Friday, May 21, 2010

We're Moving to the American South

Here's where the journey comes to an end. After 2 years covering the Middle East, Asia and Australia, I'm now back in America and settling into a brand-new city. Perhaps my next story, on a blog to come, will tell the tale of a Yankee who moves to the American South. My new life consists of people who tip their cowboy hats and call me "ma'am" when we pass on the sidewalk. Welcome to the great state of Georgia, where everything is peachy-keen, and nothing beats a tall glass of iced sugary-sweet tea.

I encourage you to read through the older posts on this blog, especially those written in Egypt and India, which tell some of the most colorful tales.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Walkin' on pavement

If The Onion newspaper -- a satirical paper that prints fake, funny news -- had an Australia edition, it would probably headline:

Last intersection in country filled in with circle.

Australians seem to have an aversion to intersecting lines. Everywhere -- even quiet suburban streets in tucked-away neighborhoods -- have "roundabouts" where there should be intersections. I suppose they may see this as posh European design, or perhaps as a good opportunity to never test their brakes. Occasionally, I can see the merit in the occasional tasteful roundabout. But the Australians have really gotten carried away with this. They've even begun creating "figure 8's" -- a roundabout that opens directly into another roundabout.

There's a figure 8 down the street from my sister Aruna's house in Sydney, which I walk past everyday on my way to somewhere in the neighborhood: the library, the park, the childcare center, the train station. In fact, I do a lot of walking these days, which leads me to this conclusion:

When this trip ends and I re-enter the "real world," the hardest thing to readjust to will be walking on pavement.

I started walking on pavement when I reached Sydney. Aruna Di’s house is in a neighborhood designed for pedestrians, with wide sidewalks large enough for two people heading in opposite directions, each pushing strollers, to pass by comfortably. This is a massive improvement over the suburbs and exurbs designed around the idea that no one will ever walk; where the narrow sidewalks end abruptly if they exist at all. Having usable sidewalks is a major blessing.

Still, after months on dirt and sand, my legs aren’t used to stepping on hard pavement surfaces, and my knees are hurting from the impact. Normally I wouldn’t mention this – as my knees are sensitive and prone to aches – but Sara’s knees are hurting as well, and hers are normally as healthy as can be. “This isn’t normal for my knees,” she says. “It’s definitely the pavement.”

Still, I can’t complain. One of the biggest blessings about staying inside a house instead of a car is that you don’t remain in one position for several hours a day, or have to apply pressure to your joints as you maneuver in and out of tight spaces.
As a result, your body becames far less stiff. With the migration toward ceilings that allows you to stand up, and a little help from a Wii Fit, you even notice your posture improving again.

Living in a house rather than a car -- complete with luxuries such as showers and tea kettles -- is amping us up for re-entering the workforce.

We sold the car for less than we wanted, largely because I have a job waiting for me in the U.S. and I wanted to rush back to re-start my life, and didn't feel like waiting around many more weeks while my life is put on hold.

In the end the car ... after you include resale loss, repairs, servicing, towing insurance, title transfer, sales tax and tools bought ... came to an out-of-pocket net expense of $2500 for 6.5 months of use. In other words, it costs the two of us about $50 per week per person.

Add this to the food/fuel/cost-of-living of $22 to $25 per day per person ($154 to $175 per week), and you end up with a weekly expense total ranging between $200 to $225 per person - in other words, around $1000 per person per month.

And all these calculations are done in Australian dollars -- so minus 10 percent and you have the cost in US Dollars ($900 per month per person).

That's not bad for half a year of 4-Wheel-Driving around the great Outback desert of Australia. :-)

That figure represents such frugality as buying everything secondhand, eating the cheapest groceries (goodbye, blueberries -- hello, pasta), not having health insurance, sharing rides with other backpackers for extra gas money, and spending 3 weeks at the end of the trip selling off everything from our sleeping bags to our prepaid mobile phone.

On the other hand, that figure also represents such extravagances as chartering a boat out to an undeveloped island in the Whitsundays where we were the only people on a white-sand beach and we could snorkel with giant sea turtles over vibrant coral reef. Which, let's not forget, is the reason we're in Australia in the first place.

Two years ago, I had never snorkeled in my life; now I've seen some of the most beautiful scuba and snorkel areas in the world, from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Indonesian tropics to the Great Barrier Reef. Two years ago, I had never 4-Wheel-Drove through deep sand dunes, or studied the tides to decide whether or not it was safe to camp in a certain spot on the beach.

