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November 17, 2006

The Blue Mountains and Hunter Valley

We spent two more days in Sydney and walked so much that both of us had sore feet. We visited the Famous Bondi Beach to see the surfers, the Australian Museum, the Opera House, the Maritime Museum, and took the water ferry to Manly. We bought the three-day Sydney pass that covers all the trains, ferrys and buses and it worked out great. It saved the hassle of buying all the individual tickets and saved money too.
On Monday morning we left Sydney and headed west towards the Blue Mountains. We were just after the morning rush hour so the traffic wasn’t bad and we were in the eastern part of the Blue Mountains before noon. We stopped at Lara to see the Wentworth Falls – the first of many waterfalls in the region. Because of the drought, there was little water going over the falls but the views were spectacular. The basic geological formation of this part of Australia is sedimentary limestone and shale and at one time it was below water. Several layers down in the sediment is a seam of coal, which was mined, in the mid 1800’s. It is exposed in many places due to the erosion of the “tablelands” and the uplifting that took place later as the continent rose above sea level. The running water has cut deep canyons into the surface and formed these dramatic valleys. The top of the table has many towns on it like Lara and Katooma where we spent the night at a trailer park. It is a big tourist area year round and there are the usual (but nice) gift shops, restaurants, etc., and many tourist attractions.
We got the ticket to ride the world’s steepest railroad (more like a cable car) that was originally built to haul the coal up the cliff from the mine entrance at the bottom of the cliff and now hauls tourists. It is quite a ride down at a 53 degree slope and a great view across the valley if you have the nerve to open your eyes and look! We were going to take the cable car up but a power outage shut it down and we had to ride the train up as well. We ran into a busload of young Japanese schoolgirls in school uniform on a 5-day holiday trip and they wanted to practice their English on us. It was fun talking to them. They were fascinated with the hair on my legs (I was wearing shorts) and on my arms and wanted to touch it. Japanese men do not have much body hair so I guess I was something unusual for them! We took pictures of each other and they all wanted to pose with Sue and me.
We visited the local library where I used their free Internet service to do stock stuff and upload pictures for the web site. Web access is apparently available free at most town libraries and will be a big help to us as we move around.
Tuesday we went further west to Blackheath and another trailer park. It was windy and cool but sunny. I bought Tasmanian mussels to steam for dinner and Sue had peanut butter and jelly! We have now shopped in several supermarkets – Cole’s seems to be the big chain here – and are getting use to the $Aus per kilogram pricing. I have figured out that something that sells for 1$Aus/kgm is the same as about $.35 US per pound. It takes a little of the sticker shock out of the cost. Petrol (regular unleaded gas) is $1.05
To $1.25 per liter and ¾ of a tank costs about $60 Aus. I think this is about $4.50 per gal US. Fortunately, the Toyota Hi-Ace van is reasonably economical as long as I don’t drive at 110 kilometer per hour.
We were planning to do the loop around the Black Mountains but there was a brush fire west of us and with the high winds, they closed the road. We abandoned this part of the plan and retraced our steps east and then came north along the “Putty” road to the Hunter Valley wine region. At the information center, they were very helpful and we ended up booking a beautiful private room and the “Rose Dale” B&B. It is a private home with three rooms available for let and at $100Aus including a full cooked breakfast, it is a real bargain. The yard has beautiful rose gardens and the place is immaculately kept and spotlessly clean. We will probably stay another night while we explore the Hunter Valley wineries.
November 18, 2006. Rose Dale turned out to be a wonderful place to stay and we spent a lot of time chatting with Robyn and David, our hosts. They bought the land seven or eight years ago and built the place specifically to be a B&B. They are now trying to sell it to “move on” with their lives. I suspect that they will do very well since they say property values in the Hunter Valley have gone up over 100% during this time. It is a very well thought out floor plan and has been beautifully decorated and maintained. I suspect that they can show a good income stream from the B&B operation too.
We visited the local chocolate shop, the smelly cheese shop, and the olive shop before starting on our wine tasting. Our first stop was the Audrey Wilkison vineyards - vineyards only grow the grapes and either sell them or contract out the wine making. Our hosts had recommended it. It has great views across the valley and the weather cooperated by being clear so the view was good. After tasting all their wines and buying two bottles, we sat on their front porch and had French bread, cheese, olives, and summer sausage for lunch. We then drove to the Rothvale vineyards and winery (they grow and process their own) where we also sampled and bought two more bottles. I think we are set for wine for the Australia leg of our trip and we still have to visit the wine country near Alidade!
Our hosts tipped us to the “Ex Servicemen’s Club” in downtown Cessnock for a bargain dinner and we happened to hit the buffet night. The food was very good and a lot of variety. These clubs are all over Australia and we can get in as “guests” for free and enjoy their food.
Our hostess Robyn cooked us full “English” breakfasts (a nice selection of fruit, eggs to order, bacon, tomato, toast and jelly with hot tea. It was a stock to the ribs meal that lasted most of the day so lunch was light!
Yesterday we left Cessnock and wandered up the “New England” highway to Tamworth where we are staying in a “Big 4” trailer park. We joined the Big 4 for $40 for 2 years and get a 10% discount whenever we stay in one of their facilities – saving about $2.50 per night. They also operate in New Zealand so we should more than get back the membership cost.
After two nights at Rose Dale B&B, sleeping in the van was a bit of a letdown but is OK.
Today we will head further north but we don’t know where we will stop. It will depend on when we get started and when the desire to stop hits us. It is nice not to be on a fixed schedule!

