The Best Vacation Ever Part 3: Eastern Australia (Part 3!)

We’ve been back on the farm for almost two months now, so it’s probably time for my final post about our Australian vacation extravaganza so I can start filling you in about what’s been going on around here (goat babies, for one!).

After our misadventure in the rainforest, we headed back down to the quiet town of Yepoon to stay in the same caravan park from our trip up the coast. Our gregarious host Murray was kind enough to show us a giant carpet python he had captured when a neighbor called and asked for his help. Apparently he is known as the guy you call when giant snakes are in your yard and he will come pick them up and relocate them away from residences. Pretty great! We had our own little Steve Irwin moment there in Yepoon, and I got to watch the flying foxes, rainbow lorikeets, and red-tailed black cockatoos again too!

The next morning we spent some time in the tiny town at a shop that was 1/3 coffee shop, 1/3 clothing shop, and 1/3 nautical themed home décor. Obviously I loved it. We idled for a long while, sitting at a long bar with giant windows overlooking the ocean. We sipped our lattes and read trashy Aussie magazines, and I was discouraged to find that the majority of the characters in said magazines were of the Kardashian variety…I guess horrible American pop culture is inescapable.

Our next stop on this journey was Bundaberg (Bundy), which is known for it’s sugarcane crop and namesake rum. The logo on a bottle of Bundaberg rum is a polar bear, which makes little sense considering the location is downright tropical. Apparently the rum is potent juice, and many bars in Eastern Australia have banned it because it encourages “rowdy” behavior. I was under the impression that this is just a side effect of alcohol in general, but I guess I’ll have to take their word for it. After all, we didn’t go to Bundy for the booze…we went for the sea turtles!

Mon Repos turtle rookery is a natural nesting site on the coast near Bundaberg, and for once the season was in our favor. Sea turtles only lay eggs between November and February, and the eggs hatch about 6 weeks later. We bought tickets to the sanctuary and had to wait with tons of other people for the sun to set before we could head out onto the beach in small groups. We were in the last group, and we had heard that groups before us had all seen baby turtles emerge and scurry towards the ocean. Baby turtles use the moonlight reflecting off the ocean to guide them, and light pollution from cities is a real concern. Flashlights were prohibited on the beach for this reason, and we stumbled behind our quick-footed guides as we hustled down the beach to an amazing sight. A mother loggerhead sea turtle was on the beach, laying her eggs in a hole she had dug with her flippers. A research team was there taking measurements and notes, and after her eggs were laid we got to help move them to a safer spot up the beach where the incoming tide wouldn’t drown them. It was a slow, laborious journey for the turtle to lumber back out to sea, but when she made the final push and vanished beneath the waves I cried tears of joy.

We had spent over an hour watching this turtle, and were told that was the end of the action for the night. As we headed back up the beach towards our cars, someone spotted a baby turtle running willy-nilly down towards the water. A researcher was alerted and we soon learned that a nest of flat-back turtles had hatched and was pushing out of the ground trying desperately to get to the ocean. This turtle species is more rare at Mon Repos, so the researchers had placed a basket on top of the nest to try and catch the babies so they could take measurements before releasing them into the sea. The instinct in these little guys was so intense they were pushing the basket out of the way and escaping one by one. The researchers finally rounded them up and we were able to touch a little turtle before they took them into the lab. Fact: baby turtles are adorable! And amazing! They dig themselves out of the ground, but they don’t start digging until every egg has hatched. They also wait for nightfall, which they can sense by the temperature of the sand. These little tricks are meant to better ensure their survival…the rate of sea turtle survival to maturity is a paltry 1 in 1,000.

After what was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, we had a miserable night. We had failed to secure a campsite before going to the rookery, and nothing was available at the late hour we returned. I even deigned to walk the halls of a disgusting youth hostel but could not find anyone who even worked there, so after much driving around (and almost hitting a kamikaze wallaby!), we lucked into a caravan park that had a rare and welcoming sign: “late arrivals check in in the morning.” The next morning I went to check in and mentioned we arrived after midnight, and they said in that case our night was free! We found a nice place to make breakfast on the beach and read, relaxed and felt happy after our stressful (and argument-inducing) night!

Before I get to the end, there are some things about traveling in Australia that I think would be nice to pass on to you, in case you decide to go (you should!!!). Of course there are a million little differences between the U.S. and Australia, but these are some of the ones that really popped out to me while we were traveling around, mostly because they are things we apparently take for granted.

Wifi is very hard to find. If you’re going to be staying in big cities, you’ll be fine. But wifi is not in every coffee shop like here in the US. We found we had to spend way more time in various McDonald’s (Maccas) than we’re comfortable with. I would definitely recommend paying for international cell phone service rather than trying to rely on free wifi like us. Having cellular data available would have saved us a lot of stress on those nights where we couldn’t find lodging, and would have made it easier to contact potential lodgings (and saved us a needless trip into the flooded rainforest!).

