Brooklyn is home to a lot of young, hip Millennials. Would Ageism be a factor in my search for a room to rent? Turned out… it wasn’t.

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Fresh greens for the holidays.

On a recent visit from Irvington to Brooklyn, my brother took my sister aside, and, out of ear shot from me, told her with pity saturating his voice that I wasn’t likely to find a room to rent.  My prospects were probably nil.  Early on I had contacted a high school friend who has been living in Brooklyn since college and told her I was looking for a place.  Her response was something to the effect that people looking for rooms were young people.

I have to admit it did seem daunting.  Brooklyn has gentrified and is gentrifying still, drawing young professionals from Manhattan to its more friendly, quaint neighborhoods.  On numerous times in the past, while out to dinner with my son, I’ve looked around at a sea of Forever 21- fresh faces and wondered if I could blend in without having, what I perceived to be an arrow pointing down at my head reading, “Mom’s in town visiting.”

With some trepidation, I stuck my big toe in to the Roomi app and the Listing Project website, looked around, and then dove in head first and fired off some emails.

Listing Project was recommended to me by a friend’s daughter who lives in Brooklyn.  It’s a no fee, curated (no brokers or third party services) weekly email that caters to artists and other creative (that word again) types searching for everything from studio space to sublets and long term rentals.  The lister posts pictures, price, location, particulars, and info about him or herself.  On average, I found ages to be between 28 and 40.  Oh dear.

Two postings looked promising–the first advertised two professional women in their 30s looking for someone respectful, neat, who wanted a safe haven to come home to.  The other caught my eye–two gay comedians.  Maybe they’d be more forgiving?  My moving in might provide them with some good material for future acts:  The Golden Girl(s) meets Will & Grace?

Zilp zip, nada!

I soldiered on.

No response.

I tried the Roomi app and finally heard from a woman who appeared to be in her 50s.  The location was perfect but upon arriving the building looked like a fire trap.  I followed Maria (names have been changed to protect the innocent) down a very narrow hallway hotter than Hades reeking of cat pee, to a small room still overflowing with the 20- something- tenant’s eerily childish belongings.  Pictures are deceiving. My other roommate would be a young man who just immigrated from South America.  I liked Maria very much.  She had come from Brazil fifteen years ago and was supporting a mother with Alzheimer’s back home. But this is what you get for $1200. a month?!

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I enjoyed meeting Maria, but I couldn’t see myself living here.

I did hear from a woman my age who contacted me about a room, but she mentioned it was way out in City Island and, “You’d never know you were in NYC.”  Isn’t that the whole point?  It was nice to be contacted though.

I persevered, dispelled negative thoughts when they arose, and meditated on exactly what I wanted to manifest.

Next, I heard back from a Listing Project prospect, a psychoanalyst and English Lit professor at CUNY, who was “open to all.”  I had no idea how old the person was or what gender, but on a cold windy evening, I was warmly greeted by a young, good -looking guy in a white button down shirt and khakis–early 30s maybe–originally from Vermont. When I stated that I was surprised he answered my email (I could hear my son scolding me, “Stop saying that!”), Monroe replied, “Why?  I think what you’re doing is cool.”  He told me his mom was relocating to Ireland, and that her fiance was from Camden, Maine. The place wasn’t furnished and he wanted me to split a broker’s fee, so it didn’t work out.  But, WOW, I was encouraged. I recall Sally Field’s Oscar win response, “You like me. You really like me!

Shortly after I heard back from three more young listers who were interested. I met Jen and Jeremy a couple in their 30s who advertised, “We love green spaces, outdoor activities, radical ideas, and non violent communication. Communal living a plus.” O.k.a.y….? Maybe they’re communists?

He actually was a former professional cyclist who now manages a bike shop in Manhattan, and she works in early childhood art education and is studying herbology. Jen’s mom was visiting from Texas when I showed up. Did I detect a smirk? I wondered what she thought of me as a possible roommate.  Again, just the sweetest people, but the place was tiny and living with a couple might be a tad too close.  Besides, the next morning I was meeting a young woman to see what might be the perfect place.

I had arranged to meet Kim at 11:00 at her apartment only two blocks from my son and brother’s place.  Kim is a 32 year- old freelance art director “who likes to illustrate and make puppets on the side” and shares an apartment with only one other roommate and was subleasing her furnished bedroom AND WORKROOM/STUDIO for nine months to attend to a family matter back home in Texas.  We had, what I felt was an instant rapport, the place was perfect and in my price range, utilities included.  Her roommate was also 32, an archivist for a non profit and described as very laid back and considerate.  Since she wasn’t around, we could FaceTime later if I was chosen. Kim was bombarded with emails to see the place, and she would make a decision the next day.  I left a little hopeful...something just felt right. 

On pins and needles the following day, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and texted Kim late in the afternoon.  When she texted back and asked if I minded if some tenants in the building smoked pot (hell no), I knew I had the place!

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My building in Bed Stuy.

And so it goes.

I believe I really did manifest the perfect situation–one roommate and studio space to boot! Unheard of in these parts.

What I find most amazing is how welcoming and open minded these young people are.  This experience reinforces that old thinking based on experiences from the past begets the same old future.  The science of neuroplasticity says that the nervous system has the capacity to create new neural pathways and connections–we can retrain our brains and thinking –to create a vision of the future we want.  Maybe ageism is something we perpetuate?

Recently that same Brooklyn brother took me aside at another gathering and stated that he secretly didn’t think I was going to be able to make the big move. He told me that he was really impressed I had made it happen.

I continue to be blown away.  I am incredibly happy.  What can I manifest next?

Making the Transition from Maine to NYC,the village of Irvington,on the Hudson,offers the best of both worlds with scenic water views, parks, and a short train ride to Grand Central.

With its many amenities and progressive vibe, Irvington, home to legendary Washington Irving, is the kind of friendly place Millennials want to move to after a stint in the City and babies start arriving.  My sister and her family moved to the village center over twenty years ago because of great public schools and an easy commute to Manhattan (36 to 55 minutes) on Metro North Railroad’s Hudson line.  An almost empty-nester, she’s given me a place to stay (I’ve been as helpful as I can possibly be) while looking for a room to rent in Brooklyn.

Irvington has attracted industry big names and celebrities alike. The first African American woman millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker, made her fortune creating a hair straightening formula. Eileen Fisher has her corporate headquarters here, along with a retail shop and second hand outlet. I recently passed Meredith Vieira on a walk in the woods, and Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones are the newest neighbors.

While Irvington has its mansions and tony neighborhoods, it does offer condominiums, cooperative apartments, rental units, and some affordable housing. Taxes are high, then again, garbage pick up each week is Monday, Thursday, and recycling Wednesday.

I feel like I’ve been on vacation as my days include reading the New York Times each morning starting with the Arts and Business sections, taking long walks on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, walking the dog, Cactus, in the 400-acre Irvington Woods, and enjoying train excursions to Manhattan.  Irvington is a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll 19 miles away.

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Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

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One of my favorite houses on the trail.

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Another view on the Croton Aqueduct trail. I love trees, even more so since reading “The Overstory.”

I  so love the train!  Riding off-peak is $19.50 round trip. In less than an hour, Metro North deposits you in the magical world of Grand Central, and you are swept along with the tides of humanity to all the dizzying din that is NYC. This apt quote by Charles Baudelaire captures it: “What strange phenomena we find in a great city. All we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.” Check out on Instagram, Subway Creatures.

I recently met up with a friend from Maine who was baby sitting her grand child in Manhattan.  When I explained taking the subway and locating her address, she responded, “Wow, I don’t know how to do that.” Another recent field trip was to“The Whitney”, The High Line, and a new Swedish Bakery Fabrique, that boasts the best, ever, cardamon Rolls. I’m getting around.

