Australia and Tasmania: A last social visit, and packing up

Alas, my time was almost up in Australia. Work was very stingy with vacation days, so I was lucky just to get two weeks, but I would have rather stayed for another month at least. I only saw a fraction of Tasmania, and barely got outside the city of Melbourne. It was still a fabulous trip though.

Celia and her friends had been very generous hosts. I felt a bit ashamed that I ate so much of their food and occupied so much of their space without having anything to give in return, so I treated them to a pile of fancy chocolate snacks from a local shop, and left some extra money behind as well. Their hospitality made the logistics much easier, and their conversation set a kind of template for me, making all of Australia seem like a friendly place.

All of these things look amazing, but my favorite is the middle shelf. Those are chocolate bags filled with goodies. Yes, the bag itself is chocolate!

In case you’re wondering how a mountain bike fits into an airline-size bicycle box, here’s a photo of my packing job!

Celia was doing some traveling of her own, and was unable to drop me off at the airport, but it was no trouble to call a taxi and shove my big bicycle box into the trunk. The flight home was long but uneventful. I had plenty of time to take stock, and so I did:

How does Australia/Tasmania compare, as a bicycle touring destination?

Well, my experience as a world traveler is not much at this point. But from the perspective of an American, I can confidently say that it’s a great place for a long or medium-length trip, if you don’t mind the marathon plane ride. It’s a whole new continent filled with native English speakers, distant enough to be exotic, but familiar enough to be very easy to navigate. The most “foreign” thing to get used to is the inverse flow of the traffic, and even that just takes a day or two.

There are certainly much cheaper places to travel, and I wouldn’t want to fly here for anything less than two weeks because of the up-front cost of the plane tickets. But that is literally the price you pay for familiar Western civilization. You can get fresh water and flushing toilets every day, find any spare equipment you need easily, choose from restaurants serving familiar food, and pursue a variety of tourist-oriented activities wherever you go. And if you show enthusiasm for what you find, the locals will show it right back and be so helpful that it’s almost a bit disorientating.

Basically, if you want to try someplace outside your home country, but want the least amount of hassle when you get there, Australia is your place. (I’d place Canada second because the terrain is rougher in Canada, the weather is more dangerous, and frankly, there is less variety of terrain, animals, and attractions.)

How does the trip compare to others, in terms of expense?

The flight out was a punch in the finances, for sure. Also, once I arrived I found that cost-of-living expenses were higher than back home, though not by much. Celia helped immensely of course. Staying in her spare room saved me hundreds of dollars, and in retrospect, I should have gifted her more money before I left.

But anyway, the ballpark estimate for cycling Australia is easy: Plan on spending about a fifth more than you would back home, in a place with the same population density. So if you’re in Melbourne, expect to spend about 1.2 times what you would in, say, Los Angeles. In Tasmania, raise that to about 1.4 times.

Do you plan to go back?

I would love to fly my upright bike directly into Tasmania and cycle around the island, for about a month. I think that would be just about long enough to thoroughly explore the place, and I could come full circle and fly back out of the same airport.

I explored Melbourne a fair amount and there is definitely more to see there, but if I returned to Australia it would be with my recumbent bike, to attempt a journey through the interior. That’s a whole lot of flat road and long miles, and the recumbent would be a better choice. Relative to other places in the world though, it’s low on the list.

It was a perfect choice to get good experience dealing with air travel and navigating an unfamiliar land, but honestly, I feel like I’m ready for something more … what’s the right word … “technical” now.

Better alone, or with a partner?

Generally a subjective thing, but I do have some input here.

Melbourne, and the coastline around it, and the lands beyond it that aren’t too deep into the interior, are surprisingly easy biking and have plenty of resources, but relatively few options for camping. You’ll find it easy to keep the same pace with a companion, and have plenty of cause to stow the bikes somewhere and check out some cultural attraction, and when you do you’ll usually want a room which will cost more than you’d like — but that cost can be chopped right in half when you’re traveling with a friend.

