Monthly Archives: April 2018

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Thursday, 8 March

I read the news today. Oh, boy. The oldest message-in-a-bottle ever found was just discovered north of Perth. It dates from 1886 and had been part of a German experiment to map the ocean currents. This must blow Sting’s mind.

From behind the wheel of our vehicle, we stare at a great plume of smoke rising from where the airport should probably be. Uh-oh. As we approach, it’s evident that the cause is quite some distance to the south. What’s with the smoke? we ask the woman at the ticket counter. “Bushfire,” she says. “But the rain last night.” “It doesn’t matter, it’s lightening.” The flight to Perth is effortless.

Our lodging is a motel not too far from Perth airport. We drop our bags and call a cab into town. After a crucial bento box meal, we venture to the Apple Store to retrieve the laptop. It’s good as new, meaning it’s a fucking tabula rasa. All everything has been wiped from its memory. A bittersweet reunion. But thank you again, Apple Care. I purchase an Aussie power converter as a show of good faith.

Then we set off for the Nostalgia Box, an interactive video game museum that showcases every game console manufactured since before the days of the most primitive Pong. Ali is pumped, because she works for an organization that runs a summer camp where kids design their own video games. This is the mother lode. We try our hand at PacMan to no real avail, but playing against each other in Pong gets the blood flowing. The score seesaws back and forth. So tense. I believe her to be the ultimate victor. We have time to kill before our dinner reservation, so Ali aims us toward a bookstore, naturally.

It’s next to a barbershop. I duck in for a trim. Ali has gently chided me for my shaggy look for a while now. “A one-and-a-half (clipper) and just tapered down the back,” I say. The stylist nods. Clumps of not-very-long hair tumble down the nylon. She asks if I’d like to have my eyebrows trimmed. I decline. “You’re not Scottish?” she says. I look startled. “Scottish men never trim their eyebrows.” That explains so much. Ali’s new sandals, it turns out, are meant for maneuvering from the chaise to the poolside bar, not for distance walking. I hope her blisters aren’t too bad.

Our dinner destination is obscured by the hip lack of signage. We’re given a lovely window table with a view across the Swan River. Prominent is a luminous green needle-shaped tower that evidently houses a set of bells given to the city by the Queen herself. As twilight deepens a message scrolls continuously across the façade of a nearby twelve-story building. It reads ‘# (something) THURSDAY’. Uh-huh. That’s right. Today is Thursday. Only when we leave do we discover that the message reads #LET’S THURSDAY. Oh, Australia.

We choose the tasting menu w/ non-alcoholic beverage pairings. The ingredients are first-rate, but the concoctions and, indeed, the presentation are way too fussy. I mean – emu jerky dusted with desiccated myrtle? And why does everything require a garnish of wattle seeds? The service starts out brisk and attentive, slows to casual, and eventually succumbs to inconsiderate. We have completely exhausted ourselves, anyway.

Back at the motel, we resolve to rally at 4am for the 4:40 bus to the airport and our 6:05 flight to Alice Springs. I conk out at ten, but am fully awakened at two when I notice a spinning yellow light outside the bathroom window. It can’t be an emergency; no siren. Still, that’s the end of the snooze.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Wednesday, 7 March

Snorkel Morning has arrived. We shall shortly test the twin perils/challenges of flotation and solar radiation. A hearty breakfast acts as ballast. Note: Australia is a land of orange-yolked eggs. Packing towels and t-shirts, sun screen and water, off we fucking go. Snorkels and flippers are available for rent at the Ningaloo Marine Park HQ. Ningaloo Reef, the largest fringing coral reef in Australia, one of the few reefs of any kind on the western shores of any place, and the only large reef in the world found so close to a landmass that it’s theoretically an easy snorkel from shore, is host to a bounty of ocean life.