Best of all, I qualify for senior discount MTA subway and buss fares!  A single ride is $2.75: senior, $1.35;  A 30-day unlimited pass is $127.00 a month:  Senior, $63.50; A 7-day unlimited pass is $33.00: senior, $16.50  Something to be grateful for (I list them daily) in this youth-obsessed culture.

How lucky am I to be living again with one of my siblings at this age!  We’ve been able to support each other during times of big change for us both.  After being the sole occupant of my home for so long, I’m really enjoying sharing my space. I even think I said a few years ago, I’m kinda tired of living alone.

Well, this will sorely be tested as I try to find a room to rent in the city and live again with a roommate, more likely roommates, after 40 years. It would be so easy to just pay rent here with my sister, but I know deep in my heart, I’d disappoint myself.  So… this begs the question:

Can a woman my age find a room to rent in the fresh, young, cutting edge world of Brooklyn?

The answer will surprise you.

I’ve always wanted to live in NYC for a year. With my house rented, again, I’m going on a wing and a prayer (and a home equity line of credit) this time at age 66!

My nine month sojourn traveling solo Down Under almost four years ago did change me.  Although I have enjoyed being home again in Maine for a couple of years, it’s difficult to return home after a long time because I can’t go home and be the person I was.  There’s been a change. Another adventure has been beckoning.  This time to New York City… a place many consider the greatest city in the world!

How this all came about started with an article about the twenty-fifth anniversary of Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way.” Billed as “Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self,” it has sold over four million copies since its publication, and advocates writing free form in longhand three pages each morning, and taking yourself out once a week on an artist date.  Doing the morning pages first thing, allows you to dump any negative monkey mind thinking clogging up your brain and be more open (mindful) to being creative–a buzzword that seems to be every where in today’s market/workplace.

I had completed the eight week course a couple of times in the past, and in February found a box of books, including ‘The Artist’s Way” and a binder of morning pages I’d written before making my solo trip, which wasn’t even on my radar at the time.  I took this as a sign (synchronicity) and wrote the pages again.  My practice also included meditation, and, low and behold, the winds of change swept me up again.  Before I knew what I was doing, I had my house rented…  to the perfect couple (he’s from New Zealand).  Just like before, everything seems to be falling into place.

New York City is a different animal.  A beast of many wiles with an insatiable appetite for culture, fashion, entertainment, celebrity, and fabulous food.  It has to be tamed or its sharp claws will slice into your pockets and leave you destitute.  But it also has an infectious energy that lures you in.  And finding an apartment! My brother jokingly said recently he had to get married to find a place.

That younger brother has been in NYC since the late 80s and was smart to buy a place in Brooklyn in 2001. The house was in a seedy, dangerous neighborhood with burned out buildings around the corner and across the street (and always a place to park).  It is now hip and gentrified (and hard to park) and a great investment.  My son, a Pratt Institute grad, rents from him, but no room in the inn for me. Fortunately, a sister lives a 50- minute- Metro North train ride away in the lovely village of Irvington, on the Hudson. I have a soft place to fall.  And Costco is nearby!

I’m living out of my car again with the basics I think I’ll need.  Renting my home and moving again has been stressful, but I’ve become a minimalist and that has alleviated some of the pain.

I’ve sworn this is the last time I’ll do this.

But then again… Asheville, NC, sounds nice.

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out: Traveling Solo at 63… on a Budget!

Perth, the most isolated city in the world: No longer a well-kept secret.

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Kings Park state war memorial looking out over Matilda Bay, Perth.

I consider myself lucky…again… to have had the experience of visiting one of Australia’s other great cities, for an entire month, and as the guest of a well connected native, my friend and travel mentor, Gayl.  I had planned this to be the final destination of my Australian travels because I knew I could let my guard down and really relax, all the while enjoying 5 star hospitality.

Perth, the most isolated city in the world, is the capital of the Australian state of Western Australia and is the fastest growing capital in the country with a population close to two million.  It also became known as the “City of Light” when city residents lit their house lights and street lights as American astronaut John Glenn passed overhead while orbiting the earth on  Friendship 7 in 1962.  The city repeated the act as Glenn passed overhead in the space shuttle Discovery in 1998.  By all accounts, Perth is a fantastic, sunny place to live, especially for those who love outdoor living.

A center piece of the city is Kings Park and Botanic Gardens, one of the largest inner city parks in the world( 400.6 hectares/989 acres).  It’s a restful place to amble through grassy lawns and cultivated gardens containing a diversity of Western Australia flora or explore untamed bush land.  During the summer months, residents can enjoy outdoor cinema, listen to concerts under the stars, or run with their children in play areas. One thing I immediately noticed about Perth was its good city planning.  Public access to river frontage, beaches, and reserves on beautiful walkways and bike paths are plentiful.

 

I happened to be visiting Perth during the late winter/early spring (late August mid September) and found it quite cold–and that coming from a Northern New England woman!  The fact is a lot of folks don’t heat their homes much since most of the year is quite warm.  Funny how quickly you can become acclimated to warmer temperatures!

Perth has a bustling central business district that includes a 700 million dollar Cathedral Square redevelopment.  At the center is the former state Treasury Building (called by locals “The Treasury”) that now houses numerous high end shops and restaurants and the luxury Como, the Treasury Hotel.  Featured at the Como is a diverse collection of art works including a series of botanical illustrations by well known WA artist Philippa Nikulinsky.  A neighbor of Gayl’s, I was able to meet her and visit her studio.

Fremantle is a neighboring part of Perth’s metropolitan area and a port city known for its maritime history,  Victorian architecture, and Fremantle Prison, which housed  convicts from the 1850s to 1991.  Home to Gayl’s husband Tom growing up, he treated me to a private tour of his favorite hang outs in this trendy, and laid back city.

Ever the consummate host, Gayl kept me busy with a wide array of activities, great books to read, and, especially, interesting people to meet, many living right in her neighborhood, in the suburb of Dalkeith.   Through a friend of hers, I was invited to join a group of women artists who get together each week to paint.  I met yet another  artist and neighbor, Jennifer Hopewell, known for her beautiful landscapes of WA, who was getting her home studio ready for big exhibition in December.

Another neighbor, a vivacious and spry 80 year-0ld Betty, is an expert in Orthomolecular Medicine (nutritional medicine) and gave me a reading of vitamin and mineral deficiencies I had by looking at my face and hands and doing some muscle testing.  Another time Gayl took me to a yoga sound healing class where for almost two hours, the instructor played an assortment of  vibrating instruments like the didgeridoo, while we lay prone or in any comfortable position. I tingled for two days!

A short walk from Gayl’s home is the Chapel at Carmelite Monastery.  The chapel features paintings of the stations of the Cross, done by the well know Australian artist, Wim Boissevain when he was only twenty-two.

Other excursions included a trip to Tom’s farm in Keysbrook, an hour south of Perth.  Tom grows a variety of fruits and vegetables including edible, sweet, lemons called lemonades, which are delicious!

A neighbor of Tom’s near Keysbrook recently completed building a spectacular home high is the hills and celebrated with a Friday night bonfire/ cookout party featuring fabulous views.

I visited with Gayl’s friend Robyn and husband Jon, who over the years, have created a beautiful home and garden oasis.  Robyn has started a second career creating The Short Street Kitchen, which includes her raw food cooking demonstrations, a gourmet lunch, and garden tours, proving it’s never too late to follow your dreams.

My visit to Perth was really a family affair and even Gayl’s mother Mabs got in on the act and took me to a reserve of native flora and introduced me to many of Western Australia’s unique flowers that grow in the wild.

There are many places to eat and enjoy the scenery in Perth, but a favorite is the Odyssea Beach Cafe in City Beach, with its stunning ocean views and modern Australian menu.

But there’s nothing like a home-cooked meal to feed both body and soul, and most nights Gayl put her culinary talents to work with a dinner that rivaled any restaurant in town.

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One of many terrific dinners prepared by Gayl, with Tom, Gayl, Katrina, and Gayl’s mom, Mabs.

