Thursday, July 30, 2009

Australia Part 3: Tasmanian Tour

I didn't want to screw up my weekend plans, so I really only had one full day and two little half days to work with. I don't usually like to do tours because I enjoy the freedom to wander, but this little island isn't too big on public transportation. I briefly considered trying to rent a car, but I'm glad I decided on this. One big contributing factor to the excellence was that this was the off-season in Tasmania, so even the flashiest tourist traps were relatively tranquil.

So I was sitting out in front of the hotel around daybreak when the little white tour van rolled up. The tour guide introduced himself as Rob and asked my name. Maybe I was too tired to correctly pronounce my own name or we had some accent misunderstandings, but a few minutes later I confirmed that this man thought my name was Yahn. By the time I realized we had a difference of opinion I figured it was funny enough that I would just let it go. The novelty wore off though, and soon I had a whole van of friendly tourists calling me Yahn. Yahn!? I wonder how many native born Americans actually go by that name. I told some of the others about the discrepancy and it reached inside joke status, with giggles emanating from the back every time I was addressed. I wonder if I shouldn't always give a fake name in touristy situations. It's kind of fun.

Mt. Wellington over the city.

We didn't go in, we just paused briefly on the road and got a few fun facts from our guide. Beaumaris Zoo is where the last known Tasmanian Tiger died. The animal is now used as a symbol for Tasmania and of various conservation efforts.

The first real stop was at Richmond, a small town that is known for its rich history.

St. John the Evangelist's Church is the oldest Roman Catholic church in Australia, completed in 1837.

Richmond Bridge is central to the little town's offerings. According to a nearby sign, it is "Australia's oldest bridge still in use, built using convict labour in 1823. The erection of the bridge facilitated travel to the east coast and the Tasman Peninsula, as settlers pushed further in search of land." As you can see, there's a lot of old stuff in this town, by Australian standards at least.

A picturesque look at the Coal River from the bridge.

After another little drive in the van we stopped for breakfast at a small town bakery with an excellent pie selection. Here they looked so good I bought two, a chicken cheese and asparagus and a scallop pie.

Our guide said the scallop pies were a local specialty and I didn't need more convincing than that. There was a nice flaky crust and it had a bit of a curry sauce inside as well. Very good. While in Australia I maintained an average of almost 1 pie a day. Is that bad?

I thought the island had a bit of an Irish feel to it. When the two Irish girls in the group voiced the same opinion it was confirmed.

We had a few more stops along the way to our final destination. These were all more scenic than historical.

This is kind of an interesting tree that I'm not used to seeing.

Here's a close up of one that's a bit more lively.

This vicious-looking metal dog marks the spot where a dogline was posted to keep escaped convicts from nearby Port Arthur from slipping by and entering the rest of the island. A dogline is just what it sounds like, a line of nasty dogs meant to maim or at least warn nearby soldiers of the presence of intruders. "Dogs were also placed on platforms out in the water to prevent escapees by sea".

It was shortly after this last stop that I deviated a bit from the tour plan. You see, smack in the middle of the tour route is the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park(website). I only had a very limited time to spend in Tasmania, and I really wanted to see some devils. I managed to convince the guide to drop me off for a bit and pick me up later. I think the Japanese are the most efficient enforcers of the rules that I have ever witnessed, and something like changing the tour plan would have no chance of happening. So, I was pleasantly surprised at my success.

I was dropped off at the park, but only for about an hour, so I had to act fast. The park's entry fee was $26. A bit steep. Even after my guide came in and asked for a discount and explained why I had only a very short time to see the park, the man at the counter refused to budge. He became noticeably annoyed and continued on about the costs of a new veterinarian the park would soon hire. The conversation between the two got uncomfortably tense so I just blurted that I would pay. There was a van full of tourists waiting for their guide, and the sand in my Tasmanian animal hourglass was steadily tumbling. Today an email reply from the park had a bright spot: "We also offer an unusual benefit; you need only pay once a year so your normal entry fee can be transferred at no extra cost to an annual VIP pass. Just ask at reception." That's generous but it unfortunately isn't really much help to tourists.

Anyway, with the unpleasantries done with, I had a really good time seeing the animals that Tasmania has to offer.

I hurried and was just in time to see the Eastern Quolls chewing some carrion.

These guys were pretty impressive, despite the fact that none more than batted an eyelid while I watched. They are called Tawny Frogmouths, and are apparently often erroneously referred to as owls. As you can see they have pretty good camouflage. Luckily the trees in their cage were a different color than they are, or they might have been hard to spot.

Another little guy practicing his "nobody here but us trees" routine.

At just about the end of my hour I got to see some devils having their lunch.

The little guys weren't real big on sharing.

Unfortunately, the Tasmanian Devil is being threatened by a facial tumor that caused the Australian government to put the species on the endangered list in May 2009 (source).

This being the Port Arthur tour, that was the last place that I ended up. By now the weather was getting a bit nasty so most of us took an abbreviated look at the grounds. There is a little cruise around the coast included in admission, but it was so rainy/foggy that I could barely see anything.

