Soon after arriving in Brisbane from Auckland, New Zealand we checked into the Park Royal Hotel downtown, located just across the street from the beautiful Botanical Gardens, yet we were still in the heart of the city! From the hotel we boarded a small ferry to take us across the river to a place known as “Southbank”, the former site of the 1988 Commonwealth Games and World Exposition.
These days it’s a lovely scenic area of many fine restaurants, unique shops, and popular attractions, one of which was the “Godwana Rainforest Sanctuary”. It housed hundreds of tropical birds and rare native animals, including the legendary “Tasmanian Devil”. That afternoon we watched a wildlife show by the park rangers who showed us many animals up close, such as a large Australian tarantula, huge iguana, and a fox fruit bat. We got to learn all about their habits and habitats, as well as being able to actually touch them, which was a real thrill for all of the children. As we walked around Southbank, we came upon the “Drover’s Bar” in a beautiful old Victorian building, looking very much like something straight out of the old American Wild West. As we entered the old bar, the sounds of country and western music mixed with beer glasses clinking together reached our ears. As we sat at the bar, an elderly couple danced alone in one corner – definitely a local pub. I awoke early the next morning and took a long walk along the river and through the Botanic Gardens under the warm, sunny skies.
Along the path were several bronze plaques marking places where large boats had been washed ashore during the “Great Flood of 1896”. There were also a few old photos of the boats, some of which had been stranded high up in the trees! Then just 16 days later, another huge typhoon hit Brisbane and washed all of the boats back out to sea. Continuing my walk I came to the beautiful old Victorian “Gardener’s Cottage”, now a small café, where I sat in the warm morning sun enjoying Devonshire Cream tea and fresh baked crumpets.
That afternoon I met up with Leslie and we took a ferry to “Kangaroo Point”, situated on a high summit overlooking the city, affording us spectacular views. After strolling along the edge of the steep, rocky cliffs, we took a short tour of the Maritime Museum before returning to the ferry landing and back to our hotel.
The next morning we were up early for our flight to Sydney, where Leslie would spend the next two days and I would connect with a flight to Perth in Western Australia to attend the annual Australian User Conference, known as “OZRI”. Once again it was a smooth and very enjoyable flight to Sydney where we parted company, after having traveled together for almost two weeks. As Leslie took a taxi to the hotel downtown, I relaxed in my comfortable Business Class seat aboard the Ansett Australia flight and settled in for the five hour trip across the Australian continent. The landscape slowly began changing from the lush forest of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney to the fertile plains of the Murray River basin north of Adelaide, and onward to the vast expanse of the Great Australian Bight whose remote, rugged coastline harbored immense stretches of lonely white sand beaches! As the vast landscape continued to pass slowly beneath the plane, lunch was served somewhere over the middle of nowhere on the map of Australia. I enjoyed a delicious spicy prawn curry, accompanied by a crisp, chilled glass of Hunter Valley Chardonnay. To finish the superb meal, a very creamy, rich and wonderful Bourbon Vanilla Bean ice cream was presented, along with a glass of Port – very nice combination. Upon arrival in Perth I checked into a beautiful room on the 21st floor of the Radisson Hotel overlooking the deep blue Indian Ocean.
From my balcony I had a spectacular view of the beach below, with the sound of the surf softly floating around me. Later I joined my ESRI colleagues for drinks in the bar before we all made our way to the “Dragon Palace Restaurant” for a traditional Chinese “Mooncake Festival Dinner”. There was an enormous buffet of countless Cantonese dishes, all of which were excellent, despite not being a real fan of traditional Cantonese food. After the opening of the conference and a full agenda of sessions the next day, we all boarded buses that took us to Fremantle, one of Australia’s oldest towns and the port city for Perth. Three busloads of us piled out and descended upon the small, quaint town and began to flood the old market, walking up and down the narrow, cobble stone streets past turn of the century Victorian store fronts.
