Thursday, March 27, 2014

Australia Day 29: Chinatown (part 2), Paddy's Market, The Rocks and Darlinghurst

The next morning we did our Starbucks wifi pilgrimage, then rejoined our third member to hit up a yum cha restaurant in Chinatown. Yum cha, for the uninitiated, is what we in the US tend to call dim sum. Dim sum, however, only refers to the actual food in a yum cha dining experience. Yum cha is the act of eating dim sum dishes and drinking the ubiquitous green tea that accompanies them. In fact, the words “yum cha” translate to “drink tea.” So there you go.

The restaurant we went to was called Marigold – another recommendation of our local trip advisor Baron. Marigold takes up the top two floors of one of the many malls in Chinatown. The dining experience is the typical yum cha whirlwind of aggressive serving, constant consumption and choice paralysis. I have always been an adventurous eater and things like tripe, intestine, haggis and hotdogs don’t faze me one bit, and I took the opportunity to convince my party to try one of the braver dim sum dishes – chicken feet.

mmmmm feet...
Chicken feet are just that, the lower leg joint and claw of the chicken, slow braised until all that tough, usually inedible cartilage gets soft and succulent. Chicken feet taste just fine. It’s like eating the skin off a braised piece of chicken. The practice of eating chicken feet however is a bit of a trial, as they are almost all bone, gristle and skin – and the bones are teeny tiny. Justin and I managed the experience just fine, but Oscar, upon taking one too many close looks at the little claws, started to get a bit anxious about the chicken feet. Food anxiety is something I am entirely foreign with, but we made the feet disappear for Oscar’s benefit and moved on.

Sure you hear the water and the birds...but do you
hear the grasshopper, which is at your feet?
Next we went to the Chinese Friendship Garden, located just south of Darling Harbour. By the time we got there it was once again pouring, but after a few minutes we decided to enter regardless and try our luck ducking into the various shrines, walkways and tea rooms of the garden to escape the rain. Well worth the AUD $6 admission for adults, the Friendship Garden is absolutely beautiful and perfectly located for tourists. It was designed by architects in Guangzhou as a symbol of the friendship between China and Australia and is packed with beautiful plants, buildings and wildlife. Because it was raining we became intimately familiar with Australia’s various spiders, as they camped out in the upper reaches of the open air walkways. One of them even descended right in front of us to remind us that terror lurks in the most serene places. Thank you, giant spider, for the life lesson.

I'm pretty sure the bird knew how awesome he
was looking...
The central pond of the garden was full of huge koi, whose occasional wild urges prompted them to leap out of the water in an ebullient display of acrobatics. There was also a very tenacious crane perched atop one of the rock sculptures in the lake, who posed brilliantly for some pictures. The garden also housed a very nice looking tea room overlooking the lake, of which we did not partake.

The rest of the afternoon was spent tying up loose ends of our tragically brief Sydney trip. First we returned to Paddy’s Market to allow Oscar to pick up some kitschy Australian memorabilia, then we returned to the Rocks to partake in their weekend craft maret. There I found the stall of an artist vending some really cool prints showing caricatures of Australian animals. The characters were full of appeal, and of course, as it turns out, the guy who creates the pieces is an animator. They are currently hanging up prominently in my guest bathroom. If you have a chance, check out to see and possibly purchase some of Simon Williams’ charming artwork.

The Convicts, Soldiers and Settlers
Monument in The Rocks
I also bought an awesome pair of clockwork cufflinks from another local artist. These were my gift to myself on this trip and while they don’t directly shout “Australia” I was so charmed by the sales pitch and clear passion for detail the artist had, so I bought a pair. I’m getting a new suit made (my first tailored suit) for a wedding this Fall, and I hope to rock those cufflinks with it.

Our last meal in Sydney we decided to try a highly rated restaurant Oxford Social, on the edge of Darlinghurst, sort of near the red light district. While it was quite good, it was overpriced for the offerings, and their “perfect” martini used vodka instead of gin, which is a crime against humanity. I did have some very delicious Arancini, which are fried rice balls stuffed with, in this case, brie and tomatoe. I also had some acceptable fish croquettes. Afterward we walked back to Baron’s house, straight through a very gay friendly part of town - the Golden Mile, an area of Oxford street in Darlinghurst. This was purely by happenstance, but it was good to see a healhy LGBT community in the city.

We stopped off at a very popular gelato shop, rated number one in Sydney, in fact, called Gelato Messina. I invite you to check out their website at  because their flavor list is spectacular, but I had a gelato made with cardamom and raisins and it was wonderful. They are cash only and expect a line, but it was totally worth it.

Beautiful Sydney at Night
Finally, we returned to Baron’s place for a last look at the Sydney skyline by night. I promised them some night shots, so I desperately took hundreds of photos hoping that a few of them would come out. I think I managed to get a few decent shots, but it definitely highlighted a need for me to bring a tripod with me on trips like this. It’s nearly impossible to hold one’s camera still enough to get a good night shot. You need a long exposure, and anything longer than 1/30th of a second is too long to keep still and get a clean shot.