Port Arthur (website) was the site of a pretty brutal penal settlement. "From 1833, until the 1850s, it was the destination for the hardest of convicted British and Irish criminals, those who were secondary offenders having re-offended after their arrival in Australia. Rebellious personalities from other convict stations were also sent here, a quite undesirable punishment. In addition Port Arthur had some of the strictest security measures of the British penal system." So sayeth the wikipedia.

The main building in the compound was originally built as a flour mill, and the milling continued with the convicts. They grounded grain into flour on a large tread mill, forced to walk or they would fall off. The pictures looked like a torturous version of a hamster wheel.

The recreated cells had an interesting little mechanical system where the prisoner could pull a wire that would both stick out his cell's number flag and ring a bell in the guard's post. It seemed pretty advanced.

It doesn't look like wooden things would last very long in that climate.

Back in Hobart a few of the other tourists and I relaxed and checked out a bit of the city's nightlife. Not too shabby.

Just a tiny bit of info on the tour. It cost $105 which included everything but the food I ate and (obviously) my little zoo side trip. Our guide Rob was super friendly and knowledgeable. They even picked me up and dropped me off right at my hotel's door. The tour company is Adventure Island Tours. I definitely recommend them. After such a good experience I would have looked into some of their other offerings if I had only had the time.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Australia Part 2: First Time to Tasmania

Australia is such a large country that I thought it would be crazy to stay in one city the entire time. To balance out my city experiences with Tung, I wanted to see someplace a bit more untamed. The plane ticket alone up to the airport near Ayers Rock was $500, so that Australian landmark was unfortunately off the table. I honestly didn't know a thing about Tasmania before before I began researching this trip. Looney Toons is the only reason I had previously even heard of the place.

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The island's close proximity to Melbourne made it hard to resist a quick trip. Tasmania is the name of the both the island and the Australian state. It's population is just under 500,000, and it's awesome. That sums it up.

Following the general theme of my time in Australia, I did zero planning beforehand. Sure, one could view this as a negative thing, but in this instance not having a checklist simply meant that I didn't have fret over checking everything off. I flew into Hobart, the capital, and took everything one step at a time. After a short conversation with the nice lady at the information desk, I was off on an airport shuttle to town. A charming little difference in Australian businesses is that the pubs often double as hotels. I couldn't pass up that kind of chance, so I directed the shuttle driver to a hotel/pub I picked merely by its name, the Prince of Wales Hotel, "in the heart of Hobart's historic Battery Point".

I guess it doesn't look like much from the outside, but it was perfect.

The rooms were about $75 a night for a room with a big bed and a little bed(I don't know anything about bed sizes). It was a nice cozy little place in a cozy little neighborhood. After a quick shower I went downstairs to get some information from the bartender. My first question was if they sold a toiletry I had forgotten.

"Do you guys sell toothpaste?" There were multiple other little personal items being sold behind the counter dedicated to hotel services, so I figured this would be a quick transaction.

The woman behind the bar paused, gave me a weird smile, and then turned to get it. She came back with a handful of toothpicks. We both had a good laugh. No, they didn't sell toothpaste. She and a man on a bar stool both discussed where I might be able to find such a thing. It was a very folksy conversation.

"Maybe they'll have it over at the candy shop," the customer considered.

"Or at the vegetable store," the bartender countered.

It was a very charming conversation but it wasn't full of useful information so I nodded, pretending I understood all of the conflicting directions, and walked outside to experience Hobart.

The few streets surrounding the hotel were quiet and small, with many stone shops on either side.

Having not the slightest idea where I was going, I just walked towards the water and followed the coast, which ended up being a darn good idea.

I first came to Salamanca, the happening part of town. The buildings, now assorted bars and shops, used to be warehouses for the port industry. Hobart was started as a penal colony, and I heard it mentioned more than once that convicts' chisel marks can still be seen on the stone that everything is built from. Don't know if that's true but it's a pretty good story.

I spent some time wandering around the many interesting ships in the harbor.

Here some Antarctic research ships, the Australian Aurora Australis and French Astrolabe, seem to be waiting out the winter in port.

A pier juts out of the water where lots of seafood restaurants sit. There were plenty of fancy looking places around, but I opted for the food sold out of the little boats bobbing on the water.

I stopped at this little place and grabbed a bite.

This wasn't my first Australian fish and chips encounter, but it was definitely the best. These two pieces of Blue Grenadier and chips cost me $8.70. Not cheap but very worth it. It was a good day.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Australia Part 1: I'm in Melbourne!

Saturday and Sunday Tung was off work and he graciously showed me around his city. It's a nice place. Melbourne isn't so terribly different from a US city, so I feel like maybe I can pay more attention to smaller things. People do seem friendlier than average, and I enjoy the various little "g'day"s and other greetings that I'm not used to hearing. I'm pretty sure a little kid called me "boss" in a supermarket. Tung claims that's not normal and that the boy probably thought I was actually his boss, but I think he's just jealous.

