Greetings From Australia!
March 14

Hi all-

Nancy and I have arrived safely in Melbourne. We left very early on Weds am from the Laconia Savings Bank center across from Kitchen Cravings. One of our number was late (and irate), having been pulled over by a cop for running a stop sign en route. We did not have the nerve to ask if perchance it was Officer Carsen.

Had a daylong layover in LA. Mom and I had dinner with Eric and she got to see his place, meet his staff, and bond with his tiny cat. And then get returned to the Westin LAX. Upon handing out the hotel room keys, Val Drouin handed me mine and noted, “Now there’s a waste of a bed.”

Our “silver bullet” suitcases, incidentally, have been the talk of the tour, drawing admiring comments from fellow travelers and airline staff alike.

The flight to Melbourne was long (15-16 hours) but not too bad, all things considered. My working theory is that even if you don’t sleep all that well, you have a lot of time to keep at it. The food was pretty good (curry chicken! Printed menus! Cadbury hot chocolate!) and the in-flight entertainment was the best I’ve ever seen—individual TV screens for everyone and dozens of on-demand movies (many still in theaters) and TV shows. Kath & Kim, US version? Dreadful. Kath & Kim, original Australian version? Quite funny.

A harried Aussie mom was sitting two rows behind us with her antsy preschool sons, clearly at the end of her rope with the whole journey before it even started. We heard a lot of comments like, “Mummy is a person, too, with needs of her own. Mummy is going to sleep now and not talk to you anymore for a while. I am warning you: Stop bothering Mummy.” The pilot was quite laissez-faire with the seatbelt sign at both ends of the trip—I imagine that Lufthansa runs a tighter ship than Quantas does.

We landed in Melbourne to torrential downpours. Apparently they’ve been in a severe drought here for ages, so the rain was welcome, but it made for a soggy transfer to the bus. They use beagles at the airport here to sniff out contraband—they’re so cute! By general consensus, harried Aussie mummy and her two boys (who, upon release from the sealed cylinder of the plane, were caroming around the immigration area like pinballs) were allowed to cut the line. Due to the miracle of the international date line, we missed Friday the 13th completely. On the way back we make up for it with the world’s longest Tuesday—I think we get back before we leave, which is a neat trick.

We had a free afternoon in Melbourne. Maybe it’s just the rain, or the fact that we’re staying in a very touristy/studenty area, but it’s different than we expected. The city looks very English in a lot of ways, but also has a lot of American chains sprinkled through it (I hadn’t expected Krispy Kremes and 7-11 down under). There are opal shops everywhere. Our guide has warned the group to hold off on our opal purchases until Sydney, until we’re trained on what to look for. The general fear seems to be that right now we don’t know a good opal from a piece of rock candy. We saw a wedding party walking around with their dresses lifted around their knees. I felt bad for the bride—I think she got the first rainy day here in several months. She was, however, wearing a fantastic pair of red heels under her white dress (a fashion decision I respect greatly but will not be emulating this summer).

Last night at dinner we sat at a table of folks who all had property in Florida—Pompano, Sarasota, etc. Roy, our “Punta Gorda Boy,” would have felt right at home.

Today we do a city tour and then go to Phillips Island, where the draw is thousands of little penguins that emerge every night at dusk and scurry around in an apparently adorable manner. I wonder if, from the penguin perspective, they come out every night and say, “Larry, you’re not going to believe this—all those people are STILL here! What the hell? Mabel, come get a look at this.”

Fun with Penguins
March 15

The LL Bean rain slicker is proving to be the most vital of the pre-trip purchases—Melbourne has been a lovely but extremely wet experience.

Yesterday we had a full English-y sort of breakfast complete with beans, mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, and excellent bacon. It was fun watching everyone sample—and gag on—the Vegemite (a salty paste made of yeast that tastes like a beef bouillon cube and is meant to be spread on toast. I think you need to be a child of the Empire in order to fully appreciate its charms).

Our city tour took us to a cathedral, a park/conservatory, the Victoria war memorial (very moving), and a huge, cheesy marketplace—if a koala or kangaroo could be slapped on it, shaped like it, or otherwise appended to it, it was there. Our guide cannily informed us that Melbourne is the best place for merchandise that says “Melbourne,” a fact that struck us as somewhat obvious, but I guess it’s best to assume nothing.

Our driver (a witty Englishman who moved here 40 years ago) was amused no end by one of our group’s confusing a didgeridoo (aboriginal horn) with a billabong (water hole in the ground). “If you’re planning on bringing a billabong onto the bus, mate, I certainly hope it’s empty.” Mom and I got a bit hung up on the proper way to order a coffee (long black is apparently different than short black, which is different again than flat white), but a friendly local helped us get it sorted out.

En route to the penguins, our driver begged us not to ask him either of the dumb questions he regularly gets: 1. Do the penguins still come out even if it rains? (Yes) and 2. How do the penguins know what time to emerge from the sea? (They wear tiny wristwatches on their flippers.)

The penguins involved a two-hour drive through very soggy outback (we saw a lot of wet sheep and beef cattle) to a small seaside resort town. The penguin viewing is on a nearby island where they’ve constructed a series of wooden boardwalks and concrete bleachers—there’s even an enclosed skybox, presumably reserved for the penguins’ family members and business associates. We saw a wallaby (like a small kangaroo) while we were waiting, which was fun. (We have no photos from the penguin adventure; the little guys dislike the flashes and the penguin rangers break your fingers if you whip out a camera.)

A little after eight pm, the penguins (formerly known as Fairy Penguins but now officially called Little Penguins; did the gay community complain?) started surfing in with the tide in groups known as rafts. They waddled up to the shore in various stages of expediency and disappeared into their little burrows. They also started making these loud chirruping, cooing, squawking noises, like a gaggle of pissed-off loons. Setting aside the absurdity of hundreds of grown people driving hours out of their way to stand in the rain and watch a bunch of dimly lit penguins come home after a day of eating fish, it was a lot of fun.

No See ’Ums
March 17

They have something similar here, except that you do see ’um and we’ve been seeing ’um everywhere.

Yesterday we left Melbourne and took a short flight to Alice Springs—in the middle, sparsely populated, outbacky portion of the country. (A quick shout-out to Quantas here—best airline ever. I may start flying them all the time, even if I need to connect through Canberra to get to Chicago). Just to keep things interesting, Alice Springs is a 1.5-hour time difference from Melbourne and Sydney. I’ve lost track of “ahead” and “behind,” but I do know we are now even further out of sync with the States.