Leaving Justin behind, Oscar and I walked back to the hotel for the last time, tried to finish off the two 4-packs of cider and beer we had bought, and fell asleep. The next day we were homeward bound.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Australia Day 28: Bondi, Harbour, Chinatown (part 1)

Our nice direct train route to Bondi beach, Sydney’s primary tourist beach, was subverted by train maintenance being done on the tracks. That meant in order to reach Bondi we had to take a series of local buses. One of our party didn’t have any cash (a seasoned traveler hand slap to Oscar for that mistake) so the rest of us waited outside a hospital while he retrieved some money from the hospital ATM. Why they have an ATM in the hospital remains a mystery, but I was imagining it being just outside of surgery; the doctors waiting for the patient to get a few bills out before performing his appendectomy.

Bondi Beach from the Bondi-Bronte Walk
Once we navigated the web of bus lines, we arrived at Bondi beach on a partially sunny day and immediately looked for the path out. It wasn’t that we didn’t like Bondi beach, on the contrary it’s quite nice, quite crowded and quite interesting, but while we had the clouds on our side, we intended to walk the rocky path between Bondi and its sister beach Bronte. It’s a beautiful walk – one not to be missed if you’re visiting the area – full of majestic littoral vistas, rocky outcroppings and outstanding beach bodies. 

Cliffs of the Bondi-Bronte Walk
There was another public seaside pool set in the rocks and at the median of the walk a large outcropping facing out, unimpeded, into the endless Pacific. A little ways down we hung out at another outcropping overlooking another small rock beach where people were risking the breakers to play out on the smooth natural table. We didn’t quite make it to Bronte. Espying it from the path we decided it was pretty much identical to Bondi, so we walked back down the path and went to get some food.

We ate at an unassuming promenade food stand where we had traditional Aussie meat pies covered in mushy peas, generous scoops of mashed potatoes and gravy. The pie was an artery clogger, but it was apparently a bit of a tradition as the cart was recommended to us by our local guide, Baron.

A circus of humanity at Bondi Beach (I think that's the official scientific name for a group of humans)
Sunscreen’d and swimsuited, we navigated through the crowd and claimed our small bit of beach. Having dipped my toe into the water, I had no intention of swimming in the icy depths, so I laid out while Oscar and Justin braved the cross currents. The beach was a pandemonium of humanity. There was a presumably French couple in front of us who were practically in coitus while there completely naked children cavorted around with strangers 30 feet away, there were topless women baring their...cargoes proudly to the world, there were perfect beach bodies and not-so-perfect ones. About an hour into the experience I began to realize that if I didn't get out of the sun, I was going to be a beet when I got home, so I enrobed and convinced the others that we had a few more things to see in the city. I think they might have been sharing in my sunburn fears as they conceded without much fight.

We tried to communicate with the creatures, but
alas, our primitive form of communication was lost on them
The storm clouds were rolling in by the time we reached Chinatown. We walked down one of the main thoroughfares, pausing briefly to take pictures with and of some enormous crabs and lobsters in tanks outside a Chinese restaurant. The crabs were the size of watermelons; the lobsters bigger than footballs.

It had started to sprinkle, so we decided to cut our Chinatown trip a little short and escape into Paddy’s Market. Paddy’s Market is an indoor fleamarket filled with cheap souvenirs, kitschy Australiana, knock off electronics and other peculiarities.  By the time we stepped into the doors two things were happening: the sky had opened and it was a bloody monsoon outside, and the market was beginning to close. It seemed they close at 5:00 on Sundays.  We shuffled around the storefronts, admiring the gigantic 20 foot long ceiling fans and waiting for security to throw us out. I was pretty turned off by the entire market, to be honest, but Oscar insisted we come back the next day, so we penciled it into our plans.

The gates finally closed at Paddy’s Market and we huddled in the covered entry way with a few other forlorn tourists, making jokes about how the rain would probably only last another 5 minutes, starting now. We made this joke every 2 minutes or so for about half an hour. Finally, as the rain began to at least somewhat relent, we decided to gun it in search of a restaurant.

Nasi Lemak at Mamak
A few Yelp! recommendations lead to disappointing results, until we finally decided on a restaurant called Mamak. Mamak is an Indonesian restaurant in Haymarket that is apparently a current rage, as there was a line clear out the door of the place, with a 30 minute wait. We weren’t keen on trying to find another restaurant at this point so we braved standing under the leaky awnings for a table. I am sure glad we did! Mamak has some amazing fare and it’s really affordable. The satay was perfect and I also enjoyed a rice dish called Nasi Lemak (they claim to be Indonesia’s national dish, but that is up for some debate amongst internet circles). I decided to go for dessert to enjoy their highly rated roti. Roti is a flatbread that is hand tossed extremely thin, then cooked on a griddle. I had the Roti bom, which was thicker and served like a cinnamon roll with ice cream and honey. It’s probably one of the best desserts I’ve ever had.