So when people hear about my adventure and say, "whoa, you must be rich!" I just smile and wonder -- would they ever believe me if I told them the true cost?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Now entering No-Mans-Land

We’re heading into the Red Center of Australia; the most remote place on earth excluding Antarctica. There is a lake that we will be driving past – Lake Eyre – that is bigger than the Netherlands. Can I repeat that? One single lake is bigger than Holland. And that lake is only the smallest dot on the map of Central Australia. There are simply no words to describe how desolate this landscape is.

I’ve programmed this blog entry to post a few weeks after I’ve written it, because I don’t anticipate being close to internet for several weeks. By the time you read this, we will already be deep into the desert. We’ve stacked our car with canned foods, dried noodles, jars of pasta sauce, raw beans. We’ve loaded 40 liters of water into the back of the car, and strapped 60 extra liters of fuel to the roof.

We’ve stocked up on 6 bottles of sunblock, 2 spare tires, a 4-wheel-drive tire patch kit, and an extra tire inner tube. We’ve double-checked every fluid level in the car, including the battery fluid (until last week, I didn’t even know there IS fluid in a car battery that occasionally needs refilling). In short: we’re prepared – or at least I hope we’re prepared – to enter a land where there is nothing available to us. No phone service, no food, not even a tree for shade. This is truly the Outback desert; more remote than the Sahara. This is as “out there” as it gets.

This will be our last big hurrah in Australia. After our desert adventure is finished, we’ll head back to Sydney into a life of tranquil domesticity: playing with my nieces, baking cookies, and selling off everything we’ve collected over the past year -- our solar panel, our camp stove, and most importantly, our 4-wheel-drive Nissan.

I write this from Port Augusta on April 2. From here, we’ll head north to Coober Pedy – a “big city” of 4,000 people -- to spend Easter weekend with some locals we met in Koolunga who own an opal mine in Coober. (It’s not as impressive as it sounds. There are so many opal mine shafts in Coober Pedy that owning one is as simple as sticking pegs in the ground and declaring it yours. The land is so abundant that it’s free – first come, first served.)

After Easter weekend, we’ll head further north, toward Uluru, the most sacred place in Australia to the Aborigional people. I’ll write about Uluru in more detail later. From there, we may or may not head to Alice Springs before beginning the real adventure: the Oodnadatta Track, a week-long journey on unpaved road that takes us past salt flats, hot springs and lone trees in unmanned lunar landscapes. This track will lead us to Lake Eyre – the lake that is larger than Holland – before eventually leading us back to civilization, back to our starting point, Port Augusta, where we plan on celebrating our return to society with a dinner at the hippest restaurant in town, “Barnacle Bill’s.” With a name like that, you know it must be swank.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Where is the Outback?

Where, exactly, is the Australian Outback?

No one knows. There is no border between the Outback and civilization, no line on the map. You won’t drive under a large wooden gate that says, “Welcome to the Outback! Food services ahead.” If you tell Australians that you’re heading into the Outback, they’ll give you a quizzical look and ask what you mean.

The Outback is best described as a vast, empty, barren, desolate desert. But then, Australia is best described with those same words. While international attention focuses on the country’s populated east coast – both Sydney and Melbourne have hosted the Olympics – and Australian folklore focuses on the beach-and-barbeque lifestyle of its city slickers, the bulk of the country is uninhabited.

By “uninhabited,” I don’t just mean it consists of small towns. I mean it’s truly a no-mans-land. There are spaces larger than the state of Colorado that don’t have a single road running through it. To paraphrase travel writer Bill Bryson: it is impossible to exaggerate the scale of the Australian Outback.

In South Australia, where we are now, there is a single cattle station -- I repeat, just one of many many cattle stations -- that by itself is larger than the nation of Belgium.

The other day my friend and I thought about taking our 4-wheel-drive across the Simpson Desert, a 68,145 square mile (176,500 square kilometer) swath of nothingness. The trip, we realized, would require about 8 to 10 days. We’d need to carry all our water with us.

Allowing five liters per person per day in the desert heat, we’d need 100 liters (26.4 gallons) minimum just to survive, assuming we don’t have any unexpected delays or leaks. We’d also need the same amount of extra fuel strapped to our roof. And that’s just the beginning. We’d need all the tools and knowledge to handle a car breakdown in the middle of a moonscape, a blazing desert in which – not to sound melodramatic – our bodies may never be found.

The Australians refer to this knowledge as “bush mechanics” – the ability to get your car running when you’re at least 400 kilometers from the nearest human being. Here it is an essential skill.

Ultimately we voted against the Simpson Desert, thanks to the cyclones that slammed into Australia’s northeastern coast in mid-March, causing flooding in the desert that results in vehicles getting bogged down to their axles in wet sand. This is just another reminder that if the "ordinary" conditions in the desert don't kill you, and freak cyclone, wild animal or any number of other bizzare natural activities might.

