The Grampians (Part II)

I shot awake in the predawn hours to laughing.

Not a giggle, or even a belly laugh, but a true cackle.

The laugh ‘that relative’ makes after too many chardonnays on Christmas.

“A kookaburra,” I thought to myself. “I’m literally being woken up by a kookaburra in an old gum tree…”

As I stumbled outside into the cold on my way to the shower, I was greeted with a foreign landscape that was hidden during the drive in. Dense forest surrounded me with a barrier of steep cliff-side just yards away from where I slept.

The rest of the natural world had come to life as well. Bird calls dominated the morning, with tropical flocks bursting from trees overhead. Seeing birds that I normally associated with cages high in the treetops was incredible.

(Galah & Sulpher Crested Cockatoos)

As the group gathered, our first short walk was to find some Kangaroos. And find them we did. After the previous night spent dodging them in the dark, it was a thrill to get up close to the animals in a more peaceful state.

Carefully creeping forward, and cautiously making sure I didn’t put my hands on any resting snakes, I was able to get up close to an Eastern Grey Kangaroo and her joey.

Soon enough, the ‘roos had enough of me and hopped off into the bush and we were on our way up the mountain.

I was again struck by how different Australia is. Every plant and tree (let alone the animals) is unlike anything I have seen before.

As we crept above the treeline, we were greeted with unparalleled vistas of the Grampains Mountains and surrounding valleys.

The cool morning quickly warmed up and I was allowed the opportunity to break away from the group and plow ahead for some solitude. I found myself grounded and grateful for such an opportunity in a year where I figured “I wouldn’t be traveling too much.”

As I walked around the edge of a cliff and down towards the waterfalls below a few things because clear. The first, my right knee had not, in fact, miraculously healed with another year of age and I should have been wearing my knee brace. Second, I am going to need some good cardio training before my 5-day trek into Indonesian Jungle in July (more on that later).

Nevertheless, the view from the bottom did not disappoint.

Though I could have easily disappeared down one of the many trails splintering off from the falls, I figured that wouldn’t be too kind to the group or necessarily good for my career and I begrudgingly made my way back up the mountain.

As is the nature with tours, we had to begin to make our way back to Melbourne, but not before I was greeted with another uniquely Australian scene — Emus.

Though they were too far and fast for a picture, let me iterate how big these birds are. Standing 6 ft. tall, emus are imposing and quick. I began to understand how the Australian Army had lost consecutive conflicts with the birds in the 1930s.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emu_War)

On the long drive back, I enjoyed more great conversation with Pete about everything from Pink Floyd albums to psychiatric hypnosis and, by the time I arrived back in Melbourne, I was exhausted but thrilled by yet another great week.

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Maker:S,Date:2017-2-23,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-Y,E-ver:20180127.4571296.001.002

The Great Ocean Road

My week consisted of birthday calls and celebrations.

If you’re a fan of your Birthday, I’d recommend moving to a drastically different time zone. I received calls, texts and notifications between the 16th and the 19th, each from family and friends who were certain they had reached me on my b-day. My answer to each of you is, yes, you did, and thank you!

Here in Australia, the team was more than happy to put me in the spotlight (my favorite) on the 18th, with a cake  — to which I responded with my normal grace of mumbling, practically forgetting how to sit down and almost tumbling out of my office chair as my coworkers sang (trust me, there’s a video). On the night itself, Andrew and his wife took me to the immaculately decorated George’s Place (name after the greatest George of all, Costanza)  for some trivia, where we summarily wiped the floor with the opposition.

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“Brendan is starting to get upset!”

The real treat would be my first foray outside of Melbourne over the weekend.

A two-day, one night tour of the Great Ocean Road and Grampians.

You may have noticed a word above that is not normally in my travel lexicon — ‘tour.’

I typically abhor group tours. I don’t like the pace or lack of independence. But, being in a new place with vastly different climates, animals and driving sides, I determined that I would best maximize my time by signing on and enjoying it.

