Friday, December 22, 2006

2 Days to Go

We’re getting a last couple of days in Sydney, as we face the end of our Australian adventure. Highlights include touring a replica of the Endeavor, the ship used by James Cook to explore Australia in the 18th century; taking the ferry to Manley Beach; and seeing the inside of the Sydney Opera House. The Endeavor is a faithful copy of the original, and it must have been a difficult journey around the world: the ship is surprisingly small, and the living quarters were tiny, with 3 foot ceilings, no windows, and not a whole lot of space per person.

We also learned some that the designer of the Opera House, Jan Utzon, has never seen his building. He quit the project in the 1960s, after a series of delays and cost overruns prompted huge controversy (the building was supposed to cost $4 million, but wound up with a price tag exceeding $100 million). He then refused to turn over his designs for the interiors (wonder what happened to the government official who negotiated that contract), and it was left to three new architects to put the insides together. Utzon has never been back, even though he’s now doing some design work on refurbishment. Odd. This may be the most famous building in the world, and Utzon is 88. He must be unusually temperamental to refuse to visit his own work, especially over a spat that took place 40 years ago. Artists.

That said, the inside is breathtaking. The exterior design means that the theaters are unusually narrow and long, and the ceilings are very, very high (unfortunately, we weren’t permitted to take pictures). It looks like an engineering marvel as well, and it must have been something to figure out how to put the thing up. Especially considering that the engineers were working with slide rules and blueprints, rather than supercomputers and CAD systems.

We’re staying in Chinatown, and on Fridays there is a street market along the main pedestrian mall. Merchants use the hard sell, literally grabbing you to come into their shops. We walked past a massage setup , where you could get a neck rub for $12. Not a bad deal, and as soon as we expressed the slightest interest, we were face down on a table before we knew what happened. And then, the masseuses kept asking if they could do you back, your legs, your feet, your head, your hands, for $5, $10, $20 more. It was a tag-team effort, with people whispering into both ears at the same time. It was an uncomfortable position, and although the women doing the massages were tiny, their hands were so strong I bet they could crack walnuts with their fingers. I kept saying no, no, no, and when the time came to pay, everyone claimed that we had bought the whole deal, at $50 each. At this point, I stopped being polite, and said no, we agreed on a price, and that was it. Susan had no idea what she had agreed to, which is the whole idea, I guess, so we wound up sort of splitting the difference. It did feel pretty good, though.

Friday, December 15, 2006

New Zealand II

We have our schedule set for the rest of our stay. Tomorrow, we take a bus to Mt. Cook, the highest peak in the country. On Sunday, we travel to a sheep farm outside of Arakoa (a village established by French settlers). Monday, we take the Transalpine Train from Christchurch to Greymouth, and back. We'll see a good bit of the middle of the South Island.

One correction to the previous post: the Maori first arrived in New Zealand 700 years ago. They are part of the Polynesian people, who traveled by open canoe to islands over the triangle formed by New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island. They also traveled as far as South American and Madagascar. Unbelievable.

Today, we visited the Antarctic Research Center, the main staging point for travel to the Antarctic. It's a 5 hour flight from Christchurch to McMurdo, and a C-130 and C-17 were getting ready to head down. We rode a Hagglund, a transport that is a cross between a tractor and a roller coaster. Great fun. The museum has a wind-chill simulator, which runs 60 k/hr winds through a 17 degree (F) chamber. They advertise it as world-class cold.

Meh. Wisconsin in January is much colder. One guy from Colorado did the whole thing in short pants.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

New Zealand

We made it to Christchurch, on the East Coast of the South Island. It's very green, cool, and beautiful. We wandered around town during the day, and visited a Maori cultural center and nature preserve in the evening.

A central element of Maori culture is the Haka, a war dance that prepares the mind and body for battle. Here's a great Maori warrior chief engaged in a haka:

No, really, this is supposed to strike fear into opponents (or, I guess, make them laugh themselves to death, which would also work).

The Kiwi is the New Zealand icon. This part of the world has its share of unique creatures, and hte Kiwi certainly is one. It's a bird, but it has solid bones with marrow, is flightless, and it burrows. It is also largely defenseless, at least until fully grown, although for the first 70 million years or so this wasn't a problem since there were no predators on the Island. The Maori and Europoeans introduced rats, mice, possums, ferrets, cats, dogs, and stoats, which have driven the Kiwi to the brink of extinction. 95-98% of chicks are killed within the first 100 days of life, and only about 20,000 birds remain; there were untold millions when the Maori arrived 30,000 years ago. There is a program that takes the eggs from the wild, raises the chicks on predator-free islands, then puts the grown birds back into the wild. It's not clear that it will work, and the biologist at the preserve said that within 5-20 years the bird may be extinct in the wild.