Posted by Dick at 07:47 PM

November 12, 2006

We get to Sidney

November 7, 2006. The last two days have been very busy for us and it seems like it has been much longer. Our first day on the road was a drive from downtown Melbourne to Phillips Island, which is several hours southeast of the city. It is famous for the daily penguin march as they come out of the water at sunset and go to their burrows and in the morning when they return to the sea. Once we got to Cowes and settled into the Boomerang trailer park, we decided not to pay the $18Aus each to go and see the parade. We found out later that you can drive to the beach and watch for free, but by then it was too late. Oh well, we have seen penguins before so it wasn’t a big loss.
Yesterday we drove further southeast down the coast to Wilson’s Promontory, or “The Prom” as it is known. It is the premier national park of Victoria and is spectacular! It has steep rugged mountains, beautiful beaches and lots of walking trails. It is the furthest point south in Victoria and faces the Bass Strait, which separates mainland Australia from Tasmania. The Bass Straight is known as a very treacherous body of water with a reputation for violent conditions. Strong winds, and currents and very changeable conditions make it a real challenge to sailors and the annual race from Sidney to Hobart is often a real “iron man” challenge.
I was successful in getting on the Internet Saturday using a local Internet Café around the corner from the Nunnery. I was not able to log on with my laptop but was successful using their computer. They had Skype on their systems but I didn’t try to call anyone due to the time zone difference. Cost was about $5 Aus per hour. Not too bad for reasonably high-speed service in a nice facility.
Today we will continue east/ northeast up the coast towards Sidney. It will take several days to get there – the distances here are really BIG and I am getting worried about the do ability of our plan to drive up to Cairns by the end of this month without being on the go all the time. We want to be able to enjoy the drive up there and not get caught in the “must stick to schedule” syndrome. Time will tell.
Thursday morning 11/9. Wednesday night we stayed in an RV park in the small town of Marlo which in on the south coast of Victoria. It is where the Snowy River (remember the movie “The Man from Snowy River”?) empties into the Bass Strait. It was a nice, well run and very clean set up. The cost was $24Aus, which included water and power plus the use of the site. This cost seems to be typical for these places. There are national chains of these parks and if you get an annual membership for about $20 you save 10% so it pays back quickly. We will look into this as we go up the road.
This coastal area of Australia is lush and green with gently rolling hills and lots of grazing cattle, some sheep, and a few horses. It reminds me a lot of parts of England - wonder why? There has been very little traffic on the road and the roads are very good with excellent signs and safety warnings. Round abouts (traffic circles) are common at most intersections. So far, the driving on the left has gone OK and is coming back to me quickly.
After leaving Marlo, we headed inland towards the capital territory of Canberra. After climbing steadily uphill for several hours, we reached the tableland, which is relatively dry and flat with rolling hills and the Great Dividing Range mountains in the distance. Australia is in one of the worst droughts ever and there was evidence along the road of fires and the grass is all dried and golden wheat color. Lots of scrub bushes interspersed with deep green poplars, eucalyptus trees, and other evergreens I don’t recognize. This scenery reminds me of the area where we lived east of Sacramento, California which is dry in summer and green in winter. We stopped for lunch in Cooma – pop 8,000 – and I found my walking shoes at a camping goods store for $49Aus. They are “Land Rover” brand so Ethan should be proud of me!
The local public information center had Internet access and I logged on but for some reason couldn’t retrieve my AOL emails. Got some AOL error message I have never seen before. All else worked OK. Cost $1! Hopefully, the problem was temporary and I will have better luck down the road.
We bypassed Canberra and continued on towards Sidney. The temperature got hot enough to turn on the A/C and it was very low humidity. We now see lots of sheep, fewer cattle and the density of them is much lower due to poorer grazing conditions. We stopped at another RV park in Goulburn. The sky is bright blue and very “big” with a few fluffy clouds, and a gentle breeze. We are at about 2,000 feet altitude. It is warmer here since we have moved north to 38 degrees south latitude from about 40 degrees south down at Wilson’s Prom. The locals are still commenting that it is cooler that normal and we are still wearing layers of clothing to stay comfortable. The sun is very intense so it is warm when out in the direct sunlight but cool otherwise.
Today we are heading for Sidney and will try to find another RV park. Surprisingly, there seem to be lot of them in Sidney itself. This is a very popular way for Australian families to travel so I guess it makes sense.
Friday November 10,2006. We found a great camper van site in suburban Sidney for $30 per might and have signed up for three nights while we see the sights. The train into town is about six blocks down the road and goes to the Central Station where we change to another train that takes us to the Circular Quay. This is the center of everything for tourists. We bought a three day “Sidney Pass” that allows unlimited use of the trains, busses, harbor ferries, etc. We figured that these would pay off with all the things we want to do while here.
Today we made the trip to the Central Quay and took the Harbor Tour cruise. It is a great way to see all the sights and get an overview of the city. The weather was gorgeous and it was a nice 2 hour trip around the inner harbor. We then hopped on the Sidney Explorer bus that does a tour of some 25 points around the city with a narrative as you go. Again, it was another great way to get acquainted with the city.
We came back to the trailer park and walked to the local seafood restaurant where I had Barramundi (an Australian while fish that is very good) and Sue had veal. The food was good and our waiter was a young Hungarian guy that had just arrived from the Miami area where he worked on cruise ships. The bartender has a son who lives in Ft Lauderdale! Small world!
Tomorrow we will go back to the particular places we particularly want to visit like the Australia museum, the maritime museum, the opera house, etc. We will also take the ferry to Manly (across the harbor) and the train to the famous Bondi Beach to see the beautiful people and surfers. Sidney is a sailor’s paradise and the harbor was full of very nice boats. It is very protected and has many small coves where there are a lot of boats anchored or moored. Sue asked if I missed being on the water and we both agreed that we do.

