Monthly Archives: August 2012

2012
08/12

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Northern Taiwan in Three Days

Preparing steamed buns at Din Tai Fung restaurant

By Emily M. Grey

Photos by the author

 En route to other Asian destinations, my band of four spent an abridged stint in northern Taiwan. Given another opportunity, I would rent a car and tour the entire country for two weeks.

Approximately the size of a combined Maryland and Delaware, Taiwan is 245 miles long and 89 miles wide. The Tropic of Cancer spans through this mountainous island, covered in tropical and subtropical vegetation.

Over 23 million people reside in this highly industrialized global banking nation. Once mining was vital. Now, tourism, manufacturing, and service industries are more significant livelihoods.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” I said. Gaping at ultra-modern skyscrapers, an elaborate rail system, and 20 universities, I was awestruck by the auspicious energy of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital.

 

TAIPEI

 

Day 1

 

Pounding sidewalks, we dodged millions of motor scooters, bicycles, and hordes of people. Unaccustomed to crowds, this country girl draws on inner resources to cope with urban bustle. Around 2.6 million residents, students, and visitors utilize airports, railways, a subway, buses, private vehicles, and good roads in Taipei City’s sophisticated transportation system.

 

Browsing tea shops and watching boys practice tai chi in the park summoned an appetite. The New York Times rated Din Tai Fung one of the world’s top ten restaurants. We sampled its specialty, steamed dumplings filled with pork, prawn, and other delicious meats. Our hosts allowed us a peek inside the kitchen as chefs wearing masks prepared meals.

 

Boarding our chartered bus a few hours later, the rest of my group was ready to dine again. Still sated from lunch, I wandered solo through Shilin Night Market. “Smelly tofu,” squid soup, and oyster omelets were among the menu items. Peculiar aromas wafted from 539 different stalls, frequented by countless hungry connoisseurs.

 

Bright orange lanterns signaled the way through alleys of the non-food section. A cluster of pet, toy, and clothing stores and massage parlors offered tempting buys or services. Guides and parents waved distinct flags and stuffed animals attached to a high pole so lost sheep might relocate their parties.

Day care two-year-olds at Martyr’s Shrine, honoring fallen Taiwanese soldiers

 

Situated near a wharf where agricultural produce is shipped, the daytime Shilin Market was formally created in 1909. With an influx of customers, food vendors, and businesses, the night market became popular. Booths open around 4 P.M. and close at midnight or at 1 or 2 A.M.

 

Half our party returned to the ritzy Taipei Park Hotel while a companion and I rode to Taipei 101. Opened in 2004, this 101-storied skyscraper with five underground floors is the world’s second tallest building.

 

A record-setting, seemingly motionless elevator whisked us near the top. Gazing out on a starlit city afforded an all encompassing vista and a better idea of how geographically large Taipei City is. Marine fauna exhibits, luxuriant jade jewelry, and historical black and white photographs of early city life graced certain levels. A mall and offices occupy the lower levels.

 

This internationally award-winning structure is designed to withstand typhoon winds and earthquake tremors. A magnificent steel engineering weight in the building’s center ensures protection.

 

 

Day 2

 

An ideal way to become acclimated with Taiwan is to visit the National Palace Museum. Over 600,000 ancient Chinese relics, such as rare jade, bronze, and paintings, are exhibited or secured there.

 

In 1925, the National Palace was originally established as the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Thousands of crates of valuables were later moved out of Taipei due to fighting with the Japanese and subsequent battles between the Communist and Nationalist armies.  Currently, relationships have mellowed with the Palace Museum in Beijing agreeing to lend items for display to the National Palace Museum.

 

Featured on Season 19 of The Amazing Race, the red and white arched entry of Martyr’s Shrine portended a reverent place.  This famous landmark honors Taiwan’s soldiers who sacrificed their lives fighting in the Chinese civil war of the 1940s.

 

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial

We were fortunate to witness the elaborate changing of the guard, which occurs on the hour. Uniformed young militia marched in perfect cadence past rows of red Taiwanese national flags. Expressions of pride and patriotism painted many faces of visitors.

 

Two guards stood solemnly outside the shrine. About 390,000 spirit tablets of casualties from different wars are showcased inside.

 

Too cute for description, day-care children as young as two years old formed a line. Pretending to be a choo-choo train, each child placed his or her hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them.

 

Just before dusk, we arrived at the National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. Opened in 1980 to honor Taiwan’s former president, Chiang Kai-shek, this venerable landmark is located at Liberty Square. The National Concert Hall and National Theater and adjacent parks stand inside the hall grounds at the east end of Memorial Square.

 

I ascended the two sets of 89 steps, representing the leader’s age at death. Within the main entrance is an enormous bronze statue of Chiang. A library and museum are at ground level.