The rain had ended, the skies had cleared and evening was upon us. We walked to the Sydney Harbour waterfront, where there is a nice pier, many bars and restaurants, and several attractions including Madame Toussaud’s, an Aquarium, and an Australian animal sanctuary. A surprise attraction of the night was a fireworks show done right in the harbor, which we watched from a pedestrian bridge. We had a lot of luck randomly encountering festivals and fireworks and parades during this trip. I’m glad we ran into so much entertainment!

Yeah, well *you* try taking a fireworks picture sometime...
After the fireworks we decided to walk back to the hotel, so we followed signs trying to get back to Chinatown. We had crossed over a major highway at some point and were trying to find a way back around it when we ascended an escalator and wound up on a confusing path. At first we just assumed that maybe we had beat the crowd, but as we walked within the building, we started to realize that maybe we weren’t supposed to be here. It looked like the lobby of a bank or hotel or some other fancy, mostly-marble public area…except that no one was there. It was like a Twilight Zone episode where suddenly everyone in the world had just disappeared.

Finally we saw the exit doors and the glow of the street lights beyond. I felt a rush of relief as I was the leader of this expedition into the unknown, and my adventure had seemingly been vindicated. “See? There’s the exit,” I scoffed. With all confidence I reached to open the door for my fellow travelers. *Clunk* The door was quite locked. No worries, we’ll try the next one. *Clunk*

*Clunk* *Clunk* Hmm.

All the doors were locked. I had failed. It was time to admit defeat. Fortunately we had made this mistake tacitly egged on by a group of people in front of us who shared our rash decision, and eventually we decided it would be prudent to ask them if they knew how to get out of this Orwellian nightmare. They smiled and directed us to the after-hours exit right around the corner, and we three lost lambs finally returned to the flock on the street.

The rest of the evening was spent drinking room and watching crass animation in our hotel room. The next day would be our last full day in Sydney.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Australia Day 27: Hello to Sydney! Manly Beach, Opera House, Downtown

Beautiful Sydney
Sydney! Where as Melbourne feels like Seattle, Sydney has more of a combination San Francisco/New York vibe to it. It’s a bigger city, more densely populated and perhaps a little less immediately charming, but it’s also quirky, modern, hip and fashionable.

We started the day having some tragically mediocre coffee at, of all places, Starbucks. This was to take advantage of their wifi, which required purchase to use. Right before we left Melbourne my phone began randomly rebooting and refusing to remain on for more than a few minutes at a time. If you know me, you know that I am irrevocably tied to my technology. I need information constantly, and having my phone out of commission when there was tons of things I wanted to research was…an adjustment.

The first thing we needed to do was rejoin with our third party member, who instead of staying in our seedy hotel, decided to bunk with some old friends of his wife who lived in the area. Oscar and I walked the mile to their apartment and met the friend, Baron, a gracious host who, it turns out, is a bit of an expert on the city of Sydney and all there is to do in it. He provided us all with printouts of things to do each day we were there, restaurant recommendations and tips on navigating the city. Baron, if you read this, your help was absolutely invaluable and we were all singing your praises through the whole Sydney excursion. Thanks a bunch.

View from Baron's Apartment...yeah.
The other perk of meeting Baron was his *amazing* apartment, which is in one of the tallest residential buildings in the downtown Sydney area and has a spectacular view of Sydney bay, the opera house, the harbor and just about everything else worth looking at in the immediate downtown area. I took several skyline shots and promised to return later to take some night shots.

Sydney is known for its beaches, particularly Bondi Beach, but according to Baron, the locals take the ferry to an area amusingly called Manly beach, and that was where we were headed that day. To reach it, we took the Manly ferry (an equally amusing juxtaposition) which is a great way to see the waterfront features of Sydney harbor, including the Harbour Bridge and the ubiquitous Sydney Opera House, which I will talk more about later.

North Head
We also got a very nice drive by of four of the Sydney Heads, the rocky headlands that define the edge of the bay. They are striking sandstone features which also house a quarantine station, a defunct defensive facility, the Australian institute of Police Management, and Australia’s third oldest lighthouse, Hornby Lighthouse.

Manly itself is a nice little beach town. It was named by Captain Arthur Philip, first governor of New South Wales, because the indigenous people living there at the time of British settlement struck him with “their confidence and manly behavior…” Now every other store in the town is “Manly pasta” and “Manly chippery” and “Manly women’s beachwear,” ad nauseum.

