People frequently ask us what, besides our loved ones, we miss most from America. Our answer is always an emphatic "Chinese food!"
Between dim sum, noodle soup, roast meat, and Sichuan, I think we ate it literally three times a week back in New York. Sichuan was our favorite, and we were seriously addicted to the hot chilies and numbingly spicy peppercorns.
As we arrived in each new destination, we checked the Internet for recommendations, but from Utah to Belize to Auckland, the Chinese food had always been a bland and spiceless anticlimax. However, that was all about to change.
Our trip through Australia would begin with a brief stay in Melbourne, which through a stroke of divine providence happens to house one of the oldest Chinatowns in the world. We found a review of a restaurant called Dainty Sichuan, in which the author claimed the food was so hot that his lips were still burning the next day. We sneered at this amateur and ordered the hottest thing on the menu, Chongqing Dry and Spicy Chicken — which seemed to be on every table in the place.
It was nuclear-hot, some of the spiciest food I've ever tasted, and absoulutely delicious. No joke, words fail me. I would have gone back for every meal in Melbourne if Mike had let me. It wasn't just the hot chilies; the Sichuan peppercorns and other spices were so intense but perfectly balanced. Now, for five years I've been a loyal evangelist for New York's Grand Sichuan chainlet, but when I recalled that their Chongqing chicken is just a pile of dried chilies with some ordinary chicken buried underneath, I realized they'd been bested. Fortunately for them, the competition is about as far away as it can get without leaving the surface of the earth.
We left town the next day, so we didn't get a chance to do a lot of Melbourne sightseeing. We did of course manage to squeeze in one more trip to Chinatown, this time for dim sum (called yum cha in this part of the world). It was just like home, right down to the 30-minute wait for the char siu bao cart to come around.
We regretted not having time to explore the city, but we did take a few interesting photos during our brief visit.
We then flew north to catch a live-aboard dive boat, where we would stay for four days, three nights, and eleven dives across the Ribbon Reefs, part of the Great Barrier Reef.
Our boat was called the Spirit of Freedom. Once we were all aboard, the crew gathered the guests together for a tour. The lowest deck held the engine room and most of our cabins. The next one up had a small lounge with a few couches, a dining area with tables and chairs, and the galley. Outside was the dive deck, where all the scuba gear was located. Twin sets of stairs connected it down to sea level. Topside held the bridge, a few more cabins, and some deck chairs.
After the tour, they gave us a briefing. "We're in for some strange weather. There's a nor'wester coming through, so we're going be diving slightly different sites than we normally do. The seas are getting pretty choppy, but we hope they'll settle down soon." "Well, that's what we get for booking during monsoon season," said the other divers.
Wait, what? Monsoon season? We'd had no idea.
The briefing went on to cover the special biodegradable seasickness bags ("Just chuck 'em in the water — the fish love 'em!"), but since Mike and I had never been seasick before, we figured we'd be fine.
After less than an hour at sea, though, the sun had set and it started raining. Soon we were in the middle of a full-fledged "storm at sea". It's hard to describe how bad the waves were; the Gilligan's Island intro comes to mind. The boat was not only rolling from side to side, but pitching front to back as well. Mike felt queasy first, and went aft to sit on the dive deck in the fresh air (and salt spray, and rain).
At this point, we both asked for motion-sickness pills. I tried to lay down in our cabin, but it was all the way at the front of the boat where the pitching was most pronounced, so I went to join Mike on the deck.
Soon, our motion-sickness pills, uh, came back up. We took another dose with the same result. There on the deck we remained, miserable, while the rest of the guests ate dinner and even drank wine. If this had been a normal party, we would have excused ourselves and asked the host if we could lie down for a bit, but the horrible thing about a boat is that there is no calm place to retreat to. Mike was reminded of Sloop John B, the song about the worst boat ride ever. I regretted getting on board, learning to dive, and being born.
Finally, after hours of sitting doubled-over, eyes clenched, wishing for any sort of escape, we collapsed in our beds from sheer exhaustion.
When we woke up, however, our cabin was no longer swaying. We went upstairs and were greeted by smooth waters and a rainless sky. The captain had used his radar and communication gear to find a clear patch of ocean and motored through the night to take us there. While we did still have a bit of rain in store for us, we never again had to deal with rough seas.
We didn't have much time to enjoy the view, though — just as we were finishing our breakfast, the call went out: "Dive time!" Everyone rushed downstairs, put on bathing suits, and met out on the deck. Soon we were underwater, our troubles long-forgotten.
