Down Under Thoughts & Observations

This is something I don’t normally do but I am going to post an “Essay” from a new friend of mine. I met Lil Cromer last year when my husband and I were in Los Angeles. We were in a hotel bar and struck up a conversation with Lil. We ended up sitting there talk for several hours! Lil and I both have a passion for travel and when we met she was on her way to Australia and New Zealand for a 28 day adventure. When she returned she wrote an essay that she shared with us and now I want to share with you. Yes it is long for a blog post but I feel it is worth every sentence. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did!

Down Under Thoughts & Observations
by Lil Cromer

Ever since I read The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough and watched the gripping mini-series based on the book, my wandering soul planned, saved and researched a visit to Australia. Lucky for me a travel company out of Wisconsin put Clearwater on their target list of marketing areas. I attended no less than four presentations, four years running — causing the program director to ask if I was ever going to make the journey to Australia. Since this was my dream trip, maybe a once in a lifetime visit to the South Pacific, I decided to wait until I was free of caregiving duties. Less than a month after my mother departed this earth, I set in motion plans for a twenty-seven day Grand Australia and New Zealand adventure. A trip Down Under was necessary for my education, my sense of humour and for my own overall well-being. Americans have a tendency to lump Australia and New Zealand together, but it’s important to note that they are two separate countries. Indeed two of the most honest, friendly and successful countries on earth. Because this essay is only for my personal edification as well as the eyes of a few select friends, I have included both countries herein.

My friends asked why Australia and New Zealand. My initial answer is, “They love Americans!” But there’s more to it than that: there’s no language barrier and it’s affordable, even with our devalued dollar. As a general rule, the Aussies and Kiwis seem flexible and take whatever life hands them. Some call it smugness or complacency, but I think there is an attractive sense of security, pride and identity in the ordinary folks’ conviction that they’ve got it right.
Our journalists could take a lesson from the journalists Down Under. Not only do they report national news in an unbiased way, but they seem to be much more well-versed on world affairs than we are. During my tour, the midterm elections happened in the US, after which Obama admitted taking a shellacking. The articles in The Australian merely reported the news rather than editorialize, which I found refreshing. Reading the daily newspaper proved a challenge as they print on broadsheets. I never did learn the knack of properly folding the sheets for more efficient reading.

Because traveling can be out of our comfort zone, a dream vacation isn’t always dreamy. And, to be sure, there were the occasional road bumps. The first is a dearth of ice. Like the Brits, both the Aussies and Kiwis don’t use much ice, preferring instead hot tea and their water merely refrigerated. As my morning beverage of choice is iced tea, I got most creative rounding up ice for the early morning tea in my room. Most of the hotels provided refrigerators with a minuscule freezer compartment holding the smallest ice trays I’ve ever seen. For those hotels that didn’t have ice trays, the look on a couple of room service employees, when they delivered a bucket of ice at 6:00 AM, was worth the price of admission.
Because drinking and driving commands zero tolerance in both countries, many wine glasses are marked with a fill line, which looked like about four ounces. After a few days of the short pour shiraz nonsense, I opted for pints of local beers, which were outstanding; Cascade, Speights, Export Gold and Steinlager were my favorites. From conversations with bartenders, I learned that Reisling is usurping the number one spot for white wine consumption, nudging out Savignon Blanc.

You can’t drink on an empty stomach. Among culinary delights to go along with an excellent selection of local beer and wine: mince pies – a tasty pot pie with gravy and ground beef; fish and chips; shepherd’s pie; pavlova – a unique dessert made with meringue, cream and fruit; baked beans served with breakfast; beet root cake; sliced beets on burgers instead of pickles; jaffles – grilled sandwiches; licorice parfait with lime syrup; chocolate covered dried kiwifruit; and my favorite, bullets-chocolate covered licorice. Our tour director suggested we try a local favorite on our morning toast, Vegemite. It was a dark brown gooey mess that was more savory than sweet, rather salty and definitely an acquired taste.
It was interesting to note that condiments, such as ketchup, mustard, mayo, we take for granted here are not complimentary there. Little packets (sachets) were 40 cents at most places. Ditto for packets of crackers. There were no free refills on coffee, tea or sodas. And in both countries, tipping is not a common practice.

The rudeness of the Asians was quite noticeable: pushing ahead; talking when presentations were in English; females urinating on the seat and floor in public toilets; filling the bathtub to the brim in hotel rooms, then displacing water to the floor when bathing. Our knowledgeable tour director, a transplanted Aussie, now living in San Francisco, put the blame for this behavior squarely on the shoulders of their tour director. She commented that it was a matter of cultural difference and the Asians would be mortified if they knew their behavior was offensive.

Speaking of toilets, both countries use toilets designed to conserve water, which makes more sense than the low flow models we use here. On the top of the tank are two buttons with symbols; one half and one whole, use whichever applies. What a great idea.

