Friday, July 31, 2009

What’s up With the Name?

The Ghan is named after the Central Asians who were some of the first to regularly trek into Australia’s parched interior. They were a lot more successful than Europeans because they thought to use camels rather than horses. In actual fact, not very many of these explorers were from Afghanistan. Most were from Persia and what’s now Pakistan, but the name stuck around long enough that the rail line following their route became known as first “The Afghan Express,” and later, “The Ghan.”

The current route of the Ghan takes it from Adelaide, on Australia’s southern coast, almost directly north to Darwin, on Australia’s Top End. Cathedrals have been built in less time than it took to construct this line. Ground broke at Port Augusta in 1878, and by 1929 it had only gotten as far as Alice Springs, in the middle of the country. So many of the original track’s ties (or “sleepers,” as Australians call them) were eaten by termites that long stretches had to be re-laid. This took until 1980, and the extension to Darwin didn’t open until 2004. (I’ll save you the math—it’s 126 years.)

The stretch between Adelaide and Alice Springs, which took 51 years to build, now takes the train just under 24 hours. After the three-night trip on the Indian Pacific, it felt like a commuter jaunt. It seemed like we’d just set up the beds, arranged our nest, and taken a few glances out the window looking for kangaroos and suddenly we were pulling into the outskirts of Alice Springs.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Take a Gander at the Ghan

Here’s the Ghan at the town of Port Augusta, South Australia. This was the only major stop for us, as all the organized tours along the line were in towns north of where we got off the train.

We didn’t see much of Port Augusta. The train didn’t stop for long, and the station is not in an exciting part of town. The most interesting thing to look at within walking distance of the train was the train itself, almost eight football fields long. The locomotive was much longer than the platform it pulled up to. Pipi and I were lucky enough to be in a car that was easy to disembark from, but many passengers at the end of the train had to walk through several cars until they got to one that opened onto the platform.

The landscape on this trip started out as familiar flat, scrubby outback, but gradually got redder and more eroded, until it looked a little like Arizona. I expected blazing sunshine, but for most of the first day, the sky was moody and overcast, and I could see rain in the distance.

After Port Augusta, the Ghan’s route turned northward away from the coast and did not pass through any sizeable towns until it arrived in Alice Springs about 18 hours later. At about 9am the morning after leaving Adelaide, the train crossed the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory. This was a big deal. An announcement was made 15 or 20 minutes early so we could be sure to be watching for the signs that marked the otherwise undetectable state lines. We all lined the corridors, and at the climactic moment I, like everyone, took a picture. I’m glad I have a picture because I didn’t really see the signs—I was too busy trying to take a picture of them.

There’s probably a lesson there, but my point is that this was not the kind of trip where you can expect the scenery to entertain you. You make your own fun on the Ghan, which, as I have said, is the kind of trip I like. Australian train travel is probably not for everyone, but I enjoyed it, and if your idea of a relaxing day is one where a road sign is the biggest thing that happens to you…well, I think you people know who you are, and I urge you to hit the rails if you’re ever down under.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Well, It’s Not Like There’s A Secret Handshake

I learned two things the day news of Prop. 8 reached the Ghan. (Well, three, if picking up a new form of non-violent protest counts.) The first thing I realized is that Australians are much better informed about the world than the world is about Australia.

The second is that you just never know where you’re going to find allies. Who knew Linley was gay? Who would have guessed that his big, burly bloke of a co-worker would be perfectly comfortable talking about wedding details with him? It just goes to show that you can’t make assumptions about anybody. (And that my gaydar goes seriously on the fritz in foreign countries.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re Redecorating

Just before departure from the Adelaide station, Pipi went off to purchase some snacks and came back nearly in tears. She’d walked past a TV tuned to the news, and had seen a report on how California’s Proposition 8 had just been upheld.

We were surprised that California politics were news at all in South Australia, and I wondered if we were the only ones who had noticed.