To I need to illustrate any further? The Australian Outback is harsh, unforgiving terrain. It’s no wonder that Aussie culture – like the Americans – celebrates radical self-reliance.

But even without venturing into the Simpson Desert, the Outback is all around. It is alluring and terrifying. Its appeal is unavoidable. Young Australians see treacherous Outback crossings as a coming-of-age ritual. Mature Australians undertake it as a challenge, and a way to connect with their land.

We constantly marvel at Australia’s “grey nomads,” the sunburned retirees we see adjusting the valves on their dust-encrusted Landcruisers. Contrary to the popular image of most retirees, these 60-somethings know exactly how to weld a cracked hose in the middle of nowhere; they heat their shower water off their car batteries; they can change two tyres before lunch.

They are lured into the Outback time and time again – at great expense and inconvenience -- because its power is raw. The Outback may be a killer, but it makes any traveler feel alive.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Day in the Life

A day in the life ….

It’s impossible to sleep after sunrise, no matter how groggy you feel. Once the sun peeks over the horizon, its rays glare through your car window, beaming into your eyes. In a car, there are no curtains or blinds to grant you a reprieve. You squeeze your eyes shut and pull a sleeping bag over your head, but your car – made from a combination of steel and glass – becomes mercilessly hot.

Imagine the feeling of climbing into your car on a summer afternoon, beads of sweat forming on your thighs where they touch the seat. You turn the ignition just for the pleasure of basking in the air conditioned breeze, and you silently curse yourself for not parking in the shade.

Now, imagine living in that car night and day. Imagine snoozing through the frosty nights in a feather-filled sleeping bag, and waking to see your cold breath condensed in moist droplets on the windows. Imagine that in the pre-dawn light, your condensed breath is illuminated by a climbing sun rising over the great Australian desert, promising yet another scorching day. By 7 a.m., the sun has climbed another five inches on the horizon, and it is already hot enough to boil you out of your glass-and-steel home.

Being not-quite 5 feet 2 inches, I have an easier time climbing out of our wooden platform bed than Sara does. I flip onto my stomach, pull my knees into my chest, and crouch down into a fetal position, careful to keep my head low to avoid slamming it into the ceiling, an all-too-familiar feeling. From this position, I slowly shift my body weight backwards, towards my butt, while pulling my knees further forward until I’ve somersaulted onto my back, with my feet pointing towards the windshield. From this angle, I can slide forward into the front seat through the center console area. I land with a thud in the passenger seat, and then start groping around for a change of clothes and a toothbrush. I clean my teeth while sitting in the passenger’s seat, and spit toothpaste out from the window.

Usually we’re parked somewhere out in the desert, far from paved roads, cellular coverage, or electrical grids, which means I don’t need to worry about another car driving by while I’m changing from warm nighttime clothes into cool daytime garb. But we’ve driven through enough cities – and slept on the sides of enough downtown streets -- that I’ve become an expert at changing entire outfits from the comfort of the front seat within ten seconds flat, if the situation demands it.

Sara, being much taller, has to execute a far more difficult maneuver than I do. Too gangly, too long-limbed, to crawl through the center console area, Sara has to reach through the wooden planks of the bed-shelf, cramming her hand through the narrow gaps, and feel around for the door handle with the tips of her fingers. When she finds it, she gives it several tugs – without the benefit of using her wrist for leverage -- until one of these fingertip-tugs is strong enough to release the door. She scoots her torso sideways, bending at the waist while still lying down, until her head and shoulders poke out of the door. Then she reaches up, grabs the roof rack, and executes a pull-up, the kind that makes a high school gym teacher proud. Her full body weight hangs from the roof rack, supported only by her biceps and triceps, while she disgorges her legs from the platform bed and pulls her knees outside the door.

“It’s a great arm workout; my abs are getting tighter, too,” she says. “I’d just prefer I didn’t have to pump iron before I’ve had a chance to pee.”

Once we’ve executed the difficult climbing-out-of-bed manouvers, the next hurdle is breakfast. Before we can start this, we have to consider at least half a dozen factors, not least of which are location and weather. Are we in a city, parked in some residential neighborhood and trying to appear discreet? Are we in a national park, and – if so – are we allowed to be there, or do we need to flee before a ranger finds us? Or are we more than 50 kilometers away from the nearest sleepy hamlet of shacks, more than 200 kilometers from the nearest petrol station, in a remote zone where we won’t have to worry about seeing another human soul for at least several hours, if not days?