Most restaurants close early by American standards. Again, probably not an issue in big cities. But in the beach towns along the coast, we struggled many times to find a meal after 8PM. This rule applies to caravan parks too…don’t expect to find a campsite after a long day of traveling. I assume you might be able to call ahead and make a reservation so they know you are coming, but without a phone we were stymied more than once by locked gates and “closed at 5PM” signs.

Coffee culture is different. If you like lattes and mochas, or any espresso drinks, you’re set; they have really great espresso. If you like drip coffee (as we do), forget it. It cannot be found in a coffee shop. At the grocery store you can find some beans, but most Australians drink instant coffee at home. Also if you order iced lattes or mochas, they’ll put ice cream in it unless you specify otherwise!

Bacon is different! This isn’t a big deal at all, but of course we are bacon lovers and we had a fun time trying to convince Cathy that crunchy bacon is superior to floppy bacon. She wouldn’t budge on this one! The bacon slices are huge, and contain not only the belly strip but the round of the chop as well. It’s like a combination of American bacon and Canadian bacon. Australian meat is really delicious, and they still process their pigs with the skin intact (rather than skinning them like so many of our American butchers these days), so we enjoyed that aspect very much.

Our last couple days in Australia were wonderful. We drove through gorgeous “hinterland” scenery in the hillsides just inland from the coast and passed through a town called Maleny. We didn’t have time to stop and explore, but even driving through I could tell Maleny was a place in which I could happily live! The hillsides were covered in pink and purple blooms, and the ridgeline offered amazing views of the valley below while the Pacific twinkled in the distance. The town itself was comprised of cool local shops and the vibe was very laid back and independent. It seemed a perfect place for a small, sustainable CSA farm, although I think the property price tag would be a tad prohibitive!

Our last night was spent at Dicky Beach outside the town of Caloundra. This was the most expensive caravan park of our trip, and it was obviously a popular destination for city folks from all around Southern Queensland. The caravan park was HUGE and lacked character, but the proximity to the beach was the real draw. For dinner we went into town and tried to use our outdated library copy of the Lonely Planet guidebook, and were laid astray again. We read about a cool pub called CBX, which stands for Caloundra Beer Exchange. Apparently the beers on tap are all priced according to global market prices and there are ticker signs up that stream the live market prices. We thought it would be fun to check this out, as it is apparently one-of-a-kind. When we arrived we were obviously mistaken…the beers had set prices and nothing seemed any different than any other pub. The girls behind the bar looked at us like we were crazy, before one mentioned that she thinks they had ticker signs up a few years ago “or something.” They weren’t even able to recommend good beers or ciders because, as one admitted, “I don’t really drink beer.” Oh, good thing you’re working at a bar then! (Another instance where some internet research might have helped us pick a better place for food and drink!)

The next morning Andrew woke up early to watch the sunrise on the beach, and I lazed in the tent while a cacophony of tropical birds greeted the coming day. We bid farewell to the Pacific (on this side of the world anyway) and headed into the Glasshouse Mountains for a quick day hike. The Glasshouse Mountains are strange volcanic spires that jut out from the valley floor, and our short hike afforded amazing views. When we passed other hikers they greeted us with “g’day!” which was exciting because it was the only time we really heard people use this phrase on our entire trip. We returned to Brisbane that evening, and spent a nice time with Cathy and Lee relaxing and packing up for our return home. I was glad to spend some final quality time with my cousin, and even got to say goodbye to my little possum friend who was lurking in the tree outside. The next morning we may have boarded the plane with our pockets turned inside out, but our hearts were bursting with rich experience.

Australia is such an amazing, diverse continent. As a child I always dreamed of visiting Australia (who doesn’t?!), and would send my exotic cousins Hershey bars and peanut butter while eagerly awaiting the Cadbury chocolates and vegemite return packages. Now I have been there and met my cousins in the flesh. I have explored, camped, hiked, sweated, itched, and gaped around both Eastern and Western Australia, and it’s fair to say I can check this off my “bucket list.”

Except. Except. Australia was so amazing, and there’s much more to see (and let’s not forget New Zealand!), so I may have only succeeding in whetting my appetite. Fair warning Australia: I reckon we’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail!

The Best Vacation Ever Part 3: Eastern Australia (Part 2!)