Thus equipped, we head for Lakeside Beach, trekking on foot across incendiary sand. Ow. Ow. Ow. We disrobe, muttering, then sit in the shallows yanking on the goddamn flippers. Breathing’s awkward at first and at second, nevertheless, we manage to acclimate to these ungodly prostheses. Jesus, the Indian Ocean is A LOT saltier than the good ol’ Atlantic. The three young women who preceded us can be seen (barely) bobbing in the distance. Ali and I paddle semi-haplessly, occasionally sputtering and cursing. There seems to be a gentle, yet relentless, current inhibiting our progress. The view through the facemask reveals endless sandy bottom, no fish, no coral. It becomes apparent that (1) this is pretty fucking tiring, (2) the exotic sealife is pretty fucking far away, and (3) snorkel mastery may be merely a Pyrrhic fucking victory. We call it a ‘win’ and back we walk to the parking lot along the waterline, triumphant. Two kangaroos lounge beneath a picnic table, snide marsupials. It’s impossible to describe how elated we are, yet the question remains: Who invented the fucking snorkel and would it be possible to feed his or her descendants to dolphins?

Ali’s at the wheel. I swivel to point out a passing bookstore and, distracted, she almost takes out an emu. After a cleansing shower, we search for lunch. I pick out a tasty sandwich, while Ali, still shaken from close-encounter-of-the-emu-kind, picks a boring one. Across the way is a beachwear shop. She finds a pair of ideal sandals and we split the sandwiches. Naptime. I gas up the car. The end. Not quite. It’s my mom’s birthday. What time is it in New Jersey? I place a call and connect with Mom, much to our mutual amazement. She’s happy to hear from me, yet is somewhat confused as to where exactly I’m calling from. That makes two of us.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Tuesday, 6 March

I’m up, after a bewildering sleep, intent of securing flat whites and banana bread, i.e. consciousness. A short drive away is a café that opens at 7:30am. Their great renown is their collection of completed Lego mega-creations. And here come the flies! These fucking insects have been absolutely relentless since we left Fremantle. They are such a nuisance/plague: they’ll follow you right into the car, which then results in reckless acceleration, worthless hand-flapping, and hollering through lowered windows. We have some time to kill before the Space Museum opens at ten, so we go looking for One Mile Jetty. Heedless exploratory feints almost sends me barreling down a boat ramp, much to Alice’s alarm and amusement. She points, “Dad. I see the jetty.” It’s closed due to ‘structural problems’, but, hey, over there’s a short boardwalk loop though a mangrove ‘forest.’ Fuckin’ flies love it there. They adore us. We might be their gods.

We are curious and getting curiouser. We follow a young German couple with their young boy into the Space and Technology Museum just as the doors open. Carnarvon was the location of a Satellite Earth Station, built to track the Apollo moon landing. Ali and I are captivated. Look at all the cool stuff! There’s a whole room of dusty electronics and photos of local space shenanigans – parade floats, costume parties, fishing trips – from the 60s. It’s very un-slick and DIY, but the enthusiasm and love involved here make the experience a real joy. Ali and I climb into a mock-up of an Apollo capsule for a dramatized lift-off. It’s ridiculous, lying there, but great. Ali strikes up an animated sci-fi fanboy conversation with one of the docents my age. She has unerring nerd-dar. One super-cool touch – the museum has a house cat named Buzz.

We hit the fucking road. A sidetrip to The Blowholes must be eliminated due to time. Passing a roadhouse, we realize we never see another, backtrack and eat burgers. Epic weather fills the sky as we progress up the peninsula to Exmouth. Great beehives of clouds and, far off, black sheets of rain. Termite mounds have become a prominent feature of the landscape, person-height columns of red soil spaced every hundred yards or so for as far as the eye can see. The Mantarays Beach Resort is just that; a fancy resort with flies. We’ve been given a set of rooms with dodgy aircon, which doesn’t prevent Alice from napping or me from writing this while doing a load of darks. We explain the situation to the front desk and get an upgrade to the second floor (expanded view). Dinner is good. The two of us are psyching up for snorkeling tomorrow. I don’t think buoyancy will be an issue.

 

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Monday, 5 March

We’ve come to Monkey Mia to see dolphins and they don’t disappoint. Three feedings a day are orchestrated at the resort’s beach. We go to the earliest one, because we have another long day’s journey ahead of us. A crowd lines up along the shore, while a dolphin wrangler with mic stands knee-deep in the water. Ali and I nab a good vantage point, perching on the pier. Sure enough, the matriarch of the pod shows up at the appointed hour. She has an angry-looking gash on her head, possibly from a tiger shark. One by one, her progeny appear. Volunteers from the crowd get picked to feed the animals. It’s really quite sweet, except for the climax when parents step forward to feed their babies to the sea creatures. Following an encounter with the breakfast buffet, following repacking, and following an emu with attention deficit in the parking lot, we get the fuck outta there.