I rolled out of bed for my 7:45AM pick-up and met the driver/guide, Pete. I was the last person on and, thereby, up front for the ride. My fellow passengers were two french women, some American college students, an older German couple, a Thai family and an American woman with her octogenarian mother (or, my spec script for Murder on the Orient Express 2: Australian Boogaloo).

From the start, Pete and I hit it off. An avid traveler who was working three jobs to launch his business, he clearly loved the outdoors and nature in general. As he learned that my politics weren’t of the gilded suntan variety, he relaxed a bit more and we were well underway.

Pete explained to us the history of the Great Ocean Road and how, originally built by soldiers returned from World War I, the road itself was now the world’s largest war memorial. As we moved further outside of Melbourne, the landscape began to change and we made it to our first stop, the surf coast.

Coming from Florida, I was used to the ocean and beaches, but not like this. The Southern Pacific was a shimmering blue, with massive strands of kelp swirling beneath the waves.

As the name would suggest, surfers abound. And, despite my best efforts, and the pleading insistence of her exasperated daughter, I simply could not convince our minibus’s elderly matriarch that I was not, in fact, a tour guide. So, handing out paper towels, water, or whatever else she asked for, and trying to answer questions as best I could, we snaked our way down the coastline. (Pete, the real tour guide, thought this was quite hilarious).

We made a quick stop to look for some Koalas, but alas, none were to be seen.

After a quick lunch, we moved inland.

It’s amazing how different things look after a few minutes driving in Australia. The coastal shore gave way to farmland, and, eventually, dense temperate rainforest. The forest, known as Maits Rest and part of Cape Otway National Park is one of the oldest on the planet. Massive green ferns cut out nearly 90% of sunlight and huge, hollowed-out beeches dominated the upper canopy. Pete recommended walking barefoot through the green and barefoot I walked, with each breath feeling rejuvenating as we went.

Allegedly, the forest is home to a rather vicious, carnivorous snail that sneaks (slowly) up on its prey to deliver a piercing blow with its one sharp tooth. Fortunately for all, the snail is nocturnal and we barely managed to escape with our lives.

As we drove on, the scenery changed yet again.

We had arrived to the shipwreck coast — home to the famed 12 Apostles. These rock formations, originally known as the Apostles, were later re-named the 12 Apostles for obvious, albeit ill-informed, reasons as there were only ever 9. One has since tumbled back into the sea, leaving 8.

Numerical semantics aside, the views were the highlight of the day.

We stopped several times along the road, with each vista truly more breathtaking than the last.

Stopping one last time to view the sunset over the waves, we turned inland for a dinner stop. After dinner, Pete started to get serious.

I, he informed me, was to be on ‘road watch’ as we drove into the bush. Having my earlier wildlife aspirations spurned (no koala and no carnivorous snail), I was excited to see what Australia at night would have to offer.

“ON YOUR LEFT!” I yelled as the 23rd kangaroo of the night bounced out of the underbrush and right into the headlights.

Pete, being experienced at this game managed to swerve at the last moment, leaving a confused ‘roo to hop across to the other side.

As the entire van slumbered and we plowed deeper into the wild and toward the mountains it became somewhat of an odd silence, only punctuated every two minutes by quick lines like: “Wallaby on the right,” “Possum,” and “WTF is that?! Oh, an owl with something in it’s mouth.”

Australia truly comes alive at night and, with no animals harmed in the making of this story, we arrived to our site a little past ten.

Moments after my head hit the pillow and seconds before I fell asleep, a single thought crossed my mind, “Maybe tours aren’t THAT bad.”

Part II coming soon!

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Footy Fun and a Needed Shutdown

Friday night hit me like a brick.

After work, I zombie walked to the apartment with my brain hinting that it needed a break. Going full-tilt since I landed, my body, mind and soul were screaming for a day in the dark watching movies/shows.

