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..

 

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out!

Uluru and the Red Center: The Spiritual Heart of the Country.

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Driving up to Uluru. It really does take your breath away.

“It’s not that Uluru is bigger than you had supposed or more perfectly formed or in any way different from the impression you had created in your mind, but the very opposite.  It is exactly what you expected it to be.  You know this rock.  You know it in a way that has nothing to do with calendars and the covers of  souvenir books.  Your knowledge of this rock is grounded in something much more elemental.”

Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

After reading Bryson’s travel book, I knew I couldn’t come to Australia and not see Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock).  In addition, British artist Bruce Munro’s Field of Light solar- powered art installation had just opened in April. How lucky to have this added bonus!

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is located in the Northern Territory, smack dab in the middle of the country and about four and a half hours from Alice Springs, the nearest major town.  I flew directly from Melbourne to Ayers Rock Airport and was happy to learn that the Ayers Rock resort,  which has sprung up to provide visitor accommodations and other essential services, also runs free buses from the airport to the resort

I had read that accommodations at the resort were expensive–and they are.  Be prepared to spend anywhere from $220 to $475 a night for a hotel …unless you are willing to stay at a campground or share a hostel dorm.

After doing some research, I found that the Outback Pioneer Lodge and Hotel (cheapest hotel with rooms running $220 to $300) also doubles as a YHA hostel with a section of dorm units.  These tiny rooms house up to four people and consist of two bunk beds, and that’s about all, but close by is a kitchen, large shower/bathroom/laundry facility, and lounge room.   The price: $34.00 a night.  AND the best view of Uluru in the whole resort can be seen from the viewing station out back behind the dorm section!

 

Initially when I found the dorm rooms online, it appeared that only mixed dorm units were available.  I was put off at first about a “mixed dorm” and hemmed and hawed a little before deciding, What the hell. It was only for three nights. But when I arrived and checked in, I realized that my only other roommates were two women.  I have a feeling they advertise mixed dorms on purpose to discourage people from from taking the cheaper rate, and the hotel sells the more expensive rooms.

At first I thought I would splurge and treat myself to a private hotel room. But then I remembered my goal of meeting people, and what a wise decision.  Returning to the dorm later, I was greeted by two lovely young women, Mika from Japan and Rena from Indonesia.  After chatting and exchanging introductions, Rena turned to me and said, “I am so glad you’re here.”  I was somewhat taken aback, and she must have read my expression because she went on to explain that what she loved about traveling was meeting people. What a beautiful thing to say to a complete (and older) stranger who would be taking up one quarter of a very tiny room.  All in all, we ended up spending about eight hours of sleeping time together as most tours left before sunrise or ended after dark in the evening.

 

I had booked ahead a sunrise tour of the Field of Lights art installation with AAT Kings and  was picked up at 5:30 am the next morning.  Excited about seeing this, I had done a little reading  ahead of time to pick up a few facts. Munro created 50,000 hand made globes on flexible light stems that allow the lights to sway in the wind like wild flowers. The palette of colors changes from the deepest purple, to red ocher, to a soft white and cover an area the size of four football fields with Uluru majestically in the background. It took forty people and many volunteers six weeks to plant the stems of light and install 144 light projectors and miles and miles of fiber optic cable.

I paid $89.00 for this tour which consisted of a short bus ride to the location and a few nibbles of cookies with tea or instant coffee.  Expecting some great commentary, imagine my dismay when the tour guide got on the PA and said  well most of you have probably already read about the Field of Light, but here’s a little background information.  What?! That’s it?!  Nothing about what inspired the artist?  Not even a few anecdotes about the installation?  Surely people have tried stealing the lights!(there’s 24 hour security)  A few of us asked questions, but I felt cheated somehow.

Fortunately, I quickly quit my grumbling when we arrived in total darkness to a jeweled landscape of glowing color that stretched as far as the eye can see.  Even better, we were allowed to walk down into the installation and see it up close.  The globes are about the size of tennis balls on flexible stems that sway above a tangle of  illuminated cable. You have to wonder how the hell did they install this?

In total silence, we were left to wander and wonder.  This is what it must be like to walk among the stars.  Slowly the night sky began to lighten, and as dawn seeped through, Uluru loomed in the distance–the face that launched 50,000 lights and enraptured an artist for 24 years.  As light filled the sky, the spheres slowly faded in color to a soft white then gently melted into the red earth. This once in a life time experience ended up being the perfect first act to introduce the main attraction.  The next day I would get up close to Uluru.

