Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A dingo will mate with anything that goes “woof”…

Panorama of Canberra from the Telstra Tower
Closing ceremony at the Australian War Memorial

Looking toward the Parliament building in Canberra
Canberra is a beautiful city with more traffic circles than I’ve ever seen in on city—and that’s saying a lot for Australia. They are justifiably in love with traffic circles! And so are we; so much better than a stop sign or traffic light at an intersection. Traffic slows at a circle but doesn’t have to stop (most of the time, anyway). How great is that!

The drive from Ballarat to Canberra is fairly long, about seven hours, but on good roads so we arrived in Canberra about 1600 and went to the Australian War Memorial. So many people told us about that museum that we knew we just had to go there. We figured we couldn’t possibly see it in an hour but we’d get the flavor of it and go back the next day if it interested us enough. The AWM had a wonderful special exhibit on nurses in wartime, from the beginning of the Australian Army Nursing Service in the early 1900s up to the present day. As a nurse myself, I appreciated the thought that went into the exhibit. The AWM also has a moving closing ceremony at the end of the day at the Memorial, the playing of The Last Post, the Aussie equivalent of our Taps.

A very nice dinner at La Rustica capped our long driving day. When we woke the next morning, it was to a clear blue sky; absolutely, as the Aussies say, a brilliant day! So we didn’t want to spend the day inside so elected not to go back to the AWM but to go instead to the Botanic Gardens and to the Zoo. What great choices we made!

Since we seem to travel on our stomachs, first we had to have a Sunday breakfast. We found a delightful little—very little, only about 10 tables not counting the ones in the hall (!) and outside—restaurant, the Farmer’s Daughter. It was in the low 20sC, we think, so pretty cold outside, but they provided a nice basket with blankets for those hardy enough or hungry enough to not want to wait for an inside table. We got there soon enough to get an inside table, thank goodness!
Telstra Tower
Then it was on to the Telstra Tower for an absolutely fabulous  brilliant view of Canberra from 870 meters (ASL). What a gorgeous day! Then on to the Botanic Gardens; there seems to be an argument as to whether it is the Botanic or the Botanical Gardens, but no matter it was quite interesting to see all the local flora. The fauna would come later at the zoo. Not terribly much was in bloom other than the wattles (much prettier than their name) and the banksias and some orchids in the “glasshouse” which is what the Aussies call a greenhouse. A lot of the Aussie flora is so different from ours that I couldn’t resist taking pictures! As always, I get lots of ideas from other institutions: They have a volunteer who organizes a list of what’s in bloom, prints a flyer, and then puts signs out on the grounds keyed to the flyer.
This is the sign that gets hung by the blooming plants at the Botanical Garden; the number corresponds to the number on the list of "What's in bloom" that is generated by a volunteer each week

This is the backside of the sign, showing how it is hung on a hook staked in the ground

Look closely and you can see the sign in place by a blooming plant.

But the absolute best, most fabulous, wonderful, splendid, awesome, fun, you-name-the-adjective part of the day was to come at the National Zoo and Aquarium. One of the ways the National Zoo and  Aquarium makes money is offering several keeper tours. One is “Meet a Cheetah” where you have “A very rare opportunity to pat and play with one or more big cats” for approximately $165pp. Another, which Randy and I did, is the “Ultimate Zooventure Tour,” “2 hours of fun and adrenalin pumping excitement; hand feed lions, tigers, cougar, giraffes and snow leopards, [and] have a 400kg brown bear lick honey from your hand!” $135 and worth every penny although I would dispute the “adrenaline pumping” part of it, the tour was very mild although fascinating.
One of the many species of Banksias that were in bloom
We were escorted by Kim, a part-time keeper (although she has been a keeper for over seven years) who put me on the spot (after I told her I was a docent at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum) at the feeding of the mountain lions. Yes, they have Felis concolor, and no, I couldn’t teach them anything but I didn’t embarrass myself either! However, I couldn’t answer her one big question to me, “How endangered are the puma in the US and Mexico?”

While not “adrenaline pumping” it was way cool to actually feed a Bengal and a Sumatran tiger. Not to mention feeding white lions (Panthera leo). I was so pleased to hear, at each stop to feed an animal, a conservation message from Kim. Part of the way through the “tour” we were joined by a trainee keeper, Stacey, who was almost as good as Kim. Our total experience included feeding otters (they got the most delicious-looking prawns!), giraffes, elands (I didn’t make any points by saying eland tasted pretty good), dingoes, and handling a Boa constrictor as well as feeding the aforementioned carnivores.

As a docent rather than just a zoo visitor I thought about a lot of issues to do with what the National Zoo does on these tours. The animals are wild animals and the Meet a Cheetah adventure seems (we didn’t do this one) to make the animals seem like pets and I have a problem with that. On the other hand, all zoos have financial problems and if they have found a way to support the zoo and make money at the same time, good for them. The tour we did, I thought, hit all the right points: safety and conservation while maintaining a “fun” atmosphere and making money all at the same time!

