Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ayers Rock Resort Review

Red desert sands
If you are thinking of going to the  Uluru-Kata Tjuta area, book very early. In fact, if you are traveling several places in Australia, you would benefit from finalizing these reservations first. Flights to Ayers Rock Resort are frequent, so getting a flight is not as difficult as getting lodging. If you are considering the Sounds of Silence tour, book this when you get a room reservation. Although Ayers Rock Resort is a remote location, the food was good. Again, as with other restaurants in Australia, food is expensive; food from the grocery was more reasonably pried. The five hotels at the resort range from expensive to relatively inexpensive. I've stayed at two of the moderate price hotels and at the backpacker's hotel (Outback Lodge and Hotel) and all are well maintained. For an explanation of the ratings, please see Sydney Review.

The Reviews: Lodging and Food
Three Carrots
While our room at Sails in the Desert was lovely, the bathroom left a lot to be desired. The basins are almost unusable because of the position of the faucets and the shower can’t
Sails in the Desert
 easily regulated. On check-in our bags reached our room before we did, but when we checked out the porters never came to collect them. We finally took our bags to the bus rather than risk them being left in the room. Our first day, the room was serviced by the time we got back from breakfast (about 9:00AM) but on subsequent days this was later and later until our last day when we were greeted at about 4:00PM by a room that looked the same as it had at 5:30AM when we left it. There is free internet in the lobby of the hotel, but it was so slow that I had a thought I heard the dulcet tones I once associated with dial-up connections; no one else in the lobby was using WiFi at the time. However, when I spent $7.00AU for an hour of in-room connection, I accomplished all my tasks in about 30 minutes. There was a free laundry for guests and the machines worked well. However, with the price we paid for the room, everything should have been perfect and free, high speed WiFi should have been included.

Four and one-half Carrots
The food at the Bough House Restaurant was the best we had at Ayres Rock Resort and
Kangaroo Steak
comparable to the best we’ve had anywhere. Dave ordered emu and kangaroo fettuccini with a tomato sauce base. It was well prepared and had a good flavor; no one ingredient overwhelmed any other. Mine, the kangaroo steak with a red wine reduction sauce, carrots, broccoli and potato, was outstanding. If I close my eyes I can still taste the tangy sauce. A dessert bar was included with dinner and featured the usual cheesecake squares along with fresh fruit and some more exotic offerings that presented nuts and wattle in interesting confections. While they had an extensive wine list highlighting Australian wines (which I usually order), I chose pear cider. I've decided pear cider is as good choice as wine ~ sometimes better when the weather is exceptionally hot. Service was excellent although our waitress was just learning food service skills.

All around the Rock

We left Sydney in 60oF (15.5oC) weather, with a bit of mist and came to Ayres Rock Resort in 104oF (40oC) and bright sunshine. All of our bags arrived and the porters had them in the room before we actually got checked into Sails in the Desert, one of the several hotels that make up the resort area. The purpose of the self-contained township of Yulara is to cater to tourists. Along with the hotels, the resort has a town center with a variety of shops and eateries, a small museum, art galleries, a grocery store and the only grass for a hundred miles. Looming large on the horizon is the reason anyone visits this area: Uluru. This red giant and its companion, Kata Tjuta, are part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and a religious center for Aṉangu (Aboriginal) culture. Although the area has been used by the native peoples for as long as 10,000 years, it didn’t make it into the atlas of the Europeans until the 1800s and tourism didn’t begin until the mid-1930s. Development started literally at the foot of Uluru, ignoring the status it held as a sacred reserve to the Pitjantjatjara people. It wasn’t until 1970 that its religious significance was recognized and tourist services were moved out of the national park. In 1985 the ownership of Uluru was returned to the local Pitjantjatjara Aborigines with the understanding that they would lease it back to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Agency for 99 years and that it would be jointly managed; an agreement that the climb to the top of Uluru by tourists would be stopped was later broken. Climbing Uluru is a sacred Aṉangu rite, performed by men during certain ceremonies and in association with their stories explaining the creation of the world, which is why tourists are asked not to make the climb. Another reason tourists are cautioned about this climb is that it is very difficult; a steep, slick grade, strong winds, rain, and high heat have contributed to at least 35 deaths.