As I did with the Field of Light tour, I also booked ahead my Uluru sunset tour for the following day.  For $119.oo plus $ 25.oo for the Park ticket, my trip included the base tour and Kuniya Walk, a visit to the Kata Tjuta Cultural Center, and then late in the afternoon a stop at the Uluru sunset viewing station to watch the sun go down.  For an additional $136.00 I could enjoy the sunset barbecue (kangaroo fillets included) under the night sky with star gazing too.  I initially balked at the price but  later changed my mind and figured when in Rome…  The bus picked us up at 2:35 pm, and we were on our way.

The atmosphere on the bus was infused with a kind of electricity of anticipation the closer we got.  I actually felt a little twinge in my chest. Was this anxiety?  And then we were up close and personal.  Uluru is spell binding and totally arresting.  Those weren’t chest pains; I could feel it in my heart. Arriving at the base you are not only hypnotized by its sheer size but also overwhelmed with the feeling that this is a living, breathing, brooding entity, millions of years old. It really feels alive, and you can’t stop looking at it.  Up close, the surface of the rock has what looks like a red, flaky skin. If extraterrestrials have ever visited earth, they had to have been drawn here.

This tour provided some good commentary, but I preferred to wander off a little on my own.  After our base visit, we continued on to the Kata Tjula Cultural Center and then to the viewing station, joined by other tour groups, to watch the sunset color Uluru in array of subtle shades.  With some snacks and assorted drinks, the mood was festive, and  I met some Australian tourists who introduced me to legend Slim Dusty and another country singer John Williamson and his famous song “Raining on the Rock.”

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Enjoying nibbles and drinks at the sunset viewing station at Uluru.

When it was time for the barbecue, we were told that it looked like rain and that dinner was being moved indoors at the Cultural Center –a total cop out as it had been partly sunny all day with only a few clouds. I did, nevertheless,  have a lovely dinner sharing a table with a grand mother and grand daughter from the states (a high school graduation gift to go anywhere in the world), and I even tried the Kangaroo, a mild and pleasant dark, red meat.  With wine and champagne flowing, it was a great way to end the day.

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Saying goodbye to my terrific hostel mates Mika from Japan(left) and Rena from Indonesia (right).

Although I wasn’t impressed with the resort and the accommodations offered (they have  a captive audience here), it was worth every penny to see Uluru.  After three quick days, my roommates and I said goodbye early the final morning. But while waiting for the bus to the airport later, we met up again and were excited to have another chance to see each other.  We embraced once more, but when Rena and I hugged, this time we held each other for a few extra seconds…and I felt it in my heart.   Maybe Uluru is the personification of love?

A”Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out!

 A Trip Across The River Styx to the Underworld:  The MONA Museum, Hobart, Tasmania.

 

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Arriving at the MONA on the Mona Roma ferry. You can also drive or take a coach. I recommend the ferry!

Tasmania (known as Tas or Tassie by locals) certainly lives up to one of its slogans: The Island of Inspiration.  This Commonwealth, island state just south of Melbourne is home to approximately 500,000 residents, half of whom reside in the port city capital of Hobart.  Known for its World Heritage wilderness, good food, and clean air, I think most people would agree that what has really put Tasmania on the map as a destination is the privately owed MONA museum(Museum of Old and New Art), which is dedicated to sex and death.  With only three and a half days in Hobart, it was the focus of my visit.

The MONA is like no other museum in the world.  Since it  opened in 2011, it has been hailed as both visionary and profane and has drawn over 1.65 million visitors from around the world (Tasmanians have embraced it and get in free).  The man inspired to create this is as interesting as his collection of modern art and antiquities. David Walsh grew up in a poor, working class suburb of Hobart(across from where the MONA is built), was considered a shy nerd, developed an algorithm, and became one of the world’s top gamblers earning millions. A self proclaimed atheist, Walsh gambled 150 million dollars on what he describes as “a secular temple and subversive adult Disneyland” with art that he wagers could become worthless in a decade or two.

Going to the MONA for one day just wasn’t enough… too much sensory overload. I had to go back a second time.  Even so, it was several days later before I could make sense of it all. The experience  had to be ingested and digested before I could excrete anything I could express verbally ( you will come to appreciate this analogy later).

Visiting the MONA is like crossing The River Styx to the Underworld, but this time Charon is taking you across the Derwent River on a luxury, two story ferry, and it only costs $20.00 round trip for the half hour ride. If you want to “escape the riff raff,” a $50.00 Posh Pit ticket will get you an exclusive lounge and lots of extras including a 30 minute wine tasting at Morilla Winery next door to the museum.