We will be blogging sporadically, as internet access at the hotel is very expensive.

Off to the Antarctic Exploration Center today.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Farewell to Canberra

We leave Canberra tomorrow, for a week in New Zealand and a few days in Sydney. It's hard to believe that we're done (though we won't be back in Madison until January 4th). The kids had their going away parties on Friday, and will be very sad to leave the friends they have made. We're all a bit teary, and are extremely grateful for the hospitality and generosity people have shown to us. What an adventure.

So, thanks, John, Mark, Lyndell, Jo, Kate, Kate, Leigh, Beverly, Peggy, Andy, Margaret, Marion, Kim, Alastair, Heather, David, David, Allaster, Gracie, Kevin, Paula, Marilyn, Kathy, John, Bob, Annie, Kelly, Ebony, Ebony, Lucy, Patch, Pat, Kaitlin, Ad, Jacinta, Kenny, Stephen, Daniel, Sandy, Sonya, Kym, Trevlyn, Ximena, Scott, Aric, David, Micah, Louise, Amelia, Brandon, Brendan, Peter, Graeme, David, Carl, Don, John, Don, Surya, Lisa, Di, Fran, Alex, Jean, Howard, Leo, Larissa, Helen, Tracy, Veneeta, Sonya, Peter, Kristy, Kirsty, Justin, Jung, Ian, Marcus, Matt, Kevin, Sue, Robin, John, Sandy, Justin, Ambassador McCallum, Mrs. McCallum, Lindsay, Kat, Eric, Amos, Tim, Geralyn, Jeanette, Michael, Laura, Jody, Jonathan, and Devon.

Especially John and Mark.

I'm absolutely positive that I forgot someone, and plead jet lag. We've met so many wonderful folks that I just can't keep everyone straight.

We've told everyone we know in Australia that if they can get within 200 miles of Madison, we'll pick them up and bring them the rest of the way. We truly hope that we have a chance to repay all of the kindness that we have received here.

On to New Zealand!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Tathra II

It was a bit cloudy the first day we hit the beach, and the pictures don't really capture how stunning it was. Here are a few more .

Tathra has the only remaining wooden wharf on the east coast of Australia. It was built in the 1860s, to ship goods to and from Sydney. All shipping stopped in 1954, and the wharf was close to being torn down in the 70's, but it was restored as a historical site. Here's the view from the wharf, looking east:

I've never seen water so blue.

On Sunday, we visted another beach, which was nearly deserted: probably half a mile of beach, with 10 people, maybe:

Parrots loved the bird feeder off the deck. The king parrots, crimson rosellas, and lorikeets all come in pairs, and competed for space on the feeder. Here, the kind parrots have the helm, with a jealous rosella looking on:

The king parrots are brilliantly colored; just amazing.

The parrots were quite tame, and Adam was able to hand-feed one:

On Monday morning, we were all a bit disappointed to realize that we had to go back to school, to work, and on errands.


We spent the weekend in Tathra, a small beach town on the southeastern coast of New South Wales. The director of the Australian American Fulbright Association, Mark Darby, has a house there, and invited us down. It was just painfully beautiful, with pristine water, fantastic birds, and unspoiled and uncrowded beaches.

Here's the view of Tathra beach from the front deck of the house.

Mark is an avid swimmer and surfer, and offered to teach us all how to surf. I actually took to it quite easily, andwas hanging ten in no time at all:

Here's Sydney on a boogie board:

And Adam:

OK; I'll get caught out eventually. Here's a real picture of me catching a wave, with Mark in the background:

And here's the result (the kids absolutely love this picture):

I did manage to stand up on the board, if only for a moment, so it counts as actually surfing. It was great fun. The last time I tried this was in college, and it didn't go as well then, as I wound up bleeding (long story).

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Endgame Leadership Upheaval

Of course, now that we have about a week left in our stay, national politics hits eleven on the interest scale. The opposition Labour party deposed its 3-year leader, Kim Beazley, voting for the younger Kevin Rudd in the runup to next Fall's national elections.

Beazley had a tough couple of months -- he blundered by mixing up the name of an Australian talk-show host whose wife (who was a famous and popular actress) had just died. His name was Rove McManus, but Beazley offered his condolences to Karl Rove. The Government is seen as vulnerable after 11 years in office, but the Labour party was behind in recent polls, a lag most pundits attributed to Beazley himself. Parties are everything here, and the leadership serves a role with no equivalent in the U.S.: for the opposition party, you'd have to combine Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid into one person, and then you'd be close.

A poll taken today showed that the Labor party is now up nationally, 49%-38%. Obviously a lot will happen between now and the election. Rudd is not well known, and he's already been criticized as an "L-plate" leader, referring to the placards that drivers have to display when they have their learner's permit.

And, just to make things worse, Beazley's brother died overnight of an apparent heart attack.