Seasickness aside, there's nothing like live-aboard diving. You don't need to keep dragging your equipment to and from the dock, you can read a book while you ride between sites, you can take a shower within minutes of climbing out of the ocean, and best of all, you can dive five times in one day!
To fit all that diving in, the daily schedule went something like this:
Yes, that's six meals a day. We spent nearly as much time eating as diving. Luckily Troy, the ship's cook — nay, chef — was terrific, spending pretty much the entire day in the tiny galley preparing better food than we'd been having on land. We asked how he did it, cooking for 25 people in such a small space, but Troy pointed out that his work area was actually not so much smaller than a lot of restaurant kitchens. Come to mention it, it had more counter space than our apartment back home.
Over the course of these meals, we got to know the other divers. The first thing we learned was that we were the babies on board: everyone else was a far more experienced diver than we were.
See, everything is relative. I thought I was pretty comfortable in the water, having dived off the Florida keys, the Bahamas, San Diego, Belize, and Tahiti. Each of those was a long-anticipated vacation with a full slate of diving, and by now I felt like we were rather seasoned. Compared to the rest of the boat, though, we were total beginners. Most of our fellow divers had logged over a hundred dives, and several had more than 500! That's why nobody else spent the first night puking.
Hang on, Mike has something to say.
This is the problem with having hobbies: There's no room for dabblers. Unless you pick one activity and devote your life to it, you're going to feel like a dork anytime you indulge in that hobby, because everyone around you will be totally gung-ho about it.
Like when you get a video game that can be played online against random people on the Internet. Every time you play, though, a bunch of 15-year-olds kick your butt because they practice forty hours a week. (This is true for pretty much every online game, by the way, from Spades to World of Warcraft.)
500 dives? How does one log five hundred dives? Well, every time they take a vacation, it's a dive vacation. Most of the other guests were staying aboard for a full week, or 25 dives. Do that twice a year for ten years (or four times a year for five years, if you're European) and there's your 500 dives.
We asked a few people on the boat if they knew of anything we should see while we were in Australia. "Well," they said, "you can dive the Yongala near Ayr, and there's good diving off the Gold Coast too." We told them that actually, after the boat ride we'd pretty much be finished with diving, and interested in other, non-diving-related activities. They stared at us blankly.
Still, everyone was pretty understanding about our relative inexperience, and it did mean we could monopolize access to the divemasters — everyone else wanted to dive on their own, so we almost always got a free private underwater tour guide for just the two of us.
Rant over. Now Hil's going to tell you about all the stuff we saw under the sea. (Cue Calypso music.)
When we first learned to dive, we were taught that it was extremely important to avoid touching the coral that line the seabed. Coral reefs are composed of millions of tiny organisms, and they can easily be crushed or killed if you touch them (or let your hoses drag along them). It leaves the area dead, colorless, and devoid of fish.
When we got to Tahiti, however, we were surprised to see our divemasters resting underwater with their fins on the coral. We saw a surfer walk out into the ocean along the top of the reef, and were encouraged several times to pick things up and play with them. Go figure.
Australia is at the other extreme, designating the reef a National Park. They are very, very serious about protecting the coral. Divers aren't even allowed to wear gloves — the rationale being, if your hands are unprotected from coral stings, you won't be so cavalier about touching the reef.
The upshot of this policy was some of the most beautiful coral we've ever seen: abundant, diverse, and brilliantly colorful.
(The middle photo is actually of a sea pen, but we thought it made a nice centerpiece.)
We had no idea that flatworms and giant clams looked so similar. Can you tell which is which?
Here are some of the other creatures we saw:
Sea cucumbers came in two varieties: smooth and spiky.
On our last day, everyone was really excited about diving the Cod Hole. It's a sandy pit that's home to a species of giant potato cod. We all sat in a circle while the divemaster brought out chunks of raw fish. Sure enough, that attracted the cod — and a red snapper who wasn't invited! (We didn't mind, though.) By the way, there are no perspective tricks going on in these pictures; the fish really were quite big.
In order to coordinate all us divers, the Spirit of Freedom crew manned a number of stations. Some would be underwater with us, one would stand lookout on the top deck, two were by the ladder to help us in and out of the water, and two would man the "tenders."