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The Mona Roma ferry, takes you on a half hour ride from the harbor to the museum for $20.00 round trip. If you are Tasmanian, you get to go to the museum for free.

A light drizzle, grey skies, and cold temperatures (by Australian standards) provided what seemed like  perfect weather for my first visit.  It’s quite dramatic approaching the museum from the water. This steel and sandstone edifice sits theatrically  up high on a promontory, and after docking at the ferry wharf, a ninety-nine-step climb takes you to the entrance.

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Mirrored entrance to the MONA. Walsh is an avid tennis player, so, of course, there’s a tennis court at the entrance.  Nothing intimidating or high brow here!

 

What I immediately loved about the MONA is that there is nothing sanctimonious about it.  So often when entering museums, and even some art galleries, there is an atmosphere that suggests conversations should be spoken in whispers… that maybe genuflecting is required.  There’s serious stuff at the MONA, yet the place doesn’t take itself too seriously.  There’s a healthy dose of humor and irreverence everywhere.

First of all, there is no writing or labeling of artwork on the walls.  After getting through the lobby, a smart phone-like device called the O is handed out. The O is the first system in the world designed to replace traditional artwork labels. Walk into any of the galleries and a click on the device brings up pictures of the artwork. An additional click on each piece shows a selection of information you can access such as ideas, artist’s interviews, art wank, Gonzo (Walsh’s commentary–he thinks Madonna is shit), music, and videos. Who wants to read stuffy art discourse bunched up against other viewers when you can listen, at your convenience, to what interests you? Save your tour gets you an email later that night of your path through the museum including a list of viewed, loved, and hated works.

Armed with the O, you are directed by “front of house staff” to a circular, steel staircase that descends 55 feet (17 meters) to the bowels of a dimly lit underworld… complete with a bar. The basement level is otherworldly and  feels a little cave-like, with a narrow hallway lined with a huge wall of ancient sandstone left exposed. It seems fitting that Cinerarium, velvet drapes surrounding three shelves containing elaborate, egg-shaped cremation urns, is the first artwork seen.   A reminder of death, but also a reminder to celebrate life. Just beyond, a huge water installation, Bit.fall, rains paintings of words most commonly seen on the internet.

The remainder of space in this level is dedicated to new exhibitions that change every few months, and the latest,  Field Lines, by Cameron Robbins had just opened up.  Robbins somehow harnesses nature using “instruments” set up outside that draw the wind and map geothermal dynamics using neon light against a night sky.

 

The remaining three levels house Walsh’s collection of contemporary art and antiquities, and the two are intermixed.  An ancient Egyptian coffin stands along side a contemporary ink on paper drawing inspired from forensic photography and scientific textbooks.

If you should ever meet someone who has been to the MONA, he/she will undoubtedly mention the wall of vaginas.  Entitled Cunts… and other Conversations, the installation features 77 life- size, porcelain, molded sculptures of women’s vaginas modeled by women from all walks of life ranging in ages from 18 to 78. It’s a little titillating and pretty much in your face (literally, they hang at eye level). But what inspired the artist(a man) was an article about three young women who had undergone labioplasty surgery because “…they feared men wouldn’t find them attractive if their labia did not conform to a standard seen in pornography, in which labia are airbrushed out.” These women models wanted one thing: for young women to be free of growing up with fear, ignorance, and loathing of their bodies and sexuality.  Let’s face it. How many of us women really know what we look like down there?   It’s amazing how different we all are. Who knew?!  (The gift shop sells vagina soap replicas, apparently very popular).

One of the most hated and popular installations is Wim Delvoyes’s Cloaca Professional, a large machine that replicates the human digestive system turning food into feces(remember that earlier metaphor?).  At appointed times of day, you can witness it  being fed or taking a dump (making fun of modern art?).

On the other hand, one of the most disturbing and painful works is that of Jenny Holzer who makes words into art, and in this case, words printed on human skin.  Inspired after reading about rape as an act of war carried out in Bosnia, Lustmorde, is a series of photographs with a narrative from three different perspectives: the perpetrator, the victim, and an observer (most often a family member).  They are excruciating to read. Hotzer’s work hangs near a Goya etching entitled This is Worse, from a series known as The Disasters of War.   Walsh is right when he says a lot of blood and guts are represented.