We hadn’t been on the train long before I had the answer. In the dining car, I heard the big, red-faced guy serving dinner ask our car attendant, Linley, about his upcoming wedding. Linley, who had not, up to this point, set off my gaydar, mentioned that the ceremony would take place in Europe. “Good thing it’s not in Los Angeles,” said the ruddy one, “They just outlawed it there. Six people got hurt protesting.”

I expressed my dismay at having missed the protests. Part of me was ready to overturn a car. “Surely you don’t actually want to be destructive,” said Linley, “Maybe you just want to sneak into politicians’ offices and redecorate or something like that.”

It was an odd proposition, but not a bad idea, really. I’m thinking Brokeback Mountain posters all over Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sacramento lair. Or even better, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert memorabilia. Those girly men were fierce.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Into the Dead Heart

Adelaide we also left by train, specifically the Ghan. The Ghan goes from Adelaide all the way north to Darwin, on the north coast, but we were only going as far as Alice Springs, about a 24-hour journey.

During the afternoon of our departure, we skirted two bodies of water, the Gulf St. Vincent, and the Spencer Gulf. This was the last we would see of water for the rest of the trip. It was also the last we would see of major population centers. Eighty-five percent of Australians live within 30 miles of the coast, and we were heading inland rapidly. Our destination—and the end of the trip—lay in the area known as the Red Centre; the dry, landlocked, camel-dotted interior of the country. This part of Australia is also sometimes referred to as the “Dead Heart,” but as we were to see, it was actually pretty lively.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wobbly Wallabies

Pipi and I got to five out of seven Australian states. The ones we missed were Queensland, which has the Great Barrier Reef and seems like it deserves an undivided vacation to itself, and Tasmania.

I have nothing against Tasmania, and wish I could have fit it into our itinerary, but something had to give. I don’t really regret passing it over…or at least I didn’t until I read this. Tiny, meandering marsupials on opiates—now there’s something you just can’t see in this hemisphere.

Thanks to my sister, Hilary, for bringing this to our attention!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One of Those Cities No One Cares About

In Adelaide, we watched an Australian game show called “Talking About My Generation.” This show pitted contestants from three different generations (Boomer, X, and Y) against each other. I am good with trivia, so I thought I might do well with the Generation X questions. But the very first one required knowledge of a 1980s vegemite jingle, and I realized that my knowledge bank is virtually useless down under.

One question involved knowing which Australian city was the first to see a certain product on grocery store shelves. The generation Y man guessed it was Perth. (Actually, he said, “Parth;” he was Irish.) This was wrong. The correct answer was Adelaide, the very place where we happened to be at that moment. “Ah,” he sneered, “I knew it was one of those cities no one cares about.”

This seemed harsh, especially in regards to Adelaide, a lovely city with nice parks, a gentle climate, and a surprisingly broad array of available foodstuffs. It is, as I have noted, a city so nice we went there twice.

And if our snarky Irish friend thought Adelaide was provincial, then it’s a good thing he wasn’t with us for the remainder of the trip, because our itinerary was about to get even less ready for prime time.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Adelaide has the distinction of being the only place in Australia (aside from the Sydney airport) that we visited twice. Both visits were very short, however. The first time was a stop of a few hours on the Indian Pacific train. I spent just enough time there to get mad at a tour bus driver, and then we were gone.

The second visit was also train-related, and also short. We arrived on the Overlander train from Melbourne at about 5pm, and the Ghan, the train we would take to Alice Springs, left the next day at around noon.

Adelaide is not a nightlife city, so that evening, we didn’t do much beyond dinner and laundry. I once paid $15 to have a resort in Hawaii wash a pair of pants, so I was happy to discover that our Adelaide hotel had self-service laundry machines. (I didn’t even mind that the laundry room was so far from both the front desk and our own room that I was given a map to follow.)