I "Chu"se you, duck summer rolls!
It was about lunch time and Baron had recommended a restaurant called Misschu, a local chain of Vietnamese/Laotian/Thai tuckshops specializing in small plates. The founder is Misschu, Nahji Chu, is a filmmaker, animator (!), and now restaurant mogul. We had a variety of dishes, particularly good were the chilled rice paper rolls.

Shelly Beach, artfully presented
After lunch we walked along the Manly Corso to Manly beach. The beach is small, beautiful and crowded. Oscar decided to go for an immediate swim, but neither I nor Justin were prepared for that (and in my case didn’t particularly care to). After watching Oscar suffer gleefully for a few minutes in the frigid Pacific, we followed a walkway along the beach line to a rocky alcove called Shelly beach, which featured less surfers and more snorkelers. The water was crystal clear. It would have been a nice place to swim, I’m sure. We also spotted some of the native fauna, the eastern water dragon (Intellagama lesueurii lesueurii), which is a lizard (sub) species that lives along the NSW beaches. They look similar to iguanas with more interesting striation patterns.

After several manly hours at Manly beach, we returned via Manly ferry to Sydney proper, where we spent some time admiring the most recognizable man-made feature in Australia, The Sydney Opera House. Sydney Opera house is a UNESCO World Heritage site, only one of two in Australia, the second being the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne (which I also visited, see Melbourne Week 3).

Slightly overcooked HDR shot of Sydney Opera House
I dug up an article containing 40 interesting facts about the Sydney Opera House (right here.) I’ll transcribe a few here. Jorn Utzon, the architect who designed it, was rejected by three of the four judges for the competition to design the building, but the last judge, an American, deemed it “outstanding” and eventually swayed the other judges to his opinion. It cost AUD $102 million to make, and the initial estimate for its construction was AUD $ 7 million.) It is the equivalent of 22 stories tall and contains 1000 rooms. It is in the style of Expressionist Modernism and once a chicken flew into the hall during a performance and landed on a cellist.

Probably for the best that there
were not actual birds in those cages...
We walked around the exterior of the building, which houses 4+ restaurants and a bar, took a bunch of photos and remarked that it looked smaller in life than it ever seemed to in the pictures of Sydney. We then walked to an area called The Rocks, which I will get into more detail about in a few paragraphs, but we hung out at a busy German bierhall called Lowenbrau where we drank large beers and ate many calories worth of schnitzel and bratwurst. They had an apricot schnapps there that I have been unable to find outside of Germany called Marillen (just the German word for ‘apricot’) and we enjoyed a few sips of that to end the meal. The sun had set and we were pretty tired, so we walked back to the hotel through the downtown area. There was plenty to see at every turn downtown, but one notable discovery was an alleyway Chinese restaurant who decorated their outdoor area with an array of decorative birdcages. I thought it looked cool, so pictures. Finally we returned to our hotel for some much needed rest.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Australia Day 25, 26: A Farewell to Melbourne

I decided to split the last journal entries up a bit, because they were getting long. This post is about my last few days in Melbourne.

Having had our trip cut short, I was determined to make the most of the last week I had in Australia. I scheduled a flight to Sydney on Thursday, and tried my best to get the last things I wanted to do in Melbourne in the bag.

The author and Southeast Melbourne
Wednesday I decided to spend the $15 and go up to the Eureka Skydeck, the 88th floor of the Eureka Tower, a residential building south of the Central Business District. The Skydeck claims to be the tallest building in the southern hemisphere, at 91 floors. The slightly nauseating elevator trip brings you to the attraction, which is ceiling to floor glass walls that look out in all directions over the Melbourne skyline. There’s a special area that you have to pay extra to enter that allows you to stand out on a glass platform so it feels like you’re standing on nothing, but it didn't feel worth the extra $10 to have my stomach drop into my feet. A couple of my fellow travelers joined me, the same ones, it happens, that would be joining me on the last leg of my trip, to Sydney, the next day.

The Melbourne skyline is pretty impressive. It covers a large area, with a few sections of skyscrapers. The rest is green areas, residential sections, and some large, futuristic looking stadiums for cricket and Australian Rules football, a local passion. Sadly the reflective glare in the glass room made it very difficult to get good pictures. I managed a few, but I was disappointed in most of the results. Still, it was nice to be up that high and get a sense of the scale of the city.

La Trobe Reading Room
Next we went back into the CBD to visit the Victoria State Library, a very actively used, very well appointed library near the Royal Institute of Technology. The main attraction of the library is the La Trobe Reading Room, a huge octagonal room with 5 floors of open interior space. We were visiting the library just as everything was shutting down, so sadly we didn't get a chance to go to the 5th floor viewing room, but I got some acceptable pictures from the ground floor. The other thing the library is known for is a large art collection. Again, sadly, we only got to see one of the collections, an assemblage of paintings by and of local celebrities.

