Off to the Land of Oz, Part 3 of 4 (from my memoir)

Continuing my account of our trip to the South Pacific, New Zealand couldn’t be more different from Australia in almost every respect: landscape, people, accents and approach to life. The sun was less brilliant, the air was softer and the feeling of the entire country was homier.  New Zealand consists of two elongated islands, both mountainous, with pastoral vistas dotted with farms and sheep ranches. Known as Kiwis after their famous bird, New Zealanders are much more British than the Ozzies, quiet, soft-spoken and very welcoming. Maoris, or native New Zealanders are very much a part of the culture, while still retaining their own identity.

We spent a week in Auckland, a charming little city, easily walkable, with a very interesting, busy waterfront, and sailboat masts as far as the eye can see. We walked around the docks every day. While we were there, yachts taking part in the round-the-world Whitbread Race (since renamed) were arriving daily. Also, Queen Elizabeth’s yacht, Britannia, came in and tied up at one of the central docks awaiting the Queen and her royal attendants.

Queen Elizabeth’s visit was an exciting event. She, Prince Philip and their attendants walked the length of Queen Street in a light rain, along with the city officials. She was very attractive  in those days with her lovely English complexion and blue eyes. She paused to speak to several of the ladies I was standing with so I grabbed a nice close-up.

New Zealanders were like Australians at that time. Class lines just didn’t  exist as we know them. The lowliest ditch digger felt he was the equal of anyone else and tipping a person who gave service was considered insulting.  I wonder what it’s like now.

I had chatted up a department store clerk the previous afternoon and my mouth fell open when she mentioned, discussing the queen, “I thought she looked a little tired at dinner last night.”  Talk about the ultimate name dropping! It turned out that her husband was some sort of government official and they had attended the state dinner for the queen the night before.

Lynn had spent some months in Auckland during World War II, recovering at a  U.S.Naval hospital facility there, after the ship he served on was sunk during a battle. He had often told me about the War Memorial Museum and the remarkable exhibits of Maori carvings, especially a war canoe. It was amazing, carved from one kauri log in the 1830s, over 26 meters long and rowed by 100 warriors. It’s quite a sight in a room of its own.

Continuing our trip, we took a train to Wellington, the capital city. I decided every single structure, home, office, business and all, must have a view of the water as the entire city is on a bowl shaped hillside, sloping down toward the bay.

Planning to return to North Island later, we took a ferry across to South Island, the other half of this small country. We rented a car in Nelson and, risking our lives, took off driving down the “wrong” side of the road.  Traffic was light enough that we never did get in too much trouble, both of us alert to every road sign and turn. Heading south, our first stopover was in Fjordland, in the “Southern Alps” as scenic and spectacular as any part of Norway.

Glaciers, including their famous Franz Josef Glacier, fjords and icy waterfalls were to be seen everywhere. We wrapped up in every warm piece of clothing we’d brought, especially for a long boat trip we took up Milford Sound.  We only spent a few days on this wild coast but could have spent twice the time. By the time we’d reached the southernmost part of our journey, snowflakes were flying and we realized Antarctica was not very far away at all. And this was the middle of summer, as we kept reminding ourselves.

Finally heading north again, we were soon back  to rolling green hills covered with, as their slogan went,  “70 million nuclear free sheep.” Since this was during a global controversy over nuclear weapons, the slogan went a long way toward  reminding people that New Zealand was peaceful and safe. We never got away from the Southern Alps. As long as we stayed on South Island, there was always a mountain in view.

We enjoyed Dunedin and Christchurch,  boated through a firefly cave and spent a leisurely afternoon aboard a big old riverboat while a jolly Kiwi lady pounded away on an old upright and everybody joined in on the good old songs.  Before we knew it we were back in Nelson, back on the ferry and headed for Wellington and North Island again.

Having survived driving all over South Island, we rented another car and headed north. All of New Zealand is mountainous, scenic and picturesque. From Rotorua, a small scale Yellowstone, geysers and all, to driving along 90 Mile Beach, the most northern point in the country, then to the Bay of Islands, a wonderland of beautiful inlets, with boats everywhere. Keri-Keri, on the Bay of Islands has New Zealand’s  2 oldest buildings, a stone grocery store built in 1822 and still in use, and a house dating from 1836.

To us, the most poignant sight was the grave of a young American sailor, buried there in 1824. He had died on a whaling ship and the locals have tended his grave ever since,  I could only think what a comfort that knowledge would have been for his family, had they ever known.