Equally as important is to consider how the weather conditions affect the chances of our breakfast becoming a failure or success. If it’s raining, then obviously, we have to go hungry. Fortunately it doesn’t rain much in the barren Australian desert, so long as you avoid the wet season in the north. Mostly, we’re thinking about sun and wind. If it’s too windy, then no matter how many wind barriers you build around your stove – and you can erect pot lids, pans, books, you can even throw yourself on top of the stove – nothing will prevent high winds from extinguishing your fire and leaving you with a pot of cold water that will never convert to tea.

Sun is less of a problem, at least for me, because my naturally brown skin resists burning, but poor pale Sara – whose ancestry is British and Irish – could easily turn beet-red and blister before the eggs are fried and the toast has been toasted. The Australian sun is unforgiving. The skin cancer rates in Australia are higher than anywhere – and I repeat, anywhere – in the world. The indigenous, the Aboriginals, have very dark skin, closely resembling the darkest-skinned sub-Saharan Africans.

Australia is not a land intended for the fair British complexion. And most people here have the luxury of cooking breakfast indoors, brushing their teeth indoors, reading books and sorting their photos and painting their toenails indoors. Not Sara and I. We are exposed to the sun at every waking moment of every day, and no matter how much we try to avoid it – driving around in search of shade, wearing wide-brimmed hats and long sleeves – the sun always wins.

We’ve thrown out conventional sunblock and replaced it with zinc oxide. We slather so much zinc that our faces are streaked with creamy white. Sand and dirt clings to its greasy surface. We have no sink to wash our faces. But in the middle of the day, the sun is so strong we have to re-apply zinc oxide again, making our bodies greasier, and attracting even more sand and dirt to cling to us. We fall asleep grubby, wake up, and repeat the process, smearing another layer of zinc over the previous day’s layers, ignoring the pimples that have popped up in protest.

But no matter. My face still browns, and Sara’s face still burns. It is the natural consequence when everything you do, from changing your socks to cleaning your contact lenses, happens under the full and angry sun.

After grabbing a pair of sunglasses – and there are always at least 4 or 5 sunglasses laying on the dashboard – Sara will climb partway up the car, unhook the straps around the tarpaulin, and fish the camping stove out from the roof rack. She’ll hand me the stove, followed by the bottle of liquid propane, and a chair with wooden armrests which we use as a countertop for the stove. She’ll dig the hose from the back of the car and connect the gas bottle to the stove, while I rummage through the cardboard boxes lining our bed for bread, eggs, tea and ginger, and pry a milk crate out from underneath our bed.

All our kitchen gear is stored in this milk crate – pots, pans, forks, spoons, spatula, a can opener, a cheese grater, a mesh filter, plates, bowls, metal cups, plastic cups, even a pair of tongs we never use because most of Australia has enacted strict fire bans. To make all this cookware fit into a single milk crate (we use a second milk crate for storing salts, sauces and spices), we have to stack them in a very specific, very precise manner. The Teflon pot goes in first, the stainless steel pot fits inside of that, and so on.

This precise stacking is easy when everything is clean, but dishwashing can only happen when we have access to running water. If we’re in the remote outback, we don’t want to use our precious drinking water for something as superfluous as washing. Not to sound melodramatic, but we may need that water for survival, particularly if anything happens to the car and we end up stuck, alone, in the middle of a barren desert, where whole days might pass by without another person driving along whom we can ask for help. We are often a 10-hour drive from the nearest mobile phone signal, a 2-hour drive from the nearest paved road, and light-years away from more drinking water.

And so we stack dirty dishes on top of other dirty dishes, until everything shares a similar level of grime, of tomato sauce and coffee grounds and shreds of carrot. Our morning tea is always served with a visible layer of canola oil, leftover in the pot from cooking dinner the night before.

If we’ve just been to a grocery store, we might have some perishables with us, special treats like yogurt or cheese or lettuce that we have to eat immediately before it goes bad. Many days, our eating decisions are governed not by what we desire, but by what is due to spoil next. Sara and I both specialize in different daily chores, and my business is to have an up-to-the-minute mental inventory of every food item in our car, and where it stands in the Spoilage Queue. “What’s for dinner tonight?,” Sara might ask, and I’ll think for a minute. “Mandatory cabbage, carrot and green bean; they’ll be rotten by tomorrow,” I’ll say. “We have enough rice to make that into a stir-fry, though we’re out of garlic and the ginger has gone bad. Or we could mix it into a pasta; we need to finish that open bottle of sauce before it goes off, too.”

Sara, meanwhile, is an expert at examining the bread for mold. We don’t mind a little mold. We tell ourselves it strengthens the immune system. But it’s her job to decide how much mold is too much, which she does through a carefully-crafted system of visual and olfactory examination. She’ll hold a piece of bread up to the light, squint, shake her head from side to side to look at it from different angles, and put each piece of bread through two separate smell tests: pre-toasting and post-toasting.

