Category: Prose

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Monday, 9 April

Our trip will come to an end tomorrow. Share the ambivalence. It’s been magnificent, but both of us are feeling the tug of home. Enough with the brave adventures; it’s time to admit to bone-weariness. We take a morning flight to Sydney and the convenience of an airport hotel. My friend, Amanda, wasn’t able to catch up with us during our official stay in Sydney, so we’ve plotted to get together for dinner with her and her husband, Kevin on our final night in Australia.

Kevin meets us at our hotel. He’d just gotten off the plane from Melbourne and had a car service pick him up. This car of his is the plushest Holden we’ve ever seen. Though it’s dark when we arrive, I deduce that their house must be on a hill or slope overlooking Bondi Beach, because it’s inverted, bedrooms downstairs. Kevin proudly shows off his art collection, which is characterized by large, weird paintings, some of which keep moving about the house in search of rooms that will tolerate them.

We chatter amiably over delicious Asian food. Kevin, the prince, drives us back to the hotel. We’re already hurtling across the Pacific.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Sunday, 8 April

The Wineglass Bay tour boat will pick us up at 9:45. The day is overcast. The sea is glassy. A smart-looking catamaran docks and we board. A party of eleven, possibly celebrating something, gets the top deck all to itself. Our trip will take us around the Freycinet Peninsula, stopping for lunch in Wineglass Bay. The garrulous guide points out seals and blowholes and rocky islets as we motor south. The coast feels like Maine under this burden of clouds. As we approach Little Lemon Island a pod of dolphins takes to swimming with (under) the boat, sort of playing peek-a-boo. This is glorious. Standing in the wind in the bow is bone-chilling, so we reluctantly retreat.

Wineglass Bay opens like a fan into a splendid, sheltered lagoon, at its head an arcing, unpopulated white sand beach on the list of the world’s best beaches. The boat anchors and we nosh on bento boxes of snack-ish food. The galley serves a different (and inferior) brand of ginger beer than the Bundaberg we’ve become accustomed to. Although Wineglass Bay resembles a goblet, it got its name in the 19thcentury from the wholesale and bloody massacre of whales. The entire bay would turn crimson, like claret. We head back the way we came, which promotes the notion and practice of napping.

Somehow, we are shunted on to a different route back to Hobart than the one we took north. We’re the only car among sheep. The countryside passes mellow and empty. Our entry into Hobart is accomplished with ease and even aplomb. We return to the Henry Jones Art Hotel for one last night. This time we each get duplexes in the new section of the hotel. This time, the design shows an ignorance of nocturnal needs. The beds are above and the baths below. I think Henry ought to stick to making marmalade.

I made a reservation at the restaurant Templo several months ago. It rated highly in a couple guidebooks and sounded like the ideal place to spend our last night in Tassie. The food is truly wonderful. You can order a la carte if you want to, but their custom is a five-course tasting menu. We are seated family-style around a large round table, with five other couples. There are a handful of smaller tables. Once the meal begins, we relax into the experience and the awkwardness of the common table subsides, though no crosstalk occurs.

 

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Saturday, 7 April

Launceston is blessed with a city park called the Cataract Gorge Reserve. Before we leave we must go, the guidebooks insist. With take-away coffee and toast to start our engines, we pack the car. The Gorge is a slow reveal. It begins with a theme park element, a chair lift ride from one side of the Gorge to the other. It’s a giddy trip, a double chair. The sun is shining bright and there’s a whisper of autumn in the air. We pass over the aquamarine rectangle of an Olympic-size swimming pool, then skip off the chair into a Victorian-era park with pavilions, peacocks, specimen trees, and tended paths. The terrain is rocky and challenging, especially if you’re a Victorian lady, such as I am, though I misplaced my parasol.

We follow a path along a stream tumbling at the bottom of steep and wooded cliffs. Striking vistas open at every turn. Ahead of us, a group of moronic tourists dances self-consciously to silence while waving selfie-sticks. Grudgingly, we forgive them. Heeding the call of lunch, we retrace our steps. A peacock perches in the tree above the only available table. Standing like a fool holding a cafeteria tray is one of my least favorite poses. An all-business-type woman gestures with her arm, offering us her table. “I was just leaving.” Bad sandwiches. To return to the car park without dangling above the Gorge involves a walk that takes us across a bouncy, tourist-clotted suspension bridge.