Kingfish Sashimi at Chin Chin
By the time we were done with that, it was almost time for our farewell dinner. Our team leader was getting us together for a bit of a send-off at one of the coolest restaurants in town, an Asian fusion restaurant called “Chin Chin”, where we going to participate in an all-inclusive…I guess sort of “omakase” of entrees of whatever the kitchen decided to serve us. I was pretty excited about this meal already, but oh man. Everything about the experience was amazing -- the drinks, the energy of the group, the outrageous food, the desserts, the wait staff. I could not have asked for a better meal. Of particular note – the sweet and sour barramundi with pork belly in a spicy relish with apple salad. Insane.

We got out of the restaurant fairly late. I had to do some laundry so I stayed up even later getting that done. Thursday was my last day in Melbourne. We were scheduled for a pretty late flight, arriving in Sydney at 10:30pm. That gave me another full day of adventure in Melbourne. Well, I had yet to see a damn kangaroo on this entire trip, and I wasn't going to leave Australia without seeing one, so I decided my day would be spent at the Melbourne Zoo.

My buddy Oscar and I first stopped off at a cafe recommended to us by one of the guys at the game studio, a slightly out-of-the-way cafe with the peculiar name of “Auction Rooms”. There’s nothing particularly auctiony about the place other than a few references to bids on the menu - you didn't have to barter for your food or anything. I had a pretty awesome poached egg dish with seared kingfish and cranberry relish, and an excellent cappuccino…and then an excellent Americano, which Australians (and probably the rest of non-American English-speakers) refer to as a “long black.”

After hopping a few connecting trams, we arrived at the Melbourne Zoo.I *did* finally see some kangaroos, albeit very lazy ones, along with platypodes, a rather hideous red panda, and some Australian Little Penguins, which is apparently their official name. But the real highlights of the experience were four-fold.

There have only been a few reports of Cassowary mauling
people with their huge talons...
First, the Cassowary. We would have missed her if someone hadn't pointed her out hiding off the path, but these giant birds, related to the emu, are huge, brightly colored, very shy, and *totally* dinosaurs. They even have these amazing crests called casques that make them resemble Gallimimus.

Second, the emus. Not because they’re beautiful, but because they were in the open Australian animal area with the kangaroos and they were bold as brass. They strut around the enclosure like they own it and would come right up to you and stare you down, daring you to cross them. Those emus were kings.

Thirdly, the monkeys. Who doesn't love a monkey? They were extremely active at the zoo that day, and put on quite a show of acrobatics and …monkey business. I didn't get many good pictures of them because the glass was filthy, but they were a joy to watch.

Last, and very not least, the meerkats. Oh my god, people. Meerkats. They live in family groups. They have a lookout poised to look for danger. They’re insanely curious and were fascinated by the people watching them. There was an amazing moment at their enclosure where they all suddenly turned, gathered around and looked up at the sky together. We followed their line of sight and they were watching a plane and its contrail fly by. I died.

We burned most of the day at the zoo, then returned to the hotel to pack for Sydney and our inevitable trip home. I enjoyed a last drink at the hotel restaurant and we hopped in the cab to the Melbourne Airport. At the airport I realized that I had left my extremely expensive color-vision-enhancing sunglasses at the hotel, but luckily I had a friend still there who retrieved them for me and eventually would brought them home to Utah.

A short hour-long flight later, we arrived in Sydney and took another taxi to our hotel, a divey little place at the edge of China Town, run by a very grumpy (but kind of awesome) night manager, who gave us our room key and told us to get lost…well not really, but it sort of felt like that.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Australia Week 3: Carlton, Dandenong, Moomba

Things change quickly in the game industry. One day you're midway through a six-week training trip to Melbourne, and the next, you're told the trip is over and you've got a week to get back to home office. So I write today's blog post with the bittersweet knowledge that this week will be my last in Australia and it's back to Utah - so it goes.

Before the disappointing news of my shortened trip, I had a very busy weekend touring around Melbourne and its surrounds. Friday was the beginning of the Moomba Festival, which is held over the Labour Day weekend. The Moomba festival is a pre-Lent carnival celebrating...well it's really just an excuse to have a big carnival downtown with water-based competitions including a birdman contest and wakeboarding, as well as a big parade, fireworks, rides and all that fracas. Friday night a bunch of us went down the banks of the Yarra river to watch some wakeboarding and experience the carnival atmosphere. The crowds were not nearly as dense as on White Night, but our team can make anything into a party. We spent the evening feigning enthusiasm about watersports and then retired.

Int. Melbourne Gaol
The next day I did one of the walking tours suggested in my Melbourne: Step by Step guide, and walked the length of the neighborhood of Carlton. The trip started with a tour of the Old Melbourne Gaol, where prisoners were held and sometimes hung from 1845 to 1924. It's a suitable dour looking building with stained walls, heavy iron doors and very informative plaques and displays all over the place talking about the most noteworthy of Melbourne's criminals. Most notable of which is the inimitable Ned Kelly.