Sara is also in charge of risk mitigation. She noticed that the knife blades were poking out from the open sides of the milk crates, easily ready to stab us through the palm if we grabbed the milk crate without first studying it carefully. It was especially dangerous to grab the milk crate at night, when we cook dinner by the glow of a flashlight strapped to our foreheads.

She solved the problem with three tools: her pocket knife, cardboard from boxed wine, and electrical tape, which she combined to make a sheath that would cover the knife blade. Now all our kitchen knives have the same safety dressing as King Arthur’s sword or a Khukuri blade – ours is just made of cardboard.

The lack of available running water means that we also go for days – sometimes weeks – without a shower. In colder climates, like Tasmania, this isn’t a big deal. It is amazing how quickly 16 days without a shower begins to feel normal. But in hot zones, which is to say everywhere in Australia that isn’t Tasmania, the layers of dirt, grime and sweat accumulate much more quickly. After 3 or 4 days, we can smell ourselves.

After 7 or 8 days, we can’t. Our hair begins to itch, and then flake, and when we scratch it, we can see layers of dirt falling out. After 10 days, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with an itchy scalp, and lay in my sleeping bag for hours scratching.

It’s at this point that the need to cleanse overtakes any desire to do anything else. I demand that we drive 75 kilometers to the next dot on the map that’s “big” enough to merit a name, which usually turns out to be a collection of 12 dilapidated wooden shacks. There’s no bodega or food mart, no petrol station – that’s another 100 kilometers down the road –but it does, thank God, thank God, it does have a little water tap coming up from the ground, and when you turn the knob, transparent brown water, stinking of rust and sulfur, sprays out. It’s not safe to drink, but at least it will stop your scalp from itching.

Sometimes we hit the jackpot, and find a park with a public restroom. These always have handicapped stalls, in which we can lock the door and have total privacy. We can really bathe in the sinks of these handicapped stalls. This is where I scrub my feet – really SCRUB them in a way I’ve never scrubbed anything before. I scrub the skin around the heels, near my ankle bone, and watch dark brown flakes wash off it. I scrub in between my toes, and watch it change color. I scrub the balls of my feet, watching brown suds form. Then I rinse, and then repeat, but the suds are still brown. So I do it again, and during the third scrubbing session, the water washing off my feet is still brown.

In the beginning, this all felt like a great adventure, but after months and months of living like this, we began to feel grubby and homeless. It’s hard living, and it wears on you.

But then we went to Sydney, and stayed in the comfort of my sister’s house, where everyday we could make tea in a kettle behind walls which block out the sun, and every night we could flip a light switch before cooking dinner, and stand up straight while getting in and out of bed.

After a month or so of this, we became restless again. It was time to hit the road.

I should explain why exactly we live like this. What is so spectacular in remote, rugged 4-Wheel-Drive country that we spent thousands of dollars to fly to Australia and buy an off-road vehicle? Why do we spend thousands of hours living in cramped conditions, forming aches and pains and burns, and forgoing all creature comforts – forgoing even basic personal hygiene? What do we experience that is worth giving up pavement, electricity, phone service, fruit, dairy, vegetables, internet, and the youthful health of our skin?

To understand this, you must first understand that being away from paved roads and buildings, from the electrical grid and mobile coverage, is ITSELF part of the appeal.
Many people have asked me if I’m working during this trip. I reply that in order to work, I need regular internet and phone service. And throughout the majority of this trip – from the Sahara Desert to Burma – I have been in extremely remote locations.

Many people believe the whole world is wired, that we live in a globalized digital age that can connect people in all parts of the world. This is simply untrue. There are enormous swaths of earth – vast, vast tracts of land – that are off-grid and unplugged.

We lived, unplugged, in the lush hillsides of Laos, rich with waterfalls and rivers, with hammocks and chickens, but devoid of any nighttime light that isn’t candle-powered. We lived, unplugged, on Kanawa Island in Flores, where the only thing to eat is rice and fish, and the stars shine brightly in the absence of nighttime electricity or noisy generators.

And even in a rich developed nation like Australia, where a teenager punching a cash register at a petrol station in the Northern Territory earns a whopping $18 an hour, there are literally thousands of kilometers of vast, empty land where bizarre animals we’ve never heard of – the echidna, the wombat, the wallaby – freely roam the open wilderness, and the Milky Way arm of our galaxy shines brightly in a dark night sky.

This is why we are spending almost a year in the Outback. To truly live in the Outback takes time and patience. We drive across empty beaches. We drive over jagged rocks on steep hillsides. We drive across sand dunes that remind us of the empty Sahara. We cross deep rivers and pray we don’t flood the engine. We burst tires, and crack fuel lines. We brake for – and occasionally hit – wildlife we wouldn’t have recognized a year ago.