'City Center' seating area
Ayres Rock Resort is well away from the National Park, but from several high dunes within the grounds you can see Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Although you can walk from the any of the five accommodation areas to any other along trails through the dunes, there is a free bus that will take you all the way around the resort. Visitors to the area can stay in the luxury of Desert Gardens Hotel or ‘rough it’ in the Ayers Rock Campground, or choose lodging that is between these two extremes at the Outback Hotel and Lodge, the Emu Walks Apartments or the Sails in the Desert. The hotels have interesting architecture that blends into the landscape and are worth a look, as is the Visitor’s Center with its small museum display of indigenous wildlife.  There are also self-guided garden walks associated with the Desert Gardens Hotel and the Sails in the Desert Hotel that are fun to do. Whatever you do outside, plan on doing it very early in the morning or after 4:00 in the afternoon. Unless you are used to temperatures of 100oF+ (38oC+), hiking, or even sauntering, is not only exhausting but dehydrating. Since Yulara and the resort are so isolated, you’ll see that great care is taken to preserve and conserve resources. You’ll notice solar heaters for water, recycling areas, and drip irrigation; twice a week truck caravans deliver food along with other supplies from Adelaide, 1,663 km (1,033 mi) away, while other caravans make the daily trip of 433 km (269 mi) to Alice Springs.

Visits to the art galleries are also interesting, particularly if you take time to talk to the ‘artist
Dingo, wallaby, rabbit, lizard
and human tracks
in residence’. One of the things we learned from an artist is that the symbols they use, while similar to symbols other artists have used for centuries, are not strictly interpreted. For instance, dots set in a circle may symbolize a waterhole in one painting while in another they may indicate a reserve of honey ants. There may be actual images of animals, or just their tracks leading to hunting areas. The pictures are reminders of stories told by the elders to instruct the group about how to live with the desert and each other. During our short walks around the resort, we noticed a wealth of animal tracks in the red sand. Some we could identify easily, others not so much. As might be expected in a desert, there were oodles of lizard tracks; but there were also a myriad of bird tracks. Birds, like the other animals in this area, prefer to make their appearance in the early morning or early evening when the heat isn’t quite so oppressive. Besides the ravens that are ubiquitous in Australia (see Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Note), there are magpies, honey eaters, and a number of
Honey Eater
raptors. It took us a while to identify some of the other tracks, but a jaunt to the Visitor Center museum helped us spot what we think were mole tracks and quite possibly tracks of a dingo. We did quickly find rabbit tracks, and while these critters are not welcome most anywhere on the continent, they are still surviving wherever there is a bit of green grass and some water.

There is plenty of transportation out to the National Park through formal tours or the scheduled shuttle service. While the tours give you lots of information and take you to particular places, the shuttle service basically provides pick up and drop off spots, allowing you to spend an extended amount of time doing as you please. On this trip we opted to rent a car. To get into the Uluru and Kata Tjuta areas you have to have a National Parks Pass, so we took a drive out to the National Park, got the three-day pass, then went to the Cultural Center. Riding around in 104oF+ (40oC+) temperatures is a whole lot more fun than walking. It’s an interesting place, the Cultural Center, and a bit different than what I remember from previous trips. They have more about the Aboriginal culture of Uluru/Kata Tjuta and a lot fewer cheesy souvenirs than they did previously. All along the walls of the entry area are paintings that tell the story of the beginnings of the Aṉangu, accompanied by further
Blooming plants and
a praying mantis
explanations of aboriginal history and culture. There is a small area to sit and watch a movie that has many of the local residents telling their family histories and how they now live and raise their children. There are two art galleries with authentic paintings by local artists; we saw a couple of paintings we liked but were, unfortunately, out of our price range. Also sold in the art center are carved wooden sticks used by the Aṉangu to accompany their singing. These carvings, like their paintings, tell stories of living in the desert, celebrations, creation of the world, and so forth.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sydney Reviews

Sydney Opera House
We did have ‘sticker shock’ when we saw prices in Australia. Food has always been rather more expensive than what we see in US restaurants, but lodging and things to do have always been slightly less than we pay here.We did have ‘sticker shock’ when we saw prices in Australia. Food has always been rather more expensive than what we see in US restaurants, but lodging and things to do have always been slightly less than we pay here. These reviews are based on many things including our enjoyment, the quality for price paid and truth in advertising. We tend to be relatively easy to please but do not tolerate incompetency, lack of manners, or misrepresentation. There are a few ‘must haves’ when we write about lodging: cleanliness, heating/cooling, available necessities (soap, toilet paper), sufficient space (for ourselves, luggage, toiletries), two rubbish bins (one in the room and one in the bathroom), comfortable bed/pillow, sufficient linens, hair dryer (at least available if not in the room), fast and reliable internet, and on-site parking. Breakfast at the hotel is always nice but if it is available, it must be well prepared. It’s also nice to have in-room coffee/tea makings, a refrigerator and a microwave. Places that really make me smile have a 24-hour reception desk, free and fast internet in the room, free on-site parking, facial tissue (I hate having to use toilet paper to wipe my nose), a ceiling fan and a sheet between me and the comforter.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Singing in Sydney