The next morning we explored what we could of the city. The hotel was within walking distance of Adelaide’s Central Markets, the largest produce market in the southern hemisphere. It had row after row of stalls selling fresh meat, produce, and other tasties. If you can imagine Seattle’s Pike Place market, only with fewer flying salmon and more kangaroo, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it was like.

Pipi and I stocked up on bread, cheese, and jam for the upcoming train ride. This photo was taken at a stand where we only window shopped, having been cured of any desire to eat kangaroo in Perth. The array of goods was pretty amazing, and I learned more than I ever wanted to about kangaroo preparation. It was as if Forrest Gump’s army buddy was from Australia: “Kangaroo sausage, kangaroo fillet, kangaroo pepperoni, kangaroo curry, kangaroo stir-fry….and that’s about all you can do with kangaroo.” You could also get crocodile several different ways, and they had a few emu steaks. This was not your typical Bay Area farmer’s market, that’s for sure.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Do

When it was time to leave Melbourne, we did so by rail, taking the Overland train. This train is named after the so-called “overlanders” who first explored the interior of Australia, and it runs between Melbourne and Adelaide at approximately the speed of a trotting emu. I believe the journey took about 10 hours, but it’s hard for me to do the math because there was a confounding 90-minute time change at the South Australian border.

This train journey was memorable for being possibly the most sedentary experience of my life. Because the journey is a day trip, there are no sleeper cars on the Overland, just two classes of seats. We splurged on the top class, where food is not free, but it is delivered to you. There are no stops on the route. There is no observation car to go to. There was enough room in the passenger car that I could have moved around if I had wanted to, and once I realized that, I didn’t feel like I needed to. I just settled in, made a little nest of reading material for myself, looked out the window, and ate what came my way.

Enjoying—as opposed to merely enduring--a train journey depends on your ability to do this, to slow yourself down to a near hibernating state. I love situations where there’s nothing to do because it means nothing is expected of me. And if nothing is expected of me, it doesn’t matter how quickly the time is or isn’t passing. After a while, I stop even looking at my watch.

I know some people, people whose sentences are peppered with words like “structure,” and “goals,” and “accomplishment,” find boredom stressful. Not me. I think it’s liberating.

Monday, July 20, 2009

More Max

Another great thing about the Melbourne dining scene: They have Max Brenner cafes here.

We have taken to referring to Max Brenner as if he were not only a real person (he’s not), but possibly dating us. Is this healthy? Probably not, but it’s just a vacation thing. The only Max Brenner shops in North America are on the East Coast, and we won’t even be passing through any more Australian cities that have M.B. locations. Melbourne is where this bittersweet affair will come to an end, so we are making our time with Max count.

Like love-struck teens, we make excuses to walk past the store as often as we can. We try to go see Max every day, and if we are separated for an evening, we get a little peevish. I worry that we are very close calculating our two-week anniversaries and writing “Mrs. Max Brenner” on our notebooks.

I don’t know how to quit things like this soufflé with ice cream, strawberries, and two kinds of melted chocolate.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Good Eats

I knew before I arrived in Australia that the country is relatively welcoming of immigrants, but I was unprepared for just how diverse the population is. White Australians do sometimes say things that make me wonder if they’ve never met a person of color before—Pipi, for example, saw a cooking-show host call someone an “Indian giver" on live television. But I know this cluelessness can’t be for lack of exposure. Walk down any street in any Australian city, and you’ll see a surprising number of non-sunburned faces.

One happy consequence of this diversity is that Australia, while not exactly a foodie destination, does have some great Asian food. I had Malaysian for the first time in my life in Sydney, and in Melbourne, I had Peiking duck for only the second time ever.

One of the reasons I’ve eaten this dish so seldom is that at home, you usually have to order in advance, or wait a very long time for your duck to come. Not so at the Bamboo House restaurant in downtown Melbourne. Peiking duck is a regular menu item there.