We abandon the car and walk, sometimes for days, carrying everything we need on our backs, drinking directly from clear streams, burying our poop into the dirt, crouching on logs to make our lunch. We’ve breathed the earth’s freshest air and drank the freshest water. We haven’t just seen wildlife in the wild – we’ve lived alongside it. And yes, experiencing the world in its purest form means that we have to sacrifice our high standards of nutrition, comfort, and cleanliness, which come hand-in-hand with the industrial and digital age.

The dawn light turns the car into an oven, and I pull my knees up to my chest, somersault onto my back, unfold my legs and scoot through the gap between the front seats, thudding atop a pile of clothes piled next to the steering wheel. But the view is truly spectacular.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ghost Tour on the Tasman Peninsula

In the days of Charles Dickens, the jails in Great Britian were overstuffed with convicts locked away for crimes ranging from idleness to assault, from petty theft to murder. So many men had gone through the British penal system that there was no more space in the jails to house all the prisoners.

The British sailed these convicts halfway across the world to an obscure island in the middle of nowhere known as Australia. These convicts became Australia’s first settlers.
But Australia, which stretches the width of Pennsylvania to California, was too large a space to keep prisoners under control, so the British searched for an even more obscure location, a place harder to escape from.

Their quest landed them in Tasmania, a small island that today is a 9-hour boat ride south of Melbourne.

The British corralled the prisoners to a thin peninsula, known as the Tasman Peninsula, at the bottom of Tasmania. The peninsula is connected to the mainland only by the thinnest neck of land, across which the British chained a line of snarling dogs. Here is where hundreds of convicts were forced to do backbreaking hard labor of constructing houses, churches, even building their own prison cells. The result is Port Arthur, a town built by convicts, for convicts.

We headed into Port Arthur and discovered a walled-up fortress surrounding the entire old town. “This is incredible,” I thought, imagining prisoners staring longingly at the wall, dreaming of getting out, not knowing that even if they escaped these walls, they’d discover two large bodies of water and guard dogs chained across the peninsular neck of land. “Wow, how intense,” I thought. “How do you wall off an entire town?” It reminded me of the Old City of Jerusalem, the only other town I’ve seen that’s 100 percent walled away.

Yet this wall, we discovered, was the one thing not built by convicts. It was built in the last couple of decades to force tourists to pay entry fees.

Surrounding the wall were half a dozen large tour buses, a gift shop, a tall desk selling entrance tickets and tour packages, and a restaurant called Felons with the tagline: “Not eating here? Now THAT’S criminal.” What was once a penal colony had morphed into a veritable tourist zoo.

While this normally would cause us to immediately turn around and retreat into some wilderness area, we decided to stay and follow the advice of some locals we had met camping, who strongly recommended Port Arthur’s ghost tour. The ghost tour was a reasonably cheap option in which, among other things, you’d visit the scenes of centuries-old murders.

Murders were ubiquitous in those days. Convicts, desperate to escape their life of hard labor, wanted to escape into death, but they believed that committing suicide would sentence them to eternity in hell. But after carefully studying Christian doctrine, they found a “murder-suicide” loophole. They’d murder a fellow prisoner and be hung for their crimes, but just before the hanging, they’d get the opportunity to visit a priest and ask for forgiveness for their murderous sin, thereby absolving themselves so they could enter heaven.

We spent a night on the ghost tour, camped by the ocean at the edge of the peninsula for two nights, and hiked along the shoreline overlooking the towering cliffs. After about 4 days on Tasman Peninsula, we decided to leave and head to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania.

We’re driving down the road, past a Tasmanian Devil sanctuary, when I see a sign announcing ‘Chocolate Factory – Free Tastings. Open.’

“Pull over!,” I demand at once, visions of Willy Wonka running through my head.
We entered a room filled with the tools used to build this peninsula. Several tree-cutting saws, with handles designed to be pulled by two men, lay strewn on the floor. A crank-handle telephone hung on a wall post. Rusty steel blades that looked to me like finger-slicers were propped against a back wall. Two large windows in the wall showed woman in white lab coats mixing and moulding batches of chocolate in the next room.

I wandered toward the front, where a tray of chocolates were laid out, representing every flavor imaginable … Cherry brandy chocolate, licorice chocolate, orange ginger chocolate, strawberry chocolate, rum and raisin chocolate, as well as classic flavors like hazelnut, mint and white.

A rotund woman with reddish hair, standing behind the chocolate tray, asks if we’ve been on the Port Arthur tour.