Now we’ve officially begun our trip to Freycinet National Park on Tasmania’s east coast. Midway, we make a pitstop in Campbelltown again, detouring for an unsatisfactory browse at an antique shop. Through hills and pastures, forests and grassland we hurtle as the space adventures of the Rocinante (The Expanse) unspool. At last, at the park entrance, we purchase the entry required and heed signs to the Lodge. Ah, The Lodge. It is a semi-grand edifice with acres of windows looking out at the great ocean, a grand staircase providing one with a suitable entrance at dinnertime, and an immense four-sided fireplace. Very National Park.

We’re assigned a two-bedroom cabin in the woods. Rolling our goddamn suitcases over sloping boardwalks makes for an awful racket, punctuated by curses. Once we have settled in and poked at all the idiosyncracies of the place, we go for a short hike to Sleepy Bay. The name is enough to merit a walk. The sun is setting, casting a rose-gold glow on the pink granite shore. The trail offers a number of opportunities for a snapshot. Immovable groups of Asians clot the pathway, taking the same picture over and over. We attain the pebbly beach, a cup in a saucer of hollowed-out boulders. It reminds me of Maine, except Maine is more gray and Cubist.

Dinner is hugely disappointing in a who-gives-a-shit kinda way. The chef certainly does not. I deal with a gristly chunk of lamb and we both order a dessert called Petit Fours, which turns out to be a demented medley of bullshit sweets on a plate.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Friday, 6 April

An early start is imperative because we have a 2pm tour at Platypus House in the town of Beauty Point on the north coast of the island. We take the main highway which tracks through grazing land and wooded hills. The landscape is unlike anything we encountered on the mainland. More water. Midway, in a town called Campbelltown, we stop for a lunch of excellence. For once, we’re not eating on the fly. We pass through Launceston, where we’ll sleep eventually, and make it to Beauty Point with fifteen minutes to spare. Platypus House and its companion, Seahorse World, are former fish processing plants occupying a pier on the wide Tamar River, which drains into the Bass Strait. We are doubly ‘in’ because we have printouts and our names are on the list.

Platypuses and Echidnas are monotremes. Simply put, they have a single orifice through which all their waste is conducted and, in females, this opening also serves a reproductive function. Males have a simple penis that doesn’t fulfill any excretory purpose. But, most intriguingly, they are the world’s only egg-laying mammals. These creatures are incredibly unusual and rarely, if ever, found in zoos. Platypuses are nearly invisible in the wild due to their watery environment and the nocturnal hours they favor, while echidnas are more common, visible, and adaptable. Neither species is threatened.

We have a guide, Ben, a large young man with an enthusiastic, open demeanor. Our initiation to the platypuses is in the room of the tanks of the females. One tank belongs to Dawn, the girlfriend of the male in the tank in the next room, while the neighboring tank belongs to four rejected females. Jupiter, the alpha (only) male merits his own room, where his tank has a bridge/tunnel connecting with Dawn’s tank for that occasional conjugal visit. In the wild, males tend to have multiple honeys. Ali and I are wide-eyed.

These platypuses are rescue monotremes, as are the echidnas. None of the animals was plucked from the wild for our amusement. The platypuses of Platypus House subsist on a diet of kibble and worms. Their physical weirdness is uncontestable. Those bills. Those tails. Watch out for the males, though, for they possess a venomous spur. The poison, rarely fatal, is very, very painful and long lasting. No anti-venom is possible because each individual’s poison is chemically different. Stay away from the guys: you could end up in a world of hurt.

Here come the echidnas. Words will just have to suffice. Our group of ten is asked to stand in a circle and Ben places three bowls of insect parts in chicken broth at three points on the floor. Enter Thomas (a male) and Eddie (a female). They wobble slowly and aimlessly inside the circle, but when they discover the yummy bug feast, their impossibly slender, four-inch, pink tongues go crazy. Where’s Edwina? Ah, there she is.

 These animals are fantastic and fantastically appealing. Formerly called Spiny Anteaters, they’re high on the adorability scale, yet near the bottom of the IQ scale. About the size of a quokka (semi-deflated basketball), they have a coat of fur and quills / spines and a nozzle-like proboscis. Their rear feet attach backwards, which explains the loopy gait, but this adaptation enables them to bury themselves in the sand in fifteen seconds should they perceive a threat.