After some delicious appetizers (including soup dumplings, hard to find in the United States), the waiter brought out half of a roasted duck for our inspection, dramatically presenting it in front of us like it was an expensive bottle of wine. We nodded appreciatively, not sure what we were expected to say. (“Yup, that’s a duck; can’t fool me!” sprung to mind.) The waiter took it away, and moments later returned with these little bundles, each of which had the perfect amount of duck meat, duck skin, plum sauce, and scallion inside.

It was fantastic, one of the best things we ate down under. Let’s hear it for the brave immigrants who are literally adding a little spice to the colonies.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Melbourne Forecast: Cool, with a Slight Chance of Melancholy

One thing I regret about the trip is not spending more time in Melbourne, although I don’t know what I would have cut short to make that happen. I just wish somehow I’d had a little more time to get to know this city.

Sydney is the heart of Australia’s movie industry, and many films are set in that city. Melbourne, on the other hand, is the epicenter of antipodean music, and so songs tend to take place there. Because of this, Melbourne was kind of like a pen-pal to me before I arrived. I felt like I knew it, but I wouldn’t have been able to pick it out of a line-up.

One aspect of Melbourne that keeps coming up in song after song is the weather. Crowded House’s Four Seasons in One Day is thought to have been written about Melbourne. In his song Leaps and Bounds, Paul Kelly mentions that it’s eleven degrees in Melbourne that particular May day. He means Celsius, but that’s still not exactly balmy. (51F.) And when the Waifs (in their song Take it All In) sing that, “We step outside, into the Melbourne Weather,” somehow you know they won’t be needing sunscreen.

Fittingly, Melbourne was the one place in Australia where I did get caught in the rain. But I didn’t mind, because that was just Melbourne doing exactly what I expected it to do. (By the time I finished with the music store I was on my way to, the rain had quit.) Mostly the weather was fine, just pleasantly cool and moody.

“Cool and moody,” come to think of it, might be a good description for the city in general. It has an appealing mix of staid European architecture and occasional flights of off-the-wall modern, as in this picture of Federation Square, a popular place for people-watching at the edge of the Central Business District.

I like a little mood in a city. I’ll take atmospheric over sunny and bland any day.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Party in the Hole

In my back yard, we have many distressing holes. Most of them are just anthills. I worry that some of them are spider holes. A few of them are large enough that a snake is not out of the question, but it’s a lot more likely that they are just gopher holes.

My point is that most of the holes at my house, though they seem worrisome, are really quite small and, like many things in my life, would not remotely impress an Australian.

Take this hole, for example. It’s large enough for a 40-pound dog to disappear into. I know this because I saw a dog that size disappear into it, trying to find the wombat that created it.

This happened on the property of Nancy’s son Phil, who is one of the extended family members we visited in Warragul. The hills in the area are dotted with wombat holes, and farms in Victoria have wombats the way rural America has raccoons. Phil says it’s not at all unusual to see wombats waddling around at night, but we were there during the afternoon, so we didn’t see any.

We did hear them, however. After the dog ran in, we could hear two sets of muffled growls coming from deep within the hillside. This was the dog and the wombat talking trash. After a few minutes, they apparently agreed to disagree, and Bonnie the dog came back out unscathed.

We just don’t have anything like this in Oakland, and if we did, my pets would want no part of it. I am reminded again that even the dogs are brave in Australia.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


We flew into Melbourne and spent the night there, but our next stop was really the countryside about 90 minutes by train outside of the city. The area is called Gippsland, and it is, to use a favorite Australian word, lovely. It’s much greener than Western Australia, with rolling hills and quite a few vineyards. It looked something like California’s Sonoma county, if you can imagine our wine country full of gum trees and kangaroos.

This area was ground zero for the fires that made international news last winter. Though everyone who lives there has a fire story and can point to exactly which window of their home they could see raging flames from, it was already hard to tell that anything had happened. It was almost eerie how quickly the land had healed itself, at least superficially.