“Just the ghost tour,” I tell her, “which was heaps of fun. I normally don’t take tours; waste of money if you ask me. I like going at my own pace. But their tour of haunted places and strange sightings was quite fun.”

“Ah, but you must take a tour to know the stories of what you’re looking at.” She had a lecturing tone in her voice which caused me to keep quiet. “Otherwise you’d think they were just buildings and not know anything about them.”

Her voice softened a little, and a faraway gleam developed in her eyes. She was silent for a moment.

“When we were kids we play on those buildings all the time,” she finally said. “That was before they built big walls around it and started charging admission. That was before anyone ever came down to this peninsula to see our convict heritage. No one in those days talked about it, you know. We were all descendants of convicts, all us kids, playing in the old jails that used to house them, but we never once thought about it.”

She shrugged. “Never knew most of that stuff, really. Then some history buffs started coming down here to check it out, and the next thing you know, people are coming in by the thousands to see the old solitary confinement cells.”

She shrugged again and held out a piece of chocolate with a set of tongs. “Good for business, though.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tasmania is a little island at the end of the world

Tasmania is a little island at the end of the world.

A 9-hour boat ride separates Tasmania from the rest of Australia, and perhaps this isolation – as well as Tasmania’s unique climate and history – gives Tasmania the feel of being in a different country.

While mainland Australia consists of desert expanses, monsoon torrents mixed with severe drought, and is intersected by the Tropic of Capricorn, Tasmania is made of rolling green hills, grey granite cliffs, and is intersected by the 42nd parallel – the same line of longitude that comes close to the Canadian border.

The air in Tasmania is the cleanest in the world – scientifically stated. It is the benchmark against which all other air is measured.

An air monitoring station sits on a cape on the west coast, measuring the quality of the air that travels the longest uninterrupted expanse of ocean in the world. The winds blow in from South America, carried east across the ocean for thousands of uninterrupted miles, hitting Tasmania with full force and earning it a nickname as the land of the “Roaring Forties,” a reference to the longitude.

This climate is ideal for growing berries, olives, walnuts, wine, and raising sheep, goats and cows for producing gourmet cheeses and local yogurts.

And so, in addition to the endless camping and hiking that makes Tasmania famous among outdoor enthusiasts, many visitors come here for the wine tastings.

We started our visit to Tasmania with a tour of the Tamar Valley wine region. Most cellar doors were what you’d expect – open, breezy rooms with hardwood floors, oak-barrel furniture and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vineyards or the river.

But one winery was different.

The door is locked when we approach, and we assume the winery must be closed. But a chubby man with a torn black t-shirt appears in the window. He looks to be about 30 and his curly hair is unwashed and oily. He unlocks the door and it swings inwards.

Loud rock music playing as we walk in. A long-haired guy is breaking down piles of cardboard boxes. To our left is a blackboard covered with curvy chalk writing, resembling the menu in a college-town sandwich shop.

The man clears about a dozen empty beer and wine bottles off the desk.

He doesn’t even try to describe the wines. Most wine-tasting hosts say, in slightly pompous and well-heeled tones, “Now let’s start with a Brut Cuvee,” but he began rambling about the time he spent making wine in Oregon and how it showed him that the American political system is screwed.

“I mean, really,” he says as he absently swings some Riesling into a glass, “why do the majority let people get away with not having health care?”

Then he abruptly switches topics.

“You know, you gotta watch for the animals when you’re growing grapes here,” he says as he pours something white and sticky from another bottle without checking the label. “Two years ago, I lost $30,000 worth of crops to wallabies. To wallabies! Can you believe it! They just find their way into the fields and chew up enough crops to pay for a house. You gotta watch out for them. Watch for kangaroos, too. They’ll really mess your crop.”

He pours himself a small drink.

“Some people catch them and drive them over to a competitors field and let ‘em go there,” he tells us. “Business is nasty. But there’s good people, people who trap the wallbies and the kangaroos and drive ‘em out into the country, 60 kilometers away, and let them into the wild.”

He’s switched to red wines now, though he still won’t mention anything about it.

“But I still don’t like live trapping,” he says. “I prefer to shoot the roos.”

He was a window into the young, hip, Generation Y side of winemaking, the kind of winemaking that’s armed with a rifle, listens to an iPod and has no pretentions about what the critics are saying about Bordeaux this year. He loves the chemistry of winemaking, the calculus of soil, wind and water, and the machinery through which it’s processed.

We camped that night under the Batman Bridge, which crosses the Tamar River, which divides the two sides of the wine valley. “Look at us,” Sara told me, “sleeping under a bridge. We’re going to wine tastings all day and sleeping under a bridge at night. In America we’d be considered homeless. Here we’re just called travelers.”