A pair of motorized rafts, the tenders served as the ship's lifeboats, but they were so much more than that. Star Trek fans, think of the shuttlecraft. Battlestar fans, the raptors. Star Wars fans, sorry, the metaphor breaks down.
Stored on the top deck and lowered into the water as needed, they were used to scout out dive sites, to bring us to reefs that were too shallow for the SOF to approach, and to pick up divers when strong current made it impossible to swim back to the boat.
Our last night on the boat, we dropped anchor off Lizard Island, which has a park and an airstrip and not much else. Everyone went up to the top deck for a big barbecue. (We hear Australians love that kind of thing.) When the sun went down, someone spotted a few sharks off the back of the boat. We all started throwing bits of grilled tuna in the water to encourage them, and soon a school of eight or nine of them were circling.
The next morning, those of us on the half-week tour climbed into a tender and motored to shore. (Our luggage would also land via tender.) To reach the airport, we would need to cross the island on foot — a result of the course changes the weather had forced us to make. It was a 30-minute walk, but we were just glad to be back on solid ground.
Our short flight put us in Cairns, a city on the northeast coast of Australia. (It's pronounced "cans", for those of you who need to know that sort of thing.) We rented a car and planned to drive it down Australia's east coast all the way to Sydney. Everyone we discussed this plan with thought we were crazy — nobody drives that far! — but we had eight days and it was only 1500 miles, the equivalent of driving from Boston to Miami.
The drive turned out to be completely manageable, but in retrospect we do think it was a mistake: We only ended up seeing two or three really memorable sights, and none of them really had that "Australia" feel. We blame ourselves, though, rather than the country of Australia; it was like taking that aforementioned Boston-Miami road trip down I-95 and expecting to see a representative sample of America's great national parks. (We do, however, blame Australia for the eight days of nearly continuous rain.)
The rain did bring us a good dose of excitement, though. It was already coming down pretty hard as we left the city of Townsville on the morning of our second day. Our plan that day was to drive to Mackay ... not to see or do anything in particular, but just because it was the only town more than three yet less than nine hours away. (This is one of those road trips where you need to buy gas and water at every opportunity, since there will be multi-hour stretches with no services whatsoever).
The night before, we had chosen a motel in Mackay and tried to make a reservation through its website. It was one of those annoying ones where you fill out a form and type in your credit card and everything and then at the end, instead of saying, "Congratulations, here's your booking number," it says, "Thanks for all your personal information. We'll be contacting you at our convenience to let you know whether you got the room or whether you're going to be sleeping in your car tonight." We've discovered in our travels that there are a lot of hotel websites that do that.
So anyway, the weather just kept getting worse and worse: The wipers were going full-speed, to the point where I half expected them to break off and fly away. The defogger was on, blowing cold air across the dashboard so that my knuckles went numb as I was gripping the steering wheel. Visibility was terrible. We had to cancel our plans to visit a park where koalas and platypuses live. We seriously considered giving up on the day's driving altogether, but we were already past Bowen, the point of no return. There would be no place to stop until Mackay.
Finally, around 5pm, we arrived. Traffic in town was really bad, even for 5pm on a weekday. We chalked it up to the downpour. We were down to a quarter tank of gas — which we considered the red zone around these parts — but wanted to find the motel before fueling up. As we drove around looking for it, we noticed "NO VACANCY" signs everywhere. We were praying that the reservation had gone through so we would be able to get off the road, out of the rain, and into someplace warm and dry.
We finally found the motel and I hurried into the lobby to check on the reservation. I blurted out to the desk clerk that we may or may not have a room, and that we tried to reserve one the previous night, and could she please check to see if our name was in the system. She said, "Oh, I'm sorry we didn't write back. Our computers have been down since last night due to the storm. Anyway, we're completely flooded out."
"All our rooms are flooded. We can't accept any guests tonight."
Oh no. Why did I have to pick the one hotel that would get flooded?
When I got back to the car and told Hilary what was going on, we decided it would probably be a good idea to turn on the radio. Sure enough, the top story was the freak rainfall that had hit Mackay. The worst storm in 90 years, and it caught everyone completely by surprise. Buildings everywhere were flooded, roads had become waist-deep rivers, and there were crocodiles on the loose. Thousands of people had been flooded out of their homes. The whole region was declared a national disaster zone. Before it was all over, a record-smashing 24 inches of rain would fall in a 24-hour period — twice the monthly average for that time of year. One-third of its annual rainfall. According to Wikipedia, the storm caused $100 million worth of damage.