I won't go into detail as to Ned's infamy. If you'd like to read more about him, you can go to the wikipedia article about him ( Suffice to say, in his final shootout with the Melbourne police, Ned donned a homemade suit of iron armor and was only taken out because the cops used a makeshift claymore made of buckshot to damage his unprotected shins...oh such hubris, Ned.

Ridiculous Benvenuta Manor
After the Gaol, I headed north past Melbourne's monument to the 8 hour work day, which Victoria had before most other places courtesy of their strong labour movement. A fitting photographic tribute to their Labour Day I suppose. Past the monument and into Carlton proper, is the ostentatious Benvenuta mansion, which has in it's time been a residence, a brothel, a court, an Italian Club, a brothel, and most recently a college residence for the University of Melbourne.

Veering a bit to the west, I wandered through Carlton's main thoroughfare, Lygon street, which is known for being Melbourne's 'Little Italy.' I had a excellent Italian cappuccino paired with some authentically bad Italian table service, then returned east to Carlton Gardens and the Melbourne Museum.

Whale skeleton would like to remind you that it is enormous
Melbourne museum has some interesting exhibits including some very nice dinosaur skeletons, a section in which one walks through a replica Victorian rainforest, and an interesting permanent exhibit about the native and quite diverse Aboriginal people from the Melbourne area. I only managed to see the first floor of the museum before I had to meet up with my tour guide for a limited-access tour of the Royal Exhibition Building, just across the square from the museum itself.

Int. Royal Exhibition Building
The Royal Exhibition Building has seen its share of history. It was created to house the World's Fair of 1880, and played host again to the World's Fair of 1888. It was also the spot where the first Federal Parliament of Australia was held, marking Australia as a commonwealth. The Australian flag was first flown from its dome in 1901. It's been a temporary home for the RAAF and a venue for the Summer Olympics (1956). The beautiful interior was painted over white at some point, but restored to its full 1901 splendor in 1992.

After touring the building, I was going to go back to the museum, but it turns out I had managed to lose my ticket. So I made a pivot and headed over to the campus of Melbourne University. For the most part, the University feels sort of closed off. I took some pictures of the interesting Newman Chapel and, as suggested by my travel guide, took a walk through the outrageously full Melbourne General Cemetery, which houses dead people of every major faith. It was hot, I had walked about six miles, and I was ready to be done with the walk...then I got to walk all the way back to the hotel! All in all it was a 10 mile day...great practice for the next day.

The morning of Day 22 I ate a big breakfast and then hopped the tram to Flinder's Street Station, one of three major train stations in downtown Melbourne. I was taking a train out to the pleasantly named Upper Fern Tree Gully where I would hike the 2.8 km, 90-ish story climb to the One Tree Hill picnic grounds, have lunch, then walk back down. That was the plan.

When I arrived at UFTGS, I was greeted with a small information center. Slightly unsure of how to begin my journey, I inquired within. "Fancy a 4 hour hike?" the small lady at the counter exclaimed by way of greeting. Sure, I thought. I didn't really have anything else planned for the day, and I was feeling pretty energetic. The lady scribbled some notes on a map for me..."first you walk walk walk until you get to 1000 steps, hike that, then take One Tree Hill Road across to...well actually it's not on the map here, but it's called Hackett's Track. Take that down to...well it's also not on the map, but it's called Hillclimb Trail. Take that down to Belgrave and then take the train back to Melbourne!"

Hmm. A 4 hour trek through the wilderness, alone. The long quiet boy scout in me was reminding me that you shouldn't hike by yourself, certainly not in a foreign forest, in "the land of things that want to kill you."

But hey, guess what I did anyway!

First, a note about the 1000 steps. Formally called the Kokoda Track Memorial Walk, the hike represents the trek that Australian soldiers made with their wounded after the battle of Kokoda in WWII. It is a very steep trail. It's 2.8 km at what I am guessing to be a 30% grade. By no stretch of the imagination was this an easy walk, but my will was tempered by the fact that, and I swear I'm not making this up, there were old Chinese women happily making the journey wearing those chunky platform heel shoes. Clearly insane.

One Tree Hill Road has notably more than a single tree
As intense as the climb was, it was only about a quarter of the path I made through the Sherbrooke forest that day. The rest of the hike was not particularly blog worthy. I did see a wild echidna and I hiked for many hours. I also said hello to a pair of female hikers who looked at me like I was about to possibly murder them. There's something that occurs during a very long hike that I like to call a "hiking trance". Bill Bryson mentions it in his classic travel narrative "A Walk in the woods." The longer you hike, the more the hike starts to become more a meditation on walking then a journey to get anywhere in particular. Taking the next step becomes the only thing that matters. I experienced that a lot during my hike on the Appalachian Trail in my teenage years. On this trek, I had some flashbacks to that experience.