Night view from Sydney Tower
I know better; I know to pack an emergency change of clothes, toothbrush, and toiletries in my carry-on bag, but after 40 years of air travel without a lost bag I grew complacent. My hot pink bag with the multicolored handles and large international orange airline Priority label on it, along with about 20 other bags, was not put on the plane in Los Angeles. I had shoes, meds, toiletries, but nothing else; the next day was looking like I'd be wearing shoes and my jacket. That's not standard dress even in relaxed Sydney. The solution was that I purchased a pair of chinos at a clothing store and three pairs of cheap socks, three pairs of cheap but cute undies, and a rather nice shirt at the subway station. The new lesson I’ve learned on this trip is don't ever buy underwear (no matter how cheap and/or cute) at a subway station. They were one size fits all and ‘really stretchy’ the sales girl said. Well, this one size fit one leg to just above the knee. And so the adventure begins…

Once we got the clothing issue sorted, we walked through the Royal Botanic Garden. I was
Top L to R: Cockatoos, Queen Victoria, Kookaburra
Bottom L to R: St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney Harbor
really excited to show my traveling companion, Dave, the resident fruit bats (flying foxes) with the six-foot wingspan. Unfortunately they are gone; the weight of the bats was destroying trees so they were driven off (the bats, not the trees). I'm sorry to say that these bats are now having difficulty surviving because no one wants them on their trees, either. Of course, there are more than just plants in and near the gardens. On several of our passes through these grounds we saw flocks of sulfur crested cockatoos and a few Kookaburras. These birds, as well as the Australian ravens, are noisy ~ think Tarzan movies, then amplify the bird sounds and you’ll have a close approximation of what greets you in the mornings. As we walked down the west side of the gardens we noticed Saint Mary’s Cathedral, a gently gothic church housing historical items as well as lovely stained glass windows. A bit further away was a wonderful statue of Queen Victoria without her customary scowl, inviting you into her building that is also a repository for stained glass and for upscale shopping. Eventually, we arrived at the Vaitor desk on the Circular Quay to get our Sydney Attraction Pass. It does save you a bit, but isn’t nearly as good as the pass for Lyon, France (see Near-Normal Lyon Blog). Since the day was clear, we spent quite a bit of time looking around and taking pictures from the top of the Sydney Tower. The views helped us get orientated to the city and decide what we could and could not get to on foot. Taking a page from Disney marketing, as you exit the tower, you get to go through the gift shop and pick up the pictures that were taken of you in front of a green screen at the entrance.

Top to Bottom: Chairlift, echidna,
Tasmanian Devil, giraffes 
Our second day in Sydney we went to the Taronga Zoo. You have to take a ferry over to the other side of Sydney harbor, then you get to ride a ski lift gondola up to the entrance. The transportation is exciting and the venue is really pretty. We spent all day walking up and down more hills that there are in San Francisco. Dave got squeaked at by a bird or two and we watched the handler entertain the male Asian elephant. She got him to kick and throw balls, move logs, spray water (the kids went nuts about that) and probably the most important trick, back up. They do about 20 different tasks to keep the elephant from being bored and to make sure that it obeys voice commands so that a vet can actually go into the enclosure and check out any problem. The zoo has all of the Australian animals, as well, and had opened up a couple of new 'night time' exhibits since I'd been there last, probably 12 years ago. We did see a Bilby ~ they are nocturnal and are now the animal associated with Easter rather than the rabbit. They also had a Tasmanian Devil that didn’t look devilish at all sleeping in its enclosure and some interesting reptiles that were quite a bit more active than we expected (it is spring in Australia, after all). Amazingly, or maybe not since the school break is from mid-November until February, there were oodles of school groups and mothers with preschoolers. One little girl was really good at chasing away seagulls from where we all were eating. She tried it with an Australian White Ibis and nearly got pecked. Needless to say, she didn't try it again. Food in Australia is expensive. For two orders of chicken strips, French fries and soft drinks it was $30AU which was about $24US.

Until you're there you can't tell how big the Sydney Opera House is; it’s enormous! The only
L to R: Opera House, Alex and the purple carpet,
Alex and the structure of the sails
way to get inside the performance halls is to buy a ticket to a presentation or take a tour. And the tour of the Sydney Opera House was excellent. Alex, our guide, kept us entertained while teaching us about the building. He took us into the actual opera auditorium, the symphony auditorium and one of the small theaters. The seats (we were allowed to sit for about 10 minutes between sets of stairs and there are about 300 of them) were designed by a surgeon, have the same density as a human body and are quite comfortable. Alex has a wealth of knowledge about how productions are staged, the reasons why certain materials are used in construction, and the interactions among performers. One of the things I found most interesting was that the original design for the Opera House was presented as a set of sketches rather than formal plans. Although architect Jørn Utzon never visited this finished masterpiece, he won awards for his work and was honored when the reception hall was named for him. The other information Alex gave us that made a big impression on me was the variety of entertainment that has gone on in the Opera House. It has been used as a cinema as well as a wrestling arena, Arnold Schwarzenegger won his final Mr. Olympia body building title in 1980 in the concert hall, and live chickens have wandered on stage and off during an opera. Perhaps other tour guides have some of the same information, but I doubt that they are as interesting, entertaining, and engaging as Alex!