But, fortune favors the bold, and with an Australian Football League game on the docket for Saturday and a trip to the Thousand Steps in the Dandenong Ranges on Sunday — I was ready for another full weekend.

I woke up to creaking.

As my mind caught up and reminded me that I wasn’t indeed on a ship, I strolled out of my bedroom to look out the window and was met a smattering of rain, with the buildings around me suffused with fog.

The clouds above raced by at a clip I hadn’t seen outside of hurricane season in Florida.

As another low creak sounded, it hit me.

“I’m definitely swaying.” I said to no one. (I need to get a cactus or something so my musings can at least have some direction)

On the 27th floor of a massive building, I was experiencing the fun movement that comes with being in a skyscraper in high winds — fortunately this is exactly what is supposed to happen and doesn’t indicate any structural problems, but still, a very odd feeling.

Checking weather.com, I saw the gale & thunderstorm warnings and was greeted by another warning that could only come from Australia. Emblazoned in red across the top of the screen was a ‘SHEEP FARMERS WARNING,’ alerting farmers that their sheep were in danger of being blown away or caught in dangerous storms.

“Great day for a footy match.” I said to my unpurchased cactus.

Nevertheless, part of any sporting event is braving the elements to see it.

I threw on an excellent travel coat my mom bought me for my birthday and forged into the sheep snatching wind. Note: I swore that I definitely didn’t need the coat and I would be fine. Thanks mom, you still dress me better than I dress myself.

That’s when the rain started.

Torrential doesn’t do it justice. Nor do buckets, cats and dogs, or men. Uninterrupted curtains pounded from the sky.

The coat held and I made my way to the information center in Federation Square to meet Andrew,  a coworker/friend who graciously offered to introduce me to the game where his beloved Brisbane Lions would take on the Richmond Tigers (Richmond being a neighborhood of Melbourne).

When he arrived, I nervously asked, “So, do they, uh…play in this?”

Giving me a laugh and nod, Andrew explained that it would take a lot more than a little rain and wind to stop Australian Football. With that, we walked down the Yara to the famous Melbourne Cricket Grounds.

For the uninitiated, Australian Football, or ‘footy’, is played on a massive circle. Players advance the ball with precision kicks to forward teammates who have the chance to catch the ball. If within striking distance, a player can kick the ball towards goal. If it sails through the narrow uprights, it’s six points — if it only makes it through the wide uprights, it’s one point.

I know it sounds complex, but do yourself a favor and watch a tutorial and some highlights on Youtube. Few rules and whistles mean an intuitive game that has a constant flow like soccer. Combine that with the strength needed to fend off, or make, heavy tackles, constant running, and leaping to make a catch (or ‘Mark’ as it’s called) — I started to think these might be the most fit athletes in the world (next to hockey).

Richmond made it easy to get a handle on the game, with the toothless Brisbane team putting up little fight. (Andrew assured me they were mere years away from competitiveness. Competitiveness with what, I’m not so sure.)

Dustin Martin, last year’s MVP, put on a clinic, with a 5 goal performance. And in typical Melbourne fashion, by the second half, we had sun.

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Final Score: Richmond 110 – Brisbane 17

We followed the match with some great Chinatown Dim sum (really, some of the best Chinese I’ve had outside of China) and dessert.

I rolled on home happy and full.

On Sunday, more rain and wind slammed the city — the Dandenongs would have to wait.

I secretly thanked whatever wind patterns and evaporation granted me the day because did I ever need it. Were it a sunny day, I would have struggled to motivate myself. My brain had had enough and, in the end, the glorious lure of streaming entertainment was within my grasp.

But. There was one thing I had to do.

Something I truly hate.

Anywhere in the world, it’s the same result. As I got nearer my throat got dry and my palms and back started to sweat. The steady stream of people heading in the same direction made my chest get tight and my breath shorten.

It had to be done. I had to go to a mall.

With the press of the Fez Medina sans culture and good food, I mashed my way through throngs of shoppers from every part of the world — many of whom had decided it was the perfect place to let their sticky, screaming children run wild.