We’ve been besieged by the bugs pretty much ever since we landed. They don’t bite or sting; they just drive you bonkers. They scoffed at the Deep Woods Off we brought from home and even seem impervious to the local stuff our guide recommended (en route to the airport, while doing a demo with his preferred cream, he dropped an enormous glop of it onto his crotch. So he’s probably bug-free for the next several days. Parts of him, anyway.)

The favored solution seems to be what looks like netted yarmulkes—you drop them over your bare head or your hat and they keep the bugs out. Mom and I initially thought them too silly to even contemplate, but we’ve since crossed over to desperate and will be joining the ranks of the netheads later today.

Last night we had a BBQ dinner in the Outback, which was a lot of fun. Mom and I are both finally starting to nail down the names of everyone in our group—it’s tough because everyone is middle-aged and named Bob, Jim, Priscilla, or Nancy (obviously, I’ve got one of the Nancys squared away, but that still leaves two others).

The guide made a dessert called spotted dog, using his bare hands to mix up the batter and incorporating a substantial number of flies in the process (horrifying the Pompano Beach contingent). After dinner they shut off the lights and pointed out some constellations for us. It was amazing—more stars than I’ve ever seen anywhere (we even saw a few smudgy galaxies). We saw the Southern Cross, which looks like a kite. This may be astronomy 101, but mom and I were unaware that the Big Dipper is not visible from this hemisphere, just as we can’t see the Southern Cross up north. The guide pointed out the constellations using a special (and illegal) laser pointer with a range of 2.5 kilometers, bringing new gravity to the concept of “careful with that thing or you’ll lose an eye.”

This morning we had our outback balloon ride, which was great. The basket was enormous and was divided into 4 quadrants of 5 people each. We were told to ignore our instincts to help the less able-bodied aboard first; instead, the youngest and fittest were to clamber in first and serve as ballast.

The balloon was manned by a personable yet slightly ripe German named Franz. Franz’s only instructions, despite some of us being mere inches from the flaming burners, were “don’t touch the ropes.” He also mentioned in passing that the basket can sometimes tip over upon landing, but didn’t seem all that concerned about it. (The country as a whole seems refreshingly untouched by the lawsuit mania currently gripping the US.)

The day was perfect and we saw three kangaroos hopping around before we landed (good news particularly for Bob Bolduc, who earlier had announced in no uncertain terms that he would not be leaving the country until he saw one).

The post-balloon ride breakfast was good but odd: chicken legs, mini-quiche lorraines, fruit, cheese & crackers, and bottomless guava mimosas. No one was complaining, particularly after a few mimosas. The atmosphere was festive on the ride back. I never imagined I’d one day be riding around the Australian outback with my tenth-grade chemistry teacher and hearing her say, “Nothing loosens people up like alcohol.”

In The Bush
March 18

Yesterday we returned to the site of our bush dinner for an aboriginal culture lesson/art sale. We came straight from the balloon ride (where, as you may recall, the group consumed numerous guava mimosas).

It took a while for us to shift gears, but the guide’s talk was interesting. He said there are only 8 women’s names and 8 men’s names in the whole culture, yet when someone calls “Nabajaba” or “Chumbawumba” (you get the idea) out the window, everyone somehow knows which specific person is being summoned. I’m trying this technique out with the various Priscillas in the group.

After a brief break (we snacked on the “spotted dog” cake left over from the night before), we looked at the art some of the aboriginal people had brought. I bought a colorful painting of women picking bush tomatoes from a woman named Marjorie (the western influence seems to have crept in with the names, expanding the roster beyond 8). Mom then got a photo of me and Marjorie holding the painting, which seemed to be an expected part of the process.

You have to wonder what all of these native people really think about the white folks who blow in every week, swatting flies and buying art. (I can imagine Marjorie saying to herself, “Damn—is tomorrow Tuesday already? I need to crank out 6 paintings tonight so I have something to sell.”)

After a brief round of experimental boomerang throwing at a foam rubber kangaroo (I missed by a mile; Miss York told me that I throw like a girl), we had a review/tasting of bush foodstuffs.

There were god-awful, sour dried tomato berry things, and a kangaroo tail (tasted like pulled pork), and a 3-inch witchetty grub who had to be coaxed from his home in a piece of witchetty branch. The grub is apparently an aboriginal delicacy that allegedly tastes like scrambled eggs or buttery potatoes. The group wasn’t buying it, and the grub was allowed to return home to his branch instead of becoming a snack.

Mom and I passed on the “take a camel to dinner” option and went into town for a late lunch instead—we went to the Ocher Grill, where everything seems to come with hard-boiled eggs. We bought our mosquito nets (not a moment too soon) and went into one of the local pubs. Mom received an incredulous stare when she asked the bartender for a glass of cabernet but quickly got on the beer bandwagon instead.

Today was Ayers Rock/Uluru, a huge red rock in the middle of the outback. It is enormous—about 1 km wide and 2 km long, I think our guide said—and looks something like a big red loaf of bread (or, from certain angles, a lazy manatee). It’s just a very massive, impressive thing. People regularly scrabble up it, even though the hike is both treacherous and disrespectful to the native people (sort of like scaling the side of Notre Dame, I guess).

We were able to view it at sunset, which is what people do, and we all really enjoyed it. There’s a certain Emperor’s New Clothes aspect to the proceedings, however—the sun goes down and the rock gets dark. The rapidity with which everyone scooted back to the bus led me to believe that maybe others, too, had missed the point to some extent. But we do have about 15 progressively dimmer photos of a big red rock, if anyone would like to see them.

Bali Ha’i
March 19

We have gone from the hot, dusty red center of the country to the tropics. (We’ve also gained back just 30 minutes of the 1.5 hours we shifted when we went west, despite the fact that we’re back on the east coast, but I think they’re just messing with us now).

This morning we toured the Olgas, another lumpy rock formation near Uluru. The Olgas are apparently not quite as sacred as Uluru, so we were welcome to climb on them, which we did for about 40 minutes. We saw another wallaby in our travels, which was fun. I personally might have allotted a little less time to the Big Red Rocks in the middle of the country, but seeing as I am the daughter of the man who perfected the “Louvre in 10 minutes or less” tour, perhaps I am not the best judge of these things.