Posted by Dick at 01:44 AM

November 03, 2006

We arrive down under

This entry begins the log of our trip “down under” to Australia and New Zealand. It is early Saturday morning and I am in the lounge of “The Nunnery” our backpacker hostel in Melbourne. I am composing this while Sue sleeps in a little longer.
We found The Nunnery via the Internet and a Google search. It turns out that it has the reputation of being one of the best if not the best hostel in Melbourne and perhaps Australia. I’m pleased that our web research produced this favorable result.
The Nunnery was originally just that - for the Sisters of Mercy - and became a backpackers hostel some 15-20 years ago. Our double room is small and spartan to say the least but it is clean, the bed is comfortable and the staff is helpful and friendly. We share the WC and showers around the corner with others. We get a continental breakfast with the room price of $75 Aus per night that consists of various kinds of rolls, cornflakes, peanut butter, strawberry jam, milk, and coffee tea or powdered hot chocolate. Not gourmet by any standard but fresh and filling.
The Quantas flight from LAX left Tuesday evening at 8:30 PM and was on schedule. Airport security did not live up the all the horror stories we had heard about limits on what you can carry on, etc. We took all the precautions with liquids, etc. for our carry on and put them in our checked bags. As far as I could tell, nobody cared and none of them were inspected. The plane was full but comfortable even in coach. We met several Kiwis and Aussies in the departure lounge and had nice informative chats about their countries. One NZ woman Sue talked to quite a while had just visited her son on Chapel Hill, NC where he is getting his PhD in history. Small world. Another pair of women had been to an international quilting convention in Houston. All were extensive world travelers.
Our American itinerary (American frequent flier miles got us the tickets) said no food on the flight so I had bought some snack bars, etc. Wrong! Lots of good airplane food – a nice dinner and a choice of a hot or cold breakfast with constant beverage service and free Australian (of course) wine with dinner. The plane was a Boeing 747-300 with 3-4-2 across seating and we were on the left side in the A, B seats. Our companion in seat C out of LAX was a young Kiwi guy who was returning home after spending 18 months working in construction in Vancouver, BC. Nice guy and we talked a lot about NZ and where to go and what to do.
We got to Auckland just after sunrise about on schedule and had about an hour to get off the plane and walk around and stretch our legs while they refueled. We left almost on schedule and this time our seat C companion was another Kiwi guy going on holiday to a friend’s vineyard north of Melbourne. Again he was friendly and full of information about his country. He was very proud to be a Kiwi and asked if I was proud of my country and our government. I ducked the potential discussion of US foreign policy by saying I was very proud to be an American but didn’t always agree with our government’s policies. Got the strong impression that he had very negative views of the current war, etc. and I didn’t want to go there!
This leg of the trip was just under 4 hours and we landed in Melbourne Thursday morning - we will get back the “lost” day when we return next April. It was just finishing raining – the first they had had in many months and very needed. Lots of talk about severe drought and problems the farmers and ranchers are having as a result.
