Sunday, June 26, 2005

From Melbourne to Coober Pedy!!

Hello world,

Well, I can't believe that we have been on the road in our campervan for 16 days now. We have tried at various points to get internet access to update everyone, but it has been quite sparse, I must say. Even now, at a backpacker's inn in Coober Pedy, in the middle of the desert - it is $2 for 15 minutes and the connection is painfully slow...having said that, this is going to be a rather short update.

We are alive and well and have had some really amazing adventures over the past 2 weeks or so. Melbourne was cold and rainy, but we managed to take in a few touristy sites, such as the Old Melbourne Gaul (Jail) where many criminals were housed over the past 150 years or so and several executions took place. You may be aware that many criminals were shipped over to Tasmania from England and Ireland back in the day...but when they finished serving their sentence the nearest port was Melbourne. Needless to say, it became a rather shady town. It is quite nice now, with lots of cafes and museums...

After Melbourne, we headed down the famous Great Ocean Road, which was built to rival the Pacific Coast Highway in California. At first, we weren't too convinced that it was as beautiful as the California one, but after a few hours we could see why...we made it to several beautiful rock formations just off the coast...including a group called The Twelve Apostles and they were quite stunning.

We had rainy weather all the way to Adelaide, where we stayed at a lovely caravan park just 2 kilometers from the city center. We really fell for Adelaide as we could easily walk everywhere and it is surrounded by greenery and botanical gardens on all sides...what a great city. I would recommend it to anyone! We found several yummy restuarants there, including Thai and Malaysian and lots of trendy cafes, shops, and movie theaters. We saw an interesting documentary on the Patty Hearst story that left us with more questions than answers.

We found it hard to leave Adelaide, and even though it was rainy we managed to take in the South Australian Wine Center and the South Australian Museum (lots of info on Aboriginal Culture) before we left. We headed north to a town called Tanunda in the Barossa Valley...

Ah, the Barossa...just the name conjures up so many fond memories for us now. We absolutely loved it there - everyone was soooo friendly and unpretentious...we had a complete education in wine making and tasting and every tasting was free! Imagine that in California! It wasn't very crowded, as it is winter here, and we spent so much time at each of the 10 vineyards that we visited....the speciality in the Barossa Valley is Shiraz *one of my favs* and Port. We both fell for the Port there -especially the chocolate Port and the 21 year old port we tasted at one vineyard. We stayed an extra day in the region just so we could get around to a few more vineyards. We also went to a cheese factory and sampled some delicious soft cheeses *yum* and to a gourmet foods products store called Maggie Beers. All in all, we purchased something like 14 bottles of wine and spent at least 3x our daily limit in a single day. Ah, but it was quite a good day and we vow to come back and to send all of our friends and family here if they are in the area...we will definitely be keeping an eye out for Barossa Valley wines when we visit the shops at home - we will have several recommendations when we return....some of the more famous vineyards include Peter Lehmann, Seppelsfields, Stanley Brothers, Chateau Tanunda, and St. Halett's. There is so much more to tell about the Barossa, but my time is short so, I will leave you thirsting for more!

We sadly left the Barossa Valley, but on our way North we found another wine producing region: the Clare Valley! Not too far from Barossa, the Clare Valley is famous for its Reislings *one of Mike's favs* We only stopped at one vineyard here - but it was quite interesting: Seven Hill Vineyard which is owned and operated by Jesuit priests. There is a church and a retreat house on the same property as the vineyard and you could buy sacramental wine along with regular wine in the "cellar door" or tasting room. All of the wines were quite good and you can be sure that we left with a few bottles from here as well! We now have enough wine (and beer) to last us through the desert as we head north...we hope.