We visited a vast kauri forest, the giant kauris being the most ancient species of tree to survive today. We got a peek at a few kiwi birds,  the country’s beloved symbol. These large, shy birds are totally nocturnal and we were only able to see them in a sanctuary under night lights.

We were impressed by the many structures built by the Maoris and still in use. Meeting houses, businesses and other public buildings were distinguished by their typical carvings, deep and intricate.

And we feasted on tons of cheeses, butters and rich milk. Their dairy products are superior,  the whipped cream is pure heaven. So much of the food had that special edge that total freshness gives.

We spent another week in Auckland, reluctant to leave a place where we’d felt so at home for the past 2 months,  but looking forward to our next adventure. Who wouldn’t be eager to go on to Tahiti and Moorea?

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Off to the Land of Oz, Part 2 of 4 (from my memoir)

Continuing our trip through Australia, we arrived in Adelaide one Sunday noon and found that, other than the one man staffing our motel, there was absolutely no one to be seen. We took a long stroll around town and never came across another person or saw an opened business of any sort, having been warned by our  host that there wasn’t an open restaurant or cafe in business anywhere. Regretting that we weren’t traveling with at least a jar or two of peanut butter and jelly, Lynn set out on a very determined search for sustenance of any sort. He returned about an hour later, waving a greasy paper bag full of hot bangers and chips. Never did the so-called Australian national dish taste so good. They even smelled good, in a slightly rancid way.

After an all-night bus trip, Coober Pedy was our next stop, one of the strangest places I’ve ever seen. The ocean views, yacht basins and gentle wine country were all left behind. This was open, undulating opal mining country, incredibly hot and sunny, covered with small cone-shaped piles of debris from the mining as far as the eye could see..  The town itself consisted of very wide, open streets and meager looking, scattered buildings. Most of the businesses and homes were built into the hillsides, taking advantage of natural cooling and shelter.

Going into the shops and a few of the homes was to me an unnerving experience. I realized immediately that I would never  get any farther than 2 or 3 feet from the only door or the front windows. I couldn’t wait to get back out into the heat, although the interiors were pleasantly cool. As evening rolled around we discovered how a lot of the miners cooled off.  They bought huge bottles of Foster’s beer and stretched out on the wide walkways right in front of the liquor store. They looked comfortable as they lounged, passing the time of day with their mates and passers-by.

Another overnight bus trip took us to Ayers Rock, an enormous sandstone inselberg (or ocean island) standing alone in the middle of the  desert wasteland. Visible over a great distance in all directions, it has long been a sacred spot for Australia’s indigenous people, the Aborigines.  The Abos, to use the Aussie term, are seen in every part of the country, an important part of life there and yet seemingly not really involved. They are treated cautiously and with great respect. Touring by bus as we were, we were always sternly warned not to leave the bus or have a conversation with any Abo while stopped at any of the small towns belonging to them.  There was no danger and we weren’t fearful, just respectful.

Ayers Rock and the surrounding countryside have a distinctive sandy red coloration,  Climbing to the top and signing the guestbook is a great tourist activity, and there is a small settlement with hotels near the base.  The climb is harrowing, the descent even more so. A chain is provided for assistance, maybe to slow down an out-of- control descent.

I convinced Lynn I was too exhausted to climb after all night on the bus, and let him get well ahead of me before starting, not wanting him nipping at my heels. He was quite surprised to meet me walking across the top toward him.

Alice Springs has been immortalized in Nevil Shute’s book, “A Town Like Alice” and the actual town deserves its fame. Surprisingly green and verdant in the midst of the red outback, it’s a very pretty, comfortable-appearing  place with a large shady park in the center of town, giving you the feeling that you might like to live there. One of their attractions is the annual boat regatta, held every August. Since the only river through town is bone dry year round, none of the boats has a bottom. Six or eight 0f the fleetest runners get inside, holding the boat waist high, and run through the sandy “river”  to the finish line. I like a town with a sense of humor.

We flew from Alice Springs to Cairns;  back to the ocean and some of the best game fishing in the world. We found a cozy motel within walking distance of downtown and, with a landlady who brought a hot breakfast to our room every morning, we decided to stay put for a while. Her coffee was excellent as was the usual fresh fruit.  Fragrant pineapples, mangoes, bananas, and my favorite, bright red papaya with zesty green lime were among the best. Tree ripened, newly picked bananas have a flavor totally unlike the weeks-old bananas we’d always had.

Evenings were restful. We would stroll over to the beach to sit and watch droves of native, parrot-like birds come in to roost. They flew in by the hundreds, colorful and very, very noisy. We quickly learned not to stand or sit anywhere under them as we watched  the day end.

