Monday, September 13, 2010

Uluru: red dirt, blue sky, check and check!

Uluru, the aboriginal name for Ayer's Rock, that monolith in the center of this vast continent, is a must-see for many visitors from around the world. Indeed, some wouldn't book a two or three week holiday in Australia without making a brief stop at "the rock."

Well, we've been here two and a half years so when Virgin Blue began competing with Qantas on the Sydney/Uluru route, we decided to make the pilgrimage to the red center. Winter is a good time to travel to the Northern Territory because it is unbearably hot there many days of year. Tour companies really play up the beauty of witnessing the sunrise over the rock, but I think the real value lies in exploring the area before the desert reaches oven-like temperatures.

And before I write another word about value, I must mention that a major factor preventing us and many others from visiting Uluru was cost. Sure, we got a reasonable deal on our flights, but everything else at Voyages, the only resort near Uluru, is wildly, almost comically expensive. The regular fee for our room was over $400/night, but we got a "deal" for $230/night. Even this price was too much for what we got: an average room with no insulation. We had to run the fan all night to cancel the noise coming from the Lost Camel.

Visitors are constantly reminded that Voyages is a monopoly. Staff are friendly, but not especially helpful and the food is well below the Australian norm. Aussies are typically spoiled for choice when it comes to fresh produce and seafood, but in the outback, everything but kangaroo jerky undergoes a long, long journey on a truck before reaching your plate. Even the high-end hotel and restaurant, Sails of the Desert, doesn't cook your eggs to order. Like other restaurants at the resort, they offer a really-just-okay buffet breakfast for $33.

The most shocking prices of all, though, are attached to tours. Transportation via a shuttle van to Uluru from the resort and back (24km) costs $42.50 per adult, not including a whopping $25 per adult national park fee. I felt like a broken record when confirming this information with the concierge. "So that's just for one person? - Yes. And it doesn't include a tour guide, it's just transportation? - Yes." Transportation to Kata Tjuta, the other lesser known rock formation that shares the national park with Uluru was an additional $70 per adult. Mickey and I wanted to see both and worked out that renting a car was actually $120 cheaper than taking the bus. Who would have thought?

If you can mentally get past the price of a weekend at the rock, it's easy to enjoy the quiet beauty of the desert. I came for red dirt and blue skies and that's exactly what I got. Indeed, when I look at our Picasa album as a whole, those two colors dominate each photo. On our first night we splurged on the much-hyped Sounds of Silence dinner under the stars. I thought I was being clever booking our spots when the moon was quite new (and thus too dim to interfere with stargazing), but this was Friday the 13th and the universe decided not to cooperate. Clouds covered the sky for the entire evening and we couldn't see anything. The dinner wasn't anything special either, another buffet. Though our friends recommend the experience, at $159 per person, I can't say that I do.

I started that last paragraph with the word 'enjoy' and ended complaining about costs again. Let's see if I can focus on the positives. Walking the perimeter of the rock (9km) with Mickey was delightful, the weather was ideal: sunny but not hot. It took us about two and a half hours at a comfortable pace and we enjoyed watching the landscape and the position of the sun change as we walked anti-clockwise around the rock.

Uluru is famous for standing tall amid a sea of vast nothingness, but that isn't really the whole story. There are gum trees, wildflowers, boulders and roped-off sacred areas to the aboriginal people bordering the rock. Some people elect to climb the rock despite the danger (it's very steep) and a request from the indigenous caretakers/owners that visitors refrain from doing so.

A display in the visitors center and other places in the national park explain this request in kind of a curious way. All the signs seem to say 'we don't climb' in big letters because, I'm told, indigenous language/culture prevents them from telling visitors outright, 'please don't climb.' Apparently, telling others what to do is a no no in aboriginal culture. I'd be interested to learn more about the relationship between these people and the rock that they deem sacred, but much of this knowledge is secret and not shared with outsiders. The fact that Mickey and I didn't see a single aboriginal person while visiting the Northern Territory only added to the mystery.

