Saturday, July 4, 2009

Down Under Times volume IV

(See: Back from the Memory Hole for an explanation of why these are posted now...)

Down Under Times Volume IV
April / May 2001
All the news that no one really needs to know, but is going to hear anyway!

G'day again, and welcome to the next edition of the Down Under Times. This edition is a two-for-one deal, as the creation of the April edition was postponed due to our two-week holiday, which you will learn about below.

First, a small correction. In reference to the hole in the ozone layer in the March edition, we made the statement that 10 degrees in latitude was equal to 110 kilometers on the ground. That would place Melbourne, at 38 degrees south latitude, similar to the northern border of Iowa, which is about 38 degrees north latitude. Actually, it is only 1 degree of latitude that equals 110 kilometers, which would then put Melbourne at about the same latitude south as roughly Saint Louis is north. A bit different than northern Iowa, but still not as significant as most might have originally thought. We felt it necessary to clear that up in the interests of journalistic integrity.

Here's a reprint of the humorous dialogue from the last edition:

Question: "How ya goin'?"

Answer: "My chooks' been crook, and even my Ute's runnin' a bit dodgy this arvo, so I gave 'em both icy-poles while sittin' in the car park out in the back o' Bourke. Boy did I feel like a bogan after that! Then this cheeky bugger comes along whinging about not getting his pay rise. I told him to quit being a bludger and to stop taking sickies every fortnight, and that he should pick up a shout for his mates at the pub once in awhile and he'd be right."

Here's the same dialogue, this time in English:

Question: "How are you doing?"

Answer: "My chicken's been sick, and even my sport utility vehicle has been running a bit uncertain this afternoon, so I gave them both popsicles while sitting in the parking lot way out in the middle of nowhere. Boy, did I feel like an idiot after that! Then this cocky guy comes along complaining about not getting his pay raise. I told him to quit being a lazy bum and to stop calling in sick every two weeks and that he should buy a round of drinks for his friends at the bar once in a while and he'd be fine."

Just thought you might like to know!

Welcome to the Rock
(You have to say it just like Sean Connery in the movie "The Rock")
Our two-week April holiday started off with a bang as we flew from Melbourne via Sydney to the Ayer's Rock Resort in central Australia. Technically the resort is the township (called Yulara) and the township is the resort, and unless one is interested in camping in the Outback (personally, we like to camp at the Holiday Inn), this is your only choice for accommodations near Uluru.

Let us use a word at this point that Australians seem quite fond of: Magic. You can't believe that out in the middle of the Outback, where the land is "Nebraska flat" (no offence, any of you who hail from the Cornhusker State), that this monstrous rock simply juts up out of nowhere. Uluru truly is a magic place, and should not be missed if you can help it. It is enchanting.

Geologically speaking, Uluru is made of a kind of sandstone called arkose, which came from the eroded remains of massive granite mountains an estimated 900 million years ago. This layer became covered with other material and eventually bent and folded like a slightly flat letter 'w', with one end thrust upward like a giant tail of rock and earth that formed at its end what we now call Uluru. The earth then eroded away over millions of years, revealing just the rock. It's theorized that Uluru is somewhere around 600 million years old, and is like an iceberg, with up to two-thirds of the actual rock submerged several kilometers under the surface. Knowing all that makes it even more stunning.

The day we arrived we stopped by the hotel, dropped off our bags, and went to have a look around. It was about 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit) and sunny, but there were clouds on the western horizon. As we walked about the grounds, we could hear distant thunder. We decided that if we left for the rock immediately, we could beat the approaching thunderstorm. This area of the Northern Territories gets only a few centimeters of rain per year, and we were about to see some of it fall on Uluru, an additionally unique experience. As we approached the rock itself, the downpour began. We sped along the road through the National Park so we could get to a stopping point for some photos, and remarkably the sun came out, casting a double rainbow directly over the rock itself. It was as if Uluru was welcoming us with all its gifts, of which it has many.

As we neared this small mountain, waterfalls were magically created out of nothing, and went cascading down in the rough crevices to feed the flora and fauna below. Truly a once in a lifetime event, and was so breathtaking as to bring tears to the eyes.