I always assumed the US was the master of obsession regarding sports, au contraire. The Aussies and Kiwis take their sports, especially rugby, very, very seriously. The story goes that when Peter Jackson arrived in New Zealand to discuss using a farmer’s property for filming, Lord of the Rings, the farmer distractedly told him to come back later as he was watching rugby. But it’s just not rugby. The Melbourne Cup is a serious horse race held the first part of November each year; this is a holiday celebrated around the country. The festive atmosphere included folks dressed in formal clothes attending pre-Cup parties and having a rousing time. Instead of hats, some women sported what is called a “fascinator,” which is a strikingly, elaborate blend of feathers, ribbons, and flowers attached to a kind of headband.

Skin cancer is a critical problem in both countries. School children wear broad-brimmed hats when outdoors and a large jar of sunscreen sits by the exit doors. Most of the schools mandate uniforms.
Politically, the two countries are much different than the US. Like Canada and the UK, both Australia and New Zealand have Nationalized Health Care. Because of this, a case of beer, (bottles are called Stubbies) costs between $33.00 and $50.00, and a 750 ml of liquor is $35.00 on sale. There’s no free lunch. Minimum wage is $15.00. There’s a national test for students in both countries called the NCEA, the results of which are published in the newspapers. (Wouldn’t this incentivize students taking similar tests in the US?) The best feature of their political system, however, is that they cap campaign expenditures, so rich people can’t simply buy an election. Finally, another thing that struck me is that national banks are permitted to raise mortgage interest rates at will; in fact this occurred while I was there and caused quite an uproar.

Miscellaneous stuff: The hotel beds are made up so well, that a body has to tug on the sheets to open up the bed. I practiced the difference in the pronunciation of aluminum, we say A LUM IN UM but the Aussies and Kiwis say A LU MIN I UM. There are 34 million sheep in NZ and only 4 million people. Sheep have a life expectancy of six years as they wear out their teeth in that time then can’t eat. The Kea bird has sharp razor-like talons and when landing on the backs of sheep can rip out their kidneys. Our small, congenial travel group was more frustrated than a celibate priest due to the actions of one thoughtless tour member, who shall remain nameless. There always seems to be one. We noted a bumper sticker that read, “If you spot a chance, take it.”

I was amazed at the number of backpackers in both countries, mostly young people and typically from Europe. They didn’t think anything of moving around the world on foot with a heavy pack strapped to their back. One gal I spoke with in Christchurch was headed off to Japan after Christmas. They stay in one place long enough to make sufficient money to take them to the next place. Talk about a gypsy lifestyle.

Two coach drivers, both memorable, must be included here. Steve, the driver in Tasmania is the president of the Errol Flynn fan club in Hobart and relocated from northern Australia to Tasmania; his passion for the southern most Aussie state came through loud and clear. Les, the driver in New Zealand was a Kiwi from Hamilton south of Auckland. He was obviously proud of his heritage, as evidenced by his informed narration on the twelve days we toured NZ. His wicked sense of humour added to our delight. During the NZ portion of the tour, my unbounded PIC (politically incorrectness) prompted Les to ask when I had been released from the US Diplomatic Corps. We shared a good laugh.

As a way of defining the trusting nature of the Aussies — while waiting at the Melbourne airport one morning, I approached a mother with a cute baby girl in a stroller and asked the child’s name. Emily began to fuss a bit so I offered to push her around the terminal for a while to calm her down. Emily’s mother gave me her blessing and off I went. Can you see a mother in the US handing her baby off to a total stranger in an airport?
Down Under veterans are honored in nearly every community in the form of monuments; the one in Melbourne was quite sizable and impressive. ANZAC (an acronym for Australia New Zealand Army Corps) Day is celebrated in April each year, much like our Veterans’ Day. Winston Churchill is not well liked here because of his error in sending troops into Gallipoli, Turkey in WW I resulting in over 10,000 Aussie and Kiwi casualties.
Four cities composed my Australian itinerary: Cairns, Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart.

Cairns is quite beautiful, boasting the 1,400 mile long Great Barrier Reef, the 8th wonder of the world. However, it is hot and touristy, and a trip to the cool mountain air in rain forests the next day was a welcome relief. Afterwards, I found a special treat at the Night Market — several Chinese massage booths, where my aching muscles were manipulated for the paltry sum of $15.00 for forty minutes.

Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, is rife with beautiful Victorian architecture. While lunching on the famous Colonial Cable Car, we passed many old Victorian homes. It’s not difficult to understand why Melbourne is called the Garden City as one-fifth of the city is composed of parks and botanical gardens. Fitzroy Gardens is an exceptional garden where stands the old home of Captain James Cook who first mapped Australia and New Zealand. The beautiful gardens were just the beginning. Melbourne’s topography was breathtaking and unique; curiously, I learned that it’s possible to ski in the morning and walk on the beach in the afternoon. Because of this topography there are a few resource management issues and accordingly, water rates in Melbourne have doubled recently to fund a new desalination plant.

A friendly, sibling-like rivalry exists between Melbourne and Sydney as well as between Australia and New Zealand. For example, I overheard this bit of banter, “The Aussies got a fly infested bit of desiccated snake-infested land surrounded by shark-infested laden seas but the Kiwis got a temperate green fertile land with snow-capped peaks.