From the Clare region, we headed to the southern end of the Flinders Ranges National Park and stayed in a small town called Melrose at the base of Mount Remarkable. We did a nice nature walk here and saw loads of kangaroos, sheep, and birds along the way. We explored some old historical buildings including an old abandoned brewery (the Jakas Brewery) that went out after the Depression here...we briefly entertained the notion of buying it out and starting up our own brewery, but then we noticed that a lot of the businesses in town were either for sale or boarded up and even though this was the first Frontier town in the area, there's really not a whole lot going for it now...mostly tourists passing through and having a look at the authentically restored Bluey Blundstone's Blacksmith Shop and Cafe, which serves up a mean scone with cream and jam, I must say.

From Melrose, we headed on to Wilpena Pound - inside the Flinders Ranges National Park. Quite a remarkable place - another beautiful environment that is reminiscent of Arizona with the red clay rocks all around. We did a couple of really good hikes here, including one to a lookout over the ranges and another to some Aboriginal rock paintings.

The next day, we planned to only go as far as a place called Woomera - a small military town - but when we got there, it was one of the most depressing places on earth - nothing but old abandoned houses and closed shops and a few old planes scattered about. This was once an area for bomb testing and was completely closed to the public. After the Barossa and the Flinders Ranges, we couldn't bear to stay, so we pressed on another 336 kms and rolled into Coober Pedy just as the sun was setting.

I could spend the rest of this blog explaining all about Coober Pedy - you may have heard of it or seen it in some is the center of Opal Mining in Australia and since it is in the middle of the bloody desert, it experiences many extremes in, after military men returned from WWI, they used their knowledge of living in trenches to build underground homes...and that is how people live today: underground where it is cool and they get a sort of natural air conditioning. Amazing, really. The town itself doesn't look like much at first...but after closer inspection, there is really a lot to see. We spent all morning at an underground mine and museum learning all about Opal Mining, the history of Coober Pedy and living underground. There are definitely some hardy people around here. It is hard to believe that over 4000 people live here and most are trying to "stake a claim" and strike it rich by digging for opals. The last major claims were found in the '70s but people are still digging. The landscape is dotted with old abandoned opal mines and currently functioning ones as well. For just $45, you can get a permit to dig in a 50x50 meter plot and strike it rich as well. One of the hardest parts of living here is that fresh groceries are hard to come by: a refrigerated truck brings fresh food just once a week on Thursdays. And, for entertainment, there is a drive-in movie theater, but it only shows movies once "every couple of weeks."

This afternoon, we experienced Coober Pedy as the locals do: at the local Motor Club. We saw an advert posted in the local grocery so we headed out to the dirt track and watched old beat up cars with reworked engines drive around a dirt oval while drinking cans of beer and eating hot dogs and chips (french fries, for you Americans). It was quite an interesting experience and one we will not soon forget.

After that, we headed over to the Cooper Pedy Nature Reserve, which is still actually a work in progress, so it is free to visit. Full of kangaroos, birds, reptiles, sheep, horses, and roosters - it was quite a fun place to see. The owner, Dawn, came out and gave us a personal tour. We got to go right into the enclosures with the kangaroos and pet them as well as feed a lamb that was only 4 days old! It was really great to see someone taking care of all of these abandoned and/or injured animals that would otherwise be left to die in the outback.

Well, I know you are thirsting for more details, but there's no time and my $2 coins are running out. Know that we are safe and very well and we will be heading on to Uluru (Ayres Rock) in the next 2 days. We have heard that even the most jaded are awed by it...we've seen a lot in Australia that has made our jaws drop and made us say "wow" and we are pretty sure that this won't disappoint.

Stay tuned for tales of our drive up the Stuart Highway through the middle of the desert...hopefully, we will make it up to Katherine, Darwin and Kakadu National Park within the week and maybe send along another update....until then, enjoy yourselves and keep emailing! If you've written us and we haven't written you back, we promise we are thinking of you, but there's just no time to write!!!!!

Cheers and take it easy,

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

On the road from Sydney South...

G'day, mates....well, we picked up our new home last Friday - a modified "Hi-Top" Toyota Hiace van - rented from a company called Get About Oz...

Click here to see what it looks like!