We took a short flight from Ayers Rock to Cairns, which everyone is telling us is pronounced “cans.” I don’t know if this is really the correct way to say it, or just the correct way if you have an Australian accent. (It’s like bringing a group of tourists to Boston and telling them about the midnight ride of Paul Re-VEE-ah.)

We have a delightful older couple on the trip—she keeps misplacing her husband, and he keeps absconding with other people’s carry-on bags. He was chastised upon arrival in Cairns for removing the orange “group” tags from their luggage, but it turns out that an overzealous ticket agent back at Ayers Rock was the culprit. Apologies were issued.

Cairns definitely has more “pulse” than other places we’ve been—it’s got kind of a sultry Miami Beach feel to it. Tonight the group had dinner at a local restaurant featuring kangaroo (tastes like steak), an Australian fish called barramundi, and some unidentifiable seedy bits served with bread and peanut oil that had an Indian flavor to them.

We miss you! Please do let us know what’s going on at home if you’re so inclined. I mentioned to Eric that we hadn’t gotten much news from your end; his theory was that “when you’ve got the correspondent stationed in Baghdad, he doesn’t get on the air to find out what’s happening in Omaha.”

A Day at the Beach
March 20

This morning we had a truly extraordinary buffet breakfast at the hotel—little bowls of muesli, individual shot glasses of yogurt (fruited and not), eggs and quiche squares, various meats and fruits, and a wide variety of pastries. There was also a Japanese breakfast option, with chopsticks (there seem to be a lot of Japanese tourists in Cairns), as well as a Kuerig-like coffee maker that makes individual cups of coffee (the milk option was flagged by the word “hot” over a graphic of a cow—and we’ve now mastered the various Australian coffee options, which is exciting).

We got the morning paper along with breakfast, which has the widest pages of any newspaper I’ve ever seen—it’s nearly two feet across.

There’s an election here tomorrow, and it appears that Australia has its very own version of Joe the Plumber. Carpenter Neil Starkey is “no fan of the lady” (the female incumbent). He reports that she “buggered up” a local auto race so “it’s really hard now to get a few drinks … [and] she just runs around in a hard hat all the time.”

After breakfast we took a big catamaran out to Green Island, which is on the inner portion of the Great Barrier Reef. Our guide really pushed an outer reef option, telling us that Green Island “is like Gilligan’s Island,” but he definitely sold it short—there’s a resort, several beaches and walking trails, a snack bar, a helipad, a full bar, a souvenir shop, a spa, and even some sort of crocodile farm.

We took a glass-bottomed boat tour from the island, which was a lot of fun—it took us over a lot of interesting coral and several types of fish (including one with a big suction plate on the top of his head who likes to attach himself to larger fish and, apparently, glass-bottomed boats). The guide threw some fish treats over the side; all the fish shot over and gobbled them up instantly, like Tashas of the sea.

The guide casually mentioned that a friend of hers recently got stung by one of the area jellyfish: “You don’t feel anything for 15 or 20 minutes, but then it’s like someone’s stabbing you in the stomach and twisting the knife round,” she said, cheerily. “They’ll take you to the hospital, but all they can really do is pump you full of painkillers until the poison passes. Not the best day of your holiday, of course, but it doesn’t happen too often.”

A lunch buffet on the island was included. It seemed to have been meant to appeal to both the American and Japanese tourists but designed by someone who’d never actually eaten in either country. There were roast potatoes and swollen sausages and rice in a rice cooker; gelatinous chilled chicken legs; a completely unidentifiable soup; meaty slabs of something in a thick brown gravy; parker house rolls; peel-your-own shrimp with the heads still on; and something that resembled massaman curry. Very strange. The lunch area was also full of these little green birds who would boldly swoop in and start noshing on your shrimp whenever you turned your back.

Mom was much better with her sunscreen application than I was; I have a blotchy burn in random places (we saw one Japanese tourist roasting himself to a veritable crisp on the beach). The sun is incredibly strong here. It was quite windy on the way back—they made an announcement on the catamaran to the effect that we should not move around any more than necessary, and that all stray children should be lashed to something sturdy.

When we got back, we took a walk around the town (there’s a beautiful boardwalk here) and went to a little Greek restaurant for dinner. The large carafe of house white was rather more than we bargained for, but we muddled through.

Right now we’re watching a South African cricket match on TV. We have no idea what’s going on, and I don’t think it’s just because of all the wine. Someone is trailing by 93 runs, yet there’s no indication that this is considered an insurmountable lead in the cricket world.

Spiders and Sydney
March 20

Well, “the lady” so disliked by the Aussie carpenter won today’s election. There was a photo of her in this morning’s paper—she was cuddling a koala who was gazing at her with a look of utter trust and devotion. Maybe it all hinged on the marsupial vote.

Today we left Cairns for Sydney, but not before taking a gondola ride through the rainforest. It was really interesting; lots of fascinating plants and sweeping vistas. The signs explained how each species had its own way of fighting for the limited available skylight. The strangler fig’s tactics seemed self-explanatory. And the “lawyer cane”… [sorry; just can’t bring myself to do it—insert your own bad lawyer joke here.]

Everyone was quite freewheeling at the gondola ride—I believe it’s the first time mom and I have ever been greeted with “hey there, chickie babes” at a tourist attraction (or anywhere else, for that matter). Another guide casually pointed up before we entered the gondola and asked “did you see the spider?” The spider in question was the size of a small mailbox, with a web at least 3 feet across. And he was inside, in the gondola shed—I don’t even want to think about who was lurking outside among the lawyer cane.

We headed to the airport after the rainforest. Mark, our guide, was wearing the remnants of some wayward meal on the front of his shirt. This is the same guy who tipped an open jar of bug cream into his crotch a few days ago. He also sat on a piece of bubble gum before the LAX-Melbourne flight. The man is human flypaper.

I realized today that the reason security moves so fast at the airports here is that they just let everything through. Shoes need not be removed; large bottles of water and soda are waved ahead; our group’s various bionic shoulders and titanium hips don’t even set off the metal detector. They haven’t even asked to see photo ID on any of our domestic flights. I think they just give everyone a quick visual once-over and conclude, “He seems a good sort—go on with you, then.”