Top: Cynthia and Il Porcellino, Skyline
Bottom: Aboriginal art, Birds and people in the
Royal Botanic Gardens
Probably one of the odder tourist destinations, and also near the Royal Botanic Gardens, is the Sydney Hospital. While the building is interesting, it’s Il Porcellino that attracts visitor attention. This bronze copy of the Florentine boar was donated in 1968 and stands in front of the hospital. If you rub its nose, you’ll have good luck, or so the legend goes. We gave his nose a rub as we walked by and I never lost any more luggage ~ just saying… Also on our walks we spotted a wall that illustrated Aboriginal art. This brightly colored painting was on the wall of an apartment house near our hotel. In the painting you can see the traditional images of echidnas, kangaroos, and the snake.

On Darling Harbor is the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium. It was much bigger than we expected and pretty good when compared to other aquaria we’ve seen. Of course they had the iconic Sea Dragons, and Platypuses but I was surprised to see that they also had Dugongs (a lot like Manatees and were also mistaken for mermaids by sailors who’d be at sea for a very long time). We saw oodles of unusual sharks and rays and about as many screaming kids. One of the most interesting things we saw was the feeding of the rays. A handler dumped squid into the tank; as they settled to the bottom the rays dove after them and literally sucked them into their mouths. Rays have grinding plates rather than teeth so they can’t really bite, but do leave one heck of a hickey if they happen to latch onto your skin. Since we were at Darling Harbor anyway, we sat in one of the sidewalk cafes and had a glass of wine, then we walked the rest of the way around to the other side of the harbor and up about 50 steps to the Pyrmont Bridge. This pedestrian bridge provides beautiful views of the harbor, the ships and downtown Sydney.

L to R: Dave on sub, Cynthia on ferry
Beer can sailboat, Abseil for Youth 
The Australian National Maritime Museum is also on Darling Harbor but across from the Aquarium. On our way across the Pyrmont Bridge we saw people repelling down a building. Abseil for Youth is a group that raises funds for the Sir David Martin Foundation which, in turn, helps young people in crisis. The group we saw was coming down from the top of a very tall office building. Some were moving rather slowly while others were gliding confidently over the slick façade. It looked like fun to me and had they been letting other folks participate, I’d have taken a turn. Once we got into the Australian National Maritime Museum we did a lot of standing while reading all sorts of information. There was also a tall sailing ship (with three masts), a submarine, and a destroyer that we could board and view. The docents were very good on the sailing ship, talking about construction, living conditions and what sorts of efforts it takes to make one of these ships sail. This ship actually takes a crew and 80 passengers to sea for tours to other Australian states. The docent told us that the passengers live and work as people did on the original 1874 James Craig. Because of the hull design, the ship tends to pitch, roll, yawl and buck which does nothing to settle stomachs and calm nerves; the docent related that the smell of the ship when it came into harbor testified to the not so smooth sailing the passengers commonly experienced. While I like to sail and feel very comfortable on most boats, nothing she said made me want to sign up for a trip on the James Craig. The docents on the newer ships weren’t quite as knowledgeable or entertaining. However, since Dave was stationed on a destroyer, knew a lot about this type of ship and could explain about its equipment, structure, and armament. The HMAS Vampire was bigger than the destroyer he was on, but that was about the only real difference. Since it doesn’t carry one or more boats, a submarine is actually a boat (or at least that’s the story). HMAS Onslow was larger than most submarines, but I was not such a happy camper in that cramped space and I have the bruised knees to prove it. Visiting this vessel did dispel those pleasant beliefs that there are viewing windows, two or three people can stand around the map table, and that it’s easy to see out of the periscope.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Getting’ Grub in Granbury

Bluestem Grass and Purple Thistle
We’ve actually had rain in Texas this year so the roadsides and meadows were green rather than burnt brown as we trekked to Granbury for lunch on this mild fall day. The rain has also encouraged the profuse growth and blooming of purple thistle. While not a rancher’s dream, the fields of purple are a bright counterpoint to the lacy mesquite and dark green pecan trees that live in the area.

Acton, Texas is just inside the city limits of Granbury; a town within a town. This tiny town lays claim to the smallest state park in Texas. This park is within the Acton Cemetery