I sped through this nightmare with a singular purpose. Jeans. And in that regard I was successful, finding a pair that neither looked painted on, nor like it would tear when coming in contact with a twig.

As soon as my receipt was printed I was out the door, out of the mall and back to the apartment.

Deciding not to write, look at work emails, read or leave the place for the rest of the day, I opened up my laptop and drifted away into the world of Netflix.

Random Thoughts:

  • While my birthday coat that saved my body was mentioned. I’d be remiss not to mention the gifts that have had equal impact on my mind and soul. The Nintendo Switch given to me by Ari has saved my mind (I need my games), while the gift from my father, received today, of a 1-year sponsorship of an ancient Red River Gum Tree, known as the Lion’s Head Tree, right here in the Royal Botanical Gardens, has done a lot to boost my spirit. (I intend to go and take some good pics of my B-day tree) — Thank you all!
  • Because of where I am and space time, my true birthday will fall on April 19th this year (born 10:20AM EST on April 18 translates to 12:20 AM Melbourne time on April 19th)

Note: This weekend I am doing a Great Ocean Road drive with an overnight in the Grampians National Park, followed by some hiking until late Sunday. There will probably be two posts with a lot of pictures coming towards the middle of next week.

 

 

 

In Search of Penguins

How to reflect on my first week in Melbourne?

Adaptation ruled. To time, new people, new work, different weather, and cooking for myself (I’ve been spoiled).

Shifting into my role at our Australia office has been fascinating — functioning in a similar position, for the same organization, but in a different place, has given me new perspective on the intricacies of my work.

What has been a true revelation is the kindness and support provided by my Australian colleagues. Through every step, they’ve made sure I’ve felt at home and welcome, making my transition to their office all the easier. Consider my base of support established.

My Saturday plans were three-pronged.

I would get to the Triennial Exhibit at the National Gallery of Victory (NGV), find some items I had forgotten at home (sunglasses, jeans x2), and tag along to a birthday party.

I felt like a pro walking over to the NGV, dodging groups of tourists, confidently strolling into the museum, flipping my camera on, only to be greeted by the boxed text: NO CARD IN CAMERA

So much for being a pro.

Nevertheless, I still had my phone and the works of Ron Mueck and Yayoi Kusama were wonderfully eerie; giving me a distinct ‘Southern Reach’ vibe.

Counting myself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, I left the museum with a smile and set out into Melbourne in search of jeans and sunglasses. The sunglasses were easy (pharmacy!) but the jeans around here seem to be….um….a bit tight (like, yoga pants tight).

My one pair of jeans will have to hold for now.

The next part of the story is what will seem truly outlandish to those who know me well. I accepted an invitation to a colleague’s, friend’s birthday party.

It was time for me to be social.

Ignoring the part of my brain that told me to ‘play sick and watch movies,’ I nervously waited for my coworker to pick me up in front of the Crown Casino. Soon, she and her husband arrived and I was off to the Docklands.

Any anxiety drifted away as I talked ‘footy’ on the ride over and was lobbied hard to support both Collingwood or Melbourne, respectively (I’m leaning towards Richmond, but more on that next week).

Hospitality seems to be ingrained in Australian DNA

Here I was, some random American at a birthday party that I was tagging along to, and I was greeted by the entire group like an old friend. The ‘restaurant’ itself was a riot. An indoor hookah bar that seemed to deal entirely in Birthday parties (with a birthday song that was blasted so many times it’s still playing in my head). The night was full of good food, good laughs and fun conversation.

I fell asleep feeling grateful that I didn’t stay in and watch movies.

Today, I woke up with one thing on my mind. Penguins.

The penguins of St. Kilda to be exact.

With morning chores out of the way, I hopped on a tram to St. Kilda, the beach-side neighborhood of Melbourne that, I had read, had a community of little penguins (As the smallest penguin species, that’s actually what they’re called). They are shy, sleepy during the day, and not easy to spot.