After scouring the gift shop of intriguing items, we cross over to Seahorse World. It’s necessary to wait twenty minutes for the next seahorse experience. The World of Seahorses is the source for many of the world’s aquarium seahorses. The building contains many, many tanks of these critters at various stages of seahorse existence, from ovoid to grandpa. Compared to the monotremes, they’re dull and we depart midway through the tour.

It’s a short drive back to Launceston. On the way, we pass a sign pointing to two neighboring villages, Flowery Gully and Winkleigh. I have no photographic documentation, but, trust me, I can’t make this up. We find lodging in Cap’n Stirling’s House. Two bedrooms and cozy. For the evening meal, we amble a quarter mile to Stillwater, a lovely restaurant on the river. Tasting menu once again. So fuckin’ good.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Thursday, 5 April

We are going to MONA today – the Museum of Old and New Art. A ferry will deliver us hence. The first boat leaves at 9:30 and the next at 11. Let’s take it slow; after breakfast I want (need) to get a haircut. The two of us will then meet at the ferry terminal for the eleven o’clock. I walk to a barbershop on Liverpool Street and am given the works. I had been shaggy and ill-kempt, but now I am crisp and dignified, the very personification of Old and New Art.

Ali comes strolling down the esplanade. I have tickets in my hand, and we board the ferry, sparing no minutes. The 25-minute trip up the wide Derwent River offers breezes and mountainsides and a gargantuan zinc refinery. It’s a brilliant day, sun and clouds and dazzle on the river. We disembark at what seems to be an island and ascend a long staircase, at the top of which are many terraces dotted with strange artifacts and potentially irreconcilable choices.

Lovely vistas of the river and the hills open everywhere, but, hey look, over there’s a trampoline that will ring a pair of huge bells if bounced on hard enough and over THERE is 70% life-size cement mixer made of a delicate filigree of ¼” corten steel. It’s transparent and ephemeral and gimmick-y. An incomprehensible site map only confuses matters more. We are on an un-urgent mission to find Cloaca, a mechanical digestive tract that the two of us had seen on its visit to the New Museum in the early 90s. Whoa. Smell that? Yeah, gross. This is the reek of every human digestive process. The young woman guard sitting just outside the exhibit appears keenly aware of her pitiable occupation. “Dad, the old Cloaca didn’t smell so bad.” “Yeah, I guess they finally got it right.”

Despite the beauty of the day and splendors of the building, I’m beginning to feel like I’m at the mercy of an asshole – a man with infinite resources, but no critical sense and no sense of humor. We wander through tunnels and vast underground spaces. The conceptual art feels lame and sexual art is limp. The work on display is art simply because somebody has bought it and said so, not because it’s beautiful or resonates with meaning. Pfeh. Ali takes great pleasure in how pissy I’ve become. Or says she does. Give me the Justins any day.

The Henry Jones Art Hotel is precious in much the same way. Henry Jones was a self-made marmalade magnate and in this building they made his IXL-brand jams. This had been one of his factories. Our rooms are in the restored jam factory section of the building, richly paneled with pyramidal ceilings. My bathroom was designed by someone with no knowledge of or experience with the elemental nature of water. The shower and sink just spew everywhere. No matter. We score a terrific Indian meal.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Wednesday, 4 April

Submitted for your approval: a grueling travel day – Gladstone to Brisbane to Melbourne to Hobart. Tasmania’s the terminus of nine hours of up-and-down. Lots of airport bickering. Both of us are out of sorts. This has been an arduous trip and our final week is beginning. Five nights in Tasmania. We manage to scribble a dozen final postcards while being amused and irritated by our fellow travelers.

We land in Hobart at 8:30 at night, so we have to drive into the city in the dark. It has rained, so there’s reflective confetti everywhere. Ali navigates gracefully. I stop cursing. The Henry Jones Art Hotel is our destination. It’s on the wharf, I guess.

