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The First Day of Fall – in March?

I'm sorry it’s been a while since I posted my last update, but things here have been pretty busy lately.  I spend my days on the road and during the evenings, I plan the next day's adventure while poring over my maps and my "bible," the Lonely Planet Guide to Australia.  Lonely Planet is, hands down, the best Australian guidebook on the market.


I also spend a lot of time at night doing more mundane things, like washing clothes and working on my digital photos, so with everything going on I haven’t had much time to work on my website.  Even buying groceries can take a long time and ever since I left on this trip nearly a year ago, just about every trip to a new and unfamiliar grocery store has, for better or worse, been an adventure.  I’m starting to miss my Fred Meyer store back in Hillsboro where I know the exact location of each and every product ("Doritos:  Aisle 8.  Chocolate Pop Tarts:  Aisle 17").  I’m really behind in e-mail, too, and my Inbox is piling up with messages from readers that I haven't read yet.  I'm sorry if I haven’t written back yet, but I will as soon as things settle down a bit, I promise!


Above:  Heading up into the Great Dividing Range in the state of Victoria.  Mt. Kozzy is up there somewhere.

But I thought I’d celebrate March 1st, which Australians consider to be the first day of fall, by posting an update.  Yes, fall is in the air:  the days are getting shorter, kids are finally back in school, and it’s cooling off a bit.  Actually, this has been the coolest summer in southern Australia in over 50 years.  But I’m not complaining, because temperatures have been quite nice – between about 65 and 80 almost every day that I’ve been here, so far.  Unusually cool weather on this very hot continent means that it’s just about right.  I’m glad I wasn’t here last year, which apparently was the hottest summer in several decades. 


As fall arrives, the weather up in northern Australia, where I'll be heading soon, is becoming a little more tolerable.  After visiting Adelaide tomorrow, I’ll drive up into the center part of the country – the real Outback.  Summertime high temperatures there can easily surpass 110 degrees, but this time of year I’m expecting highs of “only” around 100 or so.  Even farther north around Darwin, the monsoon season is now drawing to a close.  That area, known as the "Top End," is quite tropical and has two seasons:  “The Wet,” from November until about March and “The Dry,” during the rest of the year.  Don't visit Darwin during the Wet unless you enjoy stifling humidity and sweating like a pig.  I can deal with stifling humidity but sweating like a pig has never appealed to me, so I'm not sure if I'm going all the way up to Darwin or not.  I'll just play it by ear and see what happens.

Looking Back, and Ahead

I've been in Australia for a few weeks now and have a little more than a month here before I fly back to America in early April.  It's been a good trip and I really like this country, but I'm also looking forward to getting back to the U.S. and seeing my friends and family there, playing some volleyball, and driving my Toyota pickup truck again.  Traveling alone overseas for several months is more challenging than I imagined because, as I've learned, I have to be constantly and totally self-reliant.  I'm totally on my own here, with no one to bail me out if I mess up or run into a problem.  While I'm enjoying my time in Australia, the idea of camping in a U.S. state park, driving down the Oregon Coast, or hiking through the familiar Utah desert sounds pretty appealing to me right about now.  In fact, anything familiar seems appealing right about now.  Don't get me wrong, though, because although I miss the U.S., I'm glad I came over here and don't regret it for a minute.


Although Australia is a wonderful country, it's quite a bit different than I had imagined.  I've been surprised so far by how much it reminds me of northern California, especially the Central Valley area around Sacramento or Redding.  I had images of red sandy deserts and the endless Outback but I haven't seen much of that – not yet, anyway.  Surprisingly, the most beautiful areas that I've visited haven't been near the coast but rather 50 or 100 miles inland.  With a few exceptions, the coastal drive south from Sydney is pretty boring because the road is hemmed in on both sides with eucalyptus trees and you can't see very much.  If you drive inland, though, you see lots of rolling hills, rivers, scattered trees, and interesting wildlife.  And, just like in northern California, you'll even spot some vineyards and wineries.


The people here are a bit different than I imagined, too.  As I'm learning, Australians in general have a good sense of humor and don't take themselves too seriously, which I like.  I didn't have any preconceptions of what Australian women were like (except that they all looked like Elle McPherson, of course), but the guys here aren't as macho or chauvinistic as I thought they would be.  I had images of beer-swilling guys wearing muscle shirts who tell crude jokes and slap you on the back, but I haven't met anyone like that yet.  Most of the men and women I've met here are like, dare I say it, Americans – although perhaps a bit friendlier and quicker with a smile, a laugh, and a handshake.