Our adventures in Eastern Australia continued up the coast a few hundred miles at Fraser Island, part of Great Sandy National Park in Queensland. Fraser Island (known as K’Gari (Paradise) to the native Butchulla people) is the world’s largest sand island, which means that there is no rock to be found. Despite this strange occurrence, the island is a wonder of diverse environments including rain forests, eucalyptus woodlands, and peat swamps. To access the island you are required to take a ferry, and we soon discovered that 99.9% of visitors to Fraser Island rent giant four-wheel drive vehicles (or join a tour), so they can zip all over the island and rocket around the sand dunes while stopping here and there to appreciate tidbits of the scenery. Since we had a wimpy two-wheel drive rental car, and because we tend to go against the grain when it comes to travel, we proudly boarded the ferry as the sole passengers who were sans vehicle.

Our ten-kilometer hike from the ferry terminal to Lake McKenzie was relatively flat and uneventful, although walking on sand is inherently difficult. Every once in a while we heard the revving of a vehicle engine beyond the tree line, but we didn’t see a single soul on our hike. We arrived at Lake McKenzie (Boorangoora) while a tour group was lounging about, so we hiked on to the campsite and set up our tent in the hopes that the crowds would soon scamper on to their next destination. Fraser Island is home to Australia’s largest and purest dingo population, and over the years there have been several aggressive encounters between people who are picnicking irresponsibly and dingoes who are hungry scavengers. Because of this the government has gone a little overboard and posts signs all over the island about how to avoid dingoes, to keep food locked up, be vigilant, etc etc. Our campground was even enclosed by an 8’ tall chain link fence to keep dingoes out. I was apprehensive about all the dingo warnings, but we neither saw, nor heard, any howling dingo packs while we were there, much to Andrew’s disappointment.

After the crowd thinned out we headed back down to the lake. Lake McKenzie is a perched lake that sits on the top of an old sand dune, and is comprised of 100% raindrops. It is one of cleanest lakes in the world, and it was one of the most beautiful bodies of water I have ever seen. The sand in the lake is almost pure silica, and the water is a gorgeous blue with an aquamarine band around the shallow lakeshore. The water is warm and inviting, and we spent plenty of time relaxing in the slightly acidic water which, combined with the soft silica sand, made for some great exfoliation (we even used it to clean stains off our teeth)!

The next day we hiked out a different trail that was previously closed due to fire damage. It turned out that they hadn’t gone in to clear the trail yet, so we spent hours climbing over and under fallen trees and branches in the scorching sun. I was a little grumpy by the end, but we came out of the woods onto a gorgeous beach, and a quick dip in the tropical Pacific Ocean restored my Zen. After lazing around a resort pool (cocktails in hand!), we boarded our ferry back to the mainland and set our sights further up the coast on a little town called Yepoon.  We found a nice caravan park near the road, and though we arrived late a very gregarious man answered the door and gave us a nice spot in the park. We relaxed here and enjoyed hot showers, a laundry room, and tremendous wildlife including rainbow lorikeets, Kookaburras, and giant flying foxes (fruit bats)! I was obsessed with the flying foxes, and spent much of my time watching them fly around, bobbing upside down as they clung to flimsy branches while bickering over choice morsels from the abundant trees.

The next morning we watched the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean, a real novelty for us American west coasters, before heading further up the coast to pick up cousin Cathy, who caught a flight up from Brisbane to spend the weekend camping with us. The three of us explored the tourist hot spot of Airlie Beach (pronounced Air-lee), which turned out to be full of young, drunk backpackers. A “backpacker” in Australia isn’t really someone who backpacks or hikes, but is a person who goes around the country staying in youth hostels. I am still a young, adventurous person, but being surrounded by drunken teens and early 20-somethings made me glad I was experiencing the wonder of Australia at my more “mature” age.

Our original plan was to book a ferry ride out to Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsunday Islands, which is considered to be the most beautiful beach in the world. This was to be the pinnacle of our Eastern Australia tour; a quiet weekend spent loafing on the pure white sand, floating in the clear, bathtub-warm water, reading in a hammock, well…you get the idea. Unfortunately for us, Mother Nature had a different set of plans. The weather along the north coast of Queensland had been blustery for weeks, with cyclones spinning along the coast and bouncing back off to sea, dumping inches of rain in their wakes. We hit the tail end of one such storm, and the boat company refused to take us all the way out to Whitehaven Beach (a 1.5 hour ride) because the water was really choppy and they didn’t want us to be stranded if the weather grew worse. The only option we had was to get a 10 minute ferry ride to the closest and smallest island in the chain, known as South Molle (pronounced mole) island.