If the country were cheaper, and the nature more densely packed, and the roads more complicated, and the camping easier, and the population lower, I’d recommend going solo, for the introspection and the flexibility and the bigger sense of adventure. But unless you’re crossing the interior, Australia has more to offer a group.

What’s next?

Well, all my vacation days are gone and I’ve got a lot of financial and social things to attend to. So I probably won’t go on another complicated trip for a while… But damn, if I’d known how interesting Tasmania was I would have booked another week there anyway.

Australia and Tasmania: Leaving Tasmania way too soon

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Australia and Tasmania: Second Tasmanian Day

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We forget what it was like

One afternoon in Tasmania, I remember stopping and thinking to myself,

“This is what it used to be like, back home. The trees are cacophonous with birdsong. The ground is electric with bugs. The rivers are jostling with life. You can’t take three straight steps without blundering into the path of some new animal. Back home, the ground has been paved silent, the rivers have been fished empty, the trees echo, and you could walk all day without seeing a creature that isn’t wearing clothes or blundering around in a domesticated fog.”

I sat by the side of the road, drinking water and listening to that almost overwhelming wave of insect sounds, and thought back.

When I was a kid, I used to catch crayfish down in the forest near my house, pulling them out of the little stream, inspecting them as they waved their claws around energetically, and then dropping them back in with a “plop”. I returned to that stream a few years ago and looked at it, and found no crayfish, and the rainbow sheen of industrial pollution instead. I felt sad at the time, for the loss of something that I’d assumed would always be there.

But by the side of the road in Tasmania, I felt even worse about that memory. I was suddenly, overwhelmingly clear to me that the departed signs of life that I enjoyed as a child and mourned as an adult were themselves a meager shadow of a diversity and fertility that I never even knew about, driven out and poisoned by people I never met, who either didn’t care – or more likely didn’t even suspect – that their environment could become so quiet, and empty, and would eventually be haunted by near-invisible chemical ghosts that would drive even their own children away.

I had made the same mistake they did.

That trip, that day on the trip, was a rude awakening. One can’t be immersed in an environment like that and not be overwhelmed by the contrast between there and home. You think you know what to expect, because you read “The Lorax” when you were a kid, or maybe “Walden”, and you can relate to what he was saying in an abstract way, but then it hits you in the face – and the ears, and the nose, and the lungs, all at once – and you realize that it’s not just a philosophy or a political stance or an ideology, it’s a physical process, and you are directly involved in it, regardless of what you think. It is happening to you.

Australia and Tasmania: First Tasmanian Day

The following account first existed as a chat session between me and the lovely Erika, so the pictures aren’t in chronological order.

I’m in Sheffield, Tasmania, at a local rotary club diner. People’s local accents are so thick here that I can only barely understand them. You ever have one of those dreams where people speak to you, and you can hear every sound clearly, but not a single word emerges? It’s like that. It’s English – the words are all English – but unless I concentrate really hard, they all run together into a kind of vocal slurry. To add to the surreality, the folks at the bar just fired up the jukebox and it’s blaring honky-tonk music.

I’ve been riding all day and seen AMAZING THINGS!

Bizarre stands of trees, neat spiders, a whole mess of mud crabs wandering around, a beautiful swampy region, a pooped dragonfly that walked on my gloved hand for many photos, a lakeshore TEEMING with tiny frogs, so thick they had to hop out of the way en masse with each footfall, wild parrots, a local bicycle race, wild CHICKENS, a big ol’ snake sunbathing, many tame llamas and cows and sheep, a freaking SKINK (recently dead in the road, alas), ants as wide as my thumb … HUGE buggers! … Geese and trails of goslings, enormous ferns … Oh and at least five dead marsupials by the side of the road that I couldn’t quite identify. And I only rode through a tiny, well populated piece of Tasmania, too.

Traveling by bike is the shizzlick.

Dude. Just look at that. Lush and foreign-looking – unfamiliar plants all around – but with each plant filling a niche so it all adds up unmistakably to a riverbank.

And here I am riding straight through a thicket! This is a stand of Ti trees, I believe. They look just like ginormous shrubs. In both of these scenes I could hear a very intense, high buzzing sound, from all the millions of insects in the vicinity. It was much louder than any equivalent sound I’ve heard back home.