I’ve spent the past week traveling around the Australian state of Victoria, which is about as large as the state of Oregon in the U.S.  I haven't figured this out yet, but for some reason a lot of places that I’ve visited on my trip have been about as large as Oregon, including New Zealand.  And, of course, Oregon.


The state of Victoria is tucked into Australia’s southeastern corner and, like Oregon, has a lot of variety – quite a bit more, in fact, than what I saw in the state of New South Wales.  I haven’t been to the Great Barrier Reef yet, but after spending the past week traveling around Victoria, I think if I had only one week to spend in Australia in the future, I’d probably come here to Victoria.  Snow-capped mountains, rainforests, empty Outback desert, and one of the most beautiful coastal drives I’ve ever seen – it’s all here in Victoria, as I describe in this update.  So read on!

Up and Over the Great Dividing Range

I wrote my last update in Bega, a small farming community in New South Wales.  Bega is quiet and peaceful but, frankly, not too exciting and I wouldn't recommend spending more than a night there unless you're, say, updating a website, like I was.


After a couple of days there, I left Bega on a cloudy and drizzly morning.  I crossed over the Snowy River and headed up into the Great Dividing Range, Australia's longest and highest mountain range, passing by Australia’s highest peak, Mt. Kosciusko (elev. 6,700') for the second time on this trip.  I haven’t figured out why Australians named their highest peak after a Polish hero in the American Revolutionary War, but if I do, I’ll let you know.  Australians love to shorten names and they add a "y" or "ie" to everything (some have called me "Delly" here), so it's no surprise that they call this peak "Mt. Kozzy.”  Whatever it's called, it was buried once again in clouds when I drove by it, so I still haven't seen it.  But the locals assured me that it’s really there.



Above left:   After heading up and over the Great Dividing Range, I dropped down onto the western side of the mountains.  This is the town of Bright, Victoria – a summer resort town that's as pleasant as its name.  I could've spent a week here.

Above right:  A marsupial restaurant in Bright.  Things here are really "hopping."

Ned Kelly:  Hero or Outlaw?

After dropping down the west side of the Great Dividing Range on a narrow, winding road, I drove into the town of Bright, which had a pleasant name and seemed like a nice place, so I got a motel room there and spent the evening.  After chatting with the friendly owner and checking into my room, I walked around town and spent a half-hour at a pretty downtown park watching kids play in the river that cuts through town.  On the way back to my room, I stopped at a corner cafe to get some fish and chips, and that evening I watched the Winter Olympics on TV from Salt Lake City.


Above:  One of Australia's most famous criminals was Ned Kelly who, some say, made money the old-fashioned way:  he stole it.  After being captured in nearby Glen Rowan, Ned was brought to trial in Beechworth in 1880.

I really love the Olympics, especially the smaller and more casual Winter Olympics, and Salt Lake City is only a two-day drive from Portland, so I wish I could've gone there to watch the Olympics in person.  I'm pretty familiar with Salt Lake City, since I worked there during the past few years on their new Light Rail Transit system, which they built partly because of the Olympics.  Now that I think about it, though, Salt Lake City isn't the most exciting place in the world, so maybe it's just as well that I didn't go!


I was reluctant to leave Bright the next morning but I wanted to make tracks.  An hour down the road, I stopped in Beechworth, a historic mining town in central Victoria.  Beechworth is in the heart of the Victoria gold mining country and reminded me of the California gold rush towns that dot the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  In fact, with the rolling foothills, golden grasslands, and scattered trees, this whole area reminded me of the Sierra foothills.  A lot of miners from California came to Beechworth in the 1850s after the California gold played out and, considering the surroundings, I bet they felt right at home here.


Beechworth is probably best known as the site of the 1880 trial of Ned Kelly, Australia’s most famous outlaw, who was either a hero or a bandit depending on whom you talk to.  After the trial in Beechworth and one in Melbourne, the 24-year old Kelly was found guilty of robbery and murder and was hung in the Melbourne Prison.  His legend grew shortly afterwards and about a week later, I'm sure, the first "Ned Kelly" t-shirts and bumper stickers were printed up, a prolific marketing endeavor that continues to this day.


Above:  A larger-than-life (and rather creepy) version of Ned Kelly in Glen Rowan, complete with his helmet and body armor.  During Kelly's last battle, nearby, he was shot 29 times by the police but thanks to the armor he survived – only to meet his fate at the end of a rope. 