The party just never stops on Quantas. On today’s under-3-hour flight we had a full hot lunch (choice of lemongrass fish or beef roulade) and a movie. About 20 minutes before landing they came around with ice cream bars. The group was delighted—one of our elder members politely said, “Thank you for the ice cream” to every flight attendant he passed upon disembarkation, as if we’d spent the afternoon at a child’s birthday party.

Sydney is breathtaking—we saw the opera house and the harbor bridge out the airplane window as we were landing, along with hundreds of boats cruising around the harbor. The whole city is just as bright and clean and sparkly in person as it seems in photos.

We checked in to the hotel and mom and I went for a walk up by the bridge and the opera house. We passed no fewer than 3 wedding parties jockeying for position to get their photos taken in front of the landmarks. We had dinner at a pub and dessert at “Max Brenner’s Chocolate Bar,” where the motto is “Chocolate by the Bald Guy.” It’s a very fun city.

A Day in Sydney
March 22

Yesterday we had a whole day to explore the city. It’s really an amazing place—we had perfect weather, and the city has a lot of the charm of, say, London with the added allure of water and palm trees. Our bus driver mentioned that big segments of the Matrix movies were filmed here.

We took a tour of the opera house in the morning. It sounds like the project was a nightmare from the get-go—they had a design competition for it, and the winning entry had already been tossed aside before Eero Saarinen came aboard and rescued this Danish architect from obscurity (relative obscurity—I actually can’t recall his name at the moment). The project was supposed to take 3 years and cost $7 million. It wound up taking 16 years and costing $102 million. The main issue was the big sails on top—seems they were visually appealing but not really structurally viable until someone came up with a new way of putting them together. Mom and I noted that the opera house definitely has some angles that are better than others—from one vantage point the famed sails (also dubbed “nuns in a scrum”) looked like Coneheads. I guess everyone has a better side.

Our guide told us that 2 of every 3 people worldwide recognize the opera house, and that it houses both the largest pipe organ in the world AND the site of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final world bodybuilding championship. There are two main concert halls—the smaller one is where we’ll be seeing Madame Butterfly tonight. They told us (and we were able to see for ourselves) that there is almost no wing space in the smaller concert hall—a problem since that hall is designed for voice and ballet performances: “Ballerinas—well, they like to leap around a bit, don’t they?” For a while they were actually hiring bodybuilders—I don’t think Schwarzenegger was among them—to catch the ballerinas as they jumped offstage.

He also pointed out the netting over the orchestra pit, which was installed after a performance featuring live chickens, of all things. The chickens got loose, panicked, and fluttered down into the pit, onto the heads and laps of the musicians. He assured us that the current net is plenty strong enough to support one grown person or several chickens.

On our way out we passed Francesca, one of the people on the other bus (there is a mysterious second bus sort of traveling with us but sort of not—we’ve not been officially introduced to anyone on it, but they keep turning up at meals and beating us to attractions by about 15 minutes every day). Francesca is an older woman who, unfortunately, turned her ankle at one of the Big Red Rocks a few days ago—the sprain turned out to be a fracture, and she’s being sent home. It’s unclear if this is her preference or if Quantas is reluctant to let her continue to fly around the country in her current condition (I guess even the party-time airline has its limits). Our guide, Mark-of-food-wearing-fame, noted that, sadly, Pancetta would not be joining us for the rest of the trip—he did not mention that she was also salty and delicious with melon. Uncle Bill has nothing on Mark.

Later in the day mom and I went to an outdoors market and then to a combined aquarium/dinner tour called “The Taste of Australia” (which Mark, unsurprisingly, called “The Taste of Aquarium”). It’s a nice aquarium—the Australians seem to be very literal with some of their fish names—we saw a pineapple fish, and a “weedy sea dragon” (it looks like a piece of milfoil) and stripey fish that are called, natch, “stripeys.” We also saw a fish that had orange Mick Jagger lips, a tiny platypus—apparently they’re smaller than everyone expects—a dugong, which is like a manatee but cuter, and a turtle with a buoyancy problem. Apparently she’d been hit by a boat and could no longer get her tail end down—she kept trying to wedge her head under various rocks to gain some leverage. I know this is probably a fairly substantial tragedy in the turtle world, but mom and I had a good giggle over it.

Koalas and Climbing the “Coat Hanger”
March 23

We had an amazing day. In the morning we got the trip’s first glimpse of koalas, at a nature preserve a little ways outside the city. Our first stop, however, was a wombat named Matilda, whom we were warned not to underestimate—apparently she chomped a tourist on a past tour, who then required 11 stitches. Matilda is nocturnal and was happily asleep in a barrel before she was dragged out to see us. The wombats are very cute—sort of a cross between a koala and a hairy pig. We got to pet her (keeping out hands well clear of her mouth); her fur was dark and bristly.

We then moved on to the koalas—about 8 of them were curled up in their branches, looking like a bunch of chubby pussy willows. They’re a bit smaller than we expected (not much bigger than Sarge-sized). The guide plucked one named Princess out of its perch for us; Princess gradually woke up and took a stroll around the railing of the enclosure, where we were allowed to pet her. She seemed to really groove on all the attention. When she grew tired of us, Princess was returned to her branch and swapped out with Berri, a slightly smaller, younger model.

It’s hard to explain why they’re so appealing, but they just have so much personality. I took many more pictures of koalas than probably anyone would want to see—one of them was all folded up like a little fuzzy Buddha. The guide told us that, contrary to popular opinion, there isn’t any sort of drug in the eucalyptus leaves the koalas eat; rather, the leaves offer so little nutrition that the koalas need to conserve their energy by eating for 4 hours every day and sleeping the rest of the time. Which doesn’t seem like a great system from an evolutionary standpoint, but there you have it.

The seven of us climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge (aka the coat hanger) were dropped off after the koala outing. They’d warned us that we’d need to be 100% sober for the trip, which didn’t strike us as a problem, as the bridge climb was scheduled before noon. A few of our group were even afraid to drink any wine with dinner the previous evening, which struck me and mom as excessively cautious (it takes a lot to keep us from our wine), so we had one glass each, figuring 12+ hours was surely enough to clear it from our systems.