And this was all going on the evening we came into town.
There was no place left to stay — any hotels that were still open were loaded with the locals who had been forced to flee their flooded homes. The gas stations were closed, too. Now we were really worried about that quarter-tank. We decided, on the advice of a police officer, to drive south. We were on the road heading that way, and hadn't even left town, when traffic came to a standstill. After nearly a half-hour of not moving, we decided to turn around and try another way.
We couldn't return north, because that was the direction the storm was going, and we discovered that there was only one other road out of town, a highway running southwest. This would take us inland, and thus slightly out of our way, but we decided to give it a shot. As we drove along, all the other traffic ominously disappeared. Sudden patches of flooded road started appearing with no warning — just a few feet wide and a few inches deep, but quite nerve-wracking when you hit them at 100 km/h. We slowed down as the flooded patches grew bigger. Eventually the road just stopped; it disappeared into an impromptu lake. That was it; we could proceed no further and would have to get back in line at the traffic jam. We would head south with everyone else, and just keep driving until we reached Rockhampton.
The traffic jam turned out to be due to a smaller lake that had formed on the southbound road. This time, however, the police were out in force to help people across. We would later read a quote from the Emergency Services Minister warning residents that, "no one should try to drive, walk or swim" across any flooded roads. Luckily nobody around seemed to have heard the warning.
When it was our turn to drive through the lake, our little sedan stalled out, water up to its headlights. Multiple dashboard lights came on. "No," we said, "No, no, nonononono." The ignition wouldn't activate with the car in Drive, but the shifter wouldn't budge. It took us a few frantic seconds to find a release lever that let us put it in Park and turn the key.
Thankfully, the engine managed to turn over and drag us back to dry(ish) land. Once across the lake, traffic started moving again, and within five minutes we reached a gas station that was still open. The area was clearly having drainage problems — it smelled like sewage — but we rolled up our pants legs, stepped out of the car, and were able to buy bottled water, fill up the tank (whew), and use the toilets (double whew). The gas station had a portable TV set up, which was announcing that the highway to the north of Mackay had just been closed. We were glad that we hadn't tried to return that way, but apprehensive about the drive still ahead of us to the south. Night was beginning to fall, the rain was still coming down hard, and we were four hours away from the nearest possibly-available hotel room. We were annoyed at ourselves for getting into this mess, but also annoyed at Australia's transportation bureau. In America, there would have been flashing roadside signs 100 miles back: "SEVERE FLOODING AHEAD" ... "EXPECT DELAYS" ... "RETURN TO NEW ZEALAND."
It was a long and difficult drive, but we arrived safely in Rockhampton just before 10:00 p.m. There was indeed a (dumpy) motel room available, and the desk clerk couldn't believe that we had driven all the way down from Townsville, and by way of the Mackay disaster area, in a single day. I'd like to say that we woke up to sunshine and birdsong, but no, it was still raining. We checked the car for damage, climbed in, and got back on the road.
We tried to be at least somewhat lighthearted in telling the story of the Mackay flood, but the bigger picture is sobering.
Australia has been one of the countries hardest hit by global climate change and related occurrences of extreme weather. Severe drought over the last several years has impacted its grain crops and contributed to the rise in food prices worldwide. And the western city of Perth was so low on fresh water that they had to build an expensive desalination plant (the alternative was a total ban on lawn sprinklers). Eucalyptus groves are feeling the effects of the heat too, as are the koalas who live in them.
We're not trying to make a political statement here — after all, it's hard to be preachy about carbon footprints when you're flying all over the world — but one of the purposes of this site is to report on what things are like in the places we travel. In Australia, global warming is a big deal in regular people's lives and is talked about constantly in the media, in parliament, and by ordinary citizens.
And now back to the fun stuff. Namely, laundry.
Many readers have asked how we manage to keep our clothes clean. We decided to answer publicly. But first, a brief lesson in laundry chemistry.
Do you know why we use soap? I mean, why can't you just take a dirty shirt, soak it in water, squeeze it a few times, and wring it dry? The problem has to do with one simple fact that every salad eater knows: Oil and water don't mix.
When we say a shirt is dirty, what we mean at a chemical level is that it's full of oils. There's the grease from your pores, gunk from the outside world, and all sorts of microscopic goop that accumulates on your body. Most of it is oil-based, and the rest — like dirt and dust — is made up of tiny particles that get encased in the oil.