A lot of Aussies glamorize Ned Kelly, comparing him to Jesse James or Billy the Kid in the U.S.  That's not a very favorable comparison in my book, because those two American outlaws were simply cold-blooded killers and there was very little "noble" about them, despite the misplaced idolatry which lingers in their wake.  After visiting Beechworth for a few hours and visiting the courtroom where Kelly was tried, I couldn't decide for myself whether Kelly was really a hero unjustly accused for crimes he didn't commit or was simply a cold-blooded killer.  As you might say, "The jury is still out."


Another hour down the road, I stopped in the small town of Glen Rowan, which is where Kelly was captured by the police during his last battle.  Glen Rowan really milks the Ned Kelly thing to death (no pun intended) with lots of mugs, t-shirts, and even a play about Kelly using computerized mannequins, which performs every hour, on the hour.  The Mannequin Play was pretty expensive and, from the pictures, it reminded me too much of wax museums, which I generally detest, so I didn't see it.  Well, O.K, it also looked pretty scary.


After walking around Glen Rowan for a half-hour, I headed back to my car, but then I heard the strains of “Waltzing Matilda” playing over the loudspeakers of a nearby café.  "Waltzing Matilda" gets me every time, so I popped into the cafe and chatted with the friendly owner, a woman in her 50s, then ended up buying the CD.  As the owner told me, the CD was recorded by a well-known Australian folk singer named Lazy Harry (seriously, that's his name) who lives nearby. 


For the next hour as I drove across the hot, flat farmlands of northern Victoria, I listened to Lazy Harry belt out “Waltzing Matilda,” “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” “A Pub With No Beer,” and 22 other Australian favorites in his nasally voice.  I loved it.



Above left:  Beechworth is in the heart of the Victoria Gold Country and the buildings here have been well preserved.  It's a great place to walk around if you want a taste of the 1800s.  

Above right:  The Australian folk singer, Lazy Harry, has been memorialized in Glen Rowan.  I'll post some of his songs on my website as I travel around Australia.

Rollin' on the River

Above:  I rode on the paddle-steamer "Pride of the Murray" in Echuca.  Most of the boats here, including this one, were built in the early 1900s.  Mark Twain would've loved this place.  So would John Fogerty.

The thermometer hit 100 degrees (well, 38 degrees centigrade, since I was in Australia) as I drove through the farmlands of northern Victoria on a sunny afternoon.  After listening to Lazy Harry’s CD for the third time – and getting a bit tired of "Waltzing Matilda," I must admit – I pulled into Echuca, a historic town on the banks of the Murray River.


Back in the late 1800s, Echuca was inland Australia’s busiest port.  It was also a pretty rough-and-tumble place, from what the locals here told me.  Today, Echuca is a sleepy river resort town, something like Yuma, Arizona, lying on the banks of the Colorado River.  Echuca isn't filled with RVs, like Yuma, but it has retained a lot of its 1800s historic flavor.


Being Australia's longest river and set in a desert-ish environment, the Murray is like a cross between the Colorado River and Mississippi River in the U.S., and it was the setting for a lot of steamboat action back in its heyday.  In fact, you can still ride the Murray steamboats here in Echuca, which I did the next morning.  I wanted to take the steamboat named "Emmylou" because it made me think of the country singer, Emmylou Harris.  But alas, I was saddened to learn that the "Emmylou" wasn't running that day – not from "Boulder to Birmingham," as she might say, and certainly not from Echuca to anywhere else.



Here's Creedence Clearwater Revival singing their 1969 hit, Proud Mary, my inspiration for taking a steamboat cruise on the Murray River.


I opted instead for the steamboat "Pride of the Murray" because it reminded me of the Mississippi steamboat song "Proud Mary" by the rock group Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Get it?  "Pride of the Murray" / "Proud Mary"?  It also reminded me of Murray the Dog, the silent star of the NBC sitcom, "Mad About You." 


There weren't many passengers on the "Pride of the Murray" that morning, just me and another couple, so I had almost the whole boat to myself.  Hearing the paddlewheels slosh through the water for a half-hour ("Big wheels keep on turnin'... ") while watching the gum trees on the banks of the Murray River peacefully pass by was a great way to spend a hot morning in February, I decided.  In fact, for a few moments I felt like I was back in the 1800s, ready to dig for gold – with the help of my faithful dog, Murray.



Above left:  The historic port area of Echuca on a hot afternoon.  Echuca was a hub of activity back in the late 1800s and the historic downtown/waterfront area along the Murray River is well-preserved.