A side trip up the York Peninsula was interesting. Our bus driver was a volunteer on a lifeboat rescue squad. One of the few really deadly jellyfish species in the world lives in the warm sea water along the coast and those big burly men wore women’s panty hose out on their rescue trips to prevent  stings. We made a brief roadside stop where he showed us how the Aborigines clean their teeth. A large green ant living in certain trees was easy to catch, the idea being to break off and chew the bulbous posterior. I found it to be quite astringent and refreshing.

We continued south out of Cairns by bus, driving along Australia’s famed Gold Coast, or vacation land, skirting the Great Barrier Reef and taking brief excursions out to some of the islands. We spent Christmas Day standing on a section of the Reef, well south of where the deadly jellies thrived. To us the water was much too warm for swimming.

We spent a week in Brisbane, visiting various sanctuaries for everything from koalas and wallabies to flying foxes. I was shocked to find that kangaroo and wallaby fur was soft and fine,  while koalas have a bristly, coarse fur. I’d expected it to be the other way around. I spent half my time on our bus trips craning my neck, trying to catch a glimpse a koala sleeping in a tree top, where they spent their days, but never did see one. A side trip to the small scenic town of Kuranda, home of the duck-billed platypus, had me staring into every watery slough or stream we walked or drove past, but I never spotted one of those curious creatures either.

After two months, we finally said a reluctant good-bye to Oz and flew from Brisbane to Auckland, New Zealand.  Australia is such a vast continent we didn’t begin to see it all, and missed out on Darwin, Tasmania, and Perth, which Aussies told us was the prettiest part of the country.  There was a National Park outside of Darwin which I had earmarked as a must-see and didn’t get to. I’d still love to go back. It was impossible to do justice to a country as large as the United States is just two months.

Off to the Land of Oz, Part 1 of 4 (from my memoir)

OFF  TO THE  LAND OF OZ

by way of Fiji, Tahiti and New Zealand    (from my memoir)

PART 1:

Everyone needs at least one long, never-to-be-forgotten trip in their lifetime.  Travel is good for the spirit, good for the mind, good for the makers of cameras and scrapbooks, and good for stories with which  to bore friends and family for years to come.

I was delighted when my husband Lynn took an early retirement and we were able to spend time  exploring our own beautiful country. When we happened to sell a piece of property, we agreed it was time for us to make our dream trip.

A quick visit to a travel agent, a secure place to leave our R.V. and we were off to the Los Angeles airport and the South Seas, carrying one small bag and a light carry-on apiece.  We left in December of 1985 and returned in the spring of 1986 after enjoying the summer months in the Southern Hemisphere.

Our first stop was Nadi, Fiji. After a couple of days of decompression that included balmy patio breakfasts with homemade raspberry jam and our fill of fresh, fragrant tropical fruits,  I knew we had come to the right place.

I’ve always thought different countries have their own ambient auras, the sun, the humidity, the terrain all contributing to a distinct atmosphere.  Fiji’s skies were dreamy, the tropical sun mellowed by the nearby ocean, the jungles and the softly humid air. Colors and smells were mellow, too, flowers bright but never gaudy and the greens restful.

From Nadi we flew on to Suva, the capital city, a mixture of quaint and modern.  We spent 6 days there, Lynn wandering around with a bemused look on his face as he rediscovered sites he’d first visited some 40 years before with the U.S. Navy during World War ll.  The light cruisers he served on put in to port there periodically at that time for supplies and upkeep.

The Fijian people, once feared and reviled as cannibals, turned out to be extremely pleasant Melanesians, quiet, polite and gracious. Just about half of the locals were of Indian origin, mostly Hindu. Fiji’s past had been a colorful mixture of whaling ships and missionaries, and our hotel looked out on a small wooden church that would have been at home anywhere in New England.

One morning I braved a walk through the dense, shadowy  jungle, inhaling the rich, heavy, dark green smells, lured on by signs offering “Black Pearls for sale.”  I was a little nervous, thinking of both ferocious animals and cannibals, wondering if either species still existed. I rounded one last turn and came upon a typical tropical grass shack with a pleasant Fijian lady who greeted me with a breezy American “Hi!”  She had just moved home to escape the rat race after many years in Los Angeles. Her black pearls were beautiful, even though overpriced, and I admired them as we chatted, assuring her I’d try to bring my husband back later.

We enjoyed one last proper English tea that afternoon.  Imagine if you will, having a civilized tea with dainty sandwiches, tiny pastries and all,  while gazing out on the peaceful blue Pacific with the jungle for a backdrop. Early the next morning, a Saturday, we were back on a plane, heading for Oz.