How was I ever going to leave all his behind and return to Maine?  This question kept replaying in my mind as the weeks went by and my departure day drew closer.  Of course, I missed family and friends, but returning to my old life is impossible because I am not the same person.  I”m reminded of a quote I heard some where: “Each stage of your life will require a different you.”  I’ve since rented my house for another 10 months.  It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

In the meantime, the Porters had one more treat in store for me before I left, and that was a three day trip to the Margaret River region three hours south of Perth.  Tucked away in Australia’s southwest corner, the area is known for its premium wines (over 120 wineries to explore), food, and surf beaches on the Indian Ocean.

I really don’t want this adventure to end.  Big question:  Does it have to?

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out: Traveling Solo at 63 on a Budget!

Hitting the Wall–The Travel Wall–

Broome, a Beach Resort Town in Western Australia’s Kimberley Region

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A view of Cable Beach, almost perfectly flat,  looking out to Gantheaume Point where dinosaur tracks are revealed in the beach’s rocks during low tide.

It was hard leaving the now familiar Kununurra, where I was able to stay for almost ten weeks, to the unknown of Broome where I didn’t really have a contact.  Since this was August and still the high season, accommodations, even airbnb, were expensive, so I booked a shared room for six at the Kimberley Klub hostel, an easy walk to town that also featured free rides to nearby Cable Beach twice a day.

This was my second hostel stay in Australia, and I should have known what I was in for when I read a review on Trip Advisor: “Crowded rooms, dirty common areas, endless loud music, and pay-extra-for-everything amenities, or should I say basics.” I found this beach resort town over-rated and expensive.  But maybe my impressions were colored by the fact that after eight months on the road solo, I had “hit the wall,” the travel wall, that is.

Thoughts of the future were also slowly cutting into the present, and I was finding it hard to resist the urge to pick at the scabs of worry about what I would do after this trip.  My plans are nebulous.  Before I had even entertained the idea of traveling to New Zealand and Australia, I had decided to quit my teaching job and take my retirement. I was going totally on intuition and what “felt right” and ignoring the aftermath of that decision which placed me with an uncertain financial future.  I could envision Suze Orman shaking her finger at me and saying you’ll be sorry.

Let me be perfectly clear: This is the best thing I’ve ever done!  But as I near the end of my trip, I’ve had to keep up a tough volley between the comforts of security versus risk-taking. The exercise of this adventure has helped me develop some muscle of the mind, strengthening my resolve to be comfortable with the unknown.

The Kimberley Klub did live up to its sour reviews, but there were, surprisingly, several other “mature”guests staying there like  what appeared to be a group of “church ladies” on a little holiday, a woman constantly on her cell phone, supposedly a journalist, several permanent residents that included a very sweet 80-year-old man with perpetual questions regarding his flip phone, a couple of guys always cozying up to young women for conversation, and Heather, the sweet, next door neighbor I befriended.

Heather was a long term resident who worked at one of the hotels during tourist season.  She was sharing a six bed room along with two young women residents who were not very nice to her (the scene there was a tad depressing).  Thanks to Heather’s recommendation, I moved after five days to Beaches of Broome, a much nicer place that offers dorms as well as private, en suite rooms, and is a short walk to Cable Beach.

Broome is a small town with a history centered around the pearling industry.  Its multicultural flavor harkens back to the many Japanese, Chinese, Malay, and Aboriginal people who came to work under dangerous and squalid conditions as divers, many of whom lost their lives.  Today, Broome’s pearls are produced on modern sea farms and are still exported all over the world.  Many beautiful showrooms line the streets of downtown Chinatown, but inexpensive pearls can be found at the Courthouse Market on Saturday and Sundays.

Along with beautiful beaches, Town Beach boasts the natural phenomenon, Staircase to the moon. Visible from March to October for a couple of days each month, you can watch an orange, full moon slowly rise from the sea over the exposed tidal flats of Roebuck Bay, its reflection creating golden steps.  I was lucky to be in Broome at the right time and had a front row seat on the veranda of the Mangrove Resort Hotel. With accompanying didgeridoo music, it was hypnotic.

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Staircase to the moon as seen from The Mangrove Hotel Resort at Town Beach. A full moon rises up over the exposed tidal flats Roebuck Bay 2 -3 days a month from March to October.

Tourism has exploded in the last few years as Broome has become a gateway to the Kimberley region and most tour packages originate here.  This would account for the high prices, inadequate tourist infrastructure (the visitor center needs to put in a public bathroom!) and the amount of building going on.  But it is still worth the trip with places like Cape Leveque, 149 miles (240km) north at the tip of the Dampier Peninsula, with its red rock and deserted white beaches.

It wasn’t tough to say goodbye because I was heading all the way south to the beautiful city of Perth to stay with friends Gayl and Tom on the last leg of my journey.  I saved the best for last according to Gayl. Oh, the places you’ll go and the people you’ll meet. Truer words were never spoken.

A “Boomer”and Tripping My Brains Out: Traveling Solo for Nine Months at 63 in New Zealand and Australia…on a Budget.

Saying goodbye to Kununurra and the Kimberley Region: The “Last Frontier”of the Australian Outback.

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At Middle Springs just outside of Kununurra. During the wet season, there are waterfalls and great swimming here. Stunning photo by Landi Bradshaw.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  Just getting to this remote and wild part of the world is rare for most Australians let alone Americans.  A house-sitting gig for four weeks is in the realm of extraordinary.  Getting to extend my stay another five weeks is unthinkable thanks to the generosity of my young friend Victoria.

This adventure has been one cliff hanger after another as opportunities have miraculously presented themselves, and I’ve stepped into the unknown.  If I had postponed this trip for another year for whatever weak reason(s) (not enough money,not the right time, etc.), my stay here would have looked totally different or not happened at all because since my visit, my hostess has left her five year nursing job in Kununurra and moved to New South Wales to start a new chapter in her life.

When the spirit moves, don’t let “monkey mind” distract and confuse the heart’s quiet call to action.

I might have missed going on a sunrise photo shoot with Kununurra resident and photographer Landi Bradshaw to Middle Springs, known to most locals but not many tourists.  During the summer months the Springs are flush with waterfalls and deep swimming holes, but a haunting beauty is revealed underneath like the ancient ruins of a lost civilization during the dry season.

 My stay in the Kimberley would not have been complete without a sunset cruise on Lake Argyle, a man-made lake and Australia’s largest expanse of fresh water  (Ord River Irrigation Scheme) whose water volume is forty-one times that of Sydney Harbor.  The locals recommended Lake Argyle Cruises, the original tour company on Lake Argyle that specializes in observing wildlife.  The lake boasts 26 species of native fish, rock wallabies inhabit the rocky crevices along the shore, and recent research estimates that  25,000 fresh water crocodiles thrive in its waters.

Along with about forty other people of all ages, we enjoyed commentary from our bearded skipper passionate about his job, along with beer,bubbly, a dip in the tepid waters, and a sunset that didn’t disappoint.  This is a must-do tour for anyone visiting the region!

I was really going to miss the early morning ritual of taking my house-sitting charge and new found buddy, Banjo the Australian Kelpie, to the irrigation channel for a run and a swim.

This is a popular spot for bird watching, dog walking, or jogging.  I highly recommend taking early morning walks, or walks at any time of the day, free from distractions like iPods because you might miss something. Which leads me to one more salt water crocodile anecdote.

While I was away at Auvergne Station, I’d read a Facebook post by Victoria on the Kununurra Community Noticeboard about a salt water crocodile siting at the channel where I took Banjo each morning. Victoria knows a “saltie from a “freshie,” yikes!   After returning to Kununurra a week later, I had forgotten about it and went to the channel as always.  But as I was walking along and throwing stones in the water for Banjo to swim after, I kept noticing that the hawk-like birds, normally seen on any given morning, were following and flying awfully close.  At one point I was waving my arms over head feeling like human prey in a Hitchcock movie.  After changing direction, I felt I was still being pursued, so I decided to leave and drove further up the road to a different channel.