Above center:  The "Emmylou" is one of the many riverboats, or "paddle-steamers" as they call them here, on the Murray River in Echuca.  The Murray is like a cross between the Mississippi and Colorado Rivers in the U.S. and forms the border between Victoria (near side) and New South Wales (far side).

Above right:  As John Fogerty would say, "Big wheels keep on turnin'..."

Going Down?  A Working Mine in Bendigo

Above:  The Maryborough railway station near Bendigo.

After spending a night in Echuca and taking the paddle-steamer cruise on the Murray River the next morning, I drove over to the gold mining town of Bendigo, which was the most active mining town in Australia back in the 1800s.  Surprisingly, and unlike a lot of other old gold mining towns, it's still thriving.  In fact, with a population today of about 50,000, Bendigo is downright hopping.  The architecture here is impressive, with many buildings in the downtown area dating back to the opulent gold rush days of a century ago. 


As I was strolling around Bendigo, I popped into the Visitor Center and browsed through the brochures, one of which caught my eye.  I took the brochure to the front counter and asked the nice woman there about it.  She told me that, yes, there was an active gold mine right in the middle of town (huh?)  It was called the Central Deborah and it offered tours to the public (huh??) 


I've been fascinated with gold mining ever since I was a kid when my dad bought a share of an abandoned gold mine called the "Lucky Dog" in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, north of Sacramento.  Now, you should understand that my father was no miner.  In fact, at the time he was the Dean of the School of Education at San Jose State University – probably as far from a miner as you can get.  But he did have an adventurous streak a mile wide.  I've always been thankful for that because our family had a lot of interesting adventures when I was young, including being part-owners of this 1870s-era gold mine in northern California where we occasionally spent our weekends, a hundred years after the mine had shut down.


Many years after my father sold back his shares of the Lucky Dog, I learned even more about gold mining during the six summers that I worked as a ranger in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  That area was filled with abandoned gold mines from the 1800s and, to a history buff like myself, was a wonderful place to work.  But despite all that, I had never been inside an active gold mine.


Above:  "Poppets" were used to drill shafts for hard-rock mining.  This is in Bendigo which, during the 1800s, was in the heart of Australia's most productive gold mining area.

This was my chance, so I drove over to the Central Deborah and paid US$20 for a tour.  As it turned out, I was the only one on the tour that day, which was led by a couple of friendly retired miners named Roy and Brian.  Roy directed me to the changing room, where I donned overalls and boots, then he fitted me with a helmet light.  Then the three of us squeezed into a very tiny elevator cage and quickly plummeted 300 feet straight down the chute.  During the rapid descent, Roy kindly suggested that I keep my hands inside the cage unless I wanted to lose them.


For the next two hours, I followed Roy and Brian through the dark and damp mine.  Halfway through, we took a short break for tea, rolls, and jam while sitting at a picnic table 300 feet below the surface and talking into each other’s helmet lights.  Roy and Brian were great guys and taught me a lot about mining.  As I learned during the tour, mining is VERY loud work, with air drills, rock blasting, and ore-carting, all of which (except for the blasting) I took a crack at. 


It was a fascinating tour and well worth the price.  But I’m really glad I have a desk job because, after spending two hours in the bowels of the Central Deborah mine, there’s no way I would ever want to be a miner.  My ears are still ringing.



Above left:  The Central Deborah is a working gold mine in downtown Bendigo.  Here's the change room where I donned my overalls, boots, and hard-hat.

Above center:  That's me ready to head down the shaft.  I guess most real miners don't carry cameras – or two, in my case.

Above right:  Here's an old photo from my collection, from the place in Colorado where I used to work as a BLM ranger.  These are miners during the 1880s standing next to their compressed-air drill.  They drilled holes into the rock, filled them with dynamite, blasted the rock, then repeated the process.  Gold miners today essentially use this same drill-and-blast process.



Above left:  Here's Roy demonstrating an air drill at 300 feet below the surface.  The spots are from the steady mist, used to capture the rock dust.  I operated the drill too, and my ears rang for a long while afterwards.

Above center:  Roy operating a mucker, which picks up blasted rocks and throws them into a waiting ore car.  Like the air drill, this thing is incredibly noisy.

Above right:  It was an interesting two-hour tour.  Mining is loud, hard, and dangerous work, and I'm really glad I'm not a miner.


This is a pretty long entry, so I've broken it into two pages.  The next page is at March 1, 2002 – Part 2  (Robe, Australia).  See you there!



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