It comes equipped with a gas stove (2 burner), small frige, sink, pots & pans,
kettle and teapot (necessary when you are traveling with an irishman!), utensils, a small closet, a table and much much more!!

We bought a few things for the van on Friday and headed off on Saturday morning...we decided to head south along the coast of New South Wales, driving along the Princes Highway - also known as the A1. That first day was a bit hectic...Mike drove through rain, wind, and unsealed roads...quite a feat, let me tell you! But, we were rewarded with gorgeous coastal views of beaches, small fishing villages, tropical rainforests (!), fields of cows and dairy famrs and touristy towns. We took a small detour to a place called Pebbly Beach and sighted our first kangaroo on the beach! It was very surprising to see - very incongrous with the surroundings, I must say! We stayed near Batemans Bay the first night and figured out how to "plug in" our van so we could get power for the lights, frige, and outlets through the night. We found a "bottle shop" and bought a few beers, then w cooked up a lovely meal of lamb sausages and green beans and went to bed early. It gets dark at around 5:15pm here since it is winter, so when you are camping, you tend to go to bed quite early and get up early too!!

The next day, we had more coastal scenery, and more cattle and sheep farms, plus lunch at lovely Pambula beach. That afternoon, we made it all the way to Cape Conran for the night. We bought a steamer and enjoyed delicious steamed zucchini that night!

We continued our tour along the south coast, crossing into the state of Victoria and had lunch at a place called The Ninety Mile beach were we saw a lot of people fishing from the beach - we heard that they often fish for sharks around here!! We continued on to my personal favorite place so far - Wilsons Promontory National Park...this is the most famous National Park in all of Victoria - and I can really understand why. It was full of lush green forests, mountains, unspoiled beaches, and beautiful views of the ocean from all directions. We spent $16 AU to stay the night at an "unpowered" site - our first one of the trip -- and cooked up pasta with cream sauce and broccoli for dinner...yum! That evening, we went out in the dark to find some wombats wandering around our campsite -- small, shy pig-like animals that are actually endangered here...very funny to see them. We got some info on hikes to do in the park and headed out the next morning for a 3 hour hike out to a place called Tongue Point starting from Darby Saddle. It was a crazy hike through all different types of environments, pretty strenuous uphills and downhill sections - but the views were definitely worth it. We will try to get some more photos up soon so you can get an idea of what it was the end of the hike, we were sweaty and tired but we felt great...

I neglected to mention that Mike came down with a slight cold - sore throat, drippy nose - the first day we left Sydney -- and has been recovering ever since...AND he did ALL of the driving for the first 4 days because I was too scared to drive on the left-hand side of the road with a manual transmission! I have been the mapreader/navigator/photographer, but Mike really did all the work...

We left Wilsons Promontory Nat'l Park after seeing a few emus crossing the road and hoping that we would be back there again someday. I would DEFINITELY recommend that place to anyone...

We headed off to Phillips Island...a small island that reminded us a lot of Nantucket...a small bridge connected the mainland to the island and there were lots of touristy things to do and see...mostly in the summertime, though. It was pretty deserted - and we could understand why - some sort of cold front blew in and it was unbeliveably windy there. We were pretty cold that night in the van, but our campervan park was sheletered and contained a youth hostel, bar, and restaurant as well...

I decided to brave driving today and actually took to it quite well almost immediately...maybe it has something to do with being left-handed, I don't know...anyway, we drove out to the furthest point on Phillips Island and viewed some rocks called The Nobbies and Seal Rocks where the largest colony of fur seals in the world live...we passed by a place called Penguin Point where "Little Penguins" come to shore every evening. There was also a Koala Conservation Center on the island - there is no shortage of interesting animals in Australia!!

We decided to leave the windy island and head into Melbourne. I drove all the way in city traffic and had no problems at all. There is a strange system for the toll roads here that we were warned about before we came, so we stopped off at a gas station and bought an "all day" toll pass. We made it to our campervan park and took the bus into the city (about 20-30 min ride).