Goodnight.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Tuesday, 3 April

Today, Ryan’s booked us a daytrip to Lady Musgrave Island, one of the southernmost atolls of the Great Barrier Reef. Seven of us are supposed to go on this nautical adventure that will depart from the town named 1770, after the year Captain Cook sighted it. However… There’s been a storm, a cyclone perhaps, down the east coast, resulting in swells consequential enough to cancel the trip. No more snorkeling for us two, I guess. Bullet Dodged or Grievous Disappointment – You be the judge. Instead, we will take two cars and head north to Rockhampton and the Koorona Crocodile Farm. We drive separately thanks to the magic of GPS and by the time we reached Rockhampton, we’ve caught up with them. Hey! It’s their red Kia ahead of us; that’s Kalarney waving through the sun-roof.

The Crocodile Farm lies at the end of an unsealed road. We’re each given a colorful wristband that identifies us as food. After a short instructional video we are led outside to a series of fenced-in ponds, home to several croc clans – one croc dude and maybe ten females. Our guide, whose accent is nearly impenetrable, rouses the formidable creatures by whacking on the water with a stick and yelling, “Whoa.” Primordial crashing and splashing occurs as he tosses a feathery, leg-inclusive, bloodless chicken quadrant in the general direction of the reptiles that either snap their jaws or diss the meal with lizard-y scorn. The beasts all have names and attributes that don’t humanize them one fucking bit. At the end of the tour, we’re offered an opportunity to hold a youthful specimen in our hands. This is met with trepidation and joy. The yard-long creature’s jaws have been taped shut, but still. Photographic evidence exists of this site-specific foolhardiness. Ali and I buy swag, because we are fearsome this way. As we’re leaving the six of us photobomb a crocodile named Stumpy.

This experience ended at noontime and yet we chose not to dine at the farm with its unappealing farm-to-table menu. Instead, Ryan and his girls have a mission at the big mall in town. It’s a big honkin’ mall all right, with food court opportunities galore. Kalarney’s unsuccessful in finding whatever righteous accessory she required, and we depart for the Rockhampton Zoo and Garden.

This is a lovely place with shady trees and flowerbeds and military monuments and a delightful zoo full of native critters. The wombats live in an oubliette. One of the girls knows how, with a smart phone, to gaze through the inky darkness and render the furry lumpkin visible. This is a mysterious technological procedure known only to tweens. We bear witness to nature in captivity – a koala in a tree that slowly turns to face us and then shits, emus that emit a bizarre drum-like resonance at the instigation of one of Ryan’s girls, and truly hideous cassowaries we can throw grapes at. A toddler drops his bottle into the cassowary enclosure, causing apocalyptic wailing.

Back at the motel, Ali and I contemplate the wonders of repose, then rejoin the Elys for a spectacular food truck fish & chips meal. Here’s where I tell Ryan how much our reunion has meant to me. A lot. He kinda gets it, God Bless him.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Monday, 2 April

We claim morning chores (laundry, haircut, bullshit), but it being Easter Monday a lot of establishments are closed, like coffeehouses and barbers. We do manage to get some serious wash done in a nearby laundromat, which possesses a scary huge library of softer-than-Harlequin romance fiction, e.g, A Wish Fulfilled; Good Doctor, Good Lover, Good Dad; etc. I remain uncaffeinated and unshorn, yet my day begins.

We rendezvous at the house on Pier Street and Ryan shepherds us to a café high overlooking Gladstone harbor. Gladstone is the spigot through which all the natural resources of Queensland and the Northern Territory pass – coal, bauxite, timber, calcite, grain, electricity, LNG, crocodiles. Ships load and unload piles and stacks and containers and tanks and silos. After lunch, he gives us a tour of Gladstone’s industrial infrastructure. Ryan works at a plant on the outskirts that makes ammonium nitrate. It has a blast radius. If it goes up, it’ll take the whole of Gladstone with it. Most impressive is QAL – Queensland Alumina, Ltd., perhaps the largest plant of its kind in the world, dedicated to the refining of bauxite ore into alumina, the first step in the making of aluminum. It is a monstrous thing; a rust-colored Emerald City twice the size of the entire Magic Kingdom. From a hilltop, we ask lots of questions, all the while snapping photos that do not accurately portray its mass or menace. Ryan explains other such sights and we are guest-curious.