The clever people of Belgrave put a pub right at the exit to the trail, before you get to town. There I had the most delicious half pint of cider I have ever tasted. I finished the walk to Belgrave, ate a meat pie, and returned on the train back to Melbourne. I was pretty cooked, dirty from head to toe, and ready to take the next day very easy.

The Moomba Parade had a real 'Cirque du Soleil' feel to it...
Moomba! The next day was the parade for the Moomba festival. It's important to note that there's some controversy over the name "Moomba". The creator of the festival, who seriously made the thing as an excuse to have something to do before Lent, swore up and down that it was a dialogue word meaning "get together and have a good time" or something similar. His son later said that what it actually meant was "Up your ass". Later the comment was redacted. The origin of the word still remains a bit of a mystery. Anyway, the "Up your ass" parade consisted of many colorful floats and people and I sat on the sloping cliff leading up the Shrine of Remembrance and got some pretty good shots of the whole thing. The rest of the day was relatively uneventful. A bunch of the gang went to a restaurant/bar called Cookie in the CBD where we had some good asian-inspired food, drank cider, and had our bill brought to us in a children's book. Keep Melbourne weird, I guess.

Anyway, as I said earlier, my trip is being cut short due to the fickleness of the game industry, but this weekend I'm taking the opportunity to fly out of Sydney instead of Melbourne, so I can spend four days before I return to reality in the other major east coast city of Australia. Tune in for the end-of-trip report sometime next week.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Australia Week 2: Great Ocean Road, Otways and Apollo Bay

While the week was once again taken up primarily by work, sleep and exercise, we started the weekend right with an open bar social sponsored by the studio at Federation Square in the Melbourne CBD. Many beers were consumed and much conversation enjoyed.

The next morning, a large portion of the Salt Lake Squad picked up rental cars and prepared to head out on our first weekend adventure outside of the city. We had two drivers: one who had a British driver's license from 20 years ago, and another who was just crazy enough to drive on the left side of the road even though he'd never done it before...I decided to be the navigator for the guy with the ancient driver's license.

Relying heavily on GPS, we headed out of Melbourne on the winding Australian highway system. Getting out of the airport we managed to screw up and make a few loops around the terminals before figuring out what to do. Thankfully that was the worst of the driving errors we made. Our first destination was about an hour outside the city -- an open safari zoo in the town of Werribee.

Pretty sure they were showing off their natural tendency for
frame composition.
Werribee Zoo, somewhat ironically for our adventure, primarily features African animals. It was on our list because our boss was taking his kids there, so we decided, what the hell, let's go too. It was actually pretty cool, since the zoo is predominantly open range. I got some ok pictures, including some shots of a very photogenic group of giraffes. Sadly, the small Australian animal section was pretty much shut down for repairs or upgrades or some such thing -- I have yet to see a kangaroo on this trip, aside from the one on my lunch plate in our first week.

Next was a drive down the very picturesque Great Ocean Road -- a not to miss experience. It is, perhaps, a bit daunting for foreign drivers. The lanes are small and mostly along a sheer cliff face leading down to the rough and rocky beaches below. Our drivers handled it with much tact and the passengers with clenched buttocks you could probably crack walnuts between. The weather changes quite erratically in southern Victoria, so we had periods of sun, clouds and even a little rain along the 3 hour drive to our final destination for the evening, Apollo Bay.

Apollo Bay from nearby Marriner's Lookout...
spelled correctly.
Apollo Bay is primarily a surf town. Unassuming and only somewhat touristy, the town is nestled in its eponymous bay and consists of a main road, some offshoots, and not much else. It's a great launching point for the Otways National Forest, which was our primary destination for the following day. Before that, however, we had a few things that needed taking care of -- first off, dinner, which for me consisted of a mass of fried seafood with chips (read: fries). The place we went to for dinner was a yelp favorite, and it was *pretty* good, though they charged a fee for absolutely everything -- if you wanted grilled instead of fried, if you wanted ketchup or tartar sauce with your fish and chips. Needless to say, there was some grumbling.

A visit to the visitor's center a few hours earlier had informed us via pamphlet of an interesting night walk at nearby called Kennett's River, where one could see noctilucent glow worms. I told the lady at the information desk that we were interested in this, and she said something along the lines of "that's actually not the best place to see them. The best place would probably be Mait's Rest." At which point she pointed to a spot in the dead center of the Otways rainforest. "It's about a 20 minute drive."

Well. Why not, right? We're here for an adventure! Our drive into the rainforest occurred after sundown -- naturally the glow worms were not visible during the day -- so we were driving into the pitch black rainforest on a very narrow, winding road, to an unknown destination which, by the way, is not in Google Maps *or* the Garmin GPS system. We were told specifically not to rely on electronic maps in the rainforest which, for my tech-dependent brain, was a sure sign of the eminent disaster.