 

At ground level, I turned for a final look. To my delight, a half rainbow suspended over the left side of the Memorial Hall.

 

Longshan Temple dates back to 1738. Taoists, Buddists, Christians, and non-believers gather here seven days a week. I marveled at the numerous gorgeous bouquets, cooked dinners, fresh fruit, and other items spread out on long tables as sacrifices to the gods.

 

Incense permeated the interior as people chanted, bowed, and told their own fortunes by smashing pottery and randomly selecting numbered messages. Unwed young women assembled before a definitive gold idol to pray for a husband.

 

Regardless of one’s faith, there was an undeniably strong feeling of spirituality in the temple. The best times to visit to see the crowds are around 6 A.M., 8 A.M., and 5 P.M.

 

NORTHERN COAST

Nefertiti’s Head, sculpted by wind and waves, at Yehliu Geopark

 

Day 3

 

Heading to the northern coast, I asked the driver to stop. Commercial fishing vessels adorned with glass lanterns and a Taiwanese flag captured my attention.  Attractive triangular concrete barriers safeguarded the shoreline from typhoons.

 

Approximately an hour north of Taiwan’s capital in the rural Jinshan District of New Taipei City is the tranquil Dharma Drum Mountain. Founded by the late Ch’an (Zen) Master Sheng-yen, this is the international headquarters and campus for Buddhist spiritual life, culture, and education.

 

Garbed in plain robes, monks from Taiwan and other nations nodded and smiled as they passed by. Global affiliated temples and centers are found in 14 countries across Asia, Europe, Oceania, and North America. See www.dharmadrum.org

 

Situated on a cape is Yehliu Geopark, my favorite venue in Taiwan. Known to geologists as Yehliu Promontory, this part of the Taliao Miocene Formation stretches over a mile into the ocean. It was formed as geological forces pushed Datun Mountain out to sea.

 

Women wearing colorful sun hats scrubbed algae and debris off boulders along the coastline. Visitors scurried about mushroom-shaped formations and viewed fairy shoes, a hippopotamus, beehives, and other peculiarities carved over time by wind and waves.

 

Never have I witnessed more nature-perfected sculptures. Perhaps the best known is the “Queen’s Head” (Egyptian Queen Nefertiti).  People stand impatiently in line to photograph the stone queen at the correct angle.

 

Located in the town of Jingua Rock is Gold Ecological Park, which comprises a huge part of Taiwan’s human and natural heritage. Gold and copper were discovered here, respectively, in 1889 and 1905. The nation’s premier ecology museum features exhibits on the area’s mining culture. We were allowed to touch a 485-pound gold bar and watched as other visitors panned for gold outside.

 

We briefly examined the simple one-storied Crown Prince Chalet, constructed for a Japanese crown prince’s visit during Japanese reign on Taiwan. We also glimpsed a former WW II POW camp.

 

Also in the town of Wanli, the Dragon Ball Restaurant serves an array of tasty fish, noodles, sushi, and vegetables. For dessert, we chomped into a doughy bunny filled with sweet red bean sauce.

 

On the way back to Taipei, we stopped to admire a charming golden waterfall and the ruins of the abandoned Shisancheng Ore Refinery where gold was once processed. Although this was a whirlwind journey, I am convinced that we saw the best of northern Taiwan.

 

A Brief History of Taiwan and Taipei

Fishing vessel on the northern coast. Commercial fishing remains vital to Taiwan’s economy

The Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan was also named Formosa meaning “Beautiful Island” by sixteenth century Portuguese explorers. This small island nation lies 99 miles over the Taiwan Strait from the southeast coast of mainland China.

Taiwan is a bit of an anomaly. Throughout the centuries, the Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese have ruled all or part of it. ROC was formed in mainland China in 1911 following the termination of the Qing Dynasty.

Taiwan’s political status remains disputed because the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) under Communist rule still claims it. Both countries maintain separate governments, fly distinct national flags, and issue different passports and currencies. Mainland China is a member of the UN. Taiwan is not. Yet, the two nations trade together and fly passengers back and forth.

 

EVA AIRLINES

 

October 31, 2011, marked the maiden flight of Eva Airlines from JFK.  Chinese Americans and other New York City dwellers are no longer limited to service from Newark.  Free shuttle service for EVA passengers runs part of the year from select areas.

 

EVA, a Taiwanese airline, is a pleasant means to Asian destinations. The service is excellent for Elite and even for coach. Flight attendants regularly offer water and juice and ensure that passengers are comfortable. Even the meals are above average for airplane food.

 

The airline also flies from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver. See www.evaair.com

 

TRAVEL TIPS

 

When planning your trip, consider the climate. Taipei is affected by the Pacific typhoon season which occurs between June and October. Summers are extremely hot and humid with heavy rainstorms. Winters are short, mild, and often foggy.