There were several large groups of conference attendees trying unsuccessfully trying to decide upon where to have dinner. Luckily I managed to duck into a tiny bookstore and avoid being caught up in the “indecision”. After a few minutes of hiding out in the bookstore I headed back to an old pub on the corner that I had passed earlier and found a delightful brasserie upstairs in the vintage “Sails and Anchor Brewery Pub”. It turned out to be a great discovery where I started with a tall glass of “Seven Seas Real Ale”, brewed on the premises and very good ale at that. As I sat at a lovely corner table on the long wrought iron veranda overlooking Market Street (watching the groups below still stuck on deciding where to eat) I selected the “Thai Red Lamb Curry” for dinner. As I looked around the place, especially the distinctive architectural details, it looked more and more like an old hotel, particularly with the arrangement of the rooms in the narrow hallways, the old Victorian woodwork, and the gorgeous hammered tin ceiling. It turns out that it was the old “Freemason’s Hotel” built over 100 years ago.
I finished dinner with a pint of the “Brass Monkey Stout”, a luscious chocolate malt flavor. Soon it was time to rejoin the group where the buses would take us back to downtown Perth and the “Burswood Casino” for the rest of the evening. An interesting fact about Fremantle is that the port is the main point of departure for the export of Australia’s sheep and cattle to Asia and the Middle East. Amazingly, one livestock ship can transport up to 60,000 sheep at one time, though probably not comfortable for the sheep, along with the dozens of drovers who take care of the livestock. Arriving at the casino I bought my self-imposed limit of $10 in chips and proceeded to find a lonely slot machine in which to lose it! The electronic draw poker machine kept me busy for over an hour, teasing me with a payout of 18 – 20 chips every 5 or 6 rounds, which was just enough to keep me playing but not enough to get me to buy more chips. (there is a subtle psychology at play here) In another part of the casino was a large high-limit poker pit for the serious gamblers. But most people chose one of the many blackjack tables at which to lose their money. Perhaps the most interesting and unusual game, at least to me, was in a large pit, surrounded a circle bar, where two large mats marked with huge letters of “H” and “T” lay on the floor. Two casino managers sat in high seats above the bar, facing each other, to observe the play. A man dressed in all black was given a selection of very large coins and asked to choose two of them, which he then placed in a wooden box. Suddenly he tossed the box high in the air and the two coins fell to the floor of the pit. The “point” of the game was to wager that both coins would land as either heads or tails. Should that happen one would “win” the game. The “payout” for a win was only 1 – 1, not the best odds! (the only winning results I saw that night were always heads, but the game was quite popular with the locals) At a nearby blackjack table I watched a woman pulling out $100 bills from her purse every 10 minutes to continue playing. I began to wonder if she was actually enjoying herself or if it was nothing more than a reflex action? Finally the bus took us back to the hotel and everyone was very quiet by that time as we passed the beautiful skyline of Perth brilliantly reflected in the still waters of the Swan River.
The following day, as a break from the stuffy, windowless conference center rooms, I managed to take a long walk down the beach in the warm sunshine. As I passed a group of cement toilet buildings, the wind vibrated the corrugated steel roofs, producing a beautiful, haunting, harmonic sound.
Later that evening was the conference Gala Dinner where we were entertained by “The Troubadours” as they played classic old rock-n-roll and put on a very funny skit with an Elvis impersonator. Precisely at 10:00pm the casino next door opened and everyone made a mad dash for the tables to lose their money once more! Rather than “donate” any more money to the casino, I retired to my room and sat on the balcony with a cold beer as I listened to the soft sound of the surf below. I woke up early the next morning and suddenly realized it was my birthday! (not that I told anyone) I took another long walk on the beach as a strong westerly blew lots of salt spray in my face while I walked among the small shells, cuttlefish bones, and kelp that had been washed up by the tide. Attached to the kelp were lots of small, light blue air sacs which popped beneath my feet, like walking on plastic shipping material – a very odd sensation. As the conference had closed earlier in the day, I joined my Aussie friend Ian for another trip to Fremantle, but this time without the rest of the conference attendees. At the port we watched a couple of huge livestock ships loading their cargo of sheep and cattle bound for the Middle East. Then we paid a visit to the Maritime Museum where a couple of 16th century Dutch shipwrecks that had been recovered and beautifully restored were on display. As we strolled around historic Fremantle we discovered the old “Gaol” (aka Jail) that preserved the history of Western Australia and its “colourful” convict heritage. In one of the old cells was an 18th century dentist’s parlor that looked more like a “chamber of horrors”! Some of the “implements” were just downright primitive looking. As evening approached we returned to the old railway station and boarded the train back to Perth. Along the way we were treated to a gorgeous sunset over the Indian Ocean.