When I returned, Victoria  was home after working a late shift, and I relayed my unsettling experience.  She looked at me wide-eyed and stated: “Didn’t you hear?  A friend of mine also saw a salt water croc at exactly the same location yesterday!”  I was initially stunned, but not before I realized that the birds had been warning me!  I honestly believe that.

This incident, along with the many hours I’ve spent outdoors exploring this vast and sacred wilderness have brought me that much closer to understanding the limits we impose on ourselves and our experiences with the world and nature by relying only on the five senses.  What else might we be missing?  There are probably little miracles happening around us all the time, yet we fail to “see”them.

Traveling has helped me grow my awareness in a big way, but there are lots of little ways of raising awareness.  Breaking mundane habits is a start.  I like this quote by author and mountaineer, Jon Krakauer:

“Joy is in everything and anything we might experience.  We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.”

I fly to Broome, a beach resort town on the Indian Ocean in the western Kimberly region , in a couple of days.  But this time there won’t be anyone to greet me.  I’m on my own for a couple of weeks.  This brings to mind another quote to help bolster my sometimes flagging, adventurous spirit:

“The universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

Joseph Campbell

 

 

 

 

 

 

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out: Traveling Solo at 63 for Nine Months to New Zealand and Australia…on a Budget!

A True Outback Adventure On One of the Greatest Roads in Australia: The Gibb River Road.

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One of my favorite places on the Gibb River Road, Bell Gorge. What a swimming hole!

Since blowing up my life and walking off into the unknown eight months ago, I can say I have, miraculously, been on a trajectory of synchronicity.

Before leaving for my Auvergne Station adventure, my new Kununurra friend Jude( who also loaned me a car for two months) asked if I wanted to go camping for six days on the Gibb River Road when I returned. Months earlier, I had looked into the possibility of a tour of this region only to find out that the cheapest package was over $2,500.00 and all tours originated in Broome eleven hours away.  I figured you can’t do everything, and then…BOOM! …out of the blue ( “The blue” is a synonym for God, higher power, the Divine etc….) this invitation appeared.

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.We drove from Kununurra to Halls Creek and then picked up the Gibb River Road at Fitzroy Crossing. “Permitted for 4 W’s and AWD’s only.

The Gibb River road was created in 1950 to make way for “road trains” or semi trailers carrying live cattle to abattoirs.  The Gibb is famous for its two lane, corrugated, dirt road that cuts a 440 mile (660km) line across the Kimberley from Derby to Kununurra.

Jude and her husband Ian came to the Kimberley region, specifically, Halls Creek, as young teachers, eventually moving to Kununurra, and settling there. Twenty-six years ago, they made this iconic journey with their young daughter.  This is a woman who knows camping in the wilderness, 4-wheeling over deep, rutted roads, crossing harrowing creeks, and packing a vehicle with such precision it takes your breath away.  Armed with her Toyota Land Cruiser, two spare tires, camping gear, and plenty to eat, we drove three and a half hours our first day to Halls Creek for a visit and then proceeded west another hour to Mary Pool, a beautiful, free campsite for the night.

I’ve never done much camping, but I now consider it one of life’s great pleasures, especially in this remote and wild part of the world.  The Milky way is visible here. The night sky is magic to behold… a super dome of stars that fire to the horizon.

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A view of the night sky and the Milky Way, the Kimberley, Australia. Courtesy of freenaturestock.com.  My iPhone 5 just couldn’t capture it!

The next morning we headed out to Fitzroy Crossing, got on the Gibb River Road, and made our way to Tunnel Creek National Park with its stunning, natural cave, and later continued to Windjana Gorge, the bottom of what was a tropical sea millions of years ago and is now a gorge of black and orange rock.

A walk in this valley is a little Jurassic Park-like.  Plenty of fresh water crocodiles sun themselves by water, and it is hard to resist running your hands over the coiled remains of ancient, fossilized sea creatures etched into the gorge walls.

It was soon time to think about where to camp our second night as we headed to our next destination, Bell Gorge, when Jude pulled out an APT Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge brochure.  APT Luxury Touring and Cruising started back in 1927 in Melbourne, Australia, and is still a family-owned business today.  Their Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge, located on Indigenous-owned land, provides luxury accommodations for their group tours and to people like ourselves traveling in our own car.  We figured we deserved this unique experience with all the comforts including fine dining, and ended up spending TWO nights(my treat). It was Amazing.

Bell Gorge, a short drive from the wilderness lodge, is a major and must-see attraction. After lounging (my favorite thing to do) and a late morning breakfast, we spent the better part of the day hiking, relaxing, and chatting it up with fellow travelers at Bell Gorge. One adventurous soul we met was a seventy-year-young woman touring with a 20- something backpacker group!  The Gibb River Road hosts a myriad of travelers and traveling styles.

After two relaxing days, we were back on the road stopping at Galvan’s Gorge before making our way to the Mt. Barnett Road House and Manning Gorge campground for the night.

This Kimberley region truly is one of the last, real wilderness areas on earth, and part of what makes this trip so special is driving the dusty, red, rutted, two- lane road accessible only to 4WD vehicles. AUSTRALIA, NEVER NEVER PAVE THIS ROAD! 

But I say this after I learned a couple of things from Jude, who traveled a lot with her engineer father.  Faster is not better on these deeply grooved roads. A speed no more than 80km is recommended, and tire pressure should be at about 28-30PSI.  If heading down a steep section of road and the caravan or trailer you’re hauling starts to sway back and forth, you step on the gas, which seems counter intuitive.  You do not hit the brakes.  Jude has come upon, more than once in this part of the world, accident scenes involving flipped caravans and the scattered remains of a retirement dream gone terribly wrong.

Road houses along the way are a place to refuel, fill water containers, buy snacks, and get local news about road and travel conditions.  Since cell phone coverage isn’t available, it it also common to see notices tacked up on the wall, like the one I saw at the Mt. Barnett Road House, from worried family members back home who have not heard from their grey nomad parents for days.  Uttered in any language it’s essential to: Be prepared!

On the fifth day we headed to Home Valley Station for a quick lunch on our loop back to El Questro Wilderness Park to camp for our last night.  The now familiar Cockburn Range loomed again in the distance like some ancient fortress built by the Ancestor Beings of Dreamtime.   It is just one of many vistas in this wildly remote part of the world that leaves an imprint of wonder on all who visit.

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Leaving Home Valley Station and crossing the Pentecost River with the magical Cockburn Range in the distance.

I’d been to the El Questro park on a day trip to Zebedee Springs and El Questro Gorge when I first arrived in Kununurra two months ago, and I was happy to visit a second time and camp.  Since our needs were simple and required no plug-ins for electricity, we set up by a quiet creek under the stars.

The grande finale on the sixth and final day of our trip was a stop at Emma Gorge Resort down the road and part of the El Questro Wilderness Park for a hike to Emma Gorge followed by a relaxing lunch on the verandah at the Emma Gorge restaurant.  How incredibly lucky I am!  Or is it simply luck???

Remarkable opportunities like this just keep popping up all over the place like bright blue forget-me-not wildflowers after a spring rain. Because of my good fortune, I’ve been  making a point each day to note all the things I’m grateful for in my life. It seems when you get on this joy and gratitude frequency, you radiate a positive energy that draws more positive things into your life, which in turn, make this Oh- so- fleeting life more fun.

To quote actor Jamie Foxx: “You better have fun. Because you’re going to be gone in a minute.”

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out! At 63, Traveling Solo for Nine Months in New Zealand and Australia…on a Budget.

Living the Pastoral Life at Auvergne Station, in the Northern Territory !

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The young stockmen/women taking a break for lunch out on the job at Auvergne Station in the Northern Territory. One of my favorite experiences!