Alice drives. She returns us to Overlanders Roadhouse, where we indulge in a meat pie lunch (probably the last) while watching a dysfunctional French family run amok, then we turn north. These French parents are probably headed to the dolphin feeding, but they give added dimension to the word blasé, perhaps in anticipation to offering les enfants to the water-breathing mammals.

We roll into Carnarvon late in the afternoon, too late to pay a visit to the Space Museum. So we settle into our new digs, a two-bedroom metal cabin at the Outback Oasis Caravan Park. Ali conks out which allows me to amble to the supermarket for a four-pac of Bundaberg ginger beer (the best beverage in this quadrant of the known universe). I write and drink. And, yeah, it must be time for dinner. Our choices are limited. As the sun sets, a bank of clouds puts on a technicolor display which bathes the town in infinite glow. We stroll the esplanade, stopping to exchange bright words with a teenage couple drying off after a dip in the harbor.

 

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Sunday, 4 March

Tell me – How bogus is instant coffee? Making it double-strength only slightly mitigates the feebleness. Ali’s in slumberland, because it’s 6:30. I have figured out where to get joe-to-go and picnic fixings on our way out of town. We both require breakfast (never will I succumb to ‘brekkie’ as it is universally known here). At a drive-through called Muzz Buzz we order the works. A nearby supermarket provides lunch fixings and water for the 430 kilometer drive ahead. Oh, and my favorite, Arnott’s Gingernut biscuits. I told Ali she should drive and then I got behind the wheel like an asshole. The grass on the hills is gray/gold and what trees there are are dusty green. There’s no one to overtake in the overtaking lanes. Every time the GPS indicates a curve in the highway, we get excited. At one point, we pull off to use the toilet only to be assaulted by a biblical plague of flies. Unswatable little fuckers.

At Overlanders Roadhouse, we park under a ‘tree’ to eat our sandwiches. Ali’s brought along a couple audiobooks, so we plug into the first book of James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes series (the basis for the excellent Canadian TV show, The Expanse). It’s a mix of solar system politics, noirish detective machinations, and monster-on-the-loose suspense, with plenty of space cowboy techno-jargon.

As we close in on Monkey Mia (Maya, it’s pronounced) it behooves us to stop and pay our respects to the Stromatolites, colonies of the world’s oldest organisms, cyanobacteria whose metabolism gave us the atmosphere we have now. They form large black lumps that spread for hectares in the shallow tidal areas on this, the world’s most geologically ancient continent. Australia has little or no tectonic activity. It just sits there, flat and dry, with its incredible mineral riches. Here be MORE flies. It’s like the Penn Station of Flying Insects. Off in the distance we spy a pair of women resembling beekeepers in bikinis. Evidently, they sell Fly-Be-Gone Hats with a flounce of protective netting draping from the brim.

Monkey Mia is but a short distance further on. At first glance, its layout and the ongoing construction confuse our road-addled brains. But we become registered and find our rooms, which are at opposite ends of the facility: Ali gets a fabulous ocean view: I’m poolside. The WiFi is dodgy. Oh, well. Dinner’s al fresco and by twilight, the flies have mostly retired. The oysters suck, but the meal is delicious. A half dozen little girls frolic on the lawn as the sun sets and silent lightening lights up the clouds.

 

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Saturday, 3 March

I am awakened by the uncomfortable feeling that I have been sweating under my chin. In the common area I french-press some coffee and burn some toast, then try to organize the next couple days. A few cups later, Monique, our hostess, appears and delivers a monologue about her hopes and dreams for The Heights – a dozen cabins, a swimming pool, and a mini golf range. At a critical intake of breath, I’m able to blurt, “More ground coffee, please, Monique.” I shower and repack. Ali rallies. We’re on the road by 9am, bidding the daffiness of The Heights adieu. It was sweet and comfy and had eight seasons of Stargate on DVD.