And, I learned a lot. It was a small tour—they can handle 11 at once and will put on a second tour if there are more than 11—only five of us, a really nice number of people. We were, no surprise, the only Americans. I learned, for example, that zebras kill more keepers than any other zoo animal except elephants. She told us that everything eats zebras so they are very skittish about anything that moves and a lot that doesn’t move. Thus, even though the zebras and elands live together, they discourage the zebras from coming to be fed when the elands do; the keepers just don’t want the zebras to interact with people unless absolutely necessary. Because I volunteer at a zoo I was very interested in how they use their volunteers: completely behind the scenes because, as Kim said, “We can’t have them leading tours because we can’t expect a volunteer to show up on time when a tour is scheduled!”

I learned that white lions are just regular lions, Panthera leo, and thus share their merely “vulnerable” status even though they are extinct in the wild. And that dingo DNA is probably in every dog because, as Kim said, “They will mate with anything that goes “woof.” A pure dingo is extremely rare. And I learned that a giraffe’s tongue is very strong; he was able to pull the carrot from my hand even though I resisted. And a bear’s tongue is very soft; I expected a rough tongue similar to a cat’s. We always had to feed the dominant animal otherwise feeding the non-dominant animal would upset the balance that they had settled on and cause lots of problems for the keepers as well as the animals.

We couldn’t touch the tigers (or any of the animals but the eland and boa); we had to feed them the meat using ordinary kitchen tongs. Fine with me, I could see the size of those teeth! Bengals are very large, Sumatrans are pretty small but they both looked huge to me! To feed the bear Kim smeared a very sticky substance on the palm of my hand and I held my hand flat at the edge of the enclosure for her to lick; she was supremely uninterested. She did a couple of desultory licks and then pretty much gave up licking.

All in all it was a most rewarding afternoon (almost three hours) for the five of us both emotionally and educationally and for the zoo financially (they got about $675 with almost no cost other than the salary of the keeper and a minimum amount for the food which the animals would get anyway).

The ZooVenture has to be one of the big highlights of our trip!
Koalas will only eat about 60-70 of the several hundred species of eucalyptus that exist in Australia; they can tell what's edible by sniffing the base of the tree.

The otter and his scrumptious-looking prawn. They scarfed up about four prawns each that we fed them.

Pam feeding the Bengal tiger. That's keeper Kim at the right.

Randy feeding the Bengal tiger. He is quite old but seems to enjoy doing what cats do, eat and sleep. He was sound asleep when she called him for his "feeding" by us tour participants

The male White Lion. He wouldn't let the female eat!

The eland was the only animal (other than the dingo) that we were allowed to touch.

Feeding the giraffe was probably the most fun.

The Brothers Giraffe; the pattern on each giraffe is unique.

Randy, Kim, and one of the dingos.

The Sumatran tiger feeding wasn't technically part of the tour but Kim had extra meat; that's Stacey, a keeper who joined us part-way through the tour.

Stacey, Randy, and the Boa

Stacey, Pam and the Boa who, by this time was getting a bit tired of moving from person to person. He likes to stay in one place.

Pam, doing what she did the whole tour of the
Botanical Garden, taking pictures.

Another Banksia.

Dendrobium fimbriatum

Dendrobium thrisiflorum

Our wonderful trip is now almost over. We are leaving on United #870 on Sept 11—I hope it’s not ominous that we are flying on 9/11! We left home on May 2 and will return home on Sept 14, almost exactly four and a half months. That’s probably the longest we have ever been gone from home. We visited 26 countries and 40 cities over 104 days. We have travelled about 25,000 miles on planes, trains, and automobiles as well as ships and boats. We probably came close to at least seeing most of the 1950 passengers on board the Sun Princess and didn’t come close to seeing even a small fraction of the staff who took care of us for 104 days. I don’t even want to think about how much money we spent, but it was worth every penny to meet the wonderful people we met and to see the beautiful and fascinating sights and sites that we saw. Would I do it again? In a New York minute! But probably not next year, we have other trips to plan—perhaps to Europe, perhaps around South America or perhaps we’ll even stay home and enjoy our house and our cabin. Or, hmmmhhhh, it’s been ten years since we drove to Alaska!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A nanny state and the magpie mafia—the ballad of Ballarat…

Yes, it's Spring!
One lonely daffodil at the Ballarat Botanical Gardens

A lot of our time has been spent driving in New South Wales and Victoria. Other than driving on the other side of the road, driving in NSW is not a lot different from driving in the US except the drivers in Oz are more polite than they are in the US. Victoria, however, seems to think it has to be a nanny to everyone who drives. For example, there are numerous, NUMEROUS, I mean every couple of kilometers, signs like: Drowsy drivers die; Trouble concentrating?  Powernap now; Break the drive, stay alive; Droopy eyes? Powernap now; Open your eyes, fatigue kills; A microsleep can kill in seconds. All those signs just get a bit old after a while!

But the roads are pretty good, the speed limits (camera-enforced everywhere in Australia) are generous, and the distances are great, just like the US! Ballarat to Canberra, our next journey, is about 700 km (437 miles) and (as of almost back to Sydney) we’ve put about 2600 kilometers on our rental car.