After celebrating Tung's birthday all night on Saturday, Sunday we spent some time exploring downtown and riding on Melbourne's cool street cars.

I think it must be a rule that street cars look completely different in every country. Remember what they look like in Hiroshima or in Hong Kong?

The first place we spent time at was the Queen Victoria Market, which Tung calls "vic market". The few paragraphs in the history section of its website say that the market is 130 years old and that at one point it was extended onto the land of Melbourne's first official cemetery. The cemetery was resting place for many of the city's early settler's including John Batman. Mr. Batman, whose name I will someday steal, did something like "discover" land that's now Melbourne, only he wanted to call it Batmania. That's way catchier. In 1917 over 900 bodies were moved from the cemetery grounds, but most "of the other 9,000 bodies remain buried beneath the existing car park. Unfortunately, there are no records of those buried there. Following its closure, the Cemetery fell into disuse and many of the red gum head stones were stolen for firewood. Official records for the cemetery were destroyed during a fire in one of the wings of the Melbourne Town Hall." Note to self, don't buy a wooden gravestone.

The Vic market was a whole lot like an American street market. The most interesting part for me was the fresh produce section. It's far above anything I've found in an American equivalent. It had its own little building while most everything else was outside.

The meat and cheese area was especially fancy with all the meats hanging from above European style.

"American Jam Doughnuts" seem to be a popular stall food. I didn't want to wait in line here, but I had one a few days ago. It was a usual jelly doughnut. Here "jelly" means "jell-o" and "jam" means "jelly". It's a bit confusing.

Every souvenir I buy here gets carried back to Japan and joins the immense pile of stuff that needs to be expensively transported to the US, so I've been avoiding the purchase of things I can't eat. I had a few varieties of apple I haven't had before though. They were tasty.

We moved on through the city and made a stop at the State Library of Victoria. Melbourne is the capital of Victoria, so it sports all of the fancy state buildings. This day in particular was luckily some sort of open house, so I think I got to see more than I would have otherwise.

The land in front of the library had a nice college campus atmosphere, with quite a few people sprawled out on the grass, reading or chatting with friends. If a librarian in Japan walked out and saw this scene, he would probably call the riot police.

This must be a very well funded library. There were no fewer than five statues out front. This one is St. George having words with a dragon.

Charles La Trobe was the first lieutenant-governor of Victoria.

Even the bases of the light posts were really fancy.

I think a big part of what people aren't usually able to see is the Queen's Hall.

The coolest library room I've yet seen is the La Trobe Reading Room.

Desks for library patrons to read at extend out in this radial pattern. The room is several stories tall with a dome at the top. Each level of the surrounding stories was filled with all sorts of cool artifacts.

Melbourne in 1836

In one highlight the library showcased some of its old/rare books.

This is a cuneiform tablet from Southern Mesopotamia, c. 2050 BC. "This tablet records the delivery of taxes, paid in sheep and goats in the 10th month of the 46th year of Shulgi, second king of the Third Dynasty of Ur." And that's why you should always shred your financial documents before you throw them away.

Ned Kelly was an "Australian bushranger, and, to some, a folk hero for his defiance of the colonial authorities." Kelly and his gang wore these awesome homemade suits of armor in their last showdown with police. He was caught and hung in Melbourne in November 1880. The whole story is pretty interesting (wikipedia page here).

Kelly's death mask

These are called firemarks. Before the fire department became a public service, insurance companies employed private firefighters and engines. I think how it worked if a fire was spotted was that everyone would rush to the scene but only the group you were paying would actually then help you extinguish the fire. Not sure, but it sounds messy.

I was especially interested to see the firemarks because I just finished reading Great Expectations a couple weeks ago where they are mentioned.

After seeing a ton of stuff at the museum we did a bit more zooming around town as darkness approached.

This was pretty unique: a guy playing this electric sounding didgeridoo on the streets of Melbourne. Throwing some coins into his hat elicited a robotic sounding "thank you" from the musician through his instrument.

It's winter in Australia, and Melbourne is a bit chilly. Somehow in the madness of packing my bags and moving out of my apartment I managed to forget to pack a coat. Tung gave me one of his old ones to wear which I think looks pretty snappy.

We had one little snack at this cake shop before returning home. I had a fruit tart which was pretty good, but the real magic was contained in my first meat pie.

This little guy was a nice flaky outer crust with minced meat inside. It was pretty much exactly how I would imagine a meat pie to be, and it tasted great. Often ketchup is added for a bit extra taste. This is the first of many meat pies of various contents that I have so far consumed.

Something really important that I should address is that all Burger King's in Australia are called Hungry Jack's. This stems from a royal edict from Henry I granting himself the title "King of Burgers" and outlawing any other use of the phrase. So in Commonwealth countries the restaurant is named for Jack, the only remaining male in a standard deck of playing cards. PS, I totally made all of that up.