After signing our waivers, we were all given a breathalyzer test—we had to say a 5-count into a machine. Everyone was then shuffled into a second room so we could be fitted for our incredibly unflattering jumpsuits. Except Nancy. “Nancy, could we see you back here for a minute?” The door closed ominously behind her. The guide in the second room then told the rest of us to gather round in a circle: “Look around—these 11 people will be your family for the next three hours,” the guide says. “Um,” I ventured, “will my mom be rejoining us?” “Yes, I believe so.” A few minutes later, Nancy was released on her own recognizance. The culprit had been—so she claims, anyway—her final pre-bridge-climb shot of Binaca. After a different test, she was cleared to join us. (It’s fortunate we’re with this group for only another week—nobody is letting her live this one down!)

The bridge climb was amazing. They suit you up in the aforementioned grey-and-blue Star Trek jumpsuit, strip you of all jewelry, cameras, watches, and anything else that could rain down on a passing car, and pass you through a metal detector. They give you a belt through which you hook a heavy latch that looks like a menacing, toothy chair caster on a lanyard. The latch hooks you to a continuous cable that runs the entire length of the bridge climb, preventing both falls and panicked jumps. The guide told us that it was helpful to “love your latch,” as it would be following us around for the better part of the afternoon, but to not love it too much—one man recently lost both his wedding ring and his ring finger when he got them mangled in his latch; they plummeted to the water below and were devoured by a shark. In true Aussie fashion, the gruesome incident was relayed as an amusing little anecdote.

The climb itself consisted of three steep metal ladders (kind of like you’d see on a ship), followed by a series of steps across the top arch of the bridge. The views were magnificent, and the guide communicated with us via headphones and walkie-talkies. The headphones were interesting—they worked via conduction through our cheekbones, so they sat just in front of our ears rather than on top of them (leading all of us to initially wonder why it was so difficult to get the damn things to sit on our ears). Mom and I aren’t spooked by heights as some others in our group were—I think our fears are more existential—but we all felt we’d really accomplished something special at the end of the climb.

Tonight we saw Madame Butterfly at the Opera House—the staging was beautiful. Our group was a bit more phlegmy and snarfly than I’d previously given them credit for, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. Plot in a nutshell: Charming yet irritatingly naive Japanese girl named Butterfly marries navy lieutenant. Things quickly head south, and by the start of the second act he’s knocked her up, taken off for three years, and married a “real American wife.” Several people try to explain to Butterfly with varying degrees of tact that she needs to move on, but the light goes on only when navy man returns to Japan (having just realized what a total sleazeball he is) with the real American wife in tow. At that point Butterfly hands off her son to be raised by the sleazeball and the real American wife and does herself in. The show could just as easily have been called “Butterfly, Get A Clue.”

March 24
Meeting the Kiwis

Today we left Sydney (our final Australia stop) very early and flew to New Zealand. A few manic shoppers in our group were snapping up some final duty-free bargains at the Sydney airport; mom and I were able to restrain ourselves (Dan, I must inform you that, sadly, there is no didgeridoo in your immediate future).

We’re now two hours closer to US time than we were in Sydney, though the pilot was an hour off on the time he told us when we landed—and the video screen on the plane was an hour off in the other direction. I swear, nobody knows or cares what time it is here except the tourists.

New Zealand has a zero-tolerance policy on bringing verboten agricultural items into the country. Our guide mentioned that even if you accidentally forget, say, an apple in your bag and forget to declare it, you could be slapped with a thousand-dollar fine. Needless to say, we all thought long and hard before passing by the “amnesty bins”—your last chance to declare it or dump it. They had signs in both English and Japanese that seemed primarily targeted to the Japanese tourists—I don’t think anyone in our group was packing any “meat lollies.”

The immigration people were more thorough than I’ve seen anywhere else. Mom and I got stuck in line behind an Asian tourist who seemed to be having some language and/or visa issues, but they finally let him through. There was a big sign in the welcome area that noted that Christchurch has 6 sister cities throughout the world, which struck me as a bit excessive—you’re not supposed to just start collecting them, like baseball cards. Unlike Melbourne, which employed contraband-sniffing beagles, Christchurch had a lovely black lab who eagerly checked out everyone’s crotch.

We’ve only seen a bit of Christchurch so far, but it’s beautiful. It’s near the Southern Alps, so we saw some magnificent craggy peaks before the plane landed, but parts of the town are very flat and looked surprisingly like suburban Chicago on the drive in from the airport. The heart of the town is very English, with a big cathedral and a park modeled after Hyde Park in London. It’s fall here, and we saw our first foliage this afternoon.

This evening they planned dinner with local families for us—mainly retired couples who host tourists for dinner on a regular basis. Before we left NH, they suggested we bring maple syrup as a hostess gift. They failed to mention the relentless scrutiny to which the syrup (an agricultural product) would be subjected at the airport. The customs guy seemed amused that I had declared it as both a food and a plant product (which it is, right?), but faced with the prospect of a thousand-dollar fine and a take-no-prisoners black lab, I was taking no chances.

They also failed to mention that we’d be sent to dinner not just in pairs, but in groups of four to six. So now Andrea and Barry, our host couple, are in possession of not just one bottle of maple syrup, but four. I certainly hope Andrea and Barry aren’t diabetics.

Earlier in the trip, one of the women had asked if she could opt out of the hosted dinner—she’d heard some (likely apocryphal) horror story about someone on a past tour who’d been sent to dine “with a bunch of smelly Aboriginals who didn’t even have a real toilet.” Mark told her in no uncertain terms that a) she could not opt out; b) there would be no smelly Aboriginals; and c) she would be served lamb for dinner and she’d better get on board with it.

As it turns out, we had a lovely evening with Andrea, Barry, and their Japanese exchange student, Asahi. When we were introduced, I thought, “Asahi—just like the Japanese beer.” As I was pondering whether or not to mention this, Barry said, “Asahi’s a Japanese beer, yeah? Imagine that—it would be like you or me being called Canterbury Ale.”

Dinner was a lot of fun, and delicious. Somehow mom and I wound up in the group with Miss York, Mrs. Parker, and their traveling companions. I got the sense it was like a wedding seating chart, where everyone is matched up for one plausible reason or another and the leftovers wind up at their own table. I think we were the leftovers.

For dinner they served two kinds of kumara—sweet potatoes (one like ours and one paler one that tasted like a cross between a sweet potato and a regular potato); regular potatoes and carrots from their garden; baked cauliflower; and real NZ lamb with gravy and mint sauce (made with mint from their garden).

