Archive for September, 2007

The Roof of the World

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

Tibet 301 If someone were to ask me how I felt about Tibet, I couldn’t give a quick response.  Formerly independent but absorbed into the People’s Republic in the 1950′s, Tibet lies in southwestern China, abutting Nepal.  Its elevation ranges from 3,500 to 5,000 meters (about 11,000 to 16,000 feet) above sea level, earning it the nickname “Roof of the World.”  The countryside consists of rugged mountains, barren land, and occasional spectacular Buddhist temples, monasteries, or shrines.

Tibet 068 I’ll start with the drawbacks of visiting Tibet.  It’s not easy to get there (for us, a two hour flight from Xian, a city in Central China, to Lhasa, the world’s highest airport).  Adjusting to the altitude is no picnic.  We drank water until it came out our ears, the adults took altitude pills, and we moved slowly — very slowly.  Despite that, we slept poorly and suffered from the headaches and sluggishness of altitude sickness.  Also, it’s a very poor region, posing many travel challenges — including primitive bathrooms (see above right for one of the better public bathrooms there, believe it or not,.  And they clean out below once a year — whether it needs it or not — so you can imagine the smell!). 

Tibet 214 We were struck by how incredibly nice and happy Tibetans are.  They live simply, and even the smallest things seem to bring joy to them.  They are a very independent people, and the tension between the region and the rest of China (and its government) is apparent.  And the damage done in the period when China invaded the country and took it over (1950′s) to the Buddhist buildings and the community made me wish I could turn back the clock and visit the region before these changes.

Tibet 051 Despite the damage done in the 1950′s, there remained many beautiful buildings, statues, and tombs.  I’ve included a few pictures of things we saw in Tsedang and Lhasa.  If you find things like this fascinating (it’s not completely my cup of tea), you’ll love Tibet.  In many cases, they have had to do extensive rebuilding, and one can only imagine what it would have been like in its prior glory.  But even today these Buddhist landmarks are impressive.

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The Tibetans take great pride in these buildings, which reflect so much of their interesting history.  But what was far more interesting was observing all that accompanied these buildings — the everyday life of the Buddhist monks, nuns, and the Buddhists who made their pilgrimages (often weeks by bus or even years walking) to such important shrines.

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One of our favorite activities was an afternoon spent observing a group of debating monks.  Obviously, we couldn’t understand a word they were saying.  But they would emphasize their points with a loud clapping of the hands, which we immediately copied and now use daily!

Tibet 242 While in Tibet, we also visited an amazing non-profit called Braille Without Borders.  The is a high incidence of blindness in Tibet due to  little natural filtering of light, exposure to smoke from cooking inside of the huts, lack of vitamin D, and frequent dust storms.  Based in Lhasa, BWB houses and teaches 40 students, preparing them to function when they leave the school.  In Tibetan culture, blindness is seen as a punishment for bad acts in a former life, so these kids are often ignored or even abused by their parents.  For a total annual budget of just $36,000 (U.S.), BWB is changing the lives of 40 young, blind Tibetans.  It was inspiring!

And while it might not qualify for America’s Funniest Home Videos, we had one hilarious moment when I was attempting to video Gibson throwing a long cloth ribbon anchored by a rock up on a Buddhist monument (something done by most visitors).  Gibson’s usual accuracy failed him, and if you watch the video (http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/394279/593270#imageID=27489719), you can see who almost got hit by the rock!!

The Emperor’s Army

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Xian 068 Other than one attraction, there’s little reason to stop in Xian, a city of seven million in the center of China.  It has the same non-descript architecture that characterizes most of China and, sure, there are some interesting pagodas (see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda on the right) and mosques, but not worth going way out of your way for.  For much of China’s history, though, Xian was its capital, and home of its emperors.  One of its emperors, Qin, orchestrated the creation of the incomprehensible terra-cotta soldiers.  Seeing these soldiers, sometimes called (with justification)  the Eighth Wonder of the World, makes the trek to Xian worthwhile, and then some!

Xian 045 In the years 220 to 209 B.C., China was ruled by the Emperor Qin.  Not a popular emperor (few were), the Emperor took  extraordinary preparatory steps prior to his death.  He had the potters in his empire produce a set of life-size terra-cotta soldiers, which were then buried in his tomb to protect him in the afterlife. 

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Each soldier has a unique face presumably matching that of one of the soldiers in Qin’s army.  The faces are incredibly expressive.  There are also horses and the remains of chariots.  Again, all are life-size.   One extraordinary aspect of this is the difficulty of producing such a piece.  Each has to be baked at a kiln at 900 degrees Centigrade, and any significant deviation will result in a failed work.

Xian 007 The other staggering aspect is the sheer number of soldiers prepared for the tomb — estimated to be some 6,000.  And there are foot soldiers, archers, chariot drivers, and officers.  All were placed in “ready positions” along with their weapons, prepared to defend the Emperor.  Then, an underground area some 230 meters long and 62 meters wide was dug out, filled with the soldiers, and covered with a roof supported by wooden beams.  The entire area was then covered with dirt to make it as inconspicuous as possible. 