The oil doesn't just sit on the surface of your clothes — it clings to the threads, and it doesn't want to let go. If you try to rinse it away, the water will run right off the oil. The oil stays behind and keeps the dirt with it.
This is where soap comes in. It has just one role: Soap breaks big blobs of oil into little blobs. These tiny droplets are too small to hang on to the fabric, and can be washed away.
Okay, now we can get on to the three basic steps for washing clothes:
So the first thing you want to do is fill up the bathroom sink. (Bring your own stopper, as many hotel sinks don't close well.) The water doesn't have to be hot; the temperature doesn't really make much of a difference. Now add soap. If you don't want to carry around a big bottle of Tide, you can get single-serving packets from a travel store. (If you go this route, don't be stingy: use the entire packet!) In a pinch, you can even use shampoo or hand soap.
Next, throw in an article of clothing. Let's say a shirt. Give it a scrub. Don't worry if the water turns brown (and if you've been doing a lot of outdoor activity, it will). The point of this step is not to remove the dirt from the shirt. It's to change a shirt saturated with large blobs of clingy oil into a shirt saturated with small blobs of loose oil.
Now rinse. The shower is an excellent place for this. The clean water will wash away all the dirty water, which is to say all the oil droplets. This is a very important step: no matter how much you squished the shirt around in the sink, even if you started with a fresh sinkful of beautiful clear water and a heap of soap, there was nowhere for the grime to go. It's broken up, but it still permeates the shirt. It's only through rinsing that you actually get rid of all the yucky stuff.
And then there's drying, a subject unto itself. The first step is to buy the right clothes. You may have a whole dresser full of blue jeans and cotton t-shirts at home, but you should leave them there. They're terrible for long-term travel; smart travelers bring a nearly all-synthetic wardrobe. The artificial fibers weigh less, stain less, pack more tightly, resist wrinkles, are easier to clean, and most importantly, they dry really fast.
There are many ways to dry clothes in a hotel room. Quick-dry gear usually needs just one or two of these tricks, but if you've got a wet pair of jeans, you'd better use all of them.
First, spread a towel on the bed. Lay whatever needs drying out on the towel and roll it all up. The cross-section should look like that weird airplane food we got in Argentina. Once you're done, twist it tight like a mean lifeguard who's about to rat-tail someone. The towel will slurp out a ton of water — sometimes the clothes will be nearly dry already. (The only problem with this trick is that after two or three uses, the towel is too wet to keep working.)
The next thing to do is hang up the clothing. Ideally, you want a place with moving air, like near an open window or an air vent. Our dive boots were notoriously difficult to dry — when we unpacked them in Tahiti, they were still wet from Belize. To make sure this didn't happen again, we left them under a ceiling fan one day here in Australia. By nightfall, they were bone-dry.
As for clotheslines, I recommend the braided rubber variety: they're stretchy, you don't need clothespins, and there are loops at the ends so you can put it up just about anywhere. Also, as the excellent travel site onebag.com points out, "every laundry night, you get to exercise your creativity by discovering the two optimal line attachment locations."
By the way, if your rubber clothesline won't stretch far enough, use your belt to extend it. If it's still too short, add your spouse's belt as well. If it's still too short, ask for a smaller room.
You might want to get out a hairdryer and spend five or ten minutes blowing over everything. If you're leaving the clothes up overnight (which is usually the case), do this before you go to bed, not in the morning. Blowdrying followed by airdrying produces much better results than the reverse.
One more drying tip we learned from onebag.com: If your clothes are still wet come morning, do what they do in the army: Wear them anyway.
There is one other way to get your clothes clean: let someone else do it. In a nice hotel, this can be staggeringly expensive. Nice hotels — and their laundry prices — are the same all over the world. Since they charge by the item, a full load of clothes can easily cost $60 or $70. However, there are ways around this. In Buenos Aires, for example, there was a laundrette a block away that took care of both of us for under $10.
Even if there's no place within walking distance, there's often a shop in town that'll pick up and drop off, still at a fraction of the hotel price. Of course, you have to swallow your pride when the concierge calls to let you know that your laundry has arrived.
Finally, cheaper hotels often have coin-operated washers. The soap can be expensive, but if you bring your own, it's convenient and usually pretty cheap. One motel here in Australia actually had a free washer and dryer right in our room. There was even a dishwasher. My last apartment had none of these conveniences, and the rent was higher than that motel's room rate. Who says travel is expensive?
