this silver bullet of a train that, from the air, must look like some long sausage snaking through the red countryside. The excitement came partly from knowing we were at a far distant point on the earth, as well as realizing we were truly taking one of the "Great Train Trips of the World."
It ended at 11 the following morning in the center of Australia at Alice Springs. Aussies, however, are thrilled because in early February the Ghan was extended taking travelers all the way north to Darwin on the Timor Sea. There lush rainforest greets visitors after the two-day haul through the desert.
But, we disembarked in "The Alice, " as it is called, where a bloke decked out in a tuxedo was standing with a sign: "Hartmans." He was here to drive us to the Alice Springs Resort, where we would spend the night before traveling, by bus, to the famous Uluru.
Here's where our image of Alice Springs as a dusty outpost in the middle of nowhere came to a crashing halt. First, the well-dressed chauffeur, then -- as we neared town -- a K-Mart store popped out before us followed by a Blockbuster Video! Alice Springs, we learn, is home for 28,000 people, including about 2,000 Americans who monitor military installations from here.
Despite its modernity, Alice Springs is headquarters of two vital services for those who truly do live in the remote Outback. These are the School of the Air and the Royal Flying Doctor's Service, both of which we visited during the afternoon.
School of the Air uses radios, computers and videos to create a virtual classroom for hundreds of primary-school youngsters who live on far-away sheep and cattle stations, as well as Aboriginal children. One special note: English is the market language for all instruction because the Aboriginal "language," contains up to 600 dialects. Asking how the native peoples feel about their children learning English, the tour guide responded, "Fine. We don't have many problems. After all, kids are kids everywhere." Once every quarter, these kids get a chance to learn and play together, as parents bring them to Alice Springs for "School Week," a time, our guide tells us, "that mom and dad use to do their business -- shop for groceries, supplies and groceries and go to the bank."
And, if someone in the remote areas becomes ill or injured, the Royal Flying Doctor's Service is at the ready. Alice Springs is one of several RFDS stations in the Outback, which -- in total -- covers about 4,200,000 square miles. Six doctors, seven flight nurses and three aircraft are based here, and "quite often, all three planes are in the air at the same time," our guide reported. Most of the remote stations include lighted airstrips, although some landings are carried out "on dirt strips at night using flares. " It's not uncommon for surgery to be performed en flight. The charge to patients is only what insurance will pay; the government picks up the balance.
The flying doctor's service has a remarkable record for safety: In all of its nearly 75 years in business, only one plane has crashed, which took the life of the pilot. No patients were involved.
Much more can be told about this fascinating trip -- including the tale of Barrie walking the six-mile path around Ayers Rock, er, Uluru. Installment two will cover that and other Aussie travel experiences.
So, for now -- until the next installment -- it's g'day Mate" from two crazies who can't seem to get enough of seeing the world.