A visit to the MONA  isn’t something that is quickly forgotten.  It confronts, it entertains, it stirs things up.  Its effects are residual.  Almost six months into my trip, I realized that this was the first time I had felt lonely.  Maybe it was a combination of things.  The skies had remained overcast the whole time with the constant threat of a cold rain. My airbnb room was not in a welcoming, private home but rather in a kind of chilly rooming house, and I appeared to be the lone occupant. During this visit, I was totally on my own and never met up with anyone to share a meal with or have a friendly chat over coffee.

The MONA did what it does best, and that is it left me overwhelmed with a lot of mixed feelings.  Like an unwelcome visitor, that what-is-the-meaning-of-life existential angst crept in during the night, kept me awake, and wouldn’t leave. I finally figured the only way to get angst to leave was to make him laugh and not take myself or it too seriously. For me, the MONA reminds us that we are mortal–and to find the humor in that.

 

 

Postscript : Hobart is a beautiful city. I loved it!

 

 

A “Boomer” and Tripping My Brains Out: My Solo Adventure at 63 Down Under…On a Budget!.

It’s Back to the Big City!

Melbourne, a Genteel, Well-heeled Lady with a Complexion of Many Colors.

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A view of the Yarra River Bridge walking from Southbank the Arts Precinct  to Federation Square and Flinders Street Station in the Central Business District, early evening.

Living with uncertainly is a skill I am slowly acquiring–on second thought– quickly acquiring.

I suddenly found myself in Australia’s other big city of about 4.5 million people, Melbourne, for close to three weeks. And this time I didn’t have anyone picking me up at the airport. ( But I did learn to book flights that arrived during the daytime, avoiding late night wanderings.)  All I had was an airbnb address in South Melbourne along with directions from my hosts to take the SkyBus to Southern Cross Station in the city, find Williams street, hop on tram number 55, and get off on Park Street.

Needless to say it didn’t run all that smoothly. After asking LOTS of directions, I did find myself on tram number 55…but heading in the wrong direction.  I have to say that people were incredibly helpful (pointing out the correct tram on the other side of the street),  chivalrous (lifting my suitcase on and off the tram), and caring (one young couple getting off at the same stop, walked me to my address).

Initially, I didn’t think I liked Melbourne as well as Sydney.  Melbourne doesn’t have that beautiful harbor, and I didn’t find the trams and myki card particularly user-friendly.  I was somewhat acquainted with the long-standing rivalry that exists between the two cities reading that it might have started back in the early 1900s with the intense competition between Melbourne and Sydney for the new national capital. Canberra had to be built to end the fighting. Still others posit that it began back in the 1850s during the gold rush making Melbourne for the next 40 years one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

The rivalry still exists today, and you’re apt to hear little quips about the weather differences: Sydney is sunnier and has the beaches. Melbourne is colder and can have four seasons of weather on the same day, or remarks like: Sydney is “fashionable and luxurious,” while Melbourne is “intellectual and cultural.” I came to realize that I didn’t prefer one over the other. They’re both great, just different. Friends in Australia told me I would love Melbourne. They were right.

Melbourne has a way of capturing your heart. Like the beginnings of a  promising relationship, you aren’t necessarily dazzled by a blinding attraction. There are no immediate fireworks and adrenaline rushes.  It’s more a kind of like, and over time as you get to know each other, a slow, passionate burn. As you plumb the regions below the surface, more and more of the city’s fascinating personality is revealed, and you slowly fall in love.  This city is no light weight. There’s depth here… and always something to do. The pace seems slower, and people don’t appear to be rushed.  Yet there’s a lively, celebratory ambiance and a multi cultural beauty that makes for a great “global village.”

Don’t get me wrong, Melbourne is not without its deficiencies. Housing costs are exorbitant, negative gearing (investors who lose money on a property can deduct losses on income tax) and real estate investing are making it nearly impossible for young people to buy a first home. (Housing prices in Sydney are higher). Yet people want to move here like the young man with his two young kids I met on a tram who hailed from Los Angeles but recently relocated.

My first four days were booked through airbnb with hosts Christian and Sean in South Melbourne. I highly recommend airbnb and renting a private room.  Sean gave me a myki card for the tram saving me six dollars, and they both were a wealth of information about getting around the city. (They also had just returned from a great weekend in  Hobart, Tasmania, where I would be going next.)

