Back From the Outback [Updated With Beer]

Well, we didn’t actually get a glimpse of the Outback: we spent two weeks in Melbourne and a couple of days in Sydney. But we are home from Australia, anyway, and I thought some of our readers might be interested in a report.

The main purpose of our trip was to spend some time with my daughter Laura and her husband Peter. Peter’s job has taken them to Melbourne for a few years, so we don’t see them as often as we would like. Our youngest daughter Kathryn and her college roommate came along. Australia is an excellent tourist destination, and I would encourage anyone who might be considering it to make the trip, long though it undeniably is.

Here are some observations, more or less at random:

* Melbourne is a great, cosmopolitan city. There is, as you might expect, a major Asian influence. The city is bisected by the Yarra River:

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One of my favorite Melbourne sites is called Ponyfish Island. It is a bar, actually, located in the middle of the river a couple of bridges down in the photo above. You walk halfway across the river on a pedestrian bridge, take some stairs down, and you are on Ponyfish Island. I am not sure whether there ever was an island there, but the bar is great: enjoying a cold beer in the middle of the river, with beautiful cityscapes and boats passing by, is hard to beat. This picture was taken in the morning, so the bar was pretty deserted:

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* When you think of Australia, you think of kangaroos. We spent a day on Phillip Island and visited a great animal park where you can feed kangaroos and wallabies, and see other exotic animals. Kangaroos are fascinating creatures, and generally friendly:

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Kangaroos, as I said, are generally friendly, and their faces give them a sympathetic, anthropomorphic aspect. However, there are exceptions: when we entered the area where the kangaroos were, and my wife and the others were starting to feed them, the biggest and strongest male in the group (or pack or herd or whatever it is), who later pushed others out of the way so he could get more food, hopped directly up to me–ignoring the four women I was with–and kicked me in the groin. I don’t believe it was coincidence!

* Wallabies are basically small kangaroos. They are even more friendly; this one approached us in the wild, probably hoping for some food:

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* Australia has some of the most impressive scenery you will see anywhere. This picture was taken on Phillip Island in an area called the Nobbies:

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Such scenes are reminiscent of Scotland, only South instead of North.

* Koalas are very cute, but they sleep almost all of the time and, under the best of conditions, move slowly. Their continued existence testifies to the relative absence of effective predators in Australia:

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* Our visit happened to encompass Palm Sunday and Easter. We went to a Lutheran church in Melbourne on Palm Sunday. The minister hadn’t gotten 30 seconds into his sermon before he mentioned the violent rhetoric of Donald Trump and his supporters. From then on it was unexceptionable, but I set him straight on “violence” after the service.

On Easter Sunday, we attended an Anglican service in Melbourne. The minister, apparently from India, was raised as a Buddhist and converted to Christianity. His sermon was a masterpiece. My 19-year-old daughter said it was the best sermon she had ever heard, and I can’t disagree. In 30 minutes, he clearly and brilliantly explicated Paul’s theology (i.e., Christianity) and explained how it differs from other major religions.

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I noticed, at that service and the next day when there was an Easter fair in a Sydney park, that the most enthusiastic and outspoken Christians were mainly Asians. They seemed to lack the reticence that afflicts so many in historically Christian countries.

* My son-in-law is an avid sports fan, raised mostly on hockey. He has become a fan of Australian Rules Football, generally known as Footy, and he and my daughter took us to a match at Melbourne’s Cricket Ground, which seats well over 100,000 and was pretty full.

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Australian football is a surprisingly fun sport. It is played on a huge field, more than twice as large as an American football field. The players are dressed, essentially, in basketball uniforms, but the play is rough and physical. There are few stoppages, and the players are almost constantly running up and down the field. Scoring is achieved by kicking the ball between goal posts; if you get the ball between the central posts it counts six points, and between the posts to the outside of the central goal, one point. I won’t try to explain the rules, which I don’t fully understand, but there is nearly non-stop action and plenty of scoring, so the game is highly entertaining for a casual fan. My wife even liked it, which one might say is the acid test.

* Melbourne is an excellent city for food, especially desserts. There are whole stores devoted to macaroons. I was dragged out of this dessert shop before I could buy anything:

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Mostly we ate endless varieties of gelato, Laura’s favorite.

* We spent a long day touring the Great Ocean Road, one of Australia’s best-known tourist destinations. The scenery was beautiful, as advertised:

What you may not realize, looking at photos of this pristine ocean scene, is that I had to jostle aside ten or twelve other tourists to get a spot at the rail to take them. Still, the Ocean Road is beautiful and I would encourage anyone to pay it a visit.

* Australia has a rain forest, small but impressive, and you can see it if you drive the Great Ocean Road:

* We spent the last weekend of our trip in Sydney. It wasn’t enough time to get a fix on the city, although we saw a lot of sights. We found the Opera House, Sydney’s most famous attraction, visually disappointing. In person, it looks very much like an artifact of the 1970s:

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Functionally, however, the Opera House is impressive. It is huge, for one thing, with multiple venues. And the number and quality of events there was remarkable–operas like The Marriage of Figaro and Turandot, an upcoming Brahms concert, plays by Shakespeare and Stoppard. And we didn’t see anything, because all of the events going on the weekend we were in town were sold out.

We only had time for one museum, the Australia Museum, which was fun but didn’t have as much about Australia’s history as I had hoped. So I’m feeling motivated to re-read The Fatal Shore. I took this picture of my wife at the museum, with a very large crocodile. Crocodiles, happily, are found only in northern Australia, which we did not visit:

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When I was young and went on vacation, I only took pictures that had no people in them, so that if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t be able to tell whose vacation it was. It occurs to me that the photos I have posted here have that quality. So, just to show it really was us in Australia, here are a few more. Kathryn feeding a kangaroo:

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Kathryn and her roommate, Hannah:

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Laura and Peter engaging in one of Laura’s favorite activities:

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And Hannah, Kathryn, Laura and Peter on Ponyfish Island. If the girls look a bit dazed, it is because they had just gotten off the airplane:

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That is plenty for now, but don’t be surprised if I refer to Australia from time to time in the future. It requires a rather epic journey to get there, but the trip is well worth it.

UPDATE: I believe I mentioned beer a couple of times in this post, but failed to provide any guidance in that regard. I meant to say that if you see Little Creatures Pale Ale on a menu, you should try it. I liked Little Creatures a lot.

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