They told us that most of what’s billed as “NZ lamb” in the states is actually something called hoggart—older lamb that’s well on its way to becoming mutton. I’d be happy to take a “no hoggart” stand going forward (what we had tonight was amazing), but I’m guessing that most of the butchers in the states have never heard of hoggart (and/or have no idea how to avoid it in favor of the really good stuff). For dessert we had a pavlova—a kind of meringue jellyroll filled with pineapple cream that is apparently a traditional NZ dessert.

Our hosts told us they are actually required by the hosting program to serve us both lamb and pavlova. I guess they don’t want them getting lazy and setting out a couple of pizzas and a bag of Chips Ahoy.

Lamb on the Run
March 25

It was fun comparing notes on everyone else’s home-hosted dinners in Christchurch last night. One family reportedly served unsatisfactorily small, silver-dollar-sized slivers of lamb and held out on offering seconds of pavlova. Another was arm-twisted into participating in the program by a friend and seemed acutely uncomfortable. And still another is in the middle of sewing costumes for a touring production of Miss Saigon and hosts visiting families for dinner an average of two or three times every week. That’s one hell of a lot of lamb.

Marilyn Bolduc apparently had both too much wine and some difficulty understanding her hosts’ speedy Kiwi speech patterns and was under the misapprehension that we were spending the night in Cross Stitch (the Bolducs, as you may have gathered, are a hoot).

Today we took a 2-hour train ride from Christchurch followed by a long bus ride to the Franz Josef glacier (here pronounced glass-SEER—the NZ accents are very cute) region. Kelly, one of the LSB hosts, has either officially or unofficially been designated the wrangler of the charming yet slightly befuddled older couple. Mom and I sense that she’s looking to break free to some extent (they are delightful but exhausting, particularly in large doses), and we wound up sitting with them on the train. Mark came over soon after departure to let them know that the staff at last night’s hotel had located the husband’s $3000 hearing aid; it’s the second time he’s left it behind and he’s not even convinced it works (we wouldn’t know from our end; the man says almost nothing anyway and just nods a lot when his wife talks).

The area is beautiful—sort of like a rainforest crossed with Switzerland—and we passed countless grazing sheep and cows en route (including black cows with white bands around their middles that our driver told us were colloquially called “Oreos”). They were obviously spooked by the train and scattered as we went by, which is odd—you’d think they’d be used to it by now. The air here smells like honey—it’s wonderful.

Today we briefly lost track of Sarkis, an entertaining Armenian who tends to wander. For the past two weeks we’ve all heard his wife, Dorina, ask at some point, “Have you seen Sarkis?” Every day is like a live-action version of Where’s Waldo.

Today he made an unscheduled (and undisclosed) sojourn for water a bit too far from the bus during a pee break, incurring the brief yet fierce wrath of both Dorina (“Avert your eyes, everyone—I kill him when he comes back”) and Mark (“I hope you have your camera with you next time, Sarkis, so you can take a picture of the back of the bus as we drive away.”) Sarkis offered profuse apologies, claiming his chest cold was to blame: “I need antibiotics. I need sympathy. I need my Mama.”

On the Road Again
March 26

Today was the second of three days on the bus. As of this morning, the group was growing somewhat restless with the relentless pace. “Is just too much!” Dorina exclaimed at breakfast, as Sarkis poured himself a generous shot of Robitussin.

The lulling motion of the bus calmed everyone down somewhat. Our lunch stop was at a charming little roadside spot that looked like something in a movie—wood-paneled walls, a panoply of US license plates, a full bar, and an array of soups and meat pies.

Unfortunately, there was a timing snafu with the mysterious second bus, which had not yet departed when we arrived (both buses showing up in the same place at the same time is just not done; it’s like crossing the beams). The supply of meat pies was pretty well depleted when a short but determined member of our party stealthily crept up in line and snapped up the last one. Fortunately, there was an ice cream cart, and we are traveling with a pack of gelato hounds, so mutiny was averted. I’ve been meaning to try the “hoky-poky” (a local ice cream flavor featuring butterscotch chips and swirls of some sort) but haven’t gotten around to it yet—and I remain on the hunt for the delicious yet elusive Lamington cakes Katherine told us about.

The scenery is amazing here—today was full of breathtaking mountain passes, waterfalls, lakes, and gorges. We’ve been told that tomorrow will be even better. There are a number of venison farms in this area, so it was interesting to see packs of deer grazing in fields like sheep and cattle.

We were delayed a short ways out from the hotel due to roadwork—the pass was open only intermittently due to roadwork necessitated by a recent “slip” (the nonchalant local term for an avalanche of boulders crashing onto the road), so we stopped at a little fruit stand to kill some time. There we met the Martina Howe of the southern hemisphere; we were told in no uncertain terms that fruit samples were one per person and watched with eagle eyes. I shudder to think what would have happened had we peeled back a corn husk. There was a plum variety I’d never seen before called a “Black Doris”—do I have a Black Doris for them.

Tonight we checked into our hotel in Queenstown, which is a beautiful city situated next to mountains (“The Remarkables,” the range is called) and a beautiful glacial lake a bit bigger than Winnipesaukee. The whole thing has a an outdoorsy, affluent, Sundance sort of feel.

Dinner tonight was at a restaurant overlooking the mountains and the city; we took another gondola ride to get there. We’re surprised by how many people in our group are afraid of heights. I guess it’s something that doesn’t come up too often in real life, but is harder to conceal when people keep trying to send you up the sides of mountains in gondolas.

The views from the restaurant were wonderful, as was the food (I am frankly amazed—and impressed—by how much food some of these older people can put away), and people began to settle down and relax again.

There was a two-man guitar duo playing various hits from the ’60s; one was drinking a glass of water and the other had what looked like Riesling—you don’t often see a guy in a band with a chilled glass of white wine by his side. He strongly resembled the guy in Sideways who says everything “tastes pretty good to me.”

We’re A Sorry Bunch
March 27

The group, though in good spirits, is succumbing to all manner of ailments. Sarkis has some sort of bronchial infection. Another person has a middle ear infection and has been told by a local doc not to fly for ten days (a directive she’s going to have to ignore if she wants to join the group on the flight home). And I have a minor cold, which I thought was a relatively isolated thing until people started asking me if I had “The Cold”—apparently it’s steadily making its way around the bus. Mom, knock on wood, has so far avoided joining the ranks of the sickies.