We seem to be the only ones heading north at this time of day. Midway, it’s time to recaffeinate – a most excellent flat white is to be found at a beach shack café in Dangara called Starfish. Our Geraldton destination is easy to find, sort of. We drop the baggage and head into town for lunch. Black Panther is playing at 6pm at the Orana Cinemas right downtown. Lunch at Café Fleur is perfect because wild berry waffles. Our two-bedroom apt has a washer/dryer, so garment refreshment can be accomplished. The afternoon’s other challenge – we probably need to pack a picnic tomorrow due to desolate terrain. Overlander Roadhouse, the one spot on the map between Geraldton and Monkey Mia, may just be a lonely one-pump service station. The movie begins. Aussie preview ads are just as lame as US ones. Black Panther has many assets, but in the end, it’s just a fucking superhero movie. Geraldton rolls up its sidewalks on the early side of early. After four or five disappointments, we finally find a restaurant whose kitchen’s still open. Big bolognese for me and salad for Alice. Our clothes are dry.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Friday, 2 March

Again, I retrieve morning coffee from the sweet, hippie cantina. And, today I am V. The hell with Barb. We depart at nine o’clock, bound northward for two places – The Pinnacles, an alien landscape of stone towers, and New Norcia, Australia’s only monastic community. We leave Perth on a six-lane divided highway that quickly shrinks to two. Once the exurbs of Perth have slipped behind us, the vegetation becomes scrubby and dry and the air warms up considerably. The passing landscape seems devoid of people, inhospitable to all but a few hardy sheep. We soon have our first encounter with the legendary road trains of Australia, trucks that pull two or even three trailers. These monsters are quite intimidating, all noise and color and buffeting. It’s one thing to pass a road train in the ‘overtaking lane’, but when one barrels down the on-coming lane, all I can do is hold on.

New Norcia is hard to find, being both obvious and invisible. We sign up for a tour, but first go up to the hotel for lunch. The burgers are most excellent, however, the flies are most insistent. A little discreet poking around the first floor of the hotel reveals a Game of Thrones pinball machine. A) Pinball machines still exist and B) The brothers dig GOT. Awesome squared. According to the chatty bartender, there are nine monks remaining. Founded as a mission to the aboriginal people in 1846 by Spanish Benedictines, the monks ran an orphanage for aboriginals and, until recently, two boarding schools for girls and for boys, St. Gertrudus and St. Ildephonsus. The campus is eerily quiet and spooky and hot. We are shown the interior of the dormitories, which are Andrew Wyeth empty. There’s a big room with squares of sunlight on the floor and beds all made up. Ali finds it creepy. We abandon our tour.

After a frustrating half hour of GPS craziness where the white arrow that indicates our trajectory veers alarmingly into empty space, we pull ourselves together and decide to forego the fucking Pinnacles in favor of reaching our destination today. This is The Heights B&B in Jurien Bay. We park in a driveway surrounded by garden gnomes, ceramic toadstools, and kitschy figurines (e.g. hedgehogs in teacups). Variations on this ridiculous theme extends to all exterior and interior surfaces, which are covered with plaques of sappy aphorisms and pictures of Disney princesses. Out back in an enclosure two lambs – Lamborgini and Burnie, who has a black head ‘as if he were caught in a fire’ – bleat tragically. Our search for dinner is futile, so we pick up some convenience store sandwiches and eat on the patio with the lambs.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Thursday, 1 March

The Apple Store in Perth opens at nine o’clock and we’re there. I sprang into action earlier and went and got us coffee and banana bread from a relaxed neighborhood place, one big, leafy patio with dogs and toddlers running amok. The young woman took my name as ‘Barb’ even though I repeated it twice. Why do I always default to ‘Bob’ when under the slightest stress? Clothed and fed, we’re off to the Apple Store. The question is – Am I adequately caffeinated to negotiate big city streets while driving on the erroneous side of the road? After a couple of parking fails, we dump the thing in a lot, bickering all the way. The Apple Stores are daunting; they feel like some techie’s vision of heaven, clean and white and modulated. They have us line up in the center of the room next to an over-micced instructor giving arcane instructions to a tableful of rapt nerds. We do get to see a technician almost immediately. The software problem I thought I had turns out to be a hardware one. I am assured that if I leave the laptop, it’ll be fixed by the time we come back through Perth in a week. And here is where I sing the praises of Apple Care. I don’t always add this warranty to a new computer purchase, but this time I did. A $1,200 AUD bullet dodged. Our return trip to Fremantle is much more relaxed.