South Molle Island was underwhelming, mostly because it did not fit into our preconceived notion of this trip. The beach was full of coral and shells, which was neat to look at but not so great for lying upon. The water was cold and choppy, and though we rented special lycra bodysuits to protect against jellyfish stings, the weather was never nice enough to actually go swimming. We spent the majority of our weekend hunkered down under a tarp reading or playing cards, soaking wet from the rain and high humidity. We managed to take a short hike into the island interior on one afternoon, but much of our time was spent debating whether to call the boat company for a bail out. After one wet and squally night on the island we finally made up our minds to raise the white flag, but the boat company informed us that the water was too choppy for them to come early and we’d just have to wait until the next day. While it wasn’t the ideal summer getaway, we are proud to say we survived near-cyclonic weather on little South Molle Island, and not just anyone can say that!

When we finally returned to dry land, we found a nice beach during an early sunbreak. I took a dip while Cathy read her book on the beach and Andrew snoozed in a hammock. It was only an hour or two’s worth of the vacation we’d wanted, but we felt rejuvenated and though Cathy boarded her plane in dirty clothes and windswept hair, her spirits were high. We said goodbye, knowing we’d see her soon again back down in Brisbane.

After that little misadventure, I was more than ready for the next stop on our journey. We headed into the rainforest to stay at the “Platypus Bushcamp,” which our Lonely Planet guidebook made sound like paradise on Earth. We were expecting hot tubs under the rainforest canopies, beds on platforms in the trees where you can look down and watch the platypuses swim by, and fire pits where campers gather together to share meals. Apparently we should have paid more attention to the season, because in order to get to the camp we had to ford two mini rivers that were flowing over the roadway. This should have been an indication of things to come, but we were determined to get there so we drove on with high expectations. When we arrived, it was apparent we had made a mistake. There were no tents, cars, or people anywhere in sight. We walked through a crazy maze of handmade wooden structures towards the sound of a television, and stumbled upon a zany old man drinking a beer and watching a movie with his dog at his feet. He was just as surprised to see us, and informed us that there was no hot water or beds to be had, as it was the rainy season and there are no tourists this time of year. He offered to let us camp out anyway, but as mosquitos the size of golf balls swarmed, the thought of another wet night in a tent without hot showers was too much and we drove back towards civilization. This was the only time on the east coast we decided to splurge on a hotel room, but after hot showers and mediocre Thai food, we settled into bed to watch movies on the TV and knew we’d made the right choice.  Sometimes you have no recourse but to take a vacation from your vacation!

(Stay tuned for the final installment of the Best Vacation Ever!)

The Best Vacation Ever Part 3: Eastern Australia (Part 1!)

After catching a red-eye flight to Brisbane, Andrew and I picked up a rental car, something we were quite nervous about. Of course we’d been in Australia for two weeks already, and had sort of gotten used to the idea of being in a car on the left side of the road, but actually driving said car was another story. First of all, all of the buttons and gadgets are reversed, so every time we tried to signal we wound up just turning on our wipers. Which is a problem, because in Australia signaling for every little turn or lane change is extremely important. We were on the receiving end of a few angry honks over the course of our trip, although we did do our best to rapidly shut off the wipers (after muttering curses) and flip the right lever in time. The other real challenge to driving on the left is that the driver instinctually veers away from traffic and winds up driving on the shoulder. This is where being a passenger is extremely difficult. I kept yelling at Andrew to “get off the shoulder!” but when I got behind the wheel, I wasn’t any better.  Our goals for driving from the airport to my cousin Cathy’s apartment were simple: 1) don’t get lost, 2) don’t cross a toll road, and 3) don’t drive on the wrong side of the road. As you might expect, we accomplished all three of these mistakes on the short drive over, but sometimes learning things the hard way is the best way. And thankfully no one was injured (except our poor wallet which kept having to shell out for those pesky toll roads!)

Cousin Cathy is awesome. I’ve gotten to “know her” a bit through the magic of facebook, so I knew we’d be friends, but actually being with her in person was like being with a family member I’ve known all my life! She and her boyfriend Lee were very hospitable, and let us loaf on their couch while we were in Brisbane. We arrived in the morning before they left for work, and after a nap we hit the walking trail that follows the Brisbane River. We wound up spending over three hours walking the city, checking out the local scene and cursing at the rental bicycles that require some kind of membership card, stymieing casual tourists like ourselves.  That night we met most of my Australian relatives (being part of the Jewish diaspora has its perks!), as we celebrated cousin Larry’s 23rd birthday at a Nepalese restaurant. Afterwards we hit a few bars that were sort of “American themed” in that they had taxidermy animals only found in the wilds of North America, and country/rockabilly style music was the flavor du jour. It felt a little bit like when we went to an Australian themed bar in Hong Kong: the names of things were right but the vibe was very foreign!