I don't have a picture for this part of the story.
But imagine this, only really, really dark.
About 40 minutes later (either she lied or we drove like frightened children), we finally came to Mait's Rest. Mait's Rest is a glorified turn-off on the winding jungle road with a 1km walking trail hidden in it. There were zero lights there, zero other tourists, and zero information on the signs at the stop saying anything about glow worms. Our tiny flashlights seemed like poor protection against the looming darkness, the killer wildlife, and the vague threat of tourist killing vagrants lying in wait on the trail. Ten steps onto the trail...we all chickened out. This was clearly insane -- surely the girl at the visitor's center was just having a laugh at our expense -- no one would send people out into the rainforest in the middle of the night to hunt magical glow worms -- aren't there spiders that can kill a man in 30 seconds in this place?

We got back in the cars. There was a few moments pause, then Oscar, one of the group, knocked on our window. "Give me your flashlights. We're going in." Well, no one in our car was going to let that go unchallenged. If the group in car A was going in, car B, clearly the more awesome car, wasn't going to wuss out. So...into the darkness.

It was slow going. We were not unafraid and we half believed these glow worms were a figment of the dastardly mind of the wicked visitor center wench, but on we trekked. I said the bene gesserit littany against fear, because I'm a huge dork. 'Fear is the mind killer.' About five minutes in we crossed a bridge in the darkness, and suddenly Katie, the wife of one of our coworkers told everyone to stop. What was it, we wondered? The killer hobo we all suspected was working with the visitor's center girl to rob tourists blind and leave their battered corpses in the jungle? She wanted us to turn off our flashlights -- a bold request at this point. We did.

And there they were, all along the embankment of the bridge. Softly glowing, like faint little stars peppered all through the moss. Glow worms! They were real! Disbelief and wonder, and then curiosity as we attempted to pinpoint them and then turn on our flashlights to see if we could see what was making the glow. They were literally undetectable with the lights on, and impossible to photograph. It's just one of those things you have to see -- and believe me, they're there.

Well, you don't go through that sort of thing without being galvanized as a team. In good spirits, we hopped back into the cars and returned to Apollo Bay, to the hostel that was to be our evening home. It was actually a very nice hostel other than the lack of air conditioning. We spent a pleasant evening talking and being thankful that at least one of us had been brave enough to convince all of us to go on that walk.

A Walk in the Woods
Day 2 of the Great Ocean Roadtrip started with breakfast in Apollo Bay, followed by an hour-long drive back into the rainforest. While it was indeed less terrifying in the dark, the road we had to traverse was not pleasant. In some spots, 20 kilometer long spots occasionally, there was only one lane, and if another car had come tearing around one of the many switchbacks, we would have eaten dashboard. We were headed to the Otways Fly Treetop Walk -- a destination that featured a several hundred foot scaffolding-like path through the canopy of the rainforest. This is another place where photographs do the actual experience very little justice. Being a rainforest, it was misting quite a bit, but I got some ok shots of the ancient growth there, including ferns that could have easily been around during the Jurassic period. We spent a few hours there and then headed down a gravel road to what was going to be our next stop -- Triplet Falls.

Unfortunately when we got there, we were greeted with what would have been another hour-long walk to get to said Falls -- and damn it, we had koalas to go see. We decided to skip the falls, and drove back out of the rainforest and out to the Cape Otway Lighthouse road, which is lined on either side by a eucalyptus grove.

This may be, no joke, the best picture I've ever taken
Where there's eucalyptus, there's koalas, and the little dudes were a little elusive at first. We did eventually find them, mostly because other tourists were parked along the sides of the road taking pictures of them already. Koalas are constantly high due to the semi-poisonous leaves of the eucalyptus tree, so they're very docile unless you frighten them. The legend of the "dropbear", according to an Australian companion, comes from the fact that koalas can get so stoned that they fall out of the trees and into the tents of unwary campers, causing the koalas to freak out and shred the tent to bits with their freakin' enormous claws. We shot some pictures, stood in awe of the majesty of nature for a while, then headed back to Apollo Bay.

Lunch -- scallop pie. Very good. Then beach. I had no real interest in plunging into the frigid Pacific Ocean on an overcast day in Fall, but some of our group did, so they rented wet suits and surfboards and braved the 10-foot waves. I laid out and hoped to collect at least a little tan from the cloudy UVs, but about an hour in I gave up and decided to walk down to the marina. No epic stories here, just a nice walk and then back again. We got in the cars, a bit exhausted after the whirlwind day, and drove back to Melbourne, stopping only briefly in the equally beachy town of Lorne for dinner (whole baby snapper, flash fried.)

It was a momentous weekend and I'm glad we did it. This coming weekend will be a 3-dayer -- it's Labour Day here in Australia. I plan on doing a bunch of little day excursions and maybe even sleep in, which I have literally not done once since I got here three weeks ago. Until next time.