First, I briefly explored St. Kilda, a funky neighborhood with an artistic vibe and old-school feel. From the boardwalk to the amusement park featuring a horror-show entrance, and the finest rides from the 1898 Worlds Fair, I’ve tagged St. Kilda as a neighborhood definitely worth a deeper look.

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I’ve played enough RPGs to know you have to get a boon from the local idol to move forward

Strolling down the long pier to the breakwater, I was met with stunning views of the city.   My heart started to race as I got closer to the rocky extension from the pier that the penguins call home. Seeing wild animals always fills me with the same thrill.

Patience and silence are the two keys to spotting animals in the wild and I was ready to wait and watch, but, fortunately, neither silence nor patience were needed as the little guys were putting on a show!

I must have walked the breakwater near two-dozen times as I photographed and watched the little animals. My one hope being that the easy sightings were due to population recovery and not luck.

Sitting at the apartment now, thinking of all that’s happened in a week’s time, I can’t wait to see what comes next!

Quote of the week: “I tell every tourist that comes through here about the same-sex penguin couples right here on the breakwater to prove that it’s natural and love is love.”  – St. Kilda Penguin Ranger (Keep doing the good work!)

If you want to help out the awesome ranger above or learn more about the Little Penguins of St. Kilda, visit here: http://stkildapenguins.com.au/skp/?page_id=93

Melbourne pro tip: Remember to tap off on the tram. I almost had my arm taken off reaching back into the tram to tap off after I had forgotten.

 

Melbourne Magic and other Musings

My second day in Melbourne started slow.

Family/SO/Cat face-time + morning NHL hockey (strange) took priority. Maybe I dragged my feet a bit — pouting because I’m still adjusting to sleeping without Ari and a 22 pound, Maine Coon cat sandwiching me in the middle of the bed (I tried to set my computer to my right and the Nintendo Switch to my left, but the conversation was fairly one-sided and the warmth, except for my overheating charger, was severely lacking).

Nevertheless, I slogged out with the city on my mind. Chinatown, Little Bourke Street and Flinders Lane were my key targets. Fortunately, Melbourne CBD is essentially a big grid with massive streets separated by smaller lanes. The lanes and alleys are where to find your fun in CBD.

Chinatown, my first stop, was immediately impressive. Coming from DC, I expected Chinatown to be the usual: McDonalds, an H&M and maybe, 1 to 2 Chinese restaurants.

Stretching for blocks and full of delicious food, I almost panicked for glut of choices, getting in line for a posh place, only to jump into a Thai restaurant at the last second.

IMG_20180402_130933Editor’s Note: I don’t like posting pictures of food. The above is to show the many, many concerned people at home that I am indeed eating.

A feast for the eyes followed my meal.

I read about Melbourne’s graffiti and, as I wound towards the famous AC/DC Lane, I began to feel that similar tinge of excitement one gets around unadulterated artistic creation. With each step the colors became brighter and the form more professional. Say what you want, but this is art.

And, because it was just a hop across the Yara, I couldn’t resist visiting my new favorite spot!

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To end, just some random musings I’ve had:

  • My first day at work was excellent. The team is supportive and friendly and I can’t wait to make some key accomplishments as we move forward.
  • DC people walk much faster than Melbournites (Melbournians?) — Driving me a little crazy.
  • Me yielding to the right and walking directly against a crowd of tired workers is definitely driving them crazy.
  • Accents. Wow. Asking people to spell what they said and then looking back at what I had initially written has been a revelation.
  • Ordering an iced coffee here will get you some looks.
  • Finally, to end, I’ll admit that some dormant voices have been making noise, which I fully expected. Nothing more than a buzz (and for the love of god, nothing for anyone else to think about worrying about), but still rather obnoxious. Funny thing is, the simple act of writing this has (and has always) kept them down — Like an image painted on a wall, something I could simply walk past.

Maker:S,Date:2017-2-23,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-Y