Tablelands, New South Wales
I will get to the local animal sanctuary and news about the total eclipse shortly. But when I left you last, I was still in Texas recovering from my excursion to Grapevine and the difficult re-entry into the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Well, following two much needed beers and a great number of apologies by the two women who recommended that I go to Grapevine, things started to luck up. The DFW lounge was about to close when one of the women told me that they had spoken with the Qantas representative who heads the Qantas lounge, restricted to First and Business class ticket holders. But because of what had happened to me, I was invited to wait there until my flight to Brisbane was announced. I could even take a shower if I wished, and there was a supper being served.
I was led down the hall to that lounge and to a desk where a gentleman in a Qantas uniform asked for my passport and itinerary. I was then given--guess what?--a boarding pass for my flight to Brisbane!
Me: "Sir, how long have you been here?"
Me: "If TSA had brought you my passport could you have given them a boarding pass for me?"
Him: "Most certainly."
Okay, so there had been an option. But TSA and that nasty American Airlines ticket person both had failed to recognize it. If they can't do that, how can they do the things they're supposed to do? Admittedly, it takes a little imagination, but only a little. Anyway, that horrible part of the day was over. Now, as I slipped into my thick terrycloth robe thoughts turned to the tasty-looking stir fry and rich beef bourguignon, and which I would choose when settled in my deep, oversized lounge chair. Yep, things were good.
But not for long. After boarding--and it seemed there was no seat to spare--the flight attendants passed out one sheet of paper per long row (this was a super jumbo jet with two full decks). This is what I and a lovely young Australian couple sitting next to me read:
"Unfortunately, a typhoon has formed over our normal flight route so we will have to adjust our course accordingly. Our in air travel time will therefore be nineteen hours. Additionally, because of our length of time in the air, we will need to land in Auckland, New Zealand, in order to refuel. We apologize for any inconvenience."
Groans erupted from one and all, that is, except for that small number of passengers whose ultimate destination was, in fact, New Zealand. Miraculously, and contrary to Murphy's Law as applied to air travel, they were going to be allowed to disembark. The longest flight that I'd ever been on was to Japan, which was twelve hours. When it gets as high as sixteen hours, three more really didn't feel like much of a difference to me. And again, after my episode at security, I was simply thankful that my knapsack and I were actually going to Australia together.
However, once in Auckland, we remained on the tarmac an hour more than expected. Why? After--and only after--we refueled, the captain or ground crew remembered that because a number of passengers had deplaned, the cargo had to be rearranged so that the weight was evenly distributed. By the time we landed at Brisbane I had been on that plane nearly 21 hours. Economy class. Oh, and I forgot to mention that during the flight, two of the passengers behind our seat became angry at the Australian couple--who were heading home to be married--for (horrors!) daring to lean their seats back.
But what were they do? The row ahead of us had leaned theirs back! The man's fiancée moved her seat forward a bit, but she remained very cramped. Not happy with that concession, the passengers behind them started kicking the couple's seats! And finally I started to get my seat kicked by the person behind me who up till then had remained out of the fray. So, since I was in the aisle seat, I got up and and told the two flight attendants about what was going on. They immediately informed the seat kickers that we were entitled to have our seats back and that the kicking must stop. I have witnessed road rage a few times in my life, but this was my first experience with plane rage. And I'm embarrassed to say three American women had been the culprits.
We landed in Brisbane at ten a.m. but my flight to the city of Cairns and northern Queensland was not until nine twenty that evening. I no longer had any idea what hour my body clock was registering. I can't sleep in planes, so I knew it had been a very long time. But I had neither the mental energy nor the desire to calculate how long I'd been up. So I camped out in a local restaurant for a number of hours, bought a few gifts for family and friends, then camped out at yet another restaurant. There was wi-fi so I checked e-mail, entered some notes about my trip (you're reading them now) on my iPad, and started reading an incredible Australian travel tale Tracks by Robyn Davidson I picked up at an airport bookstore. Throughout the book Ms. Davidson refers to herself as an ordinary person. She is anything but. After traveling to the Outback and learning to train camels and live in the harsh climate--that took two years--the author, together with her four female adult camels and one calf, travel the harsh Outback, from Alice Springs to northern Australian a distance of seventeen hundred miles. Do read it. You will learn much about the outback, the indigenous people who live there, and one incredibly humane but determined young woman.
A word about Australia's feral camels. I knew that they exist in great numbers and that they periodically must be culled because of the damage they cause and the competing interests of cattle ranchers. (Sound familiar, mustang lovers?) But after reading Tracks, I had to learn more. Camels were imported during the nineteenth century in order to carry loads into the Outback. The going was way too tough and dry for horses. However, once autos and trucks entered the picture, these "ships of the desert" were released into the wild. I had no idea that at one point their number reached nine million, an utterly unsustainable population for a continent even as large as Australia. (If you read Tracks you will understand how dangerous feral bull camels can be, especially if you are in the company of female camels.) I can understand they must be culled, but the two methods used aren't humane. The first is this: to be shot outright from helicopters and four wheel drive vehicles. They often die a lingering, painful death. The second is this: to be crammed into cargo holds on ships bound for India and the Middle East, where they are slaughtered for meat and hide. I hate to imagine the facilities and level of "care" these poor camels get while awaiting their mortal end. And who ultimately is to blame for this excess in camels anyway? Why little old us, of course.