Xian 018 As extraordinary as the work of the potters was, their treatment hardly matched.  If they made mistakes, they were immediately put to death.  And after the entire project was completed, Emperor Qin ordered all potters put to death, to make sure their creation remained a secret (as I said, Qin wasn’t the nicest of people!). 

Xian 039 Well, not long after Qin died, the farmers in the area ransacked the tomb.  They either wanted the weapons there, or wanted to bollix up Qin’s after-life plans, or quite possibly both.  But they damaged many of the figures, stole most of the weapons, and set the whole thing on fire.  As it burned, the roof collapsed, causing more damage.  And there it sat, for two millenia, until 1974, when a local farmer was digging a well and came across some of the fragments.  He figured out that he had encountered something significant — and boy was he right!  This is arguable the most significant archeological discover of the 20th Century. 

Xian 030 Since their discovery, the government of China and teams of archeologists have been — literally — putting the pieces back together.  So far, they’ve unearthed some 2,000 figures, and using underground imaging techniques they estimate another 4,000 remain to be identified.  So far, only one figure has been found entirely intact. 

Xian 032 The archeologists do their digging at night to avoid interfering with the day-time tourists.   Painstakingly, they reassemble each figure in a challenge that makes Rubik’s Cube look like a snap.  And gradually they are re-creating what Emperor Qin created more than 2,200 years ago.  As we walked the perimeter of the “dig,” I must have said “Wow!” a hundred time.  The pictures here hardly do justice to the impact of seeing so many life-size clay soldiers from so long ago. 

Xian 168 We ended our stay in Xian with a visit to a local school.  They arranged for Gibson and Sterling to meet a bunch of kids their ages, and — after asking each other bunches of questions in one of their classrooms — we went outside and Sterling joined the girls in a game of soccer.  We had brought a frisbee with us and I taught a group of the boys the game Ultimate Frisbee, which we Xian 184 played for close to an hour.  It was great because everyone learned the rules quickly, and none of us were all that experienced at it.  It was a real highlight of our stay there, and the people at the school couldn’t have been nicer!

 

 

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Baseball in Beijing!

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

Beijing 286 We are very grateful to have had an opportunity to meet many great people from the Feng Tai Experimental School in Beijing for an afternoon of baseball and a fabulous dinner together. We want to thank their Head Coach Zhang, and assistant coach, Zhang Wei (of the China National Team) for all their efforts to organize this event. The time we spent with them will be one of the true highlights of our trip.

Beijing 296 The Feng Tai school has about 3,000 students, and goes from first through twelfth grade. After age eight, most of the students live at the school during the week. Their dorm rooms hold eight students each. From the interactions we observed, there seems to be a lot of closeness among the children there that was very moving. Most of the children at the school don’t have brothers and sisters (true for most children in China), so classmates seem to become a big group of loving brothers and sisters.

Beijing 320 We headed over to their baseball field, and I have never seen such a nice field for younger players. It puts the field we played on in Charleston, South Carolina, (and most other U.S. fields) to shame. The stands hold several thousand people, the outfield grass was perfect, and it the dirt in the infield smooth and very playable.

Beijing 312 The coaches ran a great practice for the players. They did a good set of warm-up routines, took infield and outfield practice, and then we played an intra-squad game, with everyone batting four or five times against the team’s pitchers. It was nearly dark before practice was over, but everyone played at a high-level throughout the session. I was impressed with all aspects of theirBeijing 316 team’s skills, but especially with their fielding and knowledge of field position. They are obviously very well coached. And some of the kids had very strong arms. I think we should watch for some of these players on future China National Teams!

Beijing 337 We had brought the team hats from the U.S. (Boston Red Sox) and they wore them through practice, and looked terrific in them. I’m hoping they put them to good use during their coming season. In talking to them, it was clear they were not familiar with any of the U.S. teams. They did follow JapaneseBeijing 327

baseball, however. I found it interesting that these players were so skilled and committed to the sport without the benefit of famous national players.

Beijing 394 After practice, the team organized a big and totally fun dinner at a local restaurant. They included six of the boys from the team, but also figured out a way to include four girls from the school, so that our daughter could interact with them. I was amazed watching the kids play together, despite some language challenges. The players from their school all were studying English, though, and Beijing 396 made great efforts to talk to our children. One way or another, they had a fabulous time. At the end of the night’s festivities, they gave us three pictures of the boys from their team, which are fabulous. They also gave our son a team uniform and our daughter a soccer team uniform from their school. I was humbled by the kindness and generosity of this great group of people. I hope each of them has a chance to come to the United States someday (perhaps as Major League Baseball players!!), and we can repay their hospitality!!

To see a slideshow of our