Chips follow fish as logically as DC follows AC. Thus nourished, we embrace the two museums that Fremantle has to offer – the Maritime Museum and the Shipwreck Museum. Because Perth lies a ways up the Swan River, Fremantle served as its roughneck port. The Maritime Museum features all the forms of marine activity in Fremantle’s history; naval, fishing, transportation, sport, while the Shipwreck Museum tells tales of centuries of disasters along the coast of Western Australia. My hope of inspecting the HMS Ovens, an Oberon class submarine, is dashed due to its closure. It sits impassively in ‘dry dock’ behind the Maritime Museum, looking exceedingly formidable. Someday, I will see the inside of a submarine.

While the Maritime Museum is a sleek, white modern structure, the Shipwreck Museum is contained within a gutted 19th century warehouse of golden limestone. Its astonishing centerpiece is the enormous, blackened stern section of the Batavia, which fills an open room three-stories high, while against the eastern wall stands a large sandstone portico that had been part of its cargo. The Batavia, carrying a treasury in silver for the Dutch East India Company, had gone down off the coast of Western Australia in 1629. The wreck was discovered in the late 1960s and salvaged in the 70s. She foundered on her maiden voyage and subsequently became famous on account of the mutiny and massacre that took place among the survivors. This incredible story was recorded in diaries and court records, which detail abandonment, starvation, savagery, and heroism. Gripping can’t fully encompass the drama of this tale, roughly contemporaneous with the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony.

The museum displays artifacts of many other maritime disasters along the western coast, notably the enormous engine recovered from the steamship, SS Xantho, which sank in 1872. It’s the only known example of the earliest mass-produced high-speed, high-pressure engines. The thing looks like new and evidently can still be made to turn over. We are amazed how quickly the afternoon has passed. As we’re poking through the gift shop, a fictional account of the Batavia’s story catches Ali’s eye. Maybe this will ease her sunburn.

Strategic lie-downs and showers are a prelude to the terrific meal at Bread in Common. We are introduced to a savory, dry garnish called Dukkah. Walking home, the moon is full and shines through the superstructure of the Ferris Wheel of the city park.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Wednesday, 28 February

I rally at 5:30am feeling delusionally envigorated and stroll along the jetty in the dawn’s early light, however, the passive-aggressive whines of the gulls begin to feel personal, which signals the end to my constitutional. Back in the apt, I discover the coffeemaker only makes mini-espressos, useless one-sip pseudo-beverages. Damn Keurigs and their ilk. Ali appears and we commit to ambling over to Shed B, our portal for a day on Rottnest Island, stopping for breakfast on the way. The ferry ride takes 45 minutes, the highlight of which is watching television coverage of Cher’s triumphal entrance into Sydney for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Once we land, we pick up bikes and helmets to traverse the paths through the scrubby landscape. Neither Ali nor I have had much recent bicycle experience, nevertheless, off we wobble. Rottnest is known for, indeed, named for its indigenous marsupial, the quokka. Marsupials could be considered the space cadets of the animal kingdom, cute but very very dim. This makes quokkas the plebes of the cadet corps. A quokka looks like an opossum who swallowed a basketball, then stopped by the beauty parlor for a chestnut brown rinse.  Whoa: critters at eleven o’clock. Some dude is stalking a pair of quokkas through the underbrush with his selfie stick. You go, asshole. We aren’t pedaling for long before we reach a bathing opportunity called The Basin, a sandy-bottomed pool surrounded by submerged rocks. It looks sublime, but not for us. Enough with the pedaling.