While our dive boots were drying out under the ceiling fan, we took a daytrip over to a place called Fraser Island. Just off the Queensland coast (well, 45 minutes by ferry), Fraser is the world's largest sand island. It's by no means a desert island, though; besides its numerous lakes and creeks, it also has an abundance of plant life. It's counterintuitive, but the sand makes for an excellent soil, due to all sorts of organic material that gets trapped underneath it when the wind blows.
However, the ground isn't stable enough for paved roads, so normal cars won't cut it here. All vehicles on the island have to be very rugged — four-wheel-drive at a bare minimum — to survive its one-lane sandy paths.
As we were crossing the Great Sandy Strait in a giant vehicle barge, Kirk, our tour guide and bus driver, told us that we wouldn't be in for a smooth ride, in either the literal or figurative sense. "Things happen here, so put on your seatbelts and keep in mind that sometimes Plan A or B won't work out, and we'll have to go to Plan C or D."
After landing and boarding a funny-looking 4WD tour bus, we did indeed put on our seatbelts. We understood their importance once we tore off into the woods, kicking up sand and bouncing all over the place within a few feet of dense forest.
Kirk had a microphone hooked up to the stereo system, and was using it to give a running commentary when suddenly the audio started getting all staticky. "That's how things go on this island," he declared, and started checking the connections while simultaneously giving his tour and driving the manual-transmission bus.
Then, the air conditioning went out. Still unfazed, Kirk got up, opened the ceiling hatch, and drove on. Then we lost the stereo completely, putting an end to our audio tour.
"Hmm," Kirk said. "Let's try this from the beginning." He shut the engine down, turned the key... and nothing happened. This finally brought an end to his unflappable demeanor. Just like we had said in Mackay, Kirk muttered, "No .. no, no, nonono."
Luckily, we were stalled out on a one-lane road with no room to pass, so our problem became everyone's problem. Within a few minutes, we had a big backup of jeeps and buses behind us, and were fortunate enough to be directly in front of another bus from the same tour company.
After a brief discussion, Kirk and the other driver concluded that the best course of action would be to tie the two buses together, shift both into reverse, and have the rear bus pull the front one until its engine turned over. This was exciting to watch (we all had to leave the bus) and it actually worked! Of course, it meant Kirk couldn't turn the engine off anymore.
We drove off through different kinds of terrain, including a bona fide rain forest that grew out of the sand. We got out a few times to check out the trees, and eventually broke for lunch at a small outpost in the middle of the island.
After eating, they switched us over to another bus and we left the forest behind for 75 Mile Beach. The most famous part of Fraser Island, it's not just an endless beach, but also the main road. Not that it's paved or anything; it's just a flat, wide stretch of dense wet sand that's by far the best place on the island for driving — at least, when it isn't underwater. Jeep rentals on the island come with a tide schedule, lest visitors discover at the end of their stay that they no longer have a road to return on.
Despite its unusual nature, the beach is an official Australian highway, complete with speed limit signs. Police even show up now and then to write tickets.
Oh, and it's also a runway. Pedestrians, cars, and airplanes all share the same uncordoned beach and somehow manage to avoid crashing into one another.
There's a shipwreck on the beach, the Maheno. It was an old cruise liner being towed to the scrapyard back in 1935 when it was caught in a cyclone, broke free, and washed up on the island. After 75 years of exposure — and service as a target during WWII training missions for the Royal Australian Air Force — there wasn't a lot left. Kirk passed out pictures of what it used to look like. One set was from a wedding held on board a few years after it came ashore.
75 Mile Beach is also where we spotted a dingo. Fraser Island has Australia's last remaining pure dingoes, and to prevent crossbreeding dogs are not allowed on the island. They look pretty harmless, like a cross between a Labrador and a Basenji, but we were warned that they are totally vicious and truly dangerous — a child was killed on Fraser Island by a pack of dingoes as recently as 2001.
The end of our tour involved getting wet. First, we parked by a small creek with a trail next to it. We were encouraged to hike a ways upstream, roll up our pant legs, and walk along the sandy bottom back down to the beach. It was a lot more fun than it sounds. Some people even changed into swimsuits and floated down.
After that we visited the strangest lake I've ever seen. The water comes entirely from local rain, and the lakebed is made of sand and dead plant matter. The dead plants act like tea leaves on a large scale, so the whole lake is brown and acidic. A giant lake of tea. We swam around in it for a while (it's perfectly safe, and even supposedly therapeutic), but the weather was still pretty chilly so the novelty didn't last long.