Before I move onto Port Douglas, kangaroos wallabies, crocodiles, and jellyfish, I'll leave you with a couple more facts about the camel: camelids, their ancestors, were even-toed ungulates originally indigenous to North America. One group migrated into Asia and beyond via the Bering land bridge and evolved into camels, the other group migrated to South American and there evolved into llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos.
By the time my flight landed in Cairns, Queensland, it was just before midnight in Australia and I was pretty well shot. When I got to the baggage claim area thankfully I saw a woman holding up a sign with my name on it. The hotel I was staying in overnight had sent a car and driver to pick me up, something I hadn't expected. But that was the only thing I found in the baggage claim area with my name on it, at least, initially. I waited and waited for my bag and knew I was in trouble when the carousel was completely bag-less for nearly fifteen minutes then ground to a halt. I glanced over at my driver who was having an animated conversation with the woman at the Avis desk about a particular chakra of hers. One of her energy channels had apparently gone awry.
There was no one else left in the baggage claim area save a large group of Chinese men who were busy loading their many bags onto a dolly a good hundred feet or so away from the carousel. When they started to roll the dolly towards the exit, I saw my bag exactly where they had been. They had obviously taken it by mistake and, just as obviously, had no intention of returning it to the carousel. I walked over, grabbed my bag, and growled, "Thanks a lot!" Their response: unabashed giggling. Now, I don't know if these fellows were Chinese from China, Taiwanese, or "overseas Chinese," but I do know that they were Chinese. My fatigue did not prevent me from feeling absolutely furious. When I told my driver about it she simply averred, "I'm not surprised."
When I picked up my rental at the airport next morning, I asked that it have a GPS. You drive on the left in Australia and since I hadn't done that since I lived in Japan, well over thirty years ago, I thought it best not take my eyes off the road. I own a Garmin and have found it a godsend when getting to big horse shows in small New England towns, or dinners and receptions at new addresses that must be found on dark winter nights. But have any of you had a GPS go haywire on you? Well, sadly I have, and wouldn't you know it, it just had to be on this particular trip. When I headed out the airport for Port Douglas, my Garmin sent me completely in the wrong direction.
"At the next roundabout go straight," the robo woman with the English accent advised.
Okay, easy enough but there was no roundabout for at least two miles. I waited to hear the familiar--"recalculating"--but nope. It simply repeated itself: once again I was to go straight at the next roundabout.
But again no roundabout. Robo Brit repeated this at least three times. Could a roundabout in Australia be any different than a roundabout in England or a rotary in New England? Perhaps it was simply an intersection? I'd gone straight through any number of those. Or was this simply a southern hemisphere sort of thing I should know about. As I pondered these questions for the next hour, I drove past two "Frenchmen's Creeks," one "Chinaman's creek," and lots of open pastures and sugar cane fields.
Cairns Zoo, NSW
A dead kangaroo on the road confirmed that my plane had truly landed in Australia. I later learned that whenever you see a dead kangaroo on the side of the road you are supposed to stop, check if it is male or female, and if it is female put your hand into her pouch to see if she is carrying a joey. If you find one--and I'm told if it's female there usually is one--you need to take it to a local zoo or rehabilitator. I felt badly that I hadn't stopped. Now that would have been something: lost in Queensland with a tiny baby kangaroo hopping all around my car's interior. Well, hopefully the poor creature was a male, or if female, had already been rescued by some Australian who had known what to do. A joey is but an inch or so long when it migrates into the pouch, which is Mother Nature's superior version of a neonatal unit. I saw just such a creature the next day at the Port Douglas Wildlife Sanctuary when I signed up for their behind the scenes animal care tour. (This one had been taken out of the pouch and tossed onto the ground by her mother.) Here is a picture that will give you an idea about what might have been had I stopped and found that the struck kangaroo was a joey bearing mommy.:
By the time I crossed "Slaughter House Creek" (one can only guess what that flowing water flowed away with) I was pretty sure I was in trouble. However, I continued on until the Garmin lady said:
"In .4 km turn left to your destination."
Well, in .4 km there was no left and certainly no destination intended for me. I continued a bit more but when the face of the Garmin turned blank and the voice of robo Brit was no more to be heard I decided to turn back. I stopped at a little house that advertised tea, scones, and fine art.
"Port Douglas?" she asked, with amazement.
She drew me a map that directed me back--over one hour--back to and around the city of Cairns to the coast road and ultimately to Port Douglas. Her little pencil sketch worked! After an hour, I actually began to see signs for Port Douglas and my road--very curvy--looked out onto the Pacific and one amazing stretch of beach after the next. I checked in at the beautiful Verandah apartments, bought a meat pie at the bakery next door, then slept twelve hours. Oh, and before that happened, I picked up a pamphlet from the lobby rack that advertised
"Horseback Riding On Wonga Beach."
Eighteen foot Elvis here is an esteemed citizen of the Cairns Zoo but there is no shortage of Elvis impersonators swimming in the waters of northern Australia.
Tales to come:
-- Australian creatures, great, small, big, and sometimes not so beautiful
-- The run up to the Total Eclipse with my scientist son
-- More Australian creatures
-- Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef while my son scuba dives thirty feet below me
-- A venomous beach
-- A ride along an aborigine-owned, crocodile-infested beach
Thank you for reading The Windflower Weekly---