We spent three nights at the Ayer's Rock Resort, and had a wonderful time seeing Uluru during the thunderstorm, at sunset and at sunrise. We took a guided tour around part of the base of the rock with an Aboriginal guide, Uncle Reggie, who taught us how to make the world's oldest glue ("giddi") from the spinifex plant and to throw a spear at a fictitious kangaroo. We chose not to climb the rock, although thousands of people do each year. Since Uluru was returned in 1985 to its Aboriginal owners, the Anangu people, they have asked tourists not to climb the rock, as it is sacred to their people. If climbers (whom they call "minga", which means "little ant" and is basically how climbers look from a distance) insist on going, they don't deny them the opportunity. Add to this the fact that several people each year die because they fall off the rock or suffer heart attacks while climbing, and we decided that it was the better part of valor not to make an attempt.

One night we had the most unique dinner we will probably ever have. We supped in the middle of the Outback, amidst billions of stars, who knows what or how many wild beasts, about 100 of the closest friends we never met, and a lone didgeridoo player. It was called the Sounds of Silence dinner, and was set about 20 kilometers from the outskirts of Yulara. We were treated to canapés and champagne upon arrival (orange juice for Tom and Sophie), and we dined on cold crocodile or octopus salads, a baked fish called barramundi, emu sausages and grilled kangaroo, as well as gourmet desserts and coffee.

When we finished eating, all the lights were extinguished and we appreciated the vastness of the Outback and the clarity of the sky with a few moments of absolute silence. (Another one of those events to make you feel a bit insignificant yourself - this seem happens a lot in Australia.) A bit later an astronomer came out and interpreted the night sky for us, and then we packed up and headed back for home, completely sated and happy (or in Sophie's case, asleep).

On our only day trip away from the resort, we drove about three hours north on a narrow two-lane highway (sans speed limit - more fun on the road!) to what is known as King's Canyon, a beautiful gorge carved into some of the oldest mountains on earth called the MacDonnell Ranges. Of course the mountains aren't very high any longer, but millions of years ago they reached heights of more than 10,000 meters! (Mount Everest is only just under 9000 today, for comparison.) We even saw our first (and so far only) live dingo skulking near the road as we flew by. We tried to go back and get a photo, but dingoes are quite shy (unless they're hungry), and he ran away.

We had a quick visit to Kata Tjuta, also in the National Park and also a very sacred spot for the local Aboriginal people. Another highlight was seeing a small herd of wild camels wandering about as we left the park for the last time to drive on to Alice Springs, about four hours away by car (but only when driving 160 kilometers per hour!!).

Who the Hell was Alice, Anyway?
"Alice" did in fact exist, although she was a bit less significant than one might expect to have a whole town named after her: She was the wife of the Postmaster General of South Australia when the first telegraph line was laid, connecting the Adelaide area (1500 kilometers to the south) with Darwin, some 1500 additional kilometers north. This is one big country! We spent two nights in Alice Springs, enjoying some of the unique sights this town of 25,000 had to offer.

Of particular interest was the School of the Air, the first of its kind in the world. The actual school is based in a 'brick and mortar' building right in Alice Springs, but their 14 teachers broadcast over the schools' own private radio frequency to 130 or so students living in 1.3 million square kilometers of the Outback (we told you this was a big country!). While the idea of going to school by radio seems very quaint and nostalgic, the actual radio lessons are only about 40 minutes per week. The remainder is done by post and, increasingly, by the Internet, although the radio remains very important for the human contact it provides. What a cool idea.

We also visited the actual site of the old telegraph station, which is where the actual body of water called Alice Springs is located. It's somewhat of a disappointment to learn that this isn't actually a spring, but a semi-permanent water hole in a small riverbed. It did have water in it at the time, and we enjoyed dipping our toes into the famous Alice Spring.

These sights (and more) are all worth seeing, but the town of Alice Springs itself left something to be desired. The Todd River runs through the town, but only has water in it on average three days per year. Needless to say, it isn't much to look at when dry, as it was then. The town appears a bit worn for its age, and there appears to manifest itself in Alice one of the more hidden problems of a quite pleasant and wonderful country, and that is the question of Aboriginal assimilation.

Many Aboriginal people live in or near Alice, although you might not necessarily know it. Other than the large groups of clearly evident Aborigines wandering around the town center with no apparent place to go in the middle of a work-week in the middle of a work-day, you wouldn't really see them. The author Bill Bryson calls them "The Invisible People", and we thought that was a pretty accurate description.

While Aboriginal people only comprise somewhere around 2% of the total population of Australia, you don't often see them in places you would expect in Alice Springs: delivering the mail, serving you a meal, selling you hardware goods. Now, not all Aboriginal people have the stereotypical "look", so it is certainly possible that they are out there going about their business and just go unnoticed by uneducated tourists like us. Alice Springs has the largest population of Aborigines in any city of Australia, but the only people we saw actively engaged in anything other than gathering in large groups on the main street or the town square was one man working in the Aboriginal Cultural Center trying to educate interested tourists.