Friday, February 12, 2010

Kamikaze Kangaroos

When driving through the Australian outback, you’re surrounded by nothing. Barren, empty space fills a great majority of this country. You could go 800 kilometers without seeing a town, a grocery, a gas station, a place to get your tire puncture repaired, or a nozzle of drinking water. You could go for days upon days without seeing another human being.

But there’s one thing you will see constantly: Kangaroos.

They’re everywhere, both living and dead. The living ones bounce up and down across the fields, resembling giant hopping rats in search of their next meal. Once upon a time, seeing a kangaroo was a novelty; now it’s as common an event as seeing a squirrel.

It’s the dead kangaroos that bother me, the ones whose bodies litter the roadside like …. Well, like litter. Lots of it.

Seeing so much roadkill is a reminder that we have a high chance of knocking off a kangaroo as we drive. The roadkill – which has usually been festering in the desert heat for days – is an even more stark reminder than the dozens of warning signs posted along the highway that say: “Danger, Kangaroos!” or else just show an image of a kangaroo and assume you know that this means you should try to avoid killing one.

You should also try to avoid being killed by one, because perhaps one of the most violent ways to die on the Australian roads is by being kicked to death by a kangaroo. Here’s how it happens: Your car smashes into a kangaroo, whose badly-injured body flies through your front windshield and into your front seat. The terrified kangaroo starts thrashing about, kicking as hard as it can with its massive leg muscles, those muscles that make it so famous for jumping. Within a few minutes, you’ve been kicked to death by a kangaroo.

It’s a fate so scary that everyone in Australia drives around with “roo guards” on the front of their cars. The “roo guard,” which is similar to what Americans call a “bull bar,” is a set of steel tubes that stretch the length of the car’s front hood (or as Australians call it, the “front bonnet”), protecting the engine and radiator from kangaroo-related damages.

Our “roo guard” didn’t help when we hit a kangaroo. Well, really, the kangaroo hit us. We were driving down the main highway at night in Western Australia. Well, perhaps the words “main highway” are misleading – we were on the only highway, the only road. There is only one road that runs the length of Western Australia, north to south, and we were on it. In fact, we seemed to be the only people on it; we hadn’t seen another car for at least an hour. Such is the remoteness of Western Australia.

Despite the empty highway, we were driving quite slowly – about 60 kilometers per hour – in an effort to reduce our risk of roadkill. I was sitting in the front passengers seat, scanning the sides of the road for kamikaze kangaroos. We had devised a system of alert signals. Every few minutes, I’d call out “left incoming!” or “right steady!” to signify, for example, a kangaroo on the left side of the road hopping into the highway, or a kangaroo on the right side that was sitting still.

The kangaroo that hit us belonged to the “right steady” category, though I didn’t have to say anything because it wasn’t sitting by the roadside. It was squarely in the center of the right lane.

It sat there, in the middle of the street, completely still, just watching us as we pulled up. The driver immediately slowed us down further, to about 50 kilometers an hour, perhaps less, and we began to cruise by the kangaroo, which was still just sitting still. We had almost passed it when it decided to take a giant leap into the side of our car.

WHAP! We could hear its body crunch against the back passenger door at 50 km/hour, and I instinctively cringed harder than I’ve ever thought possible. My eyes squeezed tightly shit, my lips curled back, my breath sharply drew in, and I gave new definition to the word “cringed.”

But later we saw that there was no blood on the car, and when we circled around and drove by the same spot again the next morning, we didn’t find a body. It must have lived, though I imagine it didn’t have a very pleasant evening.

“I hope it had health insurance,” I said.

The closest call we’ve been in happened a few weeks later, when I was in my usual position in the front passanger seat, scanning the roads with intense concentration, looking for suicidal animals.

It was nighttime, and once again we were alone on an empty highway.

It was pitch-black dark outside, with no street lights or other traffic to illuminate the roads. Suddenly I saw something so immediate, so terrifying, that language failed me. I opened my mouth to talk, to give the driver an urgent warning, but all that came out was “WHHA WHA WHA WHA!!”

There, in the center of the highway, was an enormous jet-black cow. I am not joking.
It was massive, looking like it weighed at least 500 pounds, and about as tall as our car. You would NOT want to hit this thing.

And here it stood, in the middle of the road, jet-black in the dead of night.

The driver slammed on the brakes, and we narrowly avoided it. Everyone in the car was silent for a moment as we contemplated what being another few inches over and being a few seconds too late would have meant.

Finally someone spoke.

“How on earth did you see that thing?” the driver asked me. “It was so dark; it was hard to see even up-close.”

I nodded.

“It’s eyes,” I replied. “I could see its eyes.” Yellow in the reflection of the headlights.