Australian people refer to themselves as Aussies or, with their accents,  Ozzies, and their homeland as Oz. As Qantas Air bore us west, we had our first acquaintance with those proud, outspoken people. They are extremely independent, possibly a trait handed down from their renegade ancestors . Labor unions are a huge presence in Australia and there is always a strike or two going on somewhere. Strikes are referred to as Industrial Actions and we soon learned that the Sydney Herald publishes a list of current Industrial Actions on its front page every morning.

That day’s list included a strike by airline employees so we were forced to land in Auckland, N.Z. where we spent the day lounging around a hotel, enjoying 2 bountiful buffets laden with fresh seafood and tropical fruits of bright oranges, yellows and reds,  before finally reboarding our plane. We landed in Sydney at 2 a.m., and were met by a sleepy skeleton crew of airline employees who informed us that no one ever worked on weekends in Oz if they could possibly get out of it.

Most of the  passengers had hotel reservations and only one shuttle bus was in operation.  Our plan was to travel on the cheap and stay over in hostels so we had no reservation anywhere, a scary thought at that hour of the morning.  The only person on duty lined us up with a hostel. We finally got on board the shuttle for its last run and were dropped off at the hostel in King’s Cross, a busy part of the city.  It was staffed by a drowsy old gent who got our names and pointed us toward a room.

One night in the hostel and Lynn disappeared the next morning while I finished a hasty shower in the community shower room. He had located a fully furnished luxury apartment just across the street, ready to rent by the week and he grabbed it. That was the end of our plan to stay on the cheap. They aren’t called “youth hostels” for nothing. At 56 and 60 years of age, we didn’t quite fit in any more.

Australian sun is brilliant  and unending, the humidity is low and the prevailing smell to me was rocky. The entire continent seems to glitter and crackle with life.

Sydney is a bright, sparkling cosmopolitan city with wonderful ethnic restaurants. Other than those, Australian food is mostly distinguished by piles of chips, known to us as french fries, on every plate, at every meal of every day, along with big fat, bland sausages , called bangers, or meat pies, with  sometimes delicious lamb. Beer is a way of life, although Ozzie wine is gaining a well deserved reputation.

Sydney harbor has to be one of the loveliest harbors I’ve ever seen, dwarfing its 2 main attractions, Sydney Bay Bridge and of course the famed Opera House. We took a ferry out to the Atlantic 0cean through the harbor, winding among the many islands and spits. Aussies love their bridge, comparing it to our San Francisco Bay Bridge.  I failed to see its charm, thinking more in terms of a beginner’s Erector Set, solid enough that it will never fall down..

The beautiful Opera House, though disappointingly small, is lovely, soaring out to the harbor and the skies as though it can barely contain the  music it was built for. It was built by an American architect who won the privilege in an international competition. Construction was well along before it was discovered that no restrooms had been planned. Hasty revisions took care of that problem right away.

Touring around the country was amazingly efficient and comfortable. Greyhound buses went everywhere, their agents acted as travel agents and their drivers as tour directors, with commentary along the way.

Finally tearing ourselves away from Sydney, our next stop was Canberra, the national capitol. Interestingly enough, the entire city had also been designed, as was the Opera House,  by an American architect after another international contest. This time the results were mixed. Canberra is another clean bright city, quite small. but the uniformity is a bit off-putting.

Too much of a same-ness takes away a lot of charm. An occasional Victorian structure, or even a gritty industrial area tucked away somewhere would add to the interest. One expected to see the Stepford wives coming out of identical front doors of identical houses at 10:00 o’clock every morning, heading for the beauty shops and a daily touch-up to their beehive dos.

Our bus took us through wine country on the next leg of our journey,  picturesque as wine growing areas always are. Traveling through the many small towns, we would always spot at least one tennis court filled with energetic players at their favorite sport. Tennis is played everywhere by all ages. I got a kick out of the elderly matrons in their modest dresses having a late day game.

Melbourne turned out to be my favorite city, old enough by Australian terms to have a certain quaint charm, full of British touches, yet modern in every way. Captain Cook’s Cottage was a perfect example, restored for the tourists, and a reminder to the locals of their past.  Like almost all major cities in Oz., Melbourne is situated near the ocean and the many yacht basins are crowded with masts. I got the impression that if the Aussies aren’t sailing they’re playing tennis.

Our daughter and son-in-law lived at one time in Castlemaine, a small city just north of Melbourne.  Howard served as headmaster at a boy’s school and Mimi taught and served as the librarian. They enjoyed and treasured the two years they spent there.