Sydney, the Emerald City, is an invigorating blend of the old and the new. A most tolerant, multicultural city with a world-famous harbour, the city is much like Manhattan in that it is comprised of lots of little sections each with its own uniqueness. I’m fortunate to have a pen pal from Sydney who took me on a special foot tour of the city as well as a cruise on the harbour. The views of the Opera House are fantastic no matter which part of the city you’re in, but it is particularly spectacular from a boat. Beneath our hotel we encountered another world called World Square with lots of shops, restaurants, and markets. One day, a fellow tour member and I started out on foot to locate the Harley Davidson dealership using his Map Quest printout as our guide. He claimed it was only fifteen minutes from our hotel, so I agreed to walk. And so we walked, and we walked, and we walked. After dragging along behind him for an hour or so, I asked to look at his map. Maybe we took a wrong turn? The “fifteen minutes” was by car! Finally we arrived at the dealership five minutes before closing and I was able to purchase a special T-shirt I promised to buy for a friend of mine in Florida. The pints tasted exceptionally good on the way back to the hotel.

Tasmania, the Apple Isle, was the biggest surprise. Most of us only think of the Tasmanian Devil, but this southern most state of Australia is a gem — wild and untamed. 213 million years ago Tasmania was part of Antarctica and what stands today in the Tasman Sea are beautiful rugged rock formations complete with caves and waterfalls. Our tour included an exciting eco-cruise along the coastline; we saw porpoises, petrels, seals, and a huge flock of shearwater birds. It was like a scene from Hitchock’s The Birds. Along with the incredible wildlife, the five to six foot swells and cold temperatures made this part of the journey a highlight for most of us. Random thoughts: Tassie’s main crops are lettuce and apples. Many of the buildings are made of sandstone and are awesome. The capital, Hobart, sits in a green valley, and is the birthplace of Errol Flynn. The Aborigines are the longest continuous culture in the world since 120,000 BC. Dreamtime is the set of beliefs of their culture; they believe everything is created by spirits.

We toured Port Arthur, an old convict settlement for repeat offenders, some of them as young as 14 years old. It’s located on a peninsula south of Hobart and is today a historical museum visited by a quarter of a million people each year.

New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Clouds, affectionately referred to as “down under Down Under” is roughly the size of Colorado. The country raises deer, sheep and cattle. 16% of the population are comprised of “Maoris” who were originally thought to be from Polynesia, but later discovered to be from Taiwan. We call the middle of our cities, downtown, but Down Under they refer to the center of town as CBD, central business district.

Christchurch, the gateway to Antarctica, suffered major earthquake damage the latter part of 2010; some of their beautiful buildings were destroyed, many cannot be restored. While in Queenstown, (which resembles a little Switzerland) we traveled down to Fjordland National Park on Milford Sound — breathtaking views. We learned that a “sound” is erosion created by water and a “fjord” is erosion created by glaciers. During the gold rush in the 1800s many Chinese were treated horribly; Arrowtown remembers this regrettable time in history with a small memorial park. In Queenstown, I took a horseback ride up the mountain on Walter’s Peak Station, where we climbed 1000 feet and were treated to views that are indescribable; a highlight for me.
Wellington, the capital, is a quaint city with hillside villas, and other expensive real estate. We were there on Armistice Day, Nov. 11th. I watched a small parade, with young and old proudly marching with Santa bringing up the rear. The entire CBD was cordoned off and families lined the streets; such camaraderie and patriotism conjured nostalgic images and brought a lump to my throat.

Random thought alert: Auckland, the city of sails, is home to one-third of the population of NZ. Rotorua, the center of the Maori culture, was unique with its hot springs, mud baths and geysers.
Without belaboring the vistas, it seemed the scenery changed hourly; from cloudy, misty mountains, to rolling hills and farms, to rocky mountains, to volcanos, to the Pacific Ocean on one side of the road and sheep grazing on the other, to trout steams and waterfalls. The story goes that trout in NZ die of old age. New Zealand packed a lot of variety into a relatively small number of square kilometers.

Before leaving on this odyssey, I practiced my “G’day, mate” and “draw me a pint, please.” Unfortunately, much to my dismay, when I’d greet an Aussie or Kiwi with G’day, they’d respond only with “Hello.” As it turns out “G’day” is more common in the Outback than in the cities we visited. One phrase, however, I’ll carry with me for years to come is, “No worries!” This amiable phrase is used in place of “you’re welcome” or “no problem.”

Happy Trails To You!

Comments

  1. Great essay! I had the pleasure of being in Queenstown in 2009 when the Melbourne Cup took place … and they don’t kid when they say this is a race that brings two countries to a complete standstill!!

    • Hi Susan…so glad you took a moment to read the essay. I have never been to Australia and hope to get there some time in the next 5 years. It must of been quite an experience for you to be there during the Melbourne Cup. Was that the reason you were there?

  2. Wow what a great essay! I’ve always wanted to go to Australia. I love the info about the wildlife. Interesting blog! Thanks for sharing.

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