The life of a cowboy on a huge ranch has always had a certain romantic appeal.  Broad-brimmed hats, wide open spaces, sunshine, and a dazzling night sky peppered to the horizon with billions of stars are probably just quixotic notions when in reality it’s probably a lot of hard work.  I found out it is a lot of hard, dirty, bloody  work, but it was one of my favorite experiences, and, I maintain,– it is romantic.

My stay in the east Kimberley region stretched into July when my young friend Victoria managed to arrange for me a stay at Auvergne Station in the Northern Territory.  A good friend of hers is one of very few women station managers in the business, and she agreed to room and board in exchange for doing some work.

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A picture of me at the Northern Territory Border on my way to Auvergne Station, an hour and a half east of Kununurra in Western Australia. I’m heading for a week to work and  experience station life.

Pastoral Farming, is a form of agriculture aimed at producing livestock (beef cattle), rather than selling crops. Pastoral farmers are known as pastoralists up in this area.  Stations are huge cattle properties ( thousands, and in some cases, millions of acres ) which are rich in Australian history and have traditionally been the training grounds for many young people trying out a career in agriculture.  It’s a positive situation all the way around since pastoral companies need large numbers of employees with various skill levels.  Many young men and women from all walks of life dreaming of escaping to a life in the bush have gone on to climb the pastoral employment ladder while others have returned to family farms with a much broader experience than they would have otherwise.

Twenty-eight- year-old Emily Andersen, the station manager at Auvergne station, is one such young person who worked her way up the through the ranks and is one of few women, and the only woman manager in the Consolidated Pastoral Company (CPC) which owns and operates 16 cattle stations.  Emily joined CPC in 2008 as a cook, worked her way up through the ranks in four years to head stock woman of Newry Station and was eventually promoted to Station Manager at Argyle Downs. In 2016 she received a further promotion as Station Manager at the larger station, Auvergne. She and husband Henry, a helicopter pilot, live in the manager’s house on the property.

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Station manager at Auvergne Station, Emily Anderson left, and friend Carla.

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Emily’s husband Henry, a helicopter pilot, mustering cattle at the station. This can be a pretty dangerous job. A young pilot lost his life last year after water got in to the gas line causing his chopper to crash.

 

The young crew (and I do mean young) employed this year range in age from 18 to 24. Most hail from Queensland and two young men, Garrum and Taylor, are Aborigines. Stock men/women are paid a salary depending on their skill level. Room and board is $6.00 a day, a good deal!   There is a recreation area for after work hours and weekends and a swimming pool.  The previous station manager added this effective note to be sure the expense was approved by corporate: ” If funds for this pool are not approved, you can make the phone call to parents explaining that their son/daughter was killed by a crocodile while taking a swim in the river to cool off after a long, hot day!” It was immediately approved. (Stations on average loose one head of cattle a day to crocodiles–a million dollar loss.)

I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and met Sarah who I would be tagging along with for the week.  The remainder of the crew had gone to Katherine for the weekend to a cattle show.  Sarah, only 24, is wise beyond her years.  She is basically Emily’s right hand woman, and if there is a job she doesn’t know how to do, she’ll figure out how to do it. This is Sarah’s second season at Auvergne, and she plans on coming back again next year.

The work day begins early at the station.  Breakfast is served at 6:00 am buffet style, and each person then takes his/her dishes and washes/dries them for a quick clean up.  A short meeting starts at 6:30 with Station Manager Emily to go over the day’s duties.  Several of the young stock men pack lunches to have out on job and do not return until 5:00pm in the evening.  Morning tea is served at 9:00, lunch at 12:00, and dinner at 6:30.

Sarah explained to me that these young people (the stock camp) muster (round up) the cattle, draft them into separate categories, process them ( castrate, dehorn, vaccinate, brand, etc) then bush them (put them back in their paddocks).  In addition, they are also given two horses at the start of the season (March to early December) to care for, they do a bit of bore running ( maintain water pump stations), and they perform general upkeep around the station.

The weather can be unforgiving during the hot, dry season, and I quickly learned that sunscreen, jeans, work boots, long-sleeved shirts with collars, and wide brimmed hats are not a fashion statement but worn for a reason:  a simple t-shirt is no protection in this climate.

My day also started early with Sarah.  Forgetting I was almost forty years older, I figured I could keep up with her busy schedule. Monday’s work began at 6:30 feeding the poddies (orphaned calves) their formula from bottles (some hand-held), next, we were off changing beds, doing laundry, and cleaning guests’ rooms.

As you can imagine, there is a lot of fresh, organic beef eaten at the station and someone has to prepare and butcher it. I worked with Sarah next in the meat locker(her dad is a butcher–she knows meat) cutting up beef for meals at the station into steaks, stew beef, and ribs and grinding hamburger.  This is a dangerous job as a large power saw is used to cut through bone (at the same time operating an on/off foot, power switch), sharp knives are wielded to filet the beef, and a huge, old-fashioned meat grinder churns out copious amounts of hamburg. Incredibly, she sometimes manages this job by herself!

During the afternoon we started installing a sprinkler system around a section of living quarters in order to provide a little welcome “green” to the scorched landscape, and then it was off to feed the crooks (chickens), hogs, and, once more the poddies before quitting at five.  By Wednesday afternoon, I couldn’t keep up and asked to quit at 3:00 and did so for the rest of the week!

One day after morning tea, I was asked if I wanted to go out and do some “baiting” with some of the stock men.  Not to be deterred by a little dirty work, I was not prepared for the bloody scene presented.  A nine-year-old bull had just been shot, and four of the crew were flaying and butchering the carcass while the others were cutting  large sections of meat into smaller pieces that would be injected with a natural, toxic substance lethal to feral dogs and dingoes that attack and kill young calves. Oddly enough, it didn’t take long to grow accustomed to what is “life on the station,” and I joined in to help with the meat cutting.

 

Generally, the work week is Monday through Friday, but often, when required, the stock camp can work two or three weeks in a row without a day off.  When a weekend off does roll around, as it did when I visited, there is cause for celebration and fun on Friday night.   Instead of dinner in the kitchen, Chloe treated with an outdoor barbeque of steak, salad, potatoes au gratin and, of course, beer.

Since there were no cattle housed in nearby paddocks, Emily allowed for a special treat: fireworks later in the evening.  I eventually headed to bed WAY earlier than most, and the partying continued into the wee hours.  At one point I got up to go to the bathroom around 3:00am and was startled to see a brush fire out in distance.  I could still hear voices coming from the rec center and figured they were aware of it.  If they weren’t concerned about it, I wasn’t either and went back to bed.  It was a subdued Saturday morning!  When you work this hard, you have to play hard too.

In this rugged,remote, and harsh outback, life is demanding and tough. Working a season at a station like this is an exercise in what it means to be mature and requires, respect, cooperation, communication, honesty…in a word: integrity. These young people have it in spades.

I may have been old enough to be their mo…grandmother, but for eight days chronological age became irrelevant thanks to their kindness and generosity of spirit.  A prized possession is the Auvergne Station work shirt that Emily and Sarah gave me. Another, an invitation to come back again anytime.  Hmm… I wonder if they could use a cheerful cook next season?

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out! Traveling Solo at 63…and on a Budget.

Volunteering and Meeting Aboriginal Artists at Waringarri Art Center in Kununurra, The East Kimberley.

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Artist Phyllis Ningamara working on a canvas at the Waringarri Art Center, in Kununurra. She told me she is very proud of the fact that her work is sold all over Australia.

 

A strong racial divide has existed for years in Kununurra similar to that in Alice Springs.  The Indigenous population is housed separately on the outskirts of town, and poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence are pervasive.  Add to that the terrible distinction in 2014 when The World Health Organization found that suicide rates among Indigenous people in the Kimberley region were among the highest in the world.

Despite these troubling problems, there is a bright spot in the form of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, an art center that houses both artists’ studios and galleries open to the public.  Waringarri is the first wholly Indigenous owned art center established in the Kimberley region, and one of the oldest continuously operating Centers in Australia.  Since studying art was one of my traveling goals, volunteering at the Center,  a short drive from where I was staying, was paramount.  I was given an introduction via email from a gallery owner in Perth who represents Waringarri artists back in April, but when I went to the center in June to introduce myself to the director, I was told that I had to first write a letter and be approved by the board before I could do any volunteering.  Finally, after two weeks of cancelled board meetings, I was approved to work in the studio with the artists.