Our specific destination was Warragul, a town of about 22,000 people. We were in Warragul to visit the lovely (again, there is no other word) Nancy Smith. Nancy is the mother of Pipi’s brother’s wife. That makes Nancy our….well, there really is no word in our language for this relationship. We think of her as family, and in return, she seems to think of us as stray kittens in need of nearly hourly feedings, judging from the TLC we received in her home.

I like to think of our trip up to this point as somewhat adventurous. Pipi and I explored cities we’d never been to, crossed a forbidding desert, and faced down wild animals. Once in Warragul, though, we entered a new phase of our journey, one that involved extreme pampering. Nancy put us up in the most comfortable beds of the whole trip (we slept 10 hours the first night), and fed us the best meals we had in Australia. Later we would again be intrepid explorers, but for the next few days, we would be torpid and well fed as we got to know this mellow corner of Victoria.

In the spirit of relaxation, I’ll think I’ll call it a day.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Off to Melbourne

Our flight from Perth to Melbourne was a little over three hours long and left at about ten minutes past 1991.

Getting on this Australian domestic flight was easier than any boarding process I’ve been through in years. We were not asked for boarding passes or I.D. at security. We were allowed to keep our shoes on going through the metal detector. We did, of course, have to show our boarding passes to get on the plane, but Pipi ended up sitting next to someone who only realized after he’d taken his seat that he was on the wrong flight, so they clearly weren’t checking too thoroughly.

The other interesting thing about this flight was that there was no boarding protocol. I think first class may have been able to get on early, but when it came time for general boarding, the gate agent leaned over and murmured a few unintelligible words into the microphone, and every single person in the gate area jumped up and formed a scrum at the entrance to the jetway. There was no pushing or shoving, though. The process was surprisingly orderly. I got the sense that everyone except Pipi and I knew exactly what was going to happen and what he or she should do when they got the signal.

Pipi and I were an embarrassment, though. We were still wandering around clutching our shoes in our hands and begging people to look at our driver’s licenses when boarding started. We were almost the last people on the plane. If the process had been any simpler, we probably would have missed the flight entirely.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bon Scott

In a park near the waterfront in Fremantle, I stumbled upon this statue. It’s a tribute to Bon Scott, the original lead singer of the band AC/DC. He was born in Scotland, but raised in Freeo.

Later, at the Fremantle prison, his name came up again. As I said, we didn’t have time to tour the jail, but we always make time for gift shops. Numerous copies of a Bon Scott biography were displayed there. When I asked what the connection was, I was told that Scott served three different terms in the prison, for robbery, assault, and one of my favorites, “unlawful carnal knowledge.”

So he wasn’t necessarily the nicest guy in the world, but I bought the bio anyway. Flipping ahead to the end, I read that (SPOILER) he died in 1980 and was buried in Fremantle.

This inspired one of my favorite travel things: a spontaneous non-Frommer’s sanctioned quest. Neither Pipi nor I are huge AC/DC fans, but suddenly signs seemed to be pointing toward a pilgrimage to Bon Scott’s final resting place. I don’t mean that literally, of course, but it actually wasn’t too hard to get to the graveyard. A city bus took us right to the gate, easily visible from the road.

I expected a big Jim Morrison-style scene, but found just the opposite—the grave was impossible to find. I may have been working with outdated information. It doesn’t really matter. I’d only been dimly aware of the man when I woke up that morning, so I can live without completing my quest.

While I can’t say that I have a deep appreciation for Bon Scott’s music, I am appreciative of the fact that he inspired us to have an unusual travel experience. Most visitors to Fremantle have an alfresco lunch and visit the museums. But not too many of them can say they’ve wandered fruitlessly around a suburban cemetery. I may not have closure, but I do have cocktail party chatter.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


One other thing we really liked about Perth was Fremantle. “Freeo,” as it’s often called, is a suburb of Perth on the coast of the Indian Ocean. (Perth itself is several miles inland, connected to the sea by the Swan River.)