At the airport, we signed up for a Vodaphone cell phone with SIM card $70Aus and $50Aus of calling credit that is good for 60 days. It can easily be extended or topped up at any Vodaphone store or many other places if needed. The phone can be used in NZ as well. At these prices, it was an easy decision.
There doesn’t seem to be any WiFi in use here but there are Internet cafes around and the Nunnery has Internet access using their computer for $5Aus per hour. The cafes also will allow you to use your own laptop for an additional charge to configure their network for you to log on. I am reluctant to use a café computer for sensitive financial information.
I felt lousy with the sinus cold and the jet lag, so after visiting the “chemist” shop Thursday afternoon to buy some cold drugs, we elected to spend the rest of Thursday sleeping.
Friday after breakfast, we headed out with our backpacks to explore Melbourne and work on our “to do” list. We went to many camping supply stores, shoe stores (I still need good walking shoes) and a Citibank branch office to ask about moving $ to local currency, and just walked around. It is a modern, clean and beautiful city. The weather had cleared after the rain and it was crisp, pleasantly cool with bright sun. There is a free tram that loops around the downtown area but we didn’t use it and walked instead. We found our way to the Queen Victoria Market – a huge place under cover with stalls selling almost everything imaginable. All mixes of races and people and all welcoming and friendly. We stopped and talked with an Aboriginal man selling his handmade digeradoo’s and boomerangs. He was quite a character and did his rendition of Al Jolson singing “Mammy” for us. I got a photo of Sue standing with him for the web site.
We ate lunch at the food court at the QV market and I had an Aussie Burger with everything but the kitchen sink on it. Again, there will be a photo of the sign on the web site. We also dropped in to a backpacker travel agency and got our VIP Backpacker memberships at $35Aus each. These get you discounts at many hostels, shops and on some transportation. They should pay off quickly for the two of us and are also good in NZ.
We talked to several rental car companies and got quotes and then wandered to a Camper Van rental place where we ended up deciding to rent one for the 78 days we will be traveling. It is much more expensive than even a full size station wagon but the savings in hotel bills and the flexibility it gives us made sense to us. It comes with all linens, cooking gear, etc so all we have to do is add food. I have taken a photo of our rolling “home” for the next three months to post on the web site.
We went back to the Nunnery and crashed.
Today we went back to pick up the camper van and drove it back the Nunnery. IN spite of my three years driving in England on the “wrong” side of the road, it felt strange and we will both have to be constantly alert to avoid the common mistakes and ending up in the wrong lane facing oncoming traffic! I kept turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal but hopefully this will stop soon. This afternoon we ill go around the corner to the Internet café to post this log and the photos, and later will drive to the local Safeway supermarket to do our first provisioning. Tomorrow we will head out of town towards somewhere – we don’t know yet – but the sort of goal is to be in Cairns this month to dive and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef and do the rain forest. It is a LONG way and we will just have to see how it goes with travel times and distances.

Posted by Dick at 11:13 PM