Waringarri Art Center supports over 100 artists who specialize in natural ocher painting on canvas and paper, limited edition prints, wood carvings and sculptures, and hand- printed fabrics.  The Indigenous group represented in this area are the Miriwoong people who hold the land sacred and see themselves as custodians caring for the country and resting places of their spiritual ancestors.  Artists typically paint a kind of aerial map of the land they grew up in which helps them maintain a connection to the sacred places of that country.  I was lucky to have the chance to meet and speak with some of the artists while helping out in the studio for several days.

In the photo above, Phyllis Ningamara explained to me that she was painting a view of the river after the wet season where she grew up and the many colored river stones reflecting in the sunshine.

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Artist Ben Ward explaining a just-completed work.

Bigger than life and very chatty is artist Ben Ward, who with his family, worked and lived at Argyle Downs station until he was ten.  He later worked at Carlton Station, and his paintings focus on his memories of when he was a young man mustering cattle. Triangles of different colors representing the rivers, Boab trees, water, and mountains appear in his most recent work.  I later saw that this piece (shown in the above photo) had been sold in the gallery.  In the past, my experience with Aboriginal art brought to mind paintings consisting primarily of hundreds of dots.  Different regions depict different styles, and the work here has a much more contemporary, abstract quality that I particularly like.

Peggy Griffiths, and her husband Alan Griffiths, are two well known artists from this region.  Peggy was born in the Norther Territory but moved to Argyle Station when she was 15.  At the age of 16, she was promised in marriage to Alan Griffiths.  She started working at Waringarri in 1985, is now a senior artist, and teaches other artists. While helping to organize the studio, I noticed lots of Peggy’s notes explaining how to do color mixing.  Peggy is a beautiful woman who though quiet, has a regal air about her.  She and husband Alan are highly respected in the community, and their work is prominently displayed at the impressive, new court house in Kununurra.  I’m told they often paint together.

 

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Lovely Jalah home from acting school in Sydney volunteered with me at Waringarri Art Center where her mother works in the office. She was a great source of information about Aboriginal culture and informed me that she is what is known as “half caste”( half white and half Aboriginal). This was a common term used in the past but is now considered derogatory.

Volunteering at the center was a great experience in many ways. One morning I got a call from the center to come in as soon as possible.  The Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council (WAITOC) was doing a photo shoot for some new brochures, and they were looking for “tourists” to be in their photos.

Another local couple was drafted from town and we headed out with photographer Jack, business development manager Liz, and several members from the art center to a location just outside of town considered sacred by the Miriwoong.  After a “blessings” ceremony at the Dunham River welcoming us to the land, we headed to another location featuring a  mighty Boab tree thought to be thousands of years old.

At one point, I got a little annoyed, and even felt a little discriminated against when Liz asked me, the single person, to step aside in a few of the shots because they wanted “couple photos.”  Although they didn’t want the photos to appear staged, they looked pretty staged to me. During my travels, I’ve met lots of single women, young and old, traveling alone.  Tourism groups and businesses would be wise to cater to lone travelers; there is a need and a market in the industry!

Several weeks after the shoot, I followed up with Liz about the brochures and asked if I had made it into any of the photos.  She said, indeed, I was included.  I’m now waiting to get a copy!

Up until this point in my travels I hadn’t purchased any art or souvenirs, but at the art center, where I knew the money would go directly back to the artists, I splurged on two hand-carved didgeridoos for my son and his dad(women are not allowed to play the didgeridoo), and several hand-carved Boab nuts for other family members and friends.  Each item came with a certificate of provenance and identified the artist who created it.

In the process of volunteering and meeting some of these Aboriginal artists, I’ve gained a greater respect for their culture and the deep love they have for the land of their ancestors. I’ve also come to realize that art illuminates (stealing a quote from Maya Angelou) that “… we are more alike than we are unalike,” and in this global society, we can all do with a little more understanding and less fear.  In the words of author Andrew Solomon:

It is nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out! Traveling Solo at 63…on a Budget.

Kununurra in the East Kimberley:  Adventure in a Wild and Ancient Alternate Universe.  (Part 1 of 3)

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View of the Bungle Bungles in Purnululu National Park, a World Heritage Area that only became widely known in 1982. These “beehive” domes are striated with beautiful colors of ocher, orange, and black!

 

When I told a friend that my travels would be taking me to Kununurra and the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia, he snapped to attention, eyes wide, brows raised, and exclaimed, “Wow!  You’re going to the outback of the outback!”   My well-traveled friend is right.  Over and over I’ve been told here that most Australians don’t ever get to this beautifully remote, wild, and rugged region, let alone Americans.  And I was spending a month!

As luck would have it, I would be house sitting for the month of June(during the “dry” season May -September) for friend Gayl’s daughter Victoria, a nurse in Kununurra for the past five years.  Best of all,  Gayl would be meeting me here from Perth to help me settle in. That would mean three things:  five star hospitality, a whirl-wind of activities, and fantastic eating planned for the week.  How many people do you know fly with their travel baggage packed with farm fresh eggs, specialty goat cheese, and an organic shoulder of lamb (just to name a few)?

I’ve known Gayl since she was an exchange student at my high school back in 1971 when we were seniors. She’s had a love affair with Maine ever since and continues to visit every couple of years.  After leaving my teaching career and leaping into the unknown, well-traveled Gayl and her daughter Victoria, on a recent visit to Maine, mentioned travel and posed the question: “What are you waiting for?”  They have been both instrumental and a great support system in making this odyssey a positive and life-changing event.

Gayl is a force to be reckoned with.  Strikingly elegant, youthful, and charged with electricity and charisma, I elect her our Boomer poster girl for “Sixty is the new Forty.”  Before I knew it, we had exchanged our excited hellos, and she began rattling off all the adventures planned for the week including a camping trip to the Bungle Bungles!  But not before she and daughter Victoria (her mother’s daughter and very much her own person) acquainted me with my new home and surroundings.

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Toasting my first day in Kununurra with Gayl and Victoria and an action-packed, upcoming week.

Kununurra is a young town established in 1961 and now has a population of about 7,000.  During the dry season, the number doubles with tourists, many of them known throughout Australia as “Grey Nomads”–retirees traveling in a wide array of campers and caravans(RVs). On any given day, the local Coles supermarket is jammed with campers and backpackers, and the parking lot is filled with a multitude of vehicles resembling a tamer version of Mad Max engineering!  Eggs are always the first item to sell out.

 

The CBD (central business district) isn’t overly impressive, but located on the outskirts are interesting cafes and businesses.

One of Kununurra’s chief industries is agriculture (cattle, mining, and tourism too) thanks to its most famous landmark the Ord River Conversion Dam constructed in 1963. Water is released from Lake Argyle( created in 1967 as a major storage reservoir) into the Ord River, into Lake Kununurra, which then is irrigated to thousands of acres of farmland.  Some local crops include mangos, watermelons, melons, citrus, and seed crops such as chic peas and sunflower and chia seeds.  Australian sandalwood is also grown here, and the pure sandalwood oil is used by many of the world’s luxury perfume houses.

After familiarizing myself with the town(a friend of Gayl and Victoria lent me a car for the month–hospitality), we were off on our second day to El Questro (just over 700,000 acres in size) and a hot soak in Zebedee Springs.  This is truly a tropical paradise with palm trees, hot shallow pools, sheltered by rugged, orange rock looming from above. We enjoyed ourselves until a small snake slithered by my left shoulder, and we suddenly burst from the pool like waterfowl hearing gunshot!