 

Public eastern-style toilets can be uncomfortable to westerners. It is advisable to pack anti-bacterial liquid and tissue.

 

Due to high levels of air pollution, especially during mornings, it may be wise to don masks to cover your nose and mouth. Many Taiwanese, namely motor scooter riders, wear them.

 

 

 

 

 

2012
08/12

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Surviving Mountain Biking in Moab, Utah, Where the Rubber Meets Anything But The Road

By Steve Bergsman

Photos by the author

Mountain biking on the Courthouse Loop just north of Moab

 

The first time I passed through Moab, Utah, was back in the 1970s and the town was so small as to be less than memorable. Then, a decade later, mountain bikers discovered the red rock countryside of buttes, mesas, walls, cones and rock formations. They were followed by a wide assortment of outdoor enthusiasts, in particular the four-wheel drive contingent who jack up their vehicles to attempt ornery rock trails or lack thereof.

Today, Moab is the epicenter of mountain bike culture and the Slickrock Trail is probably the most famous mountain bike route in the world. But, don’t sell the other outdoor enthusiasts short: the hikers, rock climbers, rappellers, horseback riders, base jumpers, whitewater rafters, skydivers, and four-wheel crazies who take 45-degree, 100-yard slickrock climbs as a challenge. Moab’s off-road Jeep Safari in the spring is the city’s busiest weekend of the year.

It took me four decades and 20 years of biking to get back to Moab; I finally made it earlier this year and I thought I would celebrate by doing what almost everyone else does. I would mountain bike.

The author takes his turn. Courthouse Loop north of Moab

In the real world, I no longer mountain bike much, having switched gears, so to speak, and my affection is now to the thin-wheel cycle. Yes, I road bike, although my old-guy bike group prefers climbs to flat ground. And that’s pretty much what I told my guide: “I’m too old to do crazy, but I got good legs for climbing.”

Mike, my guide for the morning, was, like me, no longer a young man. He was originally from Minnesota and after a long stint in Texas ended up in Moab, where for the last four years he has led mountain bike tours.

I don’t know if he knew my demographics before he met me or simply sized me up on the spot, but he absolutely chose the right trails for my ability — or as he said to me, “the funnest route for my skill level.”

So, he skipped the famed Slickrock Trail, which was OK by me because the day before I watched some riders – all younger and more skilled than I – traverse part of the extensive trail system and I knew it would be a tough, if not dangerous, ride for me.

Instead, Mike chose the Courthouse Loop, a series of trails north of the city in terrain that would encompass the kinds of rides mountain bike riders enjoy – single-track, off-road (generally unpaved and unredeemed roadways) and that particular joy of the Moab region, slickrock (smooth-rock surfaces of dangerously uneven topography).

Whereas the Slickrock Trail rises above Moab on the mountain range that locks in the city to the northeast, Mike drove the two of us north of Moab for about six miles, and exited the highway for a dirt road that eventually led to a parking lot. I looked around.  A spectacular wall of red rock to the west. To the south, the snowcapped La Sals in the distance and ahead a plain with a moderate rise. The latter was where we headed.

Mountain biking guides pointing out different trails

The first trails, which weaved around, through and over the first rock ridge, were called something like LazY and EZ, which were really fictions. Although not difficult, the two trails were single-track loops that included some tough short rises and sharp turns. There were no easy places on the loops and you had to pay attention all the time, especially when the elevation changed and you were climbing or dropping suddenly. I had a few misses where I didn’t maneuver a climb after a quick turn, but no falls.

This doesn’t mean that others didn’t. Mike and I had stopped to take some photos, when right behind us a teenage boy going much too fast burst through a sharp turn and climb and took a face plant. Embarrassed that there were witnesses to his fall, he quickly climbed back on his bike and scooted away.

Mike was a quiet, composed guide who liked to dispense advice, which I enjoyed. Good mountain bikers have strong legs, can skillfully switch gears, and have well-honed technical skills. I have good legs and can gear correctly, but my mountain biking techniques were never good enough. As one guide to Moab mountain biking noted about the Slickrock Trail: “Physical difficulty, strenuous. Most of the short pitches are amazingly steep. Your bike has the traction to climb them if you have the strength and technique to power it.”

After LazY and EZ, we moved out further onto the plain, where the evenness was deceiving to the eye.  On the far side of the plain was the Arches National Park, and you could see in the distance some of the more distinctive rock formations, two of the windows and even Balance Rock, a top hat atop a spindle of stone. My first thought was, heck, you could just bike over to the park which couldn’t have been more than 10 miles as the crow flies.