He drops us back at the motel so we can pull ourselves together before our dinner engagement with his mom, step-dad, and kids at the Hog’s Breath Café. The Hog’s Breath is a chain of nouveau saloons with American signage and state license plates serving as décor. Ryan’s parents are engaging; she wears an eye-patch that goes unremarked upon. Belinda is crook, apparently, so she won’t be joining us. The waitstaff woman who takes our group photo bears the nametag – Strawberry.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Sunday, 1 April

Today, we’re flying up the east coast to Gladstone, a small city north of Brisbane, to pay a visit to Ryan Ely, the Aussie stray who stayed with me those several days after September 11, 2001. I am startled and pleased when he’s there at the airport to meet us. God, we’re all older now. In 2001, Ali was 12, Ryan was 24, and I was 51. We lasso our rent-a-car and follow Ryan to the Amber Lodge Motel, not far from his house on Pier Street. Here, I have to thank Ali for insisting that we rent a car. I had made the decision to forego an auto based on a wildly inaccurate assessment of the logistics of this visit. My only misstep. Ever.

We part ways with Ryan in order to adjust to the Queensland version of Celsius and our new digs, but after a short rest we rejoin Ryan and the Ely family, his wife Belinda and their girls, Chelsea and Kalarney at their home. It has a dog, some pescacidal fish, and a trampoline. Chelsea’s fourteen with a visiting boyfriend, Kai. Kalarney is twelve with many questions. When she finds out that Ali lives in Texas, she wants to know if she knows Beyoncé.

The sun sets and we all go to the last night of the Gladstone Harbour Festival to listen to a BonJovi cover band. It’s the last night of the festival and the crowd’s a little sparse. The glowstick / ball cap booths are closing up, but there’s still a line for burgers and chips. We sprawl on the grass. The band tries very hard, but in spite of the full moon the crowd cannot be moved. Perhaps they are sated by Saturday night’s Alice Cooper impersonator. Ali and I are weary from our travels and excuse ourselves.

Oh, today was Easter. Jesus came back to life. Imagine that.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Saturday, 31 March

This morning, Damian, the wizard of the breakfast room, suggests we pay a visit to the Paddington Market, open only on Saturdays in the hip Paddington neighborhood. It’s pretty far, walkable according to the map, but in the interest of efficiency we take a cab. Stalls fill a churchyard with stuff several (many) notches above the craftique bullshit customarily found in the States. Not a tube sock or neck massage to be found. We fall into a banter-y conversation with a pillowcase maker. Ali makes many observations about music and Texas and the US. We gab for maybe twenty minutes, then I purchase a Tasmanian-themed throw pillow.

Our next destination is Berkelouw Books, a store of renown, just a little bit further down Oxford Street. Ali can’t find anything that strikes her fancy and once I’ve located the loo, we’re outta here. A midday meal would be a good idea, but the distractions of Oxford Street are many. A quirky window display pulls us into a shop. The merchandise has ‘Alice’ written all over it. She buys a pair of tortoise shell shoes that she absolutely loves and a pullover with a blooming cactus pattern. Pub burgers for lunch.

We hail a cab to the Hyde Park Barracks, the building through which tens of thousands of transported ‘criminals’ were ‘processed’ between 1820 and 1848. It has had a multitude of uses since then, but a thoughtful restoration has peeled away these incarnations, revealing its unhappy bones. The lives of the convicts have been imaginatively dramatized to illuminate their humanity. Almost 200,000 people were transported to Australia before the practice was outlawed. This was an early experiment in mass incarceration. By contrast, 50,000 were transported to North America, an aspect of our history no one knows. Perhaps, this practice is papered over by talk of ‘indentured servitude.’

From the Barracks, we wander through the Botanical Garden with the goal of finding the Wollemi Pine, a recently discovered prehistoric tree. In an inaccessible valley in New South Wales, some horticulturally savvy guys stumbled upon this weird-looking tree, scrawny but tufted with emerald green frond-like ‘needles’. It’s been given pride of place in the very middle of a grid of flower beds, sited where a 110 year-old Norfolk Pine, called ‘The Wishing Tree’, stood until the 30s. Though the wish-granting potential of Wollemi Pine goes untried, its unprepossessing appearance has a Seussian charm.

We’re footsore and cranky by now, so we hail yet another cab to take us up the hill. This has been our busiest day in a while.