We enjoyed our most memorable meal that evening at the Outback Pioneer barbecue, a restaurant that sells raw meat and allows you to cook it to your liking on the grills that they maintain. The crocodile skewer was tough and terrible, but the steaks were great. Of course, that evening the stars were out in full force and Mickey used a phone app to point out constellations.

En route to Kata Tjuta on our last day, I spotted a wild camel walking through the desert. I'm loath to admit that this may have been the highlight of the trip for me. How many other places in the world can you see a usually domesticated animal such as the camel wandering free in a landscape far too harsh for most creatures?  The legend goes that the first European explorers of the red center introduced camels when horses just couldn't cut it. Some escaped and still exist in the Northern Territory. This story called to mind the zebras at Hearst Castle immediately for me.

Anyway, we didn't have a lot of time to explore Kata Tjuta, but did enjoy a brief romp through Walpa Gorge and the Valley of the Winds. Mickey and I had a philosophical discussion on why Uluru is the star attraction of the region instead of Kata Tjuta. It's not one big rock, but was formed by the same geological processes that created Uluru. Kata Tjuta consists of 36 domes and hundreds more smaller boulders and resembles a sleeping Homer Simpson of all things when viewed from a distance.

Voyages asks guests to complete a survey about their experience at the resort upon checking out. Why they do this is a mystery, though, because they are a monopoly and thus have little incentive to improve. I imagine the replies going to a central office where a team are employed to laugh at the responses, 'yeah, you would like clean bathrooms, wouldn't you? Ha ha ha!'. Anyway, I dutifully completed this survey and answered one of the last questions about whether I'd recommend the resort to a friend. My answer was a resounding no, yet I would encourage people to see the majestic Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Watching the sunset over the rock was not exactly spiritual, but extraordinarily beautiful. So, if a decent competing hotel pops up, I'd encourage everyone to give it a go.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Byron Bay

This winter marked my mom's third trip to Australia. While here, she develops a routine and makes a life for herself: shopping, cooking, reading, going to meetings, etc. We don't feel compelled to entertain her, but did want to show her at least one part of Australia that she hadn't seen before.

We decided on Byron Bay, a gorgeous, hippie beach community on the north coast of NSW, much closer to Brisbane than Sydney. Visiting Byron made a lot of sense because Mickey and I hadn't been before either and it was low season (aka cheaper than summer), a definite plus when vacationing in a place as expensive as Byron Bay.

Mickey and I favor bed and breakfast type accommodations because they're usually good value: personal attention that seems to lend more authenticity to your experience. This trip was a bit trickier because we were traveling as a trio and required two rooms. Fortunately, the Cape Byron Retreat offered the perfect solution: a two bedroom, self-catering cottage on a quiet piece of land in the Byron hinterlands for about $200/night.

Only about 10 minutes drive from the beach and town, the Cape Byron Retreat offered country charms. The owners have a horse named Budget (whose favorite snack is white bread) and are regularly visited by peacocks, echidnas and wallabies. My mom was delighted to wake up on our first morning there to find a wallaby grazing in the field. My binoculars afforded a really good look at the creature's almost fox-like face.

We spent our first morning brunching and then browsing the food and craft market in Bangalow, a country town about a half hour from Byron. We anticipated a couple of quaint stalls selling the usual craft market goods: honey, soaps, T-shirts, etc. and found that and so much more. The market included at least 200 stalls and took at least an hour to circumnavigate. We walked away with fresh strawberries, a muddler made of native banksia wood and a spider ornament for our Christmas tree.

The sky was partly cloudy as we drove on a country road back to Byron to have a look around the lighthouse and beach. Parking there was scarce and expensive ($7), but worth all the trouble when we looked down from the cliff at a pod of thirty or so dolphins swimming around the headlands. Far out on the horizon, we also spotted a whale watching boat and glimpses of the whale it was tracking.