Not true. You had to look a little closer to see the dark line between where I was and the arches beyond. That line was a very deep canyon called Courthouse Wash and the land between was unsettled ground.

Another part of Courthouse Loop

Mike switched us to the Bar-M loop, which for the most part looked like on old ranger road. Mostly dirt packed with some slickrock, the trail here was wide and gave us a chance to stretch our legs. We would eventually finish out the remainder of the Bar-M, but first I had to conquer the slickrock on a different three-mile loop.  The world sloped down toward the canyon on massive exposed rock surfaces that rolled like waves across the landscape. Someone had a painted a line across the surface indicating where the trail was. It all seemed so haphazard.

This expanse of slickrock was what made this section of the Courthouse area popular. It was expansive, wide-open and very dangerous, because the elevation changes quickly and one slickrock rolls badly into the other creating crevasses and breaks. All the while you are either up or down in elevation.

Slickrock riding was all new to me and I did – in my mind—amazingly well. There were two spots where I thought it prudent to walk, but I had no falls and maneuvered through some very tough turns and drops.  We were halfway through the loop when it crossed near a rugged road only a four-wheel drive vehicle could maneuver. We had been riding about 2.5 hours and Mike gave me the option of continuing on the slickrock or, essentially, quitting while I was ahead.

As Clint Eastwood says in Magnum Force, “A man has gotta know his limitations.” I decided to quit while I was still unscathed. But, that didn’t mean things got easier.

We switched to the road, which was essentially a direct climb over nasty rock scrabble.  We got back on the Bar M loop and moved north out toward the boxed end of Courthouse Wash canyon, where we stopped to look down.

This is where Hollywood filmed the last scene of the movie 127 Hours;the James Franco protagonist has to rappel himself down a cliff face as he struggles out of the wilderness. Indeed, the true life tale of Aron Ralston’s harrowing escape from a fall and cutting off his own arm happened about a half hour away from that location.

Riders on the treacherous slickrock

Mike reminisced about the making of the movie and his friends who were employed on the set. He told me they also filmed the John Carter movie around there. Indeed, I picked up a lot of Moab chatter about a casting call for extras to work on the Lone Ranger movie with Johnny Depp.

As for Mike and I, it was time to ride off into the sunset, which would have been nice, but it was only just past mid-day. By the time we hit the final stretch, south on the Old Moab Road, we had been on the trails for about three hours.

Of course, easy is never easy in the wilderness. When we turned onto the Old Moab Road, now nothing more than a rocky trail, we were smacked in the face by high winds that roared through the canyons from the south.

As I pulled up alongside Mike, who seemed to be a wee bit fatigued, he looked over to me and said, “I guess you do bike a lot.”

 

The ultimate compliment.

Author taking a break after riding slickrock. Arches National Park in background

 

 

IF YOU GO:

 

ACTIVITIES:  The Moab Adventure Center, located in the middle of town, is really a one-stop shop for almost any activity you can dream up while in Moab. They’ll arrange mountain biking, four-wheeling, jet boat rides, guided hikes and horseback riding. After inclement weather washed out some planned activities, they even arranged a custom four-wheel drive tour for my wife and I. http://www.moabadventurecenter.com

 

WHERE TO STAY: By far, the quirkiest place to stay in Moab is the Gonzo Inn. In a town of chain hotels, the Gonzo stands out for décor and attitude, a mix of retro, Southwest and industrial. Judging from its picture wall, a number of Hollywood types stay here when in town. My wife and I loved our little one-room suite. Breakfast is included, so what more can you ask for? http://www.gonzoinn.com

 

 

 

 

2012
08/12

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Brisbane and Beyond: A Brotherly Adventure in Australia

By John H. Ostdick

Photos by the author

 

Rapidly growing Brisbane, the state capital of Queensland, is Australia’s third-largest city

QUEENSLAND, Australia — Traveling with grown siblings, especially ones you don’t see often, can trigger some deep connections that otherwise remain paths untaken.

 

Experiencing places or events that are important to a person reveals much about them. With five Ostdick siblings, finding personal travel time among all the other demands of family and professional obligations is daunting. Still, in the past, I’ve managed long walks on Santa Barbara beaches with my oldest brother Ed, hiked a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail and enjoyed a cool Thanksgiving camping weekend in Death Valley with brother number two Jim, and smiled broadly through a lofty float among a cadre of balloons during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with my eldest sister Pat. (Sister Diane and I have had many experiences but not a travel-specific one unless you count a teen-age bus ride to visit Pat in Oklahoma City that ended with an unfortunate jumping-in-a-pile-of-leaves broken leg for Diane.) Each experience taught us things about each other we’d otherwise have missed.