That evening we joined some colleagues from Queensland for dinner in the hotel, and afterwards we all sat in the bar, watching members of the Liberal Party arrive for a fundraising event, all dressed in their tuxedos and elegant evening gowns. (many of which were often too tight and looking elegant, though not always comfortable) As luck would have it, the Prime Minister, John Howard, walked by on his way to the event and managed to say hello. Meanwhile, our group critically reviewed the parade of evening gowns, as if it were the red carpet for the Oscars! Finally I had to call it a night in order to be ready for my 6:20am flight to Ayers Rock the next morning.
The Ansett Australia flight took us over the remote Western Australian outback and the landscape quickly became more barren and desolate, and at the same time the country took on a distinct and beautiful reddish hue that deepened as we approached “the rock”. Just before landing, the captain made a wide circle around the enormous red monolith, affording all of us an incredible view of the desert giant. There was undisputedly nothing larger on the continent!
After checking into the beautiful “Sails in the Desert Hotel”, within sight of Ayers Rock, I signed up for a tour to another very unique and beautiful rock formation nearby, known as “The Olgas”, which appear as massive round boulders jutting straight out of the flat red desert, except that these “boulders” are several hundred feet high! We had plenty of time to hike among them, deep into the narrow ravines where precious springs sheltered a few small trees – the only color green for miles around. It was a lovely, peaceful area that is sacred to the Aborigines.
We returned to the hotel at sunset and I took a short hike into the vast expanse of the red desert and up to the crest of a small sand dune where I was struck by the stunning view of Ayers Rock and The Olgas, brilliantly painted in soft hues of red and gold as the sun slowly retreated below the horizon.
Back at the hotel I savored a delicious dinner that featured a smoked salmon, avocado, bleu cheese, and sun-dried tomato sandwich, accompanied by a glass of crisp, dry but fruity Australian chardonnay by the name of “Poet’s Corner” from the Montrose vineyard. As I was leaving the Desert Rose Restaurant after dinner, I spotted a sign in the hotel lobby advertising an outdoor performance by an Aboriginal group named “Nukanya”. That night I sat captivated by their haunting performance of traditional songs and dances in the warm evening air under a sky filled with billions of stars. The view of the Milky Way and the Southern Cross constellation was nothing short of incredible. The music of the Digeridoo was so beautiful, and soon there was a spirited audience participation in a couple of ancient dances called “Flight of the Birds” and “Hunt for the Red Kangaroo”. It was clear everyone was enjoying the performance and having a lot of fun. I was up early the next morning to join a tour for a climb to the top of Ayers Rock at sunrise.
As we approached the monstrous monolith, it loomed over a thousand feet straight up from the desert floor – very intimidating to say the least! The rock face was very steep, well beyond a 100% slope (45 degree angle) in most places, so there was a thick iron chain bolted into the rock to provide a hand hold – definitely a necessity. It was a strenuous route of more than 1200 vertical feet, but once on top of the “Giant of the Desert” the views under the cloudless deep blue sky were nothing short of out of this world. One could see for over 100 miles in every direction – with nothing but flat red desert below us.
In the world of Geology, Ayers Rock is one single huge rock that was turned 90 degrees on its side millions of years ago, and since then has been weathered by eons of rain and wind. Now it’s surrounded by a landscape of ancient 30,000 year old red sand dunes, covered with sparse vegetation. On the official summit sits a large brass monument, which is a mandatory photo stop for all Japanese tourists who must have their picture taken with the marker – forget about the spectacular vistas of the surrounding landscape! To my surprise there were several small pools of water and small shrubs growing on the broad, flat surface on top of the rock. Soon it was time to descend, the trip down being more difficult, and even scary at times. Staring down at 1200 feet of smooth rock face was “daunting” to say the least, knowing that a slip of the foot could mean a fall to one’s death. However, when I finally reached the bottom I felt the climb had been worth every effort and scary moment. Returning to the hotel I had just enough time to wash up, pack my bags, and check out before boarding the airport shuttle for the flight to Sydney. As the plane gained altitude over Ayers Rock and The Olgas, I wished I could have stayed longer, but I knew I would return someday. A nice lunch of smoked salmon, roasted turkey, and Thai spiced noodles was served, along with a chilled glass of “Long Gully Chardonnay”. During the 3 ½ hour flight we passed directly over Lake Eyre, an enormous dry lake bed where numerous “dust devils” swirled and danced across the barren white surface. (Stay tuned for adventures in Sydney)