We wobble back to ‘town’ and order two small pizzas. A quokka appears, ostensibly inspecting the floor beneath our table. They’re not very efficient crumb prospectors. The trees above us provide shelter for a species of vocally adept and insane birds we have taken to calling Cats-Fucking birds. Their call can vary from a child’s cry to a yodel to, yes, the vocal stylings of cats fucking. When the salad-eating Italians at the next table depart, a swarm of avian predators attack the leftover roughage, raising a general alarm. At the local Museum, we discover that for almost a hundred years Rottnest Island had been a penitentiary for aboriginals, when a Governor-General of Western Australia chose the island as a summer retreat. And so began its transformation from prison to a playground. Alice asks the docent to identify the bird with the bizarre cry. It’s a goddamn crow.

We catch an early boat back to Fremantle, amused and satisfied. Cher has arrived! Wandering back to our digs we search for the statue of Bon Scott, front man for AC/DC, rock legend, and dead since 1980. Many potential statues exist. When we discover the thing, Fremantle’s favorite son has been represented half-life size and standing on an amp. I place a call to Apple Support. There will be no easy fix, but they’re helpful nonetheless. Dinner is outdoors at Little Creatures, a fanciful pub.

 

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Sunday, 25 February

It’s a rainy morning in New York the smart phone tells me: information available to anyone capable of looking out the fucking window. I am so ready. The checklist double-checked. My old friend, Rolf Potts, will be staying at 54 Bleecker while I’m abroad. I guess the pitter-patter has not muffled my puttering. Rolf’s sipping coffee as I stand before him, a vision of preparedness. “Do you have your passport?” he asks. Simple question. The illusion bursts. “No!” I exclaim, choking on the vowel. Shit. It’s where it always is, in the red plastic envelope of old passports and inoculation records in the night table bottom drawer. Okay, now. Off I go, with my big blue Samsonite and my new over-the-shoulder bag mit laptop. I’m flying American to San Francisco, rendezvousing with Ali in the International Terminal, and from there, Qantas flight #74 to Sydney. And from Sydney, across the continent, to Perth.

I’m typing away high above the nation when the cursor freezes. Then the screen goes black. A gray folder icon with a question mark in it sits in the middle of the blackness, mute and implacable. I can’t coax any kind of response. Nothing works. Well, I still have my phone, which is smart. Cold comfort that is. Cold comfort, indeed: at 35,000 feet no one can hear you scream. I’ve planned on writing my usual travelogue and posting the thing online. I don’t know what the fuck went wrong with the machine, but it’s not good. I set my mind into the rictus of acceptance and begin writing the damn thing longhand.

After some texting back and forth, sure enough, there Alice is at the bottom of the escalator. Poor kid’s been waiting in the airport for nearly twelve hours, because coming from backwater Austin meant flights from there to anywhere would be fewer and much farther between. Although she’s been able to nap at an in-terminal Nap Hotel, she hasn’t had a shower in an awfully long while and is feeling the sludge of travel. So, we sit down to gather our wit and preemptively eat these tiny, inherently funny, meatballs. Fuck airplane cuisine.

We heed the call to board, settling into protective custody. Sleep is uneasy, of course. I have a dream where she and I are in Cuba trying to catch up to a fast-moving tour group. Seated in front of us a few rows, a pair of good looking young men remind me of the Winkelvi twins, Mark Zuckerberg’s nemeses from The Social Network. Oh, those airborne fantasies. Both Ali and I watch Thor: Ragnarok, which turns out to be a hoot, except for the battle scenes, which are epically lame. It’s directed by that New Zealander whose movies we like.

The Qantas lounge in the Sydney domestic terminal offers showers, which we both enjoy partly as a sanitary measure and partly as a way to make the four-hour layover fucking end. We’re both extremely punchy at this point, but eventually we land in Perth. The car that Hertz has in store for us is one of those boat-like Holdens. This won’t do. After some finagling, we secure a downgrade. Blessedly, it has GPS, which takes the pressure off both of us. Driving on the left never fails to take my breath away, hopefully not permanently. We make it to our destination in Fremantle, despite the GPS’s insistence that we take a road that does not exist. Our residence for the next three nights is a two-bedroom apartment overlooking the harbor.

Attempted napping fails, so at five o’clock we embark on a search for fish-and-chips. A bustling nearby place features fish tanks and crayons and a mystifying order/pick-up system. Early to bed. It is, after all, Tuesday, two days since we left the US.