 

For 23 years, however, I’d never found a way to visit my younger brother Mike’s Australia as his slight Texas twang slowly morphed into an Australian lilt. I was intrigued with his tales of what a vibrant and quirky life he has discovered here but I never seemed to clear the time to witness it firsthand. In November, with Australia’s summer days fast approaching, I finally take Mike up on his standing offer to serve as my wingman for a grand tour.

 

He fashions an ambitious itinerary of both urban and nature exploration that proves to be a bit pirate code — what you’d call guideline more than actual rule.  We venture out broadly, adapting to changing weather conditions and time considerations.

 

In the three weeks I’m here, Brisbane and Queensland live up to their advance billing. The good-natured Australians win me over with their cheeky humor, love of live, and hearty embrace of the outdoors. I can see why my brother is happy here.

Riders enjoy a river view of Brisbane aboard one of Brisbane’s Citycats, smooth water taxis that navigate the Brisbane River through the heart of the city

 

We explore Brisbane from the water and on its bustling streets, and put almost 1,800 miles on his vehicle while enjoying the subtle beauty of national parks in two Central Queensland Coast regions, community nature gardens, knock-your-socks-off beaches, small towns glowing in 1950s-U.S. Midwest charm, and a museum or two thrown in for good measure.  Despite our tenacity, I only get a fleeting taste of Australia’s far-flung geographic diversity — but it is savory.

 

My brother’s home is on the Redcliffe Peninsula, about 30 minutes from

Brisbane. The area has a sleepy, beach-town aura despite its proximity

to a sprawling metropolitan area of more than two million (Australia’s

third-largest city extends in all directions along the floodplain of

the Brisbane River valley between Moreton Bay and the City of Ipswich,

a burgeoning town with a rich historical significance and charm all

its own). We use it as base for our wanderings throughout Queensland

and New South Wales directly to the south.

 

Exploring the Town

 

We commute into the glistening inland city by vehicle and train, and tour mostly on foot and by river taxi (its downtown core and sprawling suburbs hug the Brisbane River). The intense sun and subtropical clime make for a relaxed atmosphere. Outdoor dining is prevalent, with seafood, beef and lamb, tropical fruits and regional produce popular menu items (as is the grease-heavy staple, fish and chips). We tipple our share of amber nectar — one of the Aussies’ terms for beer — in various pubs but as neither of us is heavy on the club scene, we eschew late-night hotspots.

 

At places like the Roma Street Parkland, adjacent to the Roma Street Transit Centre that provides long-distance train links to other parts of the country, we get an immersion into the subtropical flora of southeastern Australia. Large Easter Water Dragons stare us down from the path and beds. As we walk along the central path, which mirrors the snaking curves of the Brisbane River, we pass a group of women munching on designer cupcakes during a baby shower and a group of students giggling as they plop their feet into a fountain.

 

At the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, I get my first hypnotizing access to the fuzzy and pouched marsupials that are this country’s poster children. Watching captive koalas and kangaroos up close is not exactly an active sport, but both creatures have their own allure. In fact, I find myself smiling broadly while I stare at the koalas, who spend an inordinate amount of time sleeping. I snap frame after frame of them charmingly doing nothing (I’m not alone in this). Wrestling ourselves away, we move on to watching children grimace as they tentatively feed kangaroos from their hands for the first time.

 

Eastern Water Dragons, this one navigating a rock in the Roma Street Parkland, are a common site in Queensland

Making It Out and About

 

Early one Saturday we drive 45 minutes north to Eumundi, a small Sunshine Coast home to 1,700 residents and a European-style artisans and farmers market founded in 1979 to promote local goods.  Today, it is a mish-mash of handicrafts and food vendors that involves more than 600 stalls and draws more than 1.6 million visitors a year on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

 

I fumble with my camera and some stout coffee as a I spy typewriter keys that Noose-based Wearyabin.com has fashioned into jewelry and rows of colorful handmade tutus from Playtime Fairy Dresses’ Christine Carmichael.  The pungent aroma of cooking German sausages floats on the breeze, mixing with the crackling sound of calamari frying. Vendors coax incredible wailing sounds out of the didgeridoo, the wind instrument of Indigenous Australians. A teenager plays a haunting violin on one of the street corners. We spend a couple of hours peeking around corners. I make a few small purchases and we move on.

 

We choose a weekday to spend a morning at the 100-acre Australia Zoo, the legacy of crocodile hunter and wildlife showman Steve Irwin, about 45 minutes from the Peninsula. The Irwin juggernaut certainly funded a stunning place (and has drawn a prodigious sponsor list) — the spacious and pristine grounds house 1,200 animals.  As we are once again letting some koalas mesmerize us, a zoo employee asks if I’d like to pat one of the sleeping beauties on the rump. I do so, gently; the softness of his fur surprises me.

