Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Way, way down under

The first thing you notice when you fly into Hobart is that Tasmania ain't like the rest of Australia.

For starters, there are the mountains. There are mountains in other parts of Oz, of course, but those we've seen so far are different from these ones. The mountains on the Sunshine Coast are unique peaks -- volcanic plugs that jut up from the flatland with no warning. The Blue Mountains near Sydney are less abrupt, but still jagged and dramatic. The mountains we glimpsed from the plane over Hobart this afternoon are more subtle -- high and substantial, of course, but somehow more serious. The mountains we've seen in NSW and Queensland seem to promise that those who climb them will find more flat country on the other side. These mountains make no such promise. You can just tell that they are just the beginning of a long, long stretch of rolling, challenging land.

When you land in Tasmania, the next thing you notice is the light. It's what I think of as a northern light, coming from low in the sky. It's winter here, and it looks like it. We kept feeling as though we were in Thunder Bay or Scandinavia rather than in Australia, and I'm sure it's the light that was doing it. Even though it got dark at 5:00, it felt familiar, comforting, homey. At 42.5 degrees south, we're on roughly the same lattitude south as Toronto is north. The forests are largely pine, too, with plenty of lakes and rivers to be seen from the plane, so it even looks right.

Of course, Tasmania isn't Canada. Even though we're closer to Antarctica than we are to Perth, and even though it's mid-winter here, it's really not as cold as all the Queenslanders had led us to believe it would be. There are lemon trees growing in the back yard of the house we're staying in, and it was a lovely 16 degrees when we landed -- two degrees warmer than it was when we left Melbourne. We'll be wearing long pants and jackets, but not freezing.

Haven't seen much of Hobart yet, of course, but so far I like what I see. It should be an interesting two weeks.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Long Weekend continued -- rock opera

The Noosa Long Weekend festival wraps up this week, but our part in it has ended already.

On Tuesday night, we went to see Kevin Borich perform. This was, by far, the rockiest part of the arts festival. Borich made his name in the late 60s and early 70s as the leader of a Kiwi band called the La De Da's. He then led a band called the Kevin Borich Express. These days he's a skinny 60-year-old who plays a rockin' blues guitar.

The first half of the show was done with a trio -- bass, drums, and Borich on a steel resonator guitar playing mainly slide blues. Really good, loud and fun. In the second half he was joined by a rhythm guitarist and moved into rock n' roll. Good, really loud, and fun, even though the sound board guys had cranked it to eleven and introduced a bit of unnecessary distortion. Ana and I were supposed to be there to take a turn at the door, checking for stamps as people came and went, but since most of the other volunteers found it too loud in the hall, we ended up just spending two hours there watching the show.

The next night we were supposed to work at a supper club (late night shows held at some of the area's finer restaurants.) Usually you don't get to sit in on these shows, since the tickets are $75 and include a meal, but last night was an exception. As the last tickets were handed in, Jim Berardo, who owns berardo's restaurant where the event was held, came out and invited us to stay for the meal and the show. Unfortunately for Ana, she wasn't feeling well and had decided to stay home, so there were just two of us who got to enjoy roasted peppers stuffed with saffron paela, chicken with chorizo and green olives, and churro with cinammon ice cream.

The meal was great, but the best part was the entertainment: Virgilio Marino and Emily Burke, two soloists from Opera Queensland performed a set of popular opera and musical theatre songs. Powerful voices and -- mainly -- great music, including several pieces each from Rigoletto and West Side Story. It was a shame they had opted to use mics for most of the show, as their voices were so much more effective unmediated, but regardless it was a wonderful evening.

The only downside was that I missed almost all of the second State of Origin game. Yes, I know: choosing opera over footy. What a poofter! My excuse is that I didn't realize the game was on when I agreed to work that show. Perhaps I shall make up for it in game three, by wearing Maroon face paint and watching the game in a pub. Even though Queensland has won the series, apparently they play all three games regardless.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Gone to the ballet

Noosa has a pile of arts festivals, and these days Ana and I are involved in one. We're volunteering at the Noosa Longweekend, which is a two week festival of music, dance and spoken word.

One of the perks of volunteering at these festivals, of course, is that you get to see the shows. This morning we were at a talk by Paul Bailey, the author of Think Of An Elephant. The book claims to be about how science and spirituality meet, using everything from quantum mechanics to buddhism to make your life better, or something -- I haven't read it, but we were asked to be ushers there, so what the heck. It turned out to be something of a bloodfest, as we watched Peter Thompson, one of Australia's best interviewers, rip Paul Bailey apart.

Thompson, who hosts a weekly show on ABC (and looks remarkably like Christopher Plummer) was the moderator of the event. Perhaps things are done differently in Australia, but every book talk I've seen has featured a sympathetic, if not downright sycophantic moderator, who is there to let the author flog his books. Not Peter Thompson, though. He seemed to feel his job was to challenge the guest and push him to defend his claims. Fair enough, except it turned out Mr. Bailey couldn't defend himself all that well. When asked to give a single example of how his theories had made his life better, he hemmed and hawed and finally spoke about how understanding the essential oneness of all beings could help resolve conflict by helping you to see that two people fighting over an orange may not be fighting for the same thing at all (one of them may want the juice, the other may want the rind). Thompson said that was very interesting, but pointed out that Bailey was quoting from Getting To Yes, a classic business management text.