After that, it was time to go home. Due to our mechanical troubles, they held the last barge for us, even though our bus only accounted for about a quarter of its passengers. Kirk and the ferryman were radioing back and forth, using all sorts of lingo to discuss our imminent arrival. "This is Captain Kirk, bringin' 'er over the ridge." "Copy that. We're running late, so burn those belts."
When we finally reached the ferry, they didn't even wait for us to get off the bus: we rolled on board and within seconds they were raising the ramp and shoving off. It was a dramatic end to an exciting day, and even the minor inconveniences kind of added to the fun.
As we were driving south from Fraser Island, I spotted a giant roadside pineapple and immediately insisted we stop. This was no ordinary giant pineapple. I had seen it before.
In 2001, a Canadian couple named Kev and Aimee quit their jobs, put all their possessions in storage, and went on a road trip across the USA. They kept an online diary (I would say "a blog", except the term had yet to be coined), allowing a large following of readers to vicariously ride along. We were two of their fans, and were quite inspired by their story. There was a definite moment of, "I wish we were doing that. Wait, why aren't we?"
Anyway, sorry, I got off track there, we were talking about pineapples. As an encore to their 2001 transamerican road trip, K&A spent all of 2003 circumnavigating Australia by bike. Yes, they rode a 10,000-mile circuit. The starting and ending point? A kitschy giant pineapple just south of Fraser Island.
South of the pineapple, we left the main highway and drove east toward the surf town of Noosa Heads. We were in search of its seaside national park, enticed by our guidebook's assertion that visitors are "practically guaranteed" to see koalas. The book claimed that they would be visible even from the parking lot.
Said lot was small and crowded — it seems that it is also a highly convenient parking spot for local surfers and beachgoers. We circled for about 20 minutes before finding a space. A quick survey didn't reveal any koalas, so we went to ask at the ranger station. It's apparently a frequently-asked question; they had both a sign noting the best koala-spotting trails and a whiteboard listing the latest sightings. "Look high up in the trees," the rangers advised.
We started along a coastal trail, where one had been spotted that morning. We saw dozens of surfers in the water (some of them quite skilled), but no koalas. So we turned inland and came back via a meandering woodsy trail, allegedly the second-best for koala spotting. Most of the trees there were eucalyptus, which grow very tall, and during the entire six-kilometer walk we were scanning the treetops for bark-colored little animals. We failed to see even a single koala, and ended up with a pair of very sore necks for our trouble. By the time we got back to the parking lot — which too remained devoid of marsupials — we were hot, sweaty, and disappointed. In retrospect, it had been a gorgeous hike, and we probably would have enjoyed it tremendously if we hadn't been distracted by the koala hunt.
On our way back to the highway, we noticed a crowd of people on the sidewalk looking high up into the trees. "They must have spotted a koala!" we yelled, and pulled into the first parking space we found, which turned out to be quite a distance down the hill. We slammed the doors and ran back up the road, but by then the crowd had dispersed, and we couldn't remember exactly where we'd seen them standing. We retraced our steps back to the car slowly, examining every tree, until suddenly I saw him!
As expected, he was pretty cute, and immediately put out of our minds any regret about the long detour and the fruitless hike. On the way back to the car, we rewarded ourselves with a stop at an ice cream truck. While we ate, we admired the view across a crowded and rather nice-looking beach. Then we hopped back in the car and made our way toward Sydney.
As if driving on the left side of the road wasn't confusing enough, in Australia they don't use yellow paint to divide opposing traffic — just another dashed white line but with slightly longer stripes.
Sometimes it was even hard to tell whether a road was for one-way traffic or two.
We had a hotel reservation waiting for us in Sydney, but due to our rush through Mackay to Rockhampton, we arrived on the outskirts a day early. I called the hotel to see if they had any rooms available that night, but they were fully booked. So we decided to stay where we were, in the suburban town of Hornsby.
We couldn't find a motel, but there was a room available at the local tavern, which struck us as old-timey and fun. It was. We parked out back and walked through the restaurant to the bar. We didn't see any signs saying "Reception" or anything, so we just went up and told the bartender that we'd called ahead about a room. "Oh, right," she said, leafing through a heavy book next to the cash register. She reached under the bar, fished out a key, and led us through a side door and up some stairs.