 

From the zoo, we drive to Caloundra, a resort town on the Sun Coast, and enjoy a beach lunch and a stroll along the boardwalk that hugs the shore. We pop into a little picturesque inland town, Buderin Village, where I find an amusing used-book store, whose owner, Christopher Badger — isn’t that just like something from Pooh — is fun to chat up. We didn’t get to meet Renee, tarot reader and astrologer who is also Badger’s wife, but materials in the shop tout her 35 years experience, London studies and worldwide clients.

 

Taking a Longer View

A koala does what it is best at, dozing quietly, at Brisbane’s Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the largest of its kind in the world with more than 130 of the fuzzy marsupials, plus kangaroos, dingoes, wombats, and various other indigenous critters

 

A six-and-a-half hour drive northwest from Brisbane along the Burnett Highway takes us through many small towns such as Gayndah, which has an extensive memorabilia collection in a museum celebrating its claim as the oldest town in Queensland (1849), before we settle into the Cania Gorge Caravan & Tourist Park (think a very nice KOA campground set in an open meadow, with showers, communal kitchen facilities, and a pool) just outside Cania Gorge National Park.

 

We pick a camping site under a large shade tree, unload the truck and pitch our tents just in time to join the evening’s other campers for the daily 5 p.m. feeding of the local birds, a screeching swarm of about 100 rainbow lorikeets, Australian king parrots, sulfur-crested cockatoos and galahs (rose-breasted cockatoos). The lorikeets and parrots plop indiscriminately down on the heads (hats recommended), arms (long sleeves as well), and hands of the guests, whom a caretaker covered in squawking birds keeps provisioning with seeds. Watching children react warily at first but then more openly to the plundering birds is fascinating, but seeing grandma with three Lorikeets perched atop her noggin is priceless.

 

As we later retire our camp dinner plates in the gathering darkness, a wallaby almost three feet tall bounces quietly and haphazardly by on his way through the meadow, like a phantom. An owl hoots at us from the tree above. Our full days are leaving me knackered so I’m not spying much wildlife in our journeys, as most Australian critters are night creatures, and I generally sack out fairly early. Each dawn prompts a symphony of bird songs high above my head, however, of every pitch and cadence imaginable.

 

As we walk the next morning along a 6.5-kilometer trail amid the almost 230-foot-high Sandstone cliffs of Cania Gorge National Park, the echoing calls of sulfur-crested cockatoos or currawongs and the long piping call of Lewin’s honeyeaters entertain me. Rainbow skinks (small lizards) skim across the path through Eucalypt woodlands. Sweat plops off my brow much as it likely did from the Aboriginal people, who lived in Cania Gorge for at least 19,000 years, back to the height of the last Ice Age. Their brownish, freehand art remain on the sandstone walls here.  The variety of vegetation is staggering; the park falls within a large natural region home to more than 150 different types of plant communities. During our two days here, we hike all the manageable trails we can find, and thoroughly enjoy the sights.

 

On our second evening at the park, a group of people traveling together conducts a beer-fueled sing-a-along around their campfire. “Flat out like a lizard [very busy drinking],” my brother observes. One caravaner who only knows one beat banging on a drum, another playing the banjo, and another leading some off-kilter vocals. Not one could scare up an audition for Australian Idol, but they certainly enjoy themselves well into the night.

 

Moments of Magic

 

A mother teaches her child the proper way to feed a kangaroo at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane

A week later, my brother slows his SUV down along the Mount Lindesay Highway in northern New South Wales, lowers all the windows, looks me in the eye, and says, “Listen.” From high above in the forest on each side of the roadway, constant, crystal-clear pings — something resembling sonar on a submarine — rain down upon us.

 

We cannot spot the nondescript source of these sounds, the medium-size, gray-and-black Crested Bellbird (whose only striking characteristic, besides its sound, is its fiercely orange eyes), but the moment is quiet and magical. I am struck, as I am repeatedly in my time here, by how Australia is full of wonder and charming disconnects. The highway sign greeting visitors to nearby Woodenbong says, simply, “Forest, Birds, Trees.”

 

An hour or so later, as we enter the northern approach to Tenterfield, we pass through a show-stopping canopy of trees, hundreds of pin oaks and liquid ambers that seem to trumpet arrival at a town of significant stature.  Alas, the town may be historic — after all, Sir Henry Parkes delivered a famous speech here in 1889 that earned him credit as the country’s “Father of Federation” — but it is nowhere near as handsome as its shady front porch might indicate.

 

A helpful local government employee later informs us that a Tenterfield health inspector loved trees and convinced the town beautification committee in 1935 to plant them like crazy in the mostly treeless region. Since many of the trees were transplants brought by settlers from England, the newly wooded region became known as New England (today, the New England Highway is its main thoroughfare).