The tram stopped right outside their door, and if I was up for some exercise, a thirty minute walk would take me to National Gallery of Victoria, past the Arts Precinct, to the CBD (Central Business District). I opted to walk because the best way to learn the city layout is on foot, and walking is just plain good for the soul.

Melbourne’s CBD is well organized in a rectangular grid with five main streets running horizontally and seven streets that bisect vertically.  The tram is free to ride within the city center, but if leaving the tram free zone, a prepaid myki card is required, and you have to touch your card on the card reader either entering or before exiting the tram. They do police this with surprise checks as I found out heading back home one night. There is a fine for not having a myki card. I’m told it’s either $75.00 cash on the spot or a billable $200.00 later.

The city is fairly easy to navigate once you learn which trams take you into the CBD and which take you outside.  Then there are all the Lanes and Little Streets in between.  For instance, Flinders Street has a Flinders Lane, Collins Street( a mini Paris!) has a Little Collins Street, Bourke Street has a Little Bourke etc.  THEN on many of the main streets, there are Arcades, like the beautiful Block Arcade, which are little mini malls stuffed with more interesting shops, cafes, and restaurants, AND particular buildings (The Nicholson Building, Curtin House) that house several floors of shops and artist studios. Hosier, Rutledge, and Union Lanes are known throughout the world for their iconic street art.  Every nook and cranny surprises.

After getting around by myself for four days, I met up with Carol, from the BroadsAbroad website, who invited me for a total of three days at her place, also in South Melbourne. Carol, a long time Melbourne resident, is a savvy business woman who has her own HR consulting company.  She, along with her very sharp 89 year-old mother, took me for a ride around the city and beyond pointing out the different suburbs (the very posh Toorak) and the many precincts.

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Having breakfast with Carol from the BroadsAbroad network at St. Ali Cafe in So. Melbourne.  St. Ali roasts their own coffee and gets my vote for the best coffee in Australia…so far. They also feature dinners with special pairing of coffees for each part of the meal! For the true afficionado!

Aussies love sports, and Melbourne is considered the sporting capital of Australia. The sports precinct is home to the Melbourne Cricket Ground(MCG), also called the “G”, a premier venue for cricket and Australian Rules Football (footy for short),  and has a seating capacity  100,000. Melbourne also hosts the Australian Grand Slam (at Rod Laver Arena), and since 1996, the Formula 1 Grand Prix, set up in beautiful Albert Park, part of the track using closed- off, city roads and a car park. The Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious thoroughbred horse race with over six million in prize money is a short train ride from either station to Flemington racecourse.  Other precincts include the medical, university, and arts/cultural precinct (my favorite). It makes sense to me to group these together.

After our ride, Carol’s mother Doris took us to brunch at IL Vicolo in the Italian section of the CBD, near Lygon Street. Italian immigrants are credited with bringing outdoor cafes to Melbourne.  Ohhh, the food…

Since my hosts Sean and Christian were booked for the coming weeks, I found another airbnb room in South Melbourne, even closer to the National Gallery of Victoria and the arts precinct.  Sydney has its captivating harbor, but Melbourne has Southbank and the arts precinct, and most nights I found myself walking along St. Kilda Road with the opera, symphony, and theater goers, enjoying the beautiful lights and being part of a happy crowd celebrating La Dolce Vita.

I was definitely living the good life, with introductions to Melbourne folks from Gayl and husband Tom’s friends and colleagues back in Perth. I’ve visited with many great people who met me in the city and took me to lunch(Maria, not pictured), to the Yarra Valley region, and to Mt. Macedon, once the summer retreat of wealthy city dwellers.

I’m five months into my travels at this point, and although I miss family and friends, I haven’t been lonely.  This low budget trip has been rich in the relationships I’ve formed, even the short stays with hostel mates and airbnb hosts who have shared with me little pieces of their lives.  I wouldn’t swap a luxury suite for any of these experiences. (But if anyone wants to take me on a five star, we-cater-to-your-every-need cruise, I’m there). Without a traveling companion, I’m more engaged, more conscious of me viewing people viewing me. There’s no one else to hide behind, act as a buffer, or take the edge off.  I’ve gained confidence. And who couldn’t use a little more confidence?

So I find myself, as I have more and more frequently, enjoying coffee at a little cafe, this time the Barista Cafe on Flinders Lane, and I’m overcome with an intense feeling of joy. It hovers and it’s fleeting, but not before the molecules are vibrating and I’m infused with a happiness that life is good.  Damn, I’m glad to be alive.

 

(And then I went to the MONA(Museum of Old and New Art)….next)