The next day Cathy and Lee took us to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary where we met up with her sister Jen and her hilarious toddler Eric. We roamed around the exhibits, marveling at all of the marsupials. I had a hard time getting it through my skull that there are very few mammals in Australia, so I kept asking “that’s a marsupial too?!?” We fed and petted some kangaroos and wallabies, and we got to watch a couple platypuses swim about. This was especially interesting because they’re only about a foot in length, and totally adorable. For some reason I assumed they were man-sized! Of course the highlight of this trip was getting to hold a fuzzy, sleepy koala while I got my photo taken. According to the collection of photos in the gift shop, I joined the likes of such celebrities as Marilyn Manson, Cher, and Daft Punk, so I know it was a real fair dinkum experience. (That’s also something almost no one really says much, but I think it’s great anyway!)

That night Cathy made us a delicious lamb roast, which is one of the most amazing things about Australia. There, lamb is very commonly consumed (and I love lamb!), and most meats are reasonably priced and raised on pasture. The beef industry is starting to mirror ours however, and the grain-finished feedlot model is sadly catching on. As a side note, as a farmer who raises hens, I know from experience and research that eggs do not need refrigeration in order to stay safe for consumption. The FDA has strict rules in place to reduce any chance of contamination or bacterial growth because of the kinds of conditions most egg laying flocks are maintained in this country. In Australia, unrefrigerated eggs are the norm. Grocery stores just stock them on the shelves, which I found to be very refreshing since most Americans are deathly afraid of leaving eggs out on the counter.

The next morning Andrew and I set off down south to a coastal town called Byron Bay to meet an old friend of mine for lunch. Unfortunately we didn’t know that driving into New South Wales meant a time change (time zones generally don’t shift when you drive south!), so we totally stood my friend and her husband up by mistake. Happily Byron Bay was a quant little town that reminded me very much of Ocean Beach in San Diego, with oodles of young hippie types milling around and lending a very laid-back vibe to the area. We wandered down to the beach and set up our towels to soak up some sun, when all of a sudden a commotion appeared. A semi-circle of people started walking up the beach towards us, and it took me a minute to realize they were following a snake. Now, where I come from the only snakes to worry about have rattles, and I’ve worked in animal sanctuaries and the like for years, so snakes do not bother me one bit. I just watched this horde walk towards me as the snake slithered by, obviously just trying to get under a rock somewhere. He got within two feet of me, and all of a sudden this lady starts yelling at me: “Get AWAY! Get AWAY!!! That’s a BROWN snake! Are you CRAZY!?” The normal thing to do would be to jump up and run after hearing that, but my mind said “what the heck is a brown snake?” and I stayed right where I was. I know enough about snake behavior to know he wasn’t threatened by me, nor was he showing aggression, so I didn’t sweat it. Later on I did some research and learned the “brown snake” is the world’s second most venomous ground snake. I learned an important lesson in that moment: you can’t really be afraid of all of the deadly, poisonous wildlife of Australia if you don’t know what to look for! Next time, I guess I’ll give the snake a wide berth!

Later that day we drove up into the mountains to spend the night at Border Ranges National Park. We found our campsite in the dark, and crawled into our tent to listen to exotic and, at the time, slightly terrifying creatures of the night. Very similar to our night outside of Yellowstone (remember? When the wolves or bears walked by while we were roasting marshmallows?), I laid awake waiting for the tent to get ripped open by claws from the Drop Bear or some deadly creature while Andrew snored merrily away next to me. The next morning we hiked up a small trail that opened with beautiful panoramic views of the mountain ranges, which cemented it as one of my favorite places we visited in Eastern Australia. Especially after later experience and consultation from Cathy revealed the loud noises were likely caused by adorable possums (not to be confused with American opossums…they’re very different, people! Look it up!).

Our Eastern Australian adventures are diverse and plentiful, so I will post a couple more blogs rather than overwhelm you with one giant one. But stay tuned to read about hiking on a dingo-infested island, giant fruit bats, camping in near cyclonic-weather, a rain-forest fail, sea turtle hatchlings, and more! (Sorry for sounding like a commercial! I don’t get paid for this, I swear!)

The Best Vacation Ever Part Two: Western Australia

After a few days of Hong Kong chaos, we were excited to head to my parents’ new hometown of Perth in Western Australia. Perth is located on the west coast of Australia, right along the Indian Ocean.

A quick note about Australian terminology: the accent of most Australians is not as dramatic as Americans expect. People don’t walk down the street yelling “crikey!”  and “G’day Mate!” I believe that some Australian slang we know of like “mate, bloke, g’day” were more popular in earlier generations. American film and television has penetrated Australia, and more and more Australian youth sound very similar to American youth, albeit with an accented twist. One of the interesting phenomena related to this is that almost no one in Australia cared that we were foreigners, especially not that we were Americans. Americans and American accents are old hat to them. When I consider how much attention an Australian gets in America, it really is an interesting contrast. As I write, I will include Australian slang and terminology in italics for clarity. For example, when I write “Aussies” you should know that this is actually pronounced Ozzies.