 

Among Tenterfield’s historical attractions is a cork tree that was brought from England in a jam tin in 1861 and planted here; the locals claim it is one of the largest in Australia. The locals maintain an English good luck legend associated with the species — also known as the Wishing Tree — that extends back to rituals prevalent during the Great Plague of London in 1665. At that time, people came from throughout the country to walk around the tree three times while making a wish — for better health, good fortune, or for a wife or husband. Legend has that few were disappointed if they chanted this charm:

Christine Carmichael has been selling her Playtime Fairy Dresses, hand-stiched tutus, at the local artisans’ Eumundi Market, about 45 minutes from Brisbane, since 2004

 

Fortune favors those who see

More in me than just a tree

Look at my cork

And three times walk

Before my girth for all to see

 

Later, as we return to Brisbane, I wonder if I should have walked the talk around the cork tree, and then bought a lotto ticket.

 

Rolling to a Close

 

Time and distance have made my younger brother (an increasingly relative term as we lose more of our graying hair) and I very different dudes, but for a few weeks we see those elements telescope and we fall into a comfortable routine that brings us closer again. We both better understand how the discipline of our professional training and experience and personal relationships influence the way we see the world. That insight allows us to understand each other’s quirks more fully.

 

Mark Twain wrote in Tom Sawyer Abroadthat “I have found out there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” I’d offer an addendum to that, suggesting that traveling with a sibling is a sure-fire way to understand what has made them who they are as an adult. It’s not always 24-hour pretty, of course, but it is effective and rewarding.

 

As my visit comes to a close, we drop into the Bramble Bay Bowls and Recreation Club Inc. on the Redcliffe Peninsula to check out a sport that has declined in popularity among the young but still remains a large part of the Australian culture. At three in the afternoon, a group of about 50 — mostly men in their 60s — play what is a daily set of games on the club greens. They welcome us in with great fanfare, and start peppering us with questions (the elder populace still holds Americans in high regard here, as Brisbane served as the South West Pacific headquarters for General Douglas MacArthur during World War II).

 

Rainbow-colored Lorikeets, abundant in the area, enjoy an evening feeding frenzy at the Cania Gorge Caravan & Tourist Park in Australia’s Bundaberg hinterland

The players trade cheeky comments among themselves, and play with varying skills levels — “it’s serious business but not too serious,” one of the most athletic players tells me between rolls, grinning broadly. “Lawn bowls” is usually played on a large, rectangular, precisely leveled and manicured lawn surface, divided into parallel playing strips known as rinks. The process of scoring is beyond me, but as I watch I appreciate the skills being exhibited and am drawn to the general jocularity.

 

The Club, founded in 1948 and up until the ‘90s the largest in the Brisbane area, has three regulation greens, two of which have retractable shade covers to provide relief from the intense Australian sun. A large clubhouse provides meals Monday through Sunday, 46 poker machines and, of course, a bar. The club roster lists 400 playing members, and 2,000 social ones.

 

One of the cheekiest members, sporting a large straw hat and bright blue trousers, tells me he wants me to meet a fellow American who works in the clubhouse. Turns out it is a standing joke, as the guy is a Canadian who the club officer always introduces as their token American. Mike and I settle in at spots next to different lawns, and yuk it up with the members. It’s a fitting, friendly end to my Queensland experience.

 

 

 

 

A father helps his daughter feed a Lorikeet at the Cania Gorge Caravan & Tourist Park, an Australian version of a KOA campground. Hundreds of birds are attracted to evening feedings at the park

 

SOME LINGO TIPS FOR TEXANS VISITING AUSTRALIA

 

The Aussies have a charming sense of language, and generally are very tolerant of Texas twangs. They use a soft r, from the British, which can be confusing at first. In general, they approach things more as a process and a journey, not just an action-result development. Australians make a conscious effort to make eye contact in even the slightest business exchange— so no matter how disgusted the grocery checker is at his or her lot in life, he or she undoubtedly will look you in the eye and greet you in a friendly matter. As tempted as you might be to say something reminds you of Texas, don’t, mate, ‘cause it’s not the same.

 

Here are a few words you may hear, and what they mean:

Smic: fancy, well done, slick

Bluey: red-haired

Chockers: full on or full (over the top)

Arvo: afternoon (remember the soft r)

Sangar (sangah): sandwich

Spat the dummy: someone who is losing it or being a total ass (baby pacifiers are called dummies here)

Esky: ice chest

“Are you right?” or  “You right?” (from server): Do you want anything else?

Footie: Rugby league to union rules, where you are and where loyalty lies

Gridiron: American football (they do have some organized gridiron activities you can participate in)

Snag? : Do you want a sausage?