Approaching Fremantle on the tram, I saw a dolphin frolicking in the river mouth, which seemed to bode well. It was a gorgeous fall day, and the first thing we did was have lunch at a brewpub right on the water. On the way to lunch, we passed through a park full of wild parrots, and I was struck by how odd it is that people pay money to go to zoos in Australia when exotic wildlife is hopping around free.

We also went to a chocolate factory, because every municipality in Australia seems to have one and we felt obligated to explore them all. We spent much more time than we expected to at a museum devoted to shipwrecks. In the early days of international shipping, when the southern continent was hardly more than a rumor to Europeans, traders used to bump into Australia all the time on the way to Indonesia. The western coast is littered with wrecks dating back to the early 17th century, and the Fremantle Maritime Museum has artifacts from many of them. The most impressive is a large section of hull from the most famous Australian wreck, the Batavia, which foundered on a reef in 1629.

Because we had spent so much time looking at skeletons and rusty things at the maritime museum, we found we didn’t have time to tour the Fremantle prison, which is the Alcatraz of Western Australia. We did see a moving art exhibit there devoted to English female prisoners transported to Australia. You hear a lot about the male prisoners who were the first Europeans down under, but less about the women, although there were thousands of them.

We also spent more of the day than we realized we would just walking around the downtown. Fremantle is much smaller than Perth, and a little bit greener. It’s full of Moreton Bay fig trees just like this one. They grow all over coastal Australia, and I really like them. Like Fremantle, they seem to invite relaxation.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Koala Encounter

Caversham also has koalas. Although koala cuddling is legal in Western Australia, this particular park doesn’t allow it. You can, however, pet them, gently, on the flank, with the back of your hand.

I’m not sure why the petting protocol is so weirdly specific, but after the ranger’s spiel, I understood why we weren’t allowed to grab them and squeeze them as we pleased. It’s because koalas get so little nutrition from the only thing they can eat (eucalyptus leaves) that they spend 20 hours a day sleeping to conserve energy. The other four hours are spent binge eating. They’re busy little creatures, and don’t have much left for their fans.

Petting was nice, though. There were six or seven koalas in the enclosure, and the ranger pointed out the one on duty. You’re only allowed to touch one at a time, and the designated object of affection rotates every 15 minutes so no single koala gets too sleep deprived. The dopy, unnamed koala I got to stroke was very docile and very soft, and I could easily have lingered longer than 15 minutes if I weren’t worried that I would send it to the hospital.

(And no, to answer your question, they don’t let you give them water, even though it's all anyone has wanted to do since this picture came out. Apparently koalas normally get enough liquid from the leaves they eat, and rarely drink water.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Camera Adds Ten Pounds

That’s Big Bub’s story, and she’s sticking to it.

Big Bub is a hairy-nosed wombat. She’s the star attraction of an afternoon program at the Caversham Wildlife Park in Perth. With park rangers supervising, you’re allowed to approach, and in some cases touch several animals, including a quoll (a small, opossum-size marsupial); a wallaroo (looks like a mini-kangaroo); and a blue-tongued skink (a reptile with a tongue like a sharp-pei).

I arrived in Australia thinking for some reason that wombats are small, maybe the size of chubby cats. So imagine my surprise when they lugged out this furry little sumo wrestler. Hairy-nosed wombats can weigh up to 88 pounds, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bub were close.

Interestingly, we were told that wombats look chubby, but are mostly muscle because they are basically God’s little tunnel borers. The camera can fool you.

Monday, July 06, 2009

When Kangaroos Attack

Surprisingly, not everyone liked the kangaroos as much as we did.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport

We kind of got off on the wrong foot with Perth, but there are a lot of good things about the city, starting with the place we stayed, Miss Maude’s Swedish Hotel. I picked it solely because my Frommer’s Guide mentioned a smorgasbord breakfast, but I didn’t regret it. Pancakes, crepes, cold cuts, cheese, bread, honey, jam, sausages, yogurt, baked beans, muesli, and as much coffee as I could drink were just the highlights. It was by far the best breakfast we had in a country that takes breakfast pretty seriously.