The room was clean and comfortable, and we enjoyed our dinner and beer downstairs. Sadly, it wasn't till after we'd gotten our food that we noticed that, had we ordered steak, it would have been delivered raw: there was a giant metal griddle where diners get to season and cook their own steaks precisely to their liking!
When we first left home, I brought along the two latest issues of GAMES, a monthly magazine filled with crosswords and other such puzzles. I figured they would last us a long time, since we planned to spend most of our downtime working on the website, and besides, we could always buy new issues as they came out.
Neither assumption turned out to be true. We burned through both issues almost immediately. There are all sorts of situations that aren't amenable to word processing, such as when flight regulations prohibit the use of electronics, when the battery is low, or when we don't want to flash around our fancy computer. Even when one of us is writing, the other needs something to do. Crosswords are an excellent solution to this problem, with one of the best entertainment-time-to-weight ratios under the sun.
GAMES, however, doesn't seem to be for sale outside of America. Crosswords in general are hard to come by; on the rare occasion where a bookstore actually has a rack of puzzle magazines, it's inevitably NBS: nothing but sudoku. As our time in the English-speaking world was drawing to a close, we started to grow desperate. Finally, at the Borders in Hornsby, we struck gold.
There it was, wedged behind a metric ton of sudoku: Will Shortz's Greatest Hits. Shortz, a former GAMES editor-in-chief, has been the New York Times crossword editor since 1993. Under his watch, there have been a lot of great puzzles. This book has 150 of the best, and every one of them is memorable for one reason or another.
Sometimes, it's the clues. "Wheel of Fortune purchase", five letters, or "Small buzzer", four. (Mouse over for the answers.) Other times, it's a creative and clever twist.
For example, one crossword has clues reading "Half of a decoder ring" and "Other half of the decoder ring." By putting the two halves together, you can decipher the gibberish you wrote in 39-Across, which was clued as, "Secret message."
In another crossword, there doesn't appear to be enough room for many of the answers. Only after filling in the answer for "Inventor who inspired this puzzle" as "MORSE" do you realize (maybe) that the problem words all contain the letters "dash" or "dot", and you can only fit the words in the grid if you use an actual dash or dot. So to put "Summer dress feature" in six grid squares, you write "POLKA" in the first five and draw a dot in the sixth. Four spaces for "Like Errol Flynn"? How about "-ING"?
It also includes a couple of famous puzzles, like the one containing a marriage proposal on behalf of loyal reader to his crossword-loving girlfriend. And the one that ran on election day in 1996, Shortz's most controversial puzzle ever. It was even covered on ABC's World News Tonight. (If you haven't seen it, I'm not going to spoil it.)
There is a good mix of easy and hard puzzles — the Times, if you're not familiar, runs easy puzzles on Monday and gets progressively more challenging as the week goes on. Each crossword in the book lists the publication date, so when you want, say, a medium-difficulty puzzle, look for a Wednesday.
This book takes up very little space and will provide endless hours of entertainment to anyone who likes crosswords. (Full disclosure: If you buy a copy by clicking the picture, Amazon will send us a buck.)
After the bookstore, we drove across the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and wound our way through through the twisty streets until we found our hotel. We dropped off our luggage, returned the car, and set out on foot.
Our first stop was the ferry terminal, to take a quick ride around the famous harbor. The dock is right between Sydney's two best-known landmarks, the aforementioned bridge and the Sydney Opera House, and the commuter ferry is the best way to view them. No matter how many times you've seen photos of that opera house, the real thing still takes your breath away, especially on a sunny day when the white tiles catch the light and shine. We sailed past and admired it from every angle.
Our ferry's route was a quick circle around the closest parts of the harbor. Directly across from downtown are some fabulous bayside houses and apartment buildings, all with lovely gardens. I was envious of the people who live there and get to commute by ferry!
We later took a walk in Hyde Park, which has shady tree-lined walkways, a large fountain, and some interesting statuary.
And, of course, we ate some food.
Sydney had decent Sichuan food — you can tell it's good because they provide you with a box of tissues. Melbourne's was better, though.
We also went to a popular Italian restaurant, Hugo's, featuring homemade pasta and brick-oven pizzas. The carbonara was topped with crispy slices of delicious American-style bacon, and the pork-belly pizza did not disappoint. The menu even stated that the pizzas could be made with gluten-free crust — good to know, in case I ever return with my mom!
More pictures of Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef, and the rest of Australia can be seen in the Flickr album.
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