My first impression of Perth is that it really reminded me of San Diego, but with hotter summer temperatures. It’s definitely the land of beautiful people, with tall, blonde, tan, fit young people lolling around with casual confidence. Of course a major difference is that everyone drives on the left, which is a huge psychological hurdle to overcome, but for the next few weeks my parents drove us around which was nice. (I now think that being a passenger in such a situation is even more stressful than being the driver, but you’ll read more about that when I write about Eastern Australia). Another big difference is the cost of living, which is astronomical when compared to American salaries. The nice thing about Australia is that everyone gets paid higher wages than we do, so they don’t think things are expensive. But when you plop down a relatively low-income American (farming certainly isn’t lucrative, at least not yet!), she will experience some severe sticker shock.

The first few days we spent in Perth were extremely relaxing. My parents are renting an apartment right on the Swan River, which separates Perth’s downtown (the Central Business District, AKA the CBD, as Aussies call it) from the surrounding neighborhoods. At night we watched the skyscrapers of Perth light up with rainbow colors that shimmered off the smooth waterway. River dolphins sometimes swam by in the mornings as we drank our coffee on the veranda before the climbing mercury drove us back inside. It was truly a beautiful, peaceful place to call home base. We spent some time exploring Perth’s sights and sounds, taking walks in the CBD, and shopping in vintage stores in the hip neighborhood of North Bridge. When you walk into a shop the clerk always says “howyagoin?” which I thought was great.  This is where I had my first major sticker shock. All the girls walking around Perth were wearing high-waisted denim shorts with little crop tops, so I thought maybe I would buy a pair of second-hand denim shorts and join the fun (since I can’t wear stylish clothes on the farm!). Unfortunately the USED denim shorts hovered around $55! Needless to say, I opted instead for a delicious passion fruit popsicle (icy pole) and saved my dollars for more reasonable souvenirs.

Since my mom and stepdad have only lived in Perth for a year and a half, they decided to plan a little road trip with us to explore some parts of Western Australia they’d never seen. Our drive south was full of interesting bush scenery. The bush is what they use to refer to a wooded area. Again there was a resemblance to Southern California with a plethora of eucalyptus trees. Of course the trees are native to Australia and were introduced in Southern California, but having lived there for years my mind kept putting me back there. One of the major differences was the color of the soil, which ranges from burnt umber to strikingly bright red-orange. Our first destination on our trip was the small port town of Albany (the “Al” in Albany is pronounced like the name Al).  Albany was quaint, and it was apparent that many tourists flock here in other times of the year due to the variety of souvenir shops and restaurants, but when we arrived in the middle of the week on a non-holiday time of year, the town was pretty much closed for business. It was pretty though, and it’s always exciting to see a new body of water for the first time: in this case the Southern Ocean! It’s an amazing feeling to stand on a beach and imagine that on the other side of the horizon is Antarctica!

Next on our itinerary was a tiny town on the coast called Walpole. My mom had arranged for us to take an ecological and educational boat tour, and our guide Gary was a walking, talking encyclopedia. His family had been living in Walpole for generations, and he literally knew everything there is to know about the town’s history. He was charismatic and clearly pumped up on life (or something!), because he was non-stop animation as he explained how the continents shifted to form Australia using stuffed animals and other random objects as props. One of the most interesting tidbits he provided was about our American marsupial, the opossum. The word “opossum” comes from a Virginia Algonquian word, and the Australians borrowed that same word when they named their own tree-dwelling marsupial creatures the possum. I can tell you with confidence that they are entirely different animals. The Australian version is an adorable little guy with big friendly eyes and round ears, and I’m sure you know what ours looks like! Anyway back in the day there were TONS of marsupials roaming around North America, but eventually the “placentals” (as Gary called them) came around and started killing off the marsupials. The opossums survived because they are gross, ugly, and play dead, and no placental mammal in its right mind would eat that!

After exploring one of Walpole’s gorgeous beaches (while alternately discussing interesting anthropological books with Gary and watching him run laps on the beach just for fun), we headed to the amazing “tree top walk” in the Valley of the Giants. This wonderful experience was comprised of huge metal scaffoldings with gently sloping walkways that take you into the tops of the tallest eucalyptus trees I have ever seen. They rival the size of California’s giant sequoias, and the views from the top are stunning. These old growth eucalyptus trees are referred to as Tingle Trees, which is how they made me feel!  That night we stayed in a private chalet out in the bush, which had lounging kangaroos for lawn ornaments and laughing kookaburras in the trees. For dinner we hit up the local fish and chips shop and enjoyed a true Australian experience.