We spent Sunday in the country again (I guess that's what you do when visiting a beach town in winter). We stopped in the delightfully named Murwillumbah for lunch enroute to the Natural Arch, a beautiful but oddly little known waterfall in a national park across the Queensland border. The drive from Murwillumbah to the Natural Arch was spectacular and worth the trip in itself. We passed semi tropical farms selling lady finger bananas from unmanned roadside shelters. The passing clouds and happy cows reminded me of some of the farms we saw in Maui.

Because we had a late flight back, we had time to swing by the sprawling Gold Coast, a beach suburb dotted with highrise hotels and apartment buildings. The Gold Coast aspires to be a bit like Miami, a fashionable party scene, and achieves this in that it comes off as very un-Australian. Plenty of Aussies wouldn't go near a beach as crowded as Surfers Paradise. They have the luxury of thousands of miles of white sand beaches and only 22 million people with whom to share it.

We were feeling very upbeat about the Gold Coast, Byron and the whole region until we boarded our Jetstar flight back to Sydney. After spending 45 or so minutes on the tarmac, mechanical problems ultimately prevented us from taking off. We de-planed (I hate that phrase) and boarded a different plane, free of mechanical issues. We got as far as the runway when the captain said, "I'm afraid I have some bad news" over the PA system.

Incredibly, Sydney international airport has a curfew of 11pm. Airlines who miss the curfew get stuck with a hefty fine, in the neighborhood of $200,000. In other words, they are fined more than it costs to put a plane full of people up for the night in a Gold Coast hotel. It's funny that I'd had such a fabulous weekend and yet staying one more night was the very last thing I wanted to do. I guess I must give Jetstar credit in that they sent us to a decent hotel and paid for our buffet breakfast and got us back to Sydney in a timely fashion the next morning.

All in all, Byron isn't any different than most Australian beach towns. It's beautiful with clean white sand, clear turquoise water, mostly empty and completely worth a visit.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Katie and Jason Down Unda

My ten year high school reunion was last weekend in Orange County, California. Of course I didn't go because I'm here in Sydney, but may have considered attending if I had been nearer. However, back in July, my dear friend Katie from high school visited us in Sydney with her husband Jason. So, in a way, we staged our own stylish Troy High School reunion thousands of miles from the place where we donned our caps and gowns ten years ago.

Like most people, my life since high school seems punctuated by my different moves: Berkeley for college, Edinburgh while studying abroad, San Jose for Teach for America, Zurich when I got married and now Sydney. All the while, Katie has resided in different parts of Orange County, but visited me at each of my temporary homes. She has a keen sense of adventure that continues to inspire me.

I'll never forget the night we crammed eight people into my dorm room for a sardine-like sleepover, or when Katie lost her wallet at the cinema in Edinburgh or how she eased my anxiety when I didn't think I could sleep a wink in the 32 bed co-ed dorm room in Dublin. We've had a lot of adventures over the years and Katie has the pictures to prove them... somewhere. :)

Anyway, I was delighted that she and Jason devoted the time and funds to visit us here in Sydney over their summer holiday. They spent half a week in Cairns enjoying scuba dives off the Great Barrier Reef and bungee jumping in a rainforest canyon. Then they spent a calmer week and a half with us and my mom exploring Sydney and the surrounds. We weren't able to take any time off work, but my mom gave them excellent tours of the city and we packed the weekends full of Sydney must-sees: the Rocks Market for a Christmas ornament and a ferry ride out to Watson's Bay for Doyle's Fish and Chips and equally delicious views.

Jason's joined the US Navy and before long, he and Katie will move away from Orange County and embark on their own adventures away from home, family and friends. Katie expressed a little fear about this change and indicated that she admired my ability to pick up and create a new network of friends in a new city. I was surprised by her hesitation because I always considered her to be the fearless one. I am convinced that she won't just survive future moves, but will absolutely thrive. Indeed, I look forward to being a guest in her future home and taking a peek at the new life she'll build.