Wowser: person who doesn’t drink or fit in

Shrapnel: loose change (expression more common to Brisbane)

Whoop-whoop: out in the sticks or a long way away

 

 

 

 

 

 

IT’S IN THE DETAILS

 

A young couple enjoys the view of the sprawling Brisbane metropolitan area, home to more than 2 million residents

My other constant, and entertaining, companion during the trip is Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country (Broadway Books 2001), about his experiences in Australia. Although much of the book deals with other locations in Australia, his humor and observations of the quirky Australian culture add flavor to my experience. The first time I have a local breakfast  — or brekkie, in the local vernacular — I laugh out loud when my bacon (always order it crispy unless you like your pork raw) and poached eggs arrive, remembering how Bryson described the odd way bacon is sliced and served here — in long, thin, wide cuts, as if the pig was running away from the butcher when cut.

 

 

All money amounts in Australian dollars

 

How to Get There:

Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and New York are Qantas gateway cities from the States to Australia.  The airline began offering daily non-stop service from D/FW Airport to Brisbane in July.  Visit www.qantas.com.au/travel/airlines/texas-australia-non-stop/us/en for details.

 

A park train ride passes by a group of women holding a baby shower for a friend at the Roma Street Parkland in downtown Brisbane

 

Getting Around:

A shuttle bus runs between the airport and the city’s Transit Centre about every half-hour till mid-evening. There are also shuttle buses to the Gold and Sunshine Coasts.  The Air Train is a privately owned operation that runs to the city as well as the Gold Coast (if you pay via a go card it costs about $15 to the city; if you purchase at the terminal it runs $23).

 

For a river-view of Brisbane, CityCat water taxis, low-wash catamarans that minimize damage to the riverbanks, navigate the Brisbane River, which runs through the heart of the city, daily from 5:50 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. from many points along the river.

 

Public transportation tips: It’s less expensive to put a $20 deposit on a “go card,” as paper tickets are significantly more expensive. As a bonus, after after ten trips in a week, riders travel free. Applies to trains, ferries, and buses. Trains to the Gold Coast are regular and relatively quick but going north to the Sunshine Coast is not optimal, as they are too slow and have poor connections; get a rental car if you are headed that way. Visit http://translink.com.au/tickets-and-fares/go-card for more details.

 

Britz Brisbane, located between the airport and city center rents motorhomes, campervans and cars for exploration of Central Australia. Visit  http://www.britz.com.au/brisbane-campervan-hire.

 

Two young surfers carry their boards along the boardwalk at King’s Beach in Caloundra, a beachfront community north of Brisbane

 

Where to Stay:

In Brisbane, the Emporium Hotel (1000 Ann Street in Fortitude Valley), offers 102 studio-style suites, and is within a relatively flat walking distance to the entertainment district (less than ¾ of a mile) and about 1 1/3 miles to Queen Street Mall. Seasonal standard room from $199 to $319. Visit www.emporiumhotel.com.au/.

 

In Redcliffe, Oaks Mon Komo Redcliffe (99 Marine Parade) is a good-value, resort-style hotel close to cafes, shopping, entertainment, and water and beach opportunities at Settlement’s Cove and Sutton’s Beach. Seasonal rates for a standard room from $114.  Visit www.oakshotelsresorts.com/oaks-mon-komo-resort/.

 

Outside Cania Gorge National Park, the Cania Gorge Caravan & Tourist Park offers 23 acres of tree-shaded cabins and campsites. Only from minutes from the Park’s hiking trails, the site offers camp kitchens with tables and chairs, barbecue facilities, hot water for washing up and electrical source, a tennis court, and three swimming pools. Unpowered campsites from $30, cabins from $85.  Visit www.caniagorge.com.au/.

 

What to Do:

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the largest koala sanctuary in the world, offers a close-up view of more than 130 of the fuzzy marsupials who live here, alongside kangaroos, dingoes, wombats and birds of all feathers. Visit www.koala.net

 

QUT Art Museum, located within QUT Gardens Cultural Precinct, offers six galleries that contain a nationally significant collection focused on contemporary Australian art. Free admission. Visit www.artmuseum.qut.com.

 

The Queen Street Mall, a pedestrian mall in the city center, is a bustling mix of brick-and-mortar and open-air retail, sidewalk café, and street performance. Visit www.queenstreetmall.com.au.

 

The Cape Byron Lighthouse, on the most easterly point of mainland Australia, stands 72 feet high, perched 308 feet above sea level on the crest of a windswept headland. Built in 1901, it is today a national park

Other Basics:

Australia is divided into three time zones. Queensland is on Eastern Standard Time throughout the year, currently 16 hours ahead of Texas.

Electricity: Australia has 220-240 V; 50Hz with plugs that have angled pins.

Tipping is not common in Australia. When eating out, shopping or taking taxis, the prices are inclusive of GST.