As we traveled around I started noticing some of the minor, every day differences between Australia and the United States. One, which I think is actually genius, is that almost every public restroom (toilet…no one says restroom or bathroom in Australia) is equipped with a lock that turns a little sign to read “vacant” or “occupied.” You know how they have those in porta potties? They have them EVERYWHERE there: in parks, restaurants, bars. It’s amazing. No more bending over to see if there are feet! (Ok, maybe this is only an issue for the ladies, but still!). Also the toilets all have two flush level options, which helps conserve water. This is the norm in Australia, not the exception, and it makes me wonder why such an easy environmental safeguard isn’t more common in the US.

In stores when you use a credit card to pay, you are asked credit or debit like normal, but when you say debit they ask “checking or savings?” So you can use your debit card to access your savings account, which seemed totally foreign to me. Also if you use credit, you can either enter a pin number or sign the receipt. The cars are slightly different too, especially their version of pickup trucks. They don’t have big pickup trucks like we do, or rather they don’t have the same style of bed. They have flat beds with no body around them, and they are all customized to suit the owners’ needs. Some are equipped with toolboxes and the like, while others are decked out with popup travel tents and camping gear. It’s a great idea! They call these vehicles utes which I assume stems from “utility vehicles.” The worst thing though, is that they have cars that look like ordinary sedans in front, but have flatbeds in the back. So they’re like a ute sedan hybrid, and to me they just looked like the automobile version of a mullet.

Finally, the biggest difference I noticed everywhere I went was the wildlife. The people and culture aren’t terribly foreign, so it’s a bit easy to forget how far away from the US you are, until you see a wild flock of white cockatoos screech by. Even the ordinary birds like crows, magpies, and pigeons look and sound different in Australia! Of course the kangaroos and wallabies that hop across the road at dusk are extremely unusual to us, although when you really watch them closely they remind you of funny looking deer more than anything.

Next up we visited the gorgeous area of Margaret River, where we checked out some wineries. Andrew and I especially enjoyed the small Adinfern Winery where the man pouring our samples was the grandson of the original owners. During the off-season they run sheep and ducks through their vineyards to help with pruning, pest control, and fertilization. This guy had all the same complaints about regulations and laws concerning food production that we American farmers have, and it was really interesting to get the Australian perspective.

After returning to Perth we braced ourselves for Australia Day, the country’s biggest national holiday that is similar to our 4th of July. My parents ordered a ton of food and hosted a bunch of their friends since they have a great spot for the annual fireworks viewing on the Swan River. Andrew inexplicably wound up as the barbecue (barbie) chef for the evening, which brings me to another interesting difference. It’s true that Australians love to barbecue, but most of the barbecues they use are basically propane-powered hot plates. There is rarely open flame or charcoal involved! Anyway Andrew didn’t mind the job, and everyone enjoyed the traditional Australia Day grub of sausages (snags) and burgers. The fireworks show that evening was the best I have ever seen in my entire life, and it was made even cooler when one of the unmanned barges in the river caught fire afterwards (no one was hurt!).

One of the best days we had in Perth was spent on Rottnest Island. Rottnest means “rats nest” in Dutch, and it was given this name because the island is overrun with quokkas, which are just about the cutest marsupial you could ever imagine. There is an interesting dynamic about Rottnest Island. It is a very expensive place to visit. Just to take the ferry over to the island was ~$80 AUD per person. Then once you are there you either rent bicycles or buy a bus pass (another ~$30 AUD per person). This is the only way you can get around the island. One of the major benefits is that the island is beautiful and immaculate, and it’s obvious that the people who come here love and respect it. The downside is that the prices mean many locals probably can’t afford to visit, and so being there felt a little bit like a privilege I didn’t deserve. The snorkeling on Rottnest was some of the best I have ever experienced, with sightings of gorgeous tropical fish and giant spiny lobsters that were splotched in bright pink and purple.

Our last day in Perth was spent checking out the animal rehabilitation center where my mom volunteers. We got to get up close and personal with many of the native marsupials that are generally shy and hard to spot in the wild. I can’t stress enough how cute marsupials are…almost every single one looks like it wants to be squeezed and cuddled. Fortunately for these critters there was a “look but don’t touch” policy, or they would have been in for some unsolicited Micha love. Afterwards we got lunch at a hotel that is known for its ring necked parrot population, who gather around as you eat, hoping for some French fries (chips) to drop off your plate. Later that evening we said goodbye to Meghan, who was flying back home to her husband and the cold Maine winter. We hugged my parents tight, knowing it would be a while before we could see them again, and boarded a red-eye flight to Brisbane (pronounced Briz-bin) in Queensland on the Pacific east coast of Australia.