We spent three days in a timeshare in Lakes Entrance and five days in a timeshare in Ballarat. The Worldmark Ballarat was elegant and beautiful (as opposed to the ant-infested timeshare in Lakes Entrance) and we really liked staying there in spite of the fact that there was only one bathroom and no dishwasher! Our cabin has no dishwasher so I’m not completely unfamiliar with actually washing dishes by hand but on vacation I really rather not!
Ballarat timeshare
Melinda, Pam, and Randy at our timeshare in Ballarat

We thoroughly enjoyed the Ballarat timeshare both for the activities (Sovereign Hill and Lake Wendouree and the Botanical Gardens and eating out) and for the place itself. It used to be an orphanage (in the  late 1800s) and was converted to apartments some unknown number of years back. Ours was a two-bedroom unit, quite large, and very comfortable. It even still had the old radiators—quite handy for drying your clothes after the rain, of which there was more than we would have liked—plus a more modern wall-AC/heat unit.

Yes, there was rain and there was wind. We were told—we slept through it; that won’t surprise our children!—that the winds overnight were in excess of 140 kph (87 mph). It wasn’t that high during the day but for a couple of days the wind and rain did a great job of keeping us from really enjoying ourselves. We had company, Ian and Melinda (whose wedding we went to in Sydney four years ago; their wedding was the main reason we spent three months in Australia that year), for a couple of days.

Our first day we went to Sovereign Hill, a recreation of a town in the gold period. I had no idea how much gold there was in Australia, let alone Ballarat. More gold has been taken out of the ground in the Ballarat area that anywhere else in the world—according to the Gold Museum in Ballarat, that is. Sovereign Hill is much like many of the places in the US (Williamsburg,VA, and Sturbridge Village,MA, come to mind) that recreate the days of yore. They always make it seem like it would be such fun to live there and then. They seemingly forget to point out all the horse and cow droppings that would have been in the streets, or the mud in the streets, or the fact that you had to trudge through the snow to get to the toilet, and that you washed your clothes by lighting a fire (after gathering the wood to burn to make that fire), carrying water from the “crick” to pour into the copper kettle in which to wash those clothes, and then mashing those clothes with lye and a plunger. Nevertheless, it’s fun to see (sort of) what life might have been like in an ideal long-time-ago.

One of the problems that Sovereign Hill is running into is the difficulty in keeping the demonstrations of work going. The artisans who are, for example, wheelwrights or metal workers, are getting old(er) and nobody wants to learn the trade. One man, the metal worker, told us there is nobody to follow him. When he stops working, the exhibit will become a museum of metal working, as have the ceramics studio and woodworking studio, and so will no longer be a working demonstration. And, presumably, when the men who run the steam engines that drive all the pulleys and gears and machines stop, so will all the work that depends on those steam engines. What a loss!

Sovereign Hill does one thing that is quite a bit different from all the other “old time villages”: they have a school for children, approximately middle school age, to attend in costume and to learn as the children of that era learned. They live for several days at a time at Sovereign Hill, living and learning as the children then did.

In addition to Ian and Melinda, we had a  visit from our friends Lurlene and Gerald whom we met four years ago on our 4WD camping tour from Darwin to Broome to Alice. We had a wonderful visit, catching up on what has happened in our lives in the intervening years. We went to lunch at a wonderful restaurant, the Boatshed, on Lake Wendouree. Wendouree lake was the site and the rowing, canoeing, and kayaking competitions at the  Melbourne Olympics of 1956. But a few years back the drought was so severe in Ballarat that the lake went completely dry. Completely. No water at all. But now it is fuller than full and the water was lapping away at the shoreline and covered in whitecaps because of those winds I talked about.

In between raindrops we tried to see the Ballarat Botanical Gardens but couldn’t really have time between rains to see much. We filled a lot of time visiting with friends or watching the US Open tennis matches. I think Randy was really starved for live sports that didn’t involve weird rules (cricket, otherwise known as baseball on Valium) or funny shaped balls (Rugby and Aussie Rules football).

But all good times must come to an end, so we are off to Canberra, the only major city in Australia that we haven’t visited.
Wind blowing the fountain at the Botanical Gardens

Randy and a very large eucalyptus tree

The magpie mafia: walkers and riders have taken to wearing helmets with little wires sticking us to protect against the dive-bombing magpie mafia

The 1956 canoeing, kayaking, and rowing Olympics were held at Lake Wendouree

Sovereign Hill marching band

Bowling alley, circa late-1800s
View from the other end of the alley
You have to bowl two-handed

Pouring molten gold, $160,000 worth of it!

The gold ingot

How they keep the machines operating at Sovereign Hill

Making gold-panning dishes

This is where you do the washing

This is where you do the cooking

Wealth in Sovereign Hill

Hand-inking the press for a poster for Kathy, our daughter

The wheelwright demonstrating all the machines that go into making a wheel. MUCH easier than doing it by hand!

Arch of Triumph in Ballarat