On day three, Victoria’s boyfriend Joel, a helicopter pilot who mustered cattle up here for ten years, joined us for a visit, and we headed to Wyndham, the Kimberley’s oldest town and once a thriving port when Wyndham Meat Works was operating. The abattoir closed in 1985, and the only thing happening now is the occasional export of live cattle to Indonesia. Most “live export”(pretty controversial) is shipped from Darwin or Broome, and it’s common to see the mammoth, three-vehicle-long “road trains” coming from various cattle stations on the roads.

A popular tourist attraction in Wyndham is the Five Rivers Lookout on top of the Erskine Range, where you can see all of Wyndham and the whole Gulf Coast where the Forrest, King, Durak, Pentecost, and Ord rivers flow into. We also made our way past the salt flats to the Prison Boab tree, but not before a stop at the popular Rusty Shed Cafe.

Barely taking a breath and barely containing our excitement, we were off day four and five camping in the Bungle Bungles at Purnululu National Park, a World Heritage area.  If you are going to spend any time in the Kimberley, a four-wheel vehicle is a must. There are a variety of trucks and SUVs on the road up here, many of them with “snorkels” attached for stream and river crossings.

An iconic, Australian vehicle in these parts is the “Ute.”  The popular story goes that in 1933, a Gippsland farmer’s wife wrote a letter to Ford Australia asking, “Can you build me a vehicle that we can use to go to church in on Sunday, without getting wet, and that my husband can use to take the pigs to market on Monday?” A young designer modified a 1933 coupe with just a tray on the back and strengthened the chassis so it could carry a load, and the rest is history.

Fortunately Victoria had a Toyota SUV for the four of us and all our gear because the drive in to the Bungle Bungles involves about two hours of off-road driving on narrow, deeply rutted, dirt roads over numerous creek crossings of various depths.  (I later met a very large, cane-toting  74-year-old woman who told me she was visiting Kununurra for two days and driving to the Bungle Bungles.  After I talked with her, she thought she might fly over them instead.)

The landscape in this part of the world is like nothing I’ve ever seen.  Not only is it visually stunning with its changing light and colors, but it also touches you on some deep, cellular level that you can’t quite understand. The land vibrates with the mysteries of the human condition, its traumas and its joys…  OK…. it’s just feels *~x#1+$%) OLD!

Having not done a lot of camping, I experienced the pleasures of sleeping under the stars in my “mozzie dome,” comfortably curled up in my “swag.” (Does LL Bean have these?) The Milky Way is visible in these parts.  Another wonder to behold.

Back home on day six, Gayl and Victoria made sure I got my library card, visited Birdland Functional Pottery and the Artopia Gallery where I signed up for life-drawing classes, enjoyed “cuppas” at their favorite cafes, connected with the Waringarri Art Center, where I would be volunteering with the Aboriginal artists, learned Banjo the dog’s routine, and, finally, (whew!) met some of the locals I could call on.  I have never felt so cared for.

Then, Gayl left, followed by Victoria and Joel the next day.  I would be meeting up with Gayl again in her hometown of Perth in three months and seeing Victoria and Joel after their holiday abroad.

They left in their wake, a colorless vacuum:  The house quiet…a sense of loss. But I relish being in one place for four weeks, in one of the remotest parts of the world.

Every day I wake to sunshine*  The laundry dries in 15 minutes*

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out! Traveling Solo at 63…on a Budget.

Darwin: The “Mostest” Little City in Australia.

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One of many signs posted along the harbor esplanade in Darwin.

To say that I’ve learned a lot while traveling on my own is a gross understatement, but where my  learning curve has shown the most dramatic rise, is on the subject of how to be a gracious host.  Over and over I have been warmly greeted and then entertained by folks who have taken time out of their busy lives to make me feel welcome.

This certainly was the case when meeting Nan, the cousin of my friend Gayl’s husband, Tom.  What a comfort it was to be picked up at the airport in this new city, and to be free from the stresses of finding a shuttle or cab to some little known address.  I’ve come across lots of blog posts and Facebook postings that feature stories about good deeds and kindness shown to strangers. Over and over on my travels, I have been the lucky recipient of these acts of kindness. Nan is just this kind of person. She exudes benevolence.  Nan showed me incredible hospitality for three days in Darwin, and  after spending time with her, I felt like I had connected with some long, lost relative.  And, I learned a lot from her about the city, including history and global politics.

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Nan and her husband Pete who shared their home with me.

Darwin is Australia’s most northern city, and the most diverse (with more than 75 ethnic groups–10% Aboriginal).  It has the youngest median age of any city, and its population is the most transient. With just under 130,000 people, Darwin also has one of the highest crime and homelessness rates.

While driving around the city, Nan pointed out the Darwin Military Museum.  I didn’t know that during WWII, on February 19, 1942, Darwin, seen as a key port and filled with Allied ships, was bombed by the same Japanese commander who a year earlier bombed Pearl Harbor…and they dropped more bombs on Darwin than they did on Pearl Harbor.

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A view of Parliament house from the front. It is Australia’s newest Parliament building.

Next, we stopped at Northern Territory Library located in Parliament House and visited an exhibit about The Stolen Generations   and Kahlin Aboriginal Compound in Darwin, which existed from 1913 to 1938.  While many Aboriginal children were forcibly taken there, Darwin’s Aboriginal workforce and their families were required by law to live at the compound as were children of mixed descent.  It’s an important piece of history because the people from the compound helped to build Darwin.

We drove around Darwin’s impressive harbor and stopped for a walk on the esplanade where I encountered, for the first time, crocodile warnings.  All that water and no place to swim!  Of all the deadly things that inhabit Australia, salt water crocs (salties) freak me out the most. I wasn’t up in this part of the world more than a couple of weeks when it was reported that a 40 something-year woman, with  a friend she was visiting with in Queensland, decided to go to the beach at night(stupid).  Her last uttered word, reportedly was, “Crocodile!!”   Authorities searched for her body for a couple of days.  Nada, zip, 0…. Death by crocodileTerrifying.

I also learned something about the importance of Darwin harbor and how it is not only  strategically placed as an entry way to Asia, but it is also the base for the Royal Australian Army’s border protection operations.

In 2015, the Northern Territory government(with clearance from the Defense Department) signed a deal for 506 million to lease Darwin Harbor for 99 years to the private Chinese company Landbridge, which purportedly has ties to the People’s Liberation Army.   The U.S. was never consulted (nor were a host of other people) and only found out about it after the fact (an article in The New York Times).  It is understandable that Obama was a little angry since the U.S. is an important ally, and the port hosts annual visits of more than 1000 marines. Since 2011, Darwin has been an important staging post for U.S. Marines, and up to 2,500 are expected to be on rotation.

Some in Australia see this harbor lease as a big economic boon, others see it as holistically short sighted.  Although China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, it is not a major ally. (The Chinese also just bought Carlton Station also in NT for 60 million.)  I point this out because a new goal of mine is to be a better informed U.S. and global citizen.  I know little about foreign policy, especially from the perspective of other countries.

On a lighter note, Darwin is host to many bustling outdoor markets featuring delicious food from around the world.  Nan took me to the Rapid Creek Market, one of her regular shopping stops, and my senses were overloaded with fresh, colorful, and exotic foods and produce.

Darwin’s climate is tropical, and features several “seasons:” cool dry, hot dry, build up, hot wet, cold wet. I was there the end of May, and it wasn’t very cool or dry.  Build up is pretty rugged as the humidity soars and the clouds fill with moisture for weeks before finally letting loose the wet season.  Suicide rates rise during this time.  The only thing I can compare it to in Maine is what we call “cabin fever,” when spring never comes and it can be cold with snow well into April.

You have to love the warm evenings though!  Sunsets in this part of the world are spectacular.  Viewed from the patio of the Darwin Boat Club, or the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, pinks, oranges, and reds ignite the sky.