The Best Vacation Ever Part One: Hong Kong

A little over a month ago Andrew and I hopped on an airplane without looking back, finally taking a much needed vacation from the farm. I have only spent one season on a farm so far, but I can already say I don’t know how people who farm year-round in more temperate climates do it. Visions of our imminent winter vacation are what kept me motivated during our busiest times; times I otherwise might have folded myself into a fetal ball and wailed the days away.

Our first stop was a mini-family reunion in Tucson where we celebrated my grandmother’s 90th birthday. You’ll be happy to know that Grams is in excellent health after all that happened last year. She looked gorgeous in her black evening gown, and everyone was excited to celebrate her life with good food, fun music, and family camaraderie. We had a whirlwind few days there, taking in all the sights the desert afforded us. It was fun to watch my brother-in-law Jonathan experience the Sonoran desert for the first time. Having been raised there I forget how alien and unique the saguaro-filled landscape can seem.

Our next destination was Hong Kong, where my sister Meghan, Andrew, and I had an extended layover on our way to Australia. My mom, stepdad Dale, and his daughter Liana flew in from Australia so we could explore Hong Kong together. We rented a tiny little apartment from a local, where we camped out in bunk beds when we weren’t busy tromping around the “world’s most vertical city.” Hong Kong is a very lively, bustling place, but it doesn’t feel exactly foreign. A lot of the signage is in Chinese, but English is also spoken so it was really easy for us to find our way around. Many of the people who live and work in Hong Kong are from countries around the world, but aspects of Chinese culture pervade. The street markets, and especially the meat vendors, reminded me of being in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was more interesting to see the hanging meats and live animals on display having spent a season on the farm. I can happily say our animals definitely have the good life by Hong Kong standards!

Most of the time we spent in Hong Kong was spent on our feet. We walked everywhere, and when we didn’t walk we took the incredibly clean and efficient subway system. In fact the public transit in Hong Kong is amazing, and it’s a good thing too because the only cars we saw on the roads were obviously owned by the wealthiest inhabitants. Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar…these were the models that whizzed by as the rest of the population walked or hopped on the copious busses, trains, and trolleys. Escalators are another unique mode of transportation in Hong Kong. We visited a neighborhood that was built in levels on a steep mountainside, and pedestrian escalators are used to access the various streets.

Hong Kong is known as a financial powerhouse, and you can see the influence this has had in the downtown district. The streets are clean, buildings are tall, modern, and impressive, and people whisk their way from office to office in tailored suits and fancy shoes. On the other hand, there are parts of Hong Kong that clashed with this aesthetic, and my overwhelming impression of the city was one of beautiful contradictions.  Many of the side streets throughout the city offered glimpses up hillsides covered in old banyan trees, and it’s apparent that much of the construction in these areas was designed around these ancients. Old temples are sprinkled throughout the city, and it was an amazing experience to walk inside and smell hundreds of incense offerings burning at once. The natural and meditative spaces in Hong Kong offer a welcome respite from the never-ending clamor of commerce.

One of our days in Hong Kong was spent at the “world’s largest bronze outdoor seated Buddha.” What seems like it should be an ancient marvel was actually built in the 1980s, and after a really cool gondola ride up a mountainside you land in a mini commercial district complete with a McDonald’s. Once you pass all this nonsense you climb a million stairs with a thousand other people to take pictures, and if you’re especially unlucky (as we were), construction will prevent you from entering the actual temple where the actual Buddhists practice. I felt like this was one area where Hong Kong officials really tried in earnest to bridge the gap between commercialism and introspection, and unfortunately they failed. After all, there’s nothing quite like buying souvenirs and meaningless trinkets under the watchful gaze of the man who obtained enlightenment by giving up earthly desires for a life of poverty and meditation.

On our last night in Hong Kong, Andrew, Liana, and I took the advice of some local Germans (yes, locals!), and headed into the craziness of Lan Kwai Fong. This neighborhood, affectionately referred to as LKF, was the equivalent of Mardi Gras, but on a standard weeknight. The streets were flooded with young drunk people from all corners of the world. Bottles rolled down the cobblestone-paved roads, and women walked around selling novelty glow-in-the-dark items. It was a sight to behold, and while I’m glad we experienced this bit of Hong Kong nightlife I can’t imagine how anyone could make it a regular habit. Of course 19-year-old Liana probably disagrees!

If you’re looking for an exotic locale, but want the peace of mind knowing that if you ask for directions in English you will likely get an answer, Hong Kong is definitely worth checking out. Most things are priced slightly lower than in the US, but you won’t save oodles of money like you would if you went to Thailand or Vietnam (or mainland China for that matter). While we were there we made sure to spend some time off the beaten track and explore lesser known gardens, temples, and sanctuaries. This helped give us a real sense of Hong Kong’s soul: a unique combination of throbbing city life and peaceful tranquility.