We then bade Alice Springs farewell, and headed home to Ferny Creek for two nights while we waited for our flight to beautiful and exotic Tasmania.

Travelin' in Tassie
Australians have a habit of shortening words and adding an "ie" or "y" sound on the ends, which of course is where Tassie (pronounced Tazzie) comes from.

We absolutely loved Tasmania. We flew from Melbourne to a lovely town in the north of this smallest (and only island) state of Australia called Launceston, where we stayed two nights and where we spent an interesting and different sort of Easter. We managed to meet up with two other Minnesota exchange families and enjoyed a very nice dinner with everyone our first night there. Launceston is a very pretty and very clean town, with lots of lovely old buildings. Unfortunately, our schedule had us there over the Easter weekend; so most everything was closed. We still enjoyed some remarkable scenic beauty, however, and managed to have a simply wonderful couple of days there with our friends.

Next we travelled to the northern fringe of a World Heritage Area (which makes up approximately 25% of the entire state of Tasmania), to a place called Cradle Mountain. All we can say is that as we drove up to the Cradle Mountain Lodge, the first words out of our mouths were: "We could stay here forever." It was truly spectacular, with natural beauty to beat all. Cradle Mountain itself rises above several crystal clear lakes, which then lead down to the lodge area, which earns at least four stars in the Panetti Travel & Lodging Guide.

We spent a wonderful two days hiking around Dove Lake and relaxing at the lodge. While there we met up with our Minnesota friends again, and enjoyed our time together once more.

Next on the agenda was the state capitol, Hobart, far in the south of the Apple Isle. We drove the three or four hours to Hobart, and checked in to our serviced apartment right next door to one of the Minnesota families, the Carberrys (who are also from Bloomington). We spent two days shopping, eating and visiting some interesting sights like the Salamanca Market, the Tasmania Distillery (where they make pretty good Scotch), the Antarctic Adventure Center, and just walking around this beautiful city.

We then drove on to the historic site called Port Arthur, a place dedicated to the convict past of Australia, for our last night in Tasmania. There isn't actually a town called Port Arthur, it is simply the remains of the old prison complex and all the buildings, which tell quite an interesting story.

Port Arthur was strictly a prison town used for convicts who committed additional crimes in other Australian prison towns once they had been "transported" here. "Transportation" was the euphemism used by the British for the system of settlement of the new Australian colonies and for the removal of "undesirables", and transport people they did. Many were sent for what would, by any stretch of the imagination, be called petty crimes, like stealing cheese or a sheep, or a book or a pair of shoes. Others were political prisoners, and of course there were hardened criminals as well.

Port Arthur is really situated in a beautiful spot, for a former prison. We remarked more than once that it would make a great spot for a resort, and as it turns out after the prison closed, the buildings were used as a holiday spot until a fire destroyed several buildings and they closed, too.

The site where the prison remains are located also happens to be the site where 35 people were gunned down in 1996 in Australia's worst modern crime. A man wielding an automatic rifle walked into a small café on the grounds and fired on the people on holiday there, and now on the site of the café sits a haunting memorial to those who died, those who were wounded and to those who gave assistance. It was this attack that fuelled Australia's tighter gun laws. Consequently, Australia is now tops on most lists of safest places to visit and live when it comes to crime. The U.S. could learn from them…

After our interesting visit to Port Arthur, we drove back to Hobart where we caught our plane back to Melbourne, with one day to spare before school started up again. We find ourselves now in the early weeks of the second ten-week term, anxiously awaiting our next holiday!

Until Next Month. . .
Lots of other interesting things have happened to us besides our holiday, like watching Tommy perform as part of the Federation Choir one Saturday not long ago; visiting our friends the Ogdens from Inverloch again and celebrating Russell's birthday by watching the Aurora Australis in the night sky (the Southern Lights, in case you didn't know); attending the Federation Day parade in downtown Melbourne with 300,000 other people; and getting together with our other Minnesota friends Pete and Athena Goff (they are on exchange in Melbourne as well) for dinner out on a weekly basis; as well as much, much more. But that will have to wait until next month.

As we close this edition, please note that we would like to keep in contact with our friends in the Northern Hemisphere over the long summer break, so please send us your home email address so we can keep in touch.

Dave, Kate, Tommy and Sophie Panetti

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