Melbourne is very much like a European city...there are outdoor cafes around every corner and a tram system that goes all through the city. We have only been here for a few hours, so we have a lot more exploring to do - but it is quite cold and windy here in this coastal town so we might have to explore the inside of a few pubs...

Hope you are enjoying our blog....we are having a great time and loving every minute of our journey....

Christy (& Mike)

P.S. Christy is reading "The Da Vinci Code" and Mike is reading "Angels & Demons" and we are both totally engrossed!!

Friday, June 10, 2005

More Travels

As usual, the past two days have been action-packed. Yesterday we took in a nice walk through the botanical gardens and the grounds of Government house (the governor of NSW resides here). We walked from the gardens to Woolloomooloo, where we ate some traditional aussie pies, which were yummy! We went from Woolloomoolloo to King's Cross, the famous seedy area of Sydney. From there we took a train to Circular Quays to take in the nighttime Sydeny skyline and an Imax movie titled "Sharks 3D". We moved from Imax to Star City, Sydney's famous casino (Don't worry, we've still got our shirts!!) After the casino we had a tasty Indian dinner and headed home to Engadine(our base) after that....

Stay tuned for further updates..

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Sights of Sydney

Well, we've been quite busy for the past few days seeing the sights of Sydney...we went to Darling Harbor and Sydney Harbor (to see the famous Opera House and the Harbor Bridge), through "the Rocks" on market day...walked through Hyde Park and down Oxford Street...we've done a coastal walk from Bondi Beach to a place called Coogee...we took a ferry to Manly and walked the beach there...we stuffed ourselves on sushi...we went to Sydney University (the oldest uni in Australia - it was modeled on Cambridge!)...we avoided the touristy Bridgeclimb but we did walk all the way across the Harbor Bridge...we went on a ferris wheel at Luna Park...took the train back to the city and went to the top of the AMP tower to see a view of the city at sunset...had a lovely meal of Spanish tapas...whew! All of that in just one week!

We've uploaded all of our photos to a site called snapfish.
You'll have to log in to see them, but click the link below to get started and see where we've been!!

Click here to see all of our photos of Sydney!!

Hope you are all keeping well. Keep in touch - we love hearing from you - so keep posting comments!!

No worries, mate!

~Christy & Mike

Friday, June 03, 2005

G'day from Sydney

Well, we left San Fran at 10pm on Tuesday evening (may 31) and after a 14-hour flight on United Airlines - we spent most of the time sleeping, or in my case listening to my iPOD! - we arrived at 7am on Thursday morning Sydney time (june 2)!

We made it through customs & immigration with no hassle and were met by Mike's friend is always great to arrive in a new country and to be met someone you know!

So far, we've had two fun-filled days already...after a shower and a cup of Irish tea, we headed off to Botany Bay to see the place where Captain Cook landed...we had a look around and I had fun checking out the local intertidal organisms - snails, anemones, limpits, chitons, urchins, sponges...then we went to a whale watching point and scanned the coastline for migrating whales...even though we didn't see any whales, the coastline was quite beautiful! We had dinner at the local pub in Mossie's neighborhood and tasted a few of the local australian beers...

Today was even better....we headed off to the Blue Mountains - exploring the Blue Mountains National Park from a town called Katoomba - and decided to do a 2 and 1/2 hour hike from Echo Point to the base of the Scenic Railway and back...we were rewarded with awesome views of the famous "three sisters" rock formations, eucalyptus-filled forests, and was a gorgeous day and although we were quite exhausted after the hike - we all agreed that it was worth it and we were better for it...we ate a late lunch at a fish & chip shop and i discovered what "chicken salt" is...then, we headed back and stopped off at a local "aussie" bar for a few beers and a "meat raffle" - although we didn't win any meat we did take in a lot of the local culture.

That brings us up to this moment...tomorrow we will head to downtown Sydney on the train and do some of the touristy stuff...we will try to get some photos up soon, so check back in a few days!

Happy Summer (or winter if you are in the Southern Hemisphere!)

-Christy & Mike