Another great thing about Perth is the Caversham Wildlife Park. This park is like no zoo I’ve ever been to in the United States. You’re allowed to interact with the animals in a way that would never be allowed here—maybe for good reason.

My favorite part of the park was a giant enclosure where you were allowed to mingle freely with kangaroos. There were dozens of them, which you were free to pet and feed. Signs urged you not to over-feed them, not to bother the ones in a roped-off rest area, not to give them anything but the provided pellets, and not to touch the joeys. But I never saw any park staff around enforcing the rules. People did seem to be treating the animals respectfully, but I was surprised at the lack of supervision, and at the fact that we were allowed to stroke and hand-feed wild animals in the first place. (And I did catch one unclear-on-the-concept family trying to feed some kangaroos a sandwich. That can’t be good for them.)

Kangaroos are surprisingly soft. For some reason I thought they would have coarse horse-like hair, but their fur is very plush. I doubt feral kangaroos would be so friendly, but this mob has learned that we are there to feed them, and are not shy about asking for food. If you don’t produce pellets quickly enough (because you’re trying to take their picture, maybe), they will put their little hands on your arm and gently suggest that feeding time is now. Gentle is the word, though. They have teeth but are very dainty about not using them as they snuffle kangaroo food out of your hand.

Feeding the kangaroos was one of my favorite Australia experiences. And I discovered that my Caversham Wildlife Park visit had a lasting effect: Kangaroo meat is at least as common on Australian menus as horsemeat is in Europe. I can eat horse (I know, because I did once, in Italy), but every time I was offered a nice kangaroo steak, I’d think of this one with its paws on my belly, sticking its deer face up into mine, begging for a pellet, and I just couldn’t do it.

(Yes, I’m a big softie. The next time I take a child to a petting zoo, I’ll probably come back a complete vegetarian.)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


By the time we woke up on our last morning on the train, it was clear that we had left the desert and were approaching the coast. The land was considerably more lush, turning to farmland, and we saw some kangaroos. (One was standing in the middle of a field of sheep, looking as though it were trying to blend in.) As the sun came up, we saw a group of hot-air balloons lifting off over the hills outside of town.

Already Perth seemed different from the rest of dusty Western Australia. It soon became clear that Perth is just different, period. We learned on the train that the city is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney. Perth was founded and to an extent still is populated by people who have made their fortunes in the goldfields. Consequently, Perth, like Kalgoorlie, has a little bit of a wild-west feel to it. Or, as a tattooed, chain-smoking cab driver told me, “We’re a little oker here.” (An “oker” is essentially an Australian redneck. Oh, and the driver was a woman.)

Both Pipi and I noticed independently that there were a large number of walking wounded in our neighborhood, which was close to a shopping district and otherwise seemed respectable. People just seem to hurt themselves in Perth. I got a hint as to how this might be happening our first evening in town. Walking to dinner at about 7pm, we saw a man getting out of a cab who was already falling-down drunk. I know he was falling-down drunk because the first thing he did after getting out of the cab was to fall down. Then he began yelling at the driver, who shouted back, but finally just drove away.

I also, for the first time in my life, saw someone who was literally spitting mad. He was walking down the street with a woman, and something she said must have set him off, because he stormed off across an intersection against the light, alternately swearing at her, shouting blasphemous things at the sky, and expectorating into the street. The light had not yet turned and the woman was still waiting to cross the street legally when I got to the intersection myself. I could hear the mad man, who was halfway down the next block, still yelling and spitting. She looked at me, smiled apologetically, and said, “He’s a little angry today.” I guess I’d be upset, too, if I kept hurting myself all the time.