When previously in Alice Springs, I was advised by my airbnb host to be sure to go to Litchfield National Park, home to huge magnetic termite mounds and many stunning waterfalls that cascade into crystal clear pools.   Without even mentioning this to Nan, she had already made plans to do just that the next day.  The park is about a 2 hour drive from Darwin and the waterfalls are just off the main road.  This is swimming at its best!

 

There is nothing more pleasing than the music of splashing water, bird chatter, and happy voices. Couple that with the silken embrace of clear, tepid water and I’m taken back to those old Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan movies I watched as a kid where he and Jane swam in exactly such a place.  The only thing missing is an elaborate tree house.

My visit wouldn’t be complete without some art, and Darwin doesn’t disappoint.  The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory has everything including a great collection of Aboriginal art and terrific views of the ocean from the huge veranda near the cafe.  I was able to see the NATISSA winners(National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Art Awards) of contemporary and traditional media by established and emerging artists.

After three great days in this cosmopolitan city, I’m off to the east Kimberley and the real wilds of Australia.  I’m told that 17 people last year “disappeared” (a good place to go if you want to disappear– not so good if you get lost and run out of gas).

As I travel farther west and north, the colors and mysteries of this land are a source of wonder.   This quote by one of the artists captures it best: “I am not painting for pleasure.  Out in the Top End, the land is not empty.  The land is full of knowledge, full of energy, full of power.”

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out! Traveling Solo at 63.

Alice Springs: “What’s in a Name?”

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Kalaranga Lookout :Impressive red sandstone formations on the way to Palm Valley.

Alice Springs is a pretty interesting town.  Surrounded by desert with the MacDonnell ranges running east and west, it is smack dab in the middle of the country approximately 750 miles from the nearest ocean and about 930 miles(1500km) from Adelaide to the south and Darwin to the north. Since I was in Uluru and headed to Darwin and then to the Kimberley, I decided to stop in “Alice” and check it out. And you have to admit the name is kind of intriguing.

Alice Springs was actually the name given to what was thought to be a permanent waterhole discovered by a government surveyor exploring the area for the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL). The surveyor named the waterhole after Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraph Sir Charles Todd, and the repeater station was eventually built adjacent to it. The OTL was completed in 1872, and the settlement became known as Stuart after the famous explorer John McDouall Stuart who earlier in 1862 had led an expedition through the center of Australia to the north coast. (Stuart Highway is named after him).  To avoid the confusion of two names, the town was officially named Alice Springs in 1933.  And then there are camels.

An expanding country requires ingenuity, and before there was a railway line linking Alice Springs to Adelaide, provisions had to somehow reach central, outback settlements. Since horses and steer weren’t suitable in the desert, camels were.  Between 1870 and 1920 approximately 20,000 camels and 3000  Afghan Cameleers (called Ghans) drove camel trains across the desert delivering supplies. They were crucial to the exploration and development of the interior, and it is only in recent years that their story has been told.  Today, many tours around Uluru and Alice Springs feature camel rides. (Australia’s wild camel population is the largest in the world, and if you’re looking for a good movie, watch Tracks, a true story).

Considered the central hub of the Australian outback, I immediately liked the town.  With a population of about 26,000, it’s bustling, diverse (I met a bearded lady working at one of the coffee shops…didn’t ask), with a good energy that offers everything a traveler would want, especially great Indigenous art galleries.  Eye-opening to me was the fact that this was my first real experience with contemporary Aboriginal Australia and a peek at some of the present day challenges that exist.

As I’ve mentioned before, airbnb is a great accommodation option.  As luck would have it, I booked a room with a lovely young family at their home about a 30 minute walk from the CBD.  Clare is a teacher originally from the Melbourne area, Moga, her partner hales from Sudan and is studying Law, and Danny their four year-old will soon have a sibling.  Clare and Moga have traveled extensively throughout Australia, love art and culture, and were a great resource of where to go and what to see….one of many benefits staying with locals!

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Danny, Clare, and Moga, my terrific airbnb hosts in Alice Springs.

I spent my first day ambling around town and hanging out at Todd Mall, the town’s focal point. With outdoor cafes, shops, and galleries lining both sides of the pedestrian-only street, it’s a pleasant and lively place. But I quickly learned not to use the public loo because “there might be someone passed out in there” but to use a pay toilet in the mini mall nearby.

Like our native Americans, Aboriginals have had a long, sad history of alcohol problems, and since Alice Springs is a central hub, it draws Indigenous people from outlying communities to its great services and often trouble breaks out.  I did notice that each day at one end of Todd Mall there was a constant police presence at what appeared to be a local hangout.

Alice Springs has had, in the last several years, a history of violence, domestic and otherwise.  Adding to the problem are the deplorable conditions at “town camps” (Indigenous public housing). I did drive by a couple of these camps, and they looked to be pretty run down and miserable. You get the sense that a strong racial divide exists here.  Adding fuel to the fire, a few months ago the Northern Territory Government decided to put a private company, Zodiac, rather than an Indigenous community housing group in charge of managing the camps.  Like the racial tension that exists in US, it’s much more complicated than what I am presenting here; nevertheless, it’s not a good idea to be out walking alone at night.

On a positive note, the town has much to offer.  My hosts recommended a very good cafe in town which happened to be part of and next to the Royal Flying Doctor Service Museum. Royal Flying Doctor Service’s inception and vision is credited to Reverend John Flynn, a missionary in the central outback in 1912, who wanted to provide better medical services to remote areas of Australia. This service still operates today.

Close by is the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame and the Alice Springs Reptile Center.  I wanted to see the Araluen Arts Center, a bit of a walk heading out of town. Since it was late in the afternoon, I took a suggested short cut, crossed over a sketchy part of town and almost got lost. Arriving twenty-five minutes to closing time, the Center let me in for free, and I was able to see this year’s 39th Alice Prize show celebrating contemporary Australian art from across the country.

Realizing it was late and I should get a cab, I walked out to the lobby, and, low and behold, there were Clare and Danny!  After a little playground time, Clare took the long way home pointing out other places of interest.  Still got good mojo going on. (Thank you Peter Rivard for your “blessings!”)

With one full day to get in a tour, Moga suggested Palm Valley, one of the family’s favorite places. When I visited the i site center to book the tour, I found one that also included a visit to the Hermannsburg Historic Precinct.

Hermannsburg was the first Aboriginal mission in the Northern Territory established in 1877. Later, it was home to the famous painter Albert Namatijra.  Today, Hermannsburg is internationally renown for its pottery, which originally started as a training program in the 1990s for Indigenous families living in the area. Our tour stopped here first for high tea before continuing on to Palm Valley. (I much prefer high tea to coffee break!)

I am happy to say that this tour company–Alice Wanderer–had a great tour guide who was only 23 years-old but really knew the land and loved what he was doing. Tours are really the way to go if you don’t have a lot of time. Who you share your tour with is the luck of the draw as is getting a seat assignment on a plane.  The average tour age is somewhere in the late 50s, mostly couples.  Earlier that morning we were kept waiting when picking up three women from Sydney. When they finally showed up, they were wearing what looked to be night club attire. (Note: dress comfortably and wear good walking shoes).  I bumped into two of them the next morning at a pharmacy. One of the women had broken her toe and was waiting for medical attention–unfortunate because they were heading south to Uluru the next day.

Getting out beyond Hermannsburg to Palm Valley, part of Finke Gorge National Park, is about a 2 hour drive from Alice Springs. It’s 4 wheel driving most of the way and truly spectacular scenery along the Finke River, the oldest river in world.  Palm Valley is so named because it is the only area in central Australia where red cabbage palms are able to survive thanks to small pockets of spring fed pools.  It’s a real outback oasis!

When we arrived back in town, it was dark. My hosts had offered to pick me up, but since I was the last person to be dropped off, my tour guide insisted on delivering me to my front door.

At this point, I’ve been five months on the road.  I think I’m officially a seasoned traveler. It’s exciting to be heading farther north to Darwin, Australia’s most northern city and the tropics… where hungry crocodiles live!!    Seasoned traveler could take on a whole new meaning..