Oddly enough, I didn’t get bitten by anything. I didn’t see a single mosquito either. Wrong season perhaps.

Here’s another view of those trees. They’re very top-heavy. It’s like they’ve evolved to compete for sunlight very fiercely with each other, and their tactic versus other plants is to grow so close together that they starve out everything beneath them.

And, the swamp is very mucky! Good thing I’ve got nice new shoes to go stomp around in it with.

Go ahead and try to count the crabey crabes in this picture!!! 1. They’re purple, and 2. They’re numerous.

It’s CrabeOpolous! I looked out at the mudbank in front of me and saw at least A HUNDRED of them moving around. They blend in very well. They’re Camocrabes! Precisely the color of the mud.  I bet it didn’t take many hundreds of years either, for the birds to apply enough selection pressure, in isolation on this island.

As I watched, they competed for territory by waving their claws up in the air at each other, in a kind of haranguing gesture that put me in mind of a New York pedestrian arguing on a crosswalk. “I’M WALKIN’ HERE!!!”

Which reminds me. I need a cheap t-shirt of Christopher Walken with his arms up in the air, and the caption, “I’M WALKEN HERE.” Make it. Make it now.

I will buy it.

Time for another round of CrabeCount 2011! Twenty at least! And lots of pointy snails!

By the way. I call them crabes, instead of crabs, on account of a joke Ken Bell and I made in our UCSC days, about twelve years ago. We originally found the spelling in an old Red Meat comic. Imagine a four-year-old running around shouting, “OH NO! CRABES!”

These fellows were all hanging around scooping bits and pieces out of the puddles left by the receding tide.

Skink, with bike tire for size reference. They’re portly little guys.  Looks just like the live one I saw at the Cal Academy.

They’re pretty low-key as far as lizards go, but you wouldn’t wanna get chomped by one without gloves – it could break the skin and transmit disease. They have tiny teeth but robust jaws, like the alligator lizards they resemble from the forests I tromp through back home. I used to catch alligator lizards by grabbing them in one hand and then offering them a finger from my other, which they would bite and gnaw harmlessly on for a little while, exhausting themselves into docility. Then you could just carry them around and show them stuff. You wouldn’t want to try that tactic with a skink of course.

Around here, bugs just fall out of the sky and land on you as you go. I hear it’s a good thing I didn’t smoosh this guy because the species lets out a repulsive stink.

I was biking slowly up a long hill, and I glanced to my left over the edge of the embankment into the woods, and I saw a CHICKEN HEAD looking back at me.

I thought “what the heck is going on here?” and stopped.  The chicken head turned to follow me.

I thought “it’s picture time,” and I unwrapped the camera, put it on, took off the lenscap, and flipped the on switch, and the whole time, the chicken stood there gawking.  So I started talking to it and walked closer. The chicken held its ground as I walked to the edge of the road, and over the edge I could see a second chicken, just ten feet into the woods.

I took a few photos, chatting the whole time, then walked back to the bike and got out some chocolate mint popcorn I’d bought earlier that day.  I threw a few bits out, and the chickens stepped eagerly up to the bike to investigate.  They didn’t eat the popcorn – must have smelled wrong – but they stood there while I got a few more photos.

I didn’t have the resources to adopt chickens just then, though I was tempted, so I said goodbye to them, ordered them to stay out of the road, remounted the bike, and rode on.

I saw so many things today that I would have NEVER seen if I’d been in a car, or on a motorbike … and I’d never have seen it all if I’d been walking.

Note:  NOT forced perspective.  The small ant was barely larger than the large ant’s head.

This is a bull ant. I hear that being bitten by one is quite painful. I stayed a few steps back out of respect for that.

… Then I turned over some bark and found an ant nest.

Gah, look at all those ants. They were dragging their eggs around to hide them – an act that almost evoked pity in me until I remembered that even without disturbing them, they would have happily chewed my leg off. If I’d laid down on their nest they would have cut me into sections and fed me to their larvae.

Near this pond I found many wondrous things. I have some sound recorded for you, of the various birds and bugs making noise.