Mark urged us to keep our various germs to ourselves as much as possible: “If you have to cough, please cough into your hand…your sleeve…your spouse’s neck…”

Yesterday we (minus the sick Sarkis and caregiving Mrs. Sarkis) took a bus ride to Milford Sound, a very pretty region of glacial-carved gorges and waterfalls. The fact that it’s glacier-created rather than river-created makes it technically a fjord rather than a sound, our driver reports, but I can see how trying to nail the correct spelling and pronunciation of “fjord” could get old after a while.

Our driver told us that the locals say, “You haven’t seen Milford Sound until you’ve seen it in the rain.” We thought he was just trying to make us feel better about the fact that we were embarking on a 4-hour drive in a torrential downpour to see something we could barely make out through the clouds and fog—many of us with hacking coughs and runny noses.

But as it turns out, many of the waterfalls come out only during a hard rain or immediately afterward, and we saw all of them through the clouds and the mist. The group was delighted—our driver had succeeded in turning a negative into a positive, and I think the driving rain heightened everyone’s sense of “I’m on a real adventure here.”

At one of the rest stops we found a little pharmacy and headed for the cold and flu section. They have a lot of remedies for “chesty coughs,” which amused me; maybe they also treat “sexy sneezes.”

I bought—over the counter—a killer cold remedy called Codral labeled “controlled substance” in big letters. It features both codeine, the increasingly-difficult-to-find-in-the-states pseudoephedrine, and two other drugs I’ve never heard of.

The pills are enormous; you take 4 during the day and 2 at night. They seem to have knocked out both my cold and other things I didn’t even know I had; I feel better than I have in years. Thank goodness the states are stricter with their controlled substances, or I could have the beginnings of a real problem here.

Free Day in Queenstown
March 28

Today, for the first time on the trip, mom and I had a completely unscheduled day. There were three optional excursions—a “Lord of the Rings” SUV tour; a harrowing-looking thrill ride on a cigarette boat; and a dinner cruise on Queenstown’s version of the Mt. Washington—but none of them really grabbed us.

We felt disoriented having no schedule, and at breakfast it was clear that others in the group were having issues as well (dropping hot toast, spilling coffee, bumping into walls, and so forth). As Mark put it yesterday, for the better part of three weeks he’s told us when to get up, when to eat, and even when to pee. The sudden freedom was thrilling but a bit terrifying.

Mark was eating breakfast with the capable yet cranky Liz DeStefano, the guide in charge of the mysterious second bus. We will be handed off to Liz in a few days for the trip home, when half our group splits off for the optional three-day “Fiji Extension”—an option mom and I are not taking (and one which always puts “Rainbow Connection” in my head). Mark is going with the Fiji group, and Liz is LA-bound with the rest of us.

Part of Liz’s ill temper may be attributable to the fact—revealed yesterday—that she is *not* in fact pregnant, as all of us have mistakenly believed since the start of the trip. It’s unclear how the rumor got started, but a random comment made during the bush BBQ seems to be the likeliest scenario. Liz apparently received about a dozen sincere yet misguided congratulations from the folks on our bus yesterday, which seems to have pushed her over the edge. Given her age, her build, and her fondness for peasant blouses, pregnancy certainly didn’t seem a far-fetched possibility.

Today mom went to the airport to look into the possibility of flying for an hour or so, but unfortunately it was not meant to be—the person at the desk told her there were no instructors on duty today, and they are understandably reluctant to turn the plane over to a complete stranger without an instructor present. It was a bummer, as she’d been looking forward to trying to fly over here and had been trying to coordinate it (with Mark’s assistance) for a while now.

So, instead, we went to Kiwi Land (it’s not really called that, but it may as well have been), where we got to see NZ’s famed flightless birds in action. They’re different than we expected—about chicken-sized, very round, with sleek brown feathers and long stick-like beaks that they rap on the ground like canes. They move with an awkward hopping motion, as if they’re hampered by an old football injury.

Kiwis are nocturnal, but they flip their day around in captivity so we can see them out and about—they’re in a glassed-in enclosure lit by red darkroom lights. They feed them ox hearts mixed with cat treats and sultanas (golden raisins). I don’t imagine that’s what the wild kiwis eat.

The guide told us that people used to hunt them, but they “don’t taste very flash,” as our guide put it—one early explorer likened them to “fatty pork boiled in an old coffin.” Despite their lack of menu appeal, kiwis are still endangered here—mainly because animals (like opossums and ferrets) brought into NZ to eradicate other pests preferred snacking on the kiwis instead.

After kiwi time, we went to an Indian restaurant for lunch and walked around the city a bit. There are a lot of woollens on offer. The possums are considered a huge pest here (they are bad for more than just the kiwis, it seems), so nobody seems to feel shy about selling their pelts—possum rug, anyone?—or weaving their fur into gloves, hats, and sweaters. We also went to a movie theater (surely one of the world’s smallest) and saw Gran Torino. I think some of the nuances of Clint Eastwood’s character’s uniquely American brand of bigotry may have gone over the heads of the other four people in the theater, but we liked it a lot.

We had dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant and caught the end of a bizarre yet captivating street performance on the way back. Scott from Melbourne hoisted himself onto a small platform covered in nails; the platform was on top of a ten-foot pole held aloft by a lively German named Gunter. Scott’s big finale was to level himself belly-down on the nails and juggle five flaming torches. At the end of the show, he urged us to do our part to support street theater: “If you were to give me $20, it would make my night. For $50, I’ll make your night. And for $100, I’ll bring Gunter along.”

In the Shadow of Mt. Cook
March 29

Today we left Queenstown and took the bus to Mt. Cook, aka “Aoraki”—which means “cloud-piercer” in Maori. It’s New Zealand’s highest mountain and looks like a great big Alp looming over everything around it. The weather has been perfectly clear and it’s an amazing thing to see—fortunately, nobody has tried to tell us that Mt. Cook is better in the rain.

On the way here, we stopped at Arrowtown, a small mining town that somewhat resembles the ghost town the Bradys got stranded in on their big road trip (remember when Alice tried to pump the well and came up with a cloud of dust?) Anyway, our shoppers did remarkably well there, particularly in light of the fact that we arrived before 10 on a Sunday morning. People came away with various woollens, jade, toy sheep, and candies from the sweet shop. One woman even successfully managed to beg a shopkeeper to delay his planned trip to the dump so that he could open early and sell her a particularly enticing lavender windbreaker she spotted in the window.