The audience was evenly divided between those who were there to fawn over Bailey's new age musings, and those who were on side with Thompson. Probably the low point for Bailey came when a member of the audience said "I'm a scientist, and I'm sorry but just about everything you've said about science is nonsense. There's no such thing as quantum particles, your understanding of the immune system is completely wrong, and your thinking seems to be extremely wooly."

It made me feel quite sorry for poor Mr. Bailey. Even though he did set himself up for failure by having his sister stand up and sing a karaoke version of A Whole New World, from the Disney movie Alladin. (Apparently it was supposed to make us think about how art and perception and science... well, I'm not quite sure what they do, but I'm sure it was clear to Bailey and his sister.)

None of this has to do with the ballet, of course, except that as volunteers we were given thank-you tickets to go and see another show tonight: the Queensland National Ballet. They performed a piece called Yidaki, and it was absolutely stunning. Sharon and I went, since Ana volunteered to stay home and babysit (opting for money over art -- the philistine!)

Yidaki is one of the aboriginal words for the didgeridoo, and the show featured the playing of David Hudson, a top yidaki player, and classical ballet being used to tell Aboriginal stories. It was gripping -- superb choreography and marvellous dancing. Really a top notch show.

On Tuesday night, Ana and I are going to see a very different kind of entertainment when we tear tickets at a show by Kevin Borich. He's described as a "blues rock guitar legend", but I'm afraid I've never heard of him. Still, from what I can see of him on Youtube, it should be a great show. Wednesday night is the Queensland Opera Young Artists. Art is in the air in Noosa this week.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Long weekends, part one: Bundaberg

It's been a while since I posted, for the simple reason that we've been busy travelling. We've just enjoyed two long weekends in a row -- on Monday, June 8, Australians celebrate the Queen's Birthday, and on Friday, June 12 Sharon's school got the day off to go to the local fair. Every school gets a fair day -- or show day, as they call it here. It was just a coincidence that the Nambour show day falls in the same week as the Queen's birthday.

Since those are the last long weekends this school year, we decided we needed to use them to travel. The Queen's birthday first.

We decided we wanted to see a bit more of the coast to the north of us, so we looked at the map to see what was a reasonable long weekend drive away. Bundaberg looked promising, about 3 1/2 hours north, so we packed up the borrowed camping gear and hit the road.

Bundaberg is on the river, about 14 kms inland from the ocean. We had booked a campsite on the ocean at a place called Bargara Beach, which turned out to be quite a pleasant little spot. The campground itself is a lot like the Encore park we've stayed at in Florida, except that it has a communal kitchen which meant we didn't need to bring a cookstove. Ana was happy, since that meant we had room to squeeze the guitar in the back of the car -- sitting around the campsite, playing Dust In the Wind and Crazy On You seems to be her latest passion when we go camping.

We pitched our tents under some massive fig trees, gnarled old beasts that made us feel like we were camping in a field of Ents. (I seem to keep coming back to Lord of the Rings references as we travel around Australia. Ever since we went to the Blue Mountains and saw -- I kid you not -- Mount Solitary. I can just imagine what will happen when we get to New Zealand in December.) Campfires aren't allowed at most private campgrounds we've found, which makes it a bit of a drag, but we had fun watching the possums prowl around in the moonlight. And listening to Crazy on You, of course.

Bargara is famous for... well nothing, really, other than being near Mon Repos. The beach at Mon Repos was the site of some early aviation testing, but it's best known as the site of the biggest turtle rookery in the hemisphere. Hundreds of leatherbacks and other turtles come ashore here every summer to lay their eggs, which hatch a few months later. It's supposed to be quite a sight. Unfortunately we missed it by a couple of months. But the interpretation centre looked nice. The outside of it, at least -- it was closed for the season. Canadians who were there in January said it was one of the highlights of their trip, so we may just have to go back in November or December.

Oh well, on to Bundaberg itself. Bundy, as it's sometimes called, is in the heart of cane country. You drive through miles and miles of sugar cane fields to get there. Since harvest starts soon, the cane is tall -- about three metres or more. Rural homeowners must lose their scenic view around this time of year, since the cane is above most windows. And forget climbing a hill to get a better view, because there are none. Bundy is flat, flat, flat. There is a hill just outside town with a scenic lookout. The hill is known, with suitable modesty, as The Hummock -- not exactly Mount Solitary.

Still, where there's cane there must be molasses, and where there's molasses you can find rum. Bundaberg Rum is one of Australia's iconic brands, found in every bar and bottle shop in the country. Naturally we had to tour the distillery. C'mon kids, let's go get some rum! It was an interesting tour, especially when we stood at the door of one of the Bond Stores, inhaling the aroma of $6 million worth of rum wafting over us. We got free tastings, naturally, which included a Dark And Stormy (rum and ginger beer), and an aged sipping rum on the rocks (pleasant enough, but not enough to get me away from scotch or Irish whisky). Isaiah won a bumper sticker by being able to remember the name of the yeast they use to ferment the molasses -- because he is under age, though, I had to accept it on his behalf. Like all Bundaberg products it features a polar bear. The bear was apparently added in the 1930s as a way of convincing southerners that they should drink rum, which they viewed as a tropical drink. The idea was that rum could drive away any chill. Apparently it worked, because the bear is everywhere.