I captured it on my phone but the environment was so quiet that it still came out quite well.

A FROGIE! Striking pattern with the green stripe down the side. I’m pretty sure it’s this species.

The lakeshore was teeming with them. Every few steps, I saw them jump out of my way in groups of two or three. Their tadpoles fluttered just under the water. If this is an indigenous species, it’s been unique to Tasmania for a long time … Amphibians cannot cross ocean, so this frog can only be here by means of plate tectonics or human interference. (Salt water is lethal to amphibians at any life-stage.)

Here’s a frog still in transition. This would have been a better shot except I had to go with the preliminary, because when I got close, the little bugger bounced right off that tree and leapt into the water in less than a second, in one emphatic squiggle.

Honk honk!!

A dwagginfly perusing the marsh.

Nice catch, eh? Now check this out…

And that’s why I love this camera.

This guy was clinging to life even though he’d been smacked by a car and damaged his “lungs”.

When I picked him up he had ants all over him already, trying to dismember him, but I shook them off and crushed them. He had just enough strength to hold on against the wind. I set him down to ride along the back of my bike for a while.  One last trip through the air. About half a mile later I checked, and he was gone.

Also found this critter. I usually don’t photograph much roadkill, but I was a bit taken by the things I found today.

A companion blue wren, this one in the marsh. Alive and well.

This fly would make a tasty snack for that wren!

The marsh was a fascinating place to explore. The sheer density of plants and the unstable ground made it into a kind of maze, and you know how I love mazes!

Often the best way to proceed was by walking from one fallen branch to the next.

When I emerged, I had streaks of pollen on my clothes. Good thing it wasn’t the kind that gave me sneezing fits.

And now, apropos of nothing, it’s a little gnome treehouse shrine hotel! WTF?? Well, why TF not!!

Also apropos of nothing, the All Saints Church of England Cemetery. Maintained by the Central Coast Council and the family of Ernest Mason, who is buried somewhere around here in an unmarked grave.

Did I mention sheep? Well then, it’s about time I did.

Sheep gotta have big rolls of toilet paper. Gotta.

(Yes, I know; it’s hay.)

I find this Humerus.

I also find this Humerus.

The road towards central Tasmania. I didn’t go very far inland – not enough time, and too much altitude change.

The farmland is quite pretty here. The stripes of different foliage are intense and the soil is rich.

Guess the crop.

Give up? It’s poppies. Serious Business in Tasmania.

Generating electricity is also Serious Business here. This infrastructure is attached to a hydroelectric power station.

Massive power lines march the energy away to the coastal cities. See those white cement markers near the base of each pole? I’m pretty those are to stop the locals from running donuts around the power pole and possibly smacking into it.

The ferns can grow pretty large here.

Celia tells me this is a Banksia tree. She used to have a fear of them because of how they were depicted in a well-known Australian childrens’ book. The little tufts of leaves on the branches were said to be tiny demons that could jump off and cause mischief.

Here’s a closeup of the little demons.

And now, CrabeCount 2011 Part 2, The Crabening!

A broader view of the delta, with the tide all the way out. An awful lot of mud crabs live here.

Just after my midday snack, as I was biking along listening to Terry Pratchett’s I Shall Wear Midnight on the iPod, I came across a bicycle race.

So I joined in. Well, more like, I rode ahead, and was then passed by every single cyclist, and then passed again as they rode back down the hill.

My race time wasn’t improved by my tendency to stop and take photos of everything. Here it looks like the woods were damaged by a brushfire, then filled back in with ferns.

As the day passed into evening, the trees cast cozy shadows over the farmhouses.

Sunset in Sheffield. At this point I’ve finished my fish and chips from the rotary club (they were decent, but the chips were too soggy) and checked in to a motel. To my great surprise the drinks in the mini-fridge came with a note saying “These are complementary, for our thirsty travelers.” First time I’ve ever seen that before. I was so impressed by it that I told the owner of the place.

“I salute you!” I said.

“Why thank you!” he replied, grinning.

And thus ended my first full day in Tasmania.