Later on the drive, we learned about a famous local sheep named Shrek. Shrek apparently dodged the annual shearing for 6 years running (he was ultimately found hiding in a cave). By the time they located him, he looked like a gigantic snowball and couldn’t even see because his wool had grown so far over his eyes. He was shorn for charity and even given a special coat to wear afterwards; people were understandably concerned he might be chilly after losing the equivalent of a dozen sweaters off his body. A children’s book has been written about him, which several people bought for their grandchildren.

Sir Edmund Hillary is a native New Zealander, and he made use of Mt. Cook to prep for his historic Everest climb. Accordingly, there is an Edmund Hillary museum downstairs here at the hotel. After viewing the movie at the museum, I came to the conclusion that Sir Ed, to use a British expression, was a total wanker.

The evidence seems pretty clear that his sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, was the first person to summit Everest, yet Ed basically accused poor Tenzing of lying and claimed the honor for himself (even as Tenzing lay dying years later, saying that he wished he’d never made the climb at all, the best Ed could come up with was something to the effect that Tenzing was a jolly good chap).

A few years after Everest, on an expedition to the South Pole, Ed feigned ignorance that another branch of the expedition was trying to achieve the “first to the South Pole” record and beat them to the punch. He was afraid to propose to his wife and let his mom do it for him. He ignored his children for long stretches while he traipsed around the Himalayas. After both his wife and his best friend passed away in separate plane crashes, he wasted no time in starting things up with his friend’s widow.

Wanker.

Before dinner, we had a group photo in front of Mt. Cook. About 38 of the 44 of us showed up sporting the spiffy new LSB sweaters. Mom has a similarly toned yellow sweater that blends well. I’m wearing pink but am hiding in the back behind Miss York. And Danny Webster, bless his heart, who is turning 80 next month and has homes in both Gilmanton and Maui, is wearing a brightly patterned Hawaiian shirt in a lurid shade of orange. Another member of the group sacrifices his sweater for the sake of covering Danny up. And a good time was had by all.

Homeward Bound
March 30

Today we left Mount Cook very early—it’s a good thing we were able to see it yesterday afternoon since it was just barely getting light out as we headed off. Australia is getting ready to end Daylight Savings Time next weekend, so the mornings have been very dark.

We stopped in a nondescript town called Geraldine for lunch, and then made a second stop at a working sheep farm. We’re not quite sure how these folks hooked up with Collette Tours, but the farm is run by a very enterprising guy in his late 20s (Charles), along with his wife (Amelia) and their 4 young children. They give tours of the farm that include a sheep-herding demo, a sheep-shearing demo, and a tour of their historic home complete with juice and homemade cookies. We did not get to meet Amelia; Charles told us that she was holed up upstairs frantically working on their taxes.

For the sheep-herding demo, they gathered a few hundred sheep in the corner of a huge field and turned two of their dogs loose on them (the dogs were getting lots of belly-rubs and attention from the group, so it took a few minutes for them to shift gears). Essentially how it works is that the dogs charge at the sheep and bark at them a lot, which the sheep find unnerving, so they do everything they can to get away from the dogs. The dogs successfully chased the sheep around the far edge of the field and right towards us, leading to a closer sheep encounter than many in our group anticipated or wanted; they wound up just inches from us. Amazing how much noise a few hundred sheep feet can make. It sounded like a small stampede.

Charles told us that all farmers know in theory how to shear a sheep, but that he knows no farmers who actually shear their own sheep; it’s specialized work that is always outsourced to professional sheep shearers. It takes about 5 years to really master the skill, he said. A good shearer eventually builds up to around 350-400 sheep per day, earning around $1.50-$2.00 per sheep. Considering that time is money for sheep shearers, anything that slows down the process (not feeding the sheep into the holding pen quickly enough, making loud noises that spook the sheep, etc.) “makes them cross,” Charles said. “Quite a lot of things make them cross, actually.”

Charles put on his sheep shearing shoes (all leather; they looked like moccasins—he said rubber soles don’t give good traction once you’ve got a lot of wool and lanolin flying around) and selected one unwilling candidate for the shearing demo. It was this particular sheep’s first haircut ever, and he put up a bit of a fight.

Charles used the “New Zealand method” to shear the sheep—it was developed by a kiwi named Godfrey Bowen and designed for maximum speed, leverage, wool yield, and ergonomic safety (for the shearer, that is—the sheep’s comfort is decidedly secondary). The current world record for sheep shearing, held by a master of the NZ method, is 17 seconds. Charles said they’ve done studies concluding that a day of shearing sheep is physically as taxing as running a marathon.

For anyone who’s ever seen Mrs. Lacroix shear a sheep at her farm in Gilford, this was nothing remotely like that. I think it’s safe to say she was *not* employing the NZ method, which seems to require an awful lot of close contact with the sheep, and the sheep’s head between one’s upper thighs for a good portion of the process.

After the sheep shearing, we retired to the house for juice and cookies. Charles was selling signed copies of a children’s book he wrote about the family’s sheep-herding dogs; the book will also soon be available at http://www.whatadog.com (I told you he was enterprising).

After the farm, we continued on to Christchurch, returning to the same hotel we stayed at our first night in NZ. Tonight’s farewell dinner was held at a nearby restored mansion.

Our tour guide was an earnest yet annoying woman who seemed to forget that we didn’t have the intimate knowledge of (or interest in) the house’s history and numerous occupants that she did, so the tour was peppered with out-of-context comments like, “Poor Julia died in this room” and “You may recall, when Henry first came to Christchurch, that Dora stayed behind in England.” Many of the people she mentioned seemed to have met a gristly, premature end (one lived to be 94 but lost a leg somewhere along the line). She also managed to deftly insult New Yorkers, lawyers, and members of town government in one fell swoop—it was actually rather impressive.

Mom had opted against a pre-dinner snack, and we hadn’t realized the house tour would be so extensive. She was getting ready to gnaw on the hand-turned balusters by the time the guide released us. Dinner was fun, and we said our goodbyes to our NZ driver and those continuing on the Fiji extension. The rest of us head to Auckland tomorrow, where we fly to LA and land eight hours earlier than we departed. It will be just like Groundhog Day.

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