Next door to the distillery is a cooperage, where we watched a cooper put together wooden barrels, and tried our hand at assembling one as well. What a lot of steps involved in building a barrel.

We also stopped at a farmer's market. Markets are fabulous all over this part of Australia, because the produce is so fresh and good. We bought a bag of the best macadamia nuts we've had so far, 2 kilos of freshly-picked mandarines, and bags of fresh avocadoes and passion fruit.

And best of all, I got my birthday hat. I'd been looking for one for a while, and I found it in the market. It's made of kangaroo skin, it's lightweight and comfortable, and according to Ana it makes me look like a total tool. Not bad for one hat! It's the stereotypical outback bush hat, which absolutely nobody wears here on the Sunshine Coast. And no, that's not because Coast residents have an aversion to goofy hats. It's because they've got even goofier ones to wear: they prefer enormous straw beasts, a bit like coolie hats. Theey seem to have been put away for the winter, but they will show up again once it gets hot, I have no doubt. And when they do, I'll be ready to stroll out there with my kangaroo hide, looking every bit the Canadian tourist on holiday.

On our way back home, we stopped at Snakes Down Under and got up close and personal with various lizards and reptiles. As roadside zoos go, it was well above average. We also stopped for dessert at a macadamia farm that is, apparently, famous for its ice cream. It was tasty, but a bit bizarre -- more like frozen condensed milk than ice cream. A little of it went a long way!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

State of Origin

Spend any time in Australia and you quickly realize that sports here are not simple. In Canada it's easy to pick up on the sporting culture: watch hockey for nine months of the year, and something lesser for the other three months. In Australia, though, there are many more options, each with their own dedicated fans. I remember looking at the sports page of a news web site last year, and puzzling over the icons that ran beside each story, identifying what sport it was referring to. The cricket, soccer, surfing and swimming icons were easy enough to figure out, but why were there several icons featuring an oval ball, each slightly different from each other?

Turns out they could have been referring to Australian rules football, rugby league, rugby ynion, or even gridiron (which is what they call NFL football here. They've never heard of CFL.)

Aussie Rules, or AFL, is often shown on highlights shows in Canada, where it's depicted as the roughest game on the planet, just a free-for-all of high-flying men leaping up each other's backs in search of the ball. In fact, it's a much more elegant game, very fast and open, requiring more athleticism than brute strength. Even without watching the game you can tell AFL players from rugby players, because the AFL players have necks and look as though they can bend their arms.

The biggest rival to AFL is rugby league. Traditionally, I've been told rugby league was more popular in Queensland and NSW, while AFL was played in Victoria, South Australia and southern NSW. That's changed a bit, and both games (or "codes" as they're called) can be found around the country. I'm not sure how rugby union fits into it all -- there's a professional league and amateur teams, but it seems to get much less t.v. coverage.

By the way, if someone refers to "rugby" they usually mean rugby union. Rugby league always gets both words. If they refer to "footy," I think it could mean just about any game, although probably not soccer. Even though soccer clubs here often call themselves football clubs (Isaiah plays for Coolum F.C.) the game is usually called soccer. Confused yet? And I haven't even begun to distinguish between the different levels of pro, semi-pro and amateur play.

I've been watching both AFL and NRL (National Rugby League) games on t.v., and have usually enjoyed AFL more. It's faster, more exciting, more intense than rugby league. League also has a lot of arcane rules and seems to rely an awful lot on referee interpretation -- as Isaiah noted, in hockey you watch the replay to see what happened, in rugby league the referees watch the replay to see whether they should allow a goal or not.

Seeing Australia clobber World Cup champions New Zealand a few weeks ago made for a more interesting league match, but it still seemed to lack something. But someone said I should wait until I saw State of Origin. "That," he said, "is the best rugby league playing in the world."

State of Origin is a three match series played every year. One team is made up of players from New South Wales, the other is made up of Queenslanders. It doesn't matter who they play for during the regular season, because Origin is all about where they come from. And it's a HUGE deal. The sports pages have been full of Origin stories for weeks leading up to Wednesday's game, and on Wednesday the Brisbane papers were all about the Maroons. (The teams are called the NSW Blues, and the Queensland Maroons, a word which apparently rhymes with phones and clones, rather than with Junes and spoons. Don't ask me why.)

Queensland was heavily favoured. They've won for three years in a row, and a large number of their players are on the Australian national team. So on Wednesday night, Isaiah and I sat down to see what all the fuss was about. Eighty minutes later, I was well and truly impressed. I don't think I've ever seen such an intense, exciting game in any sport. It was a thrilling match.

Queensland won, but the Blues put up a good fight. The next match is in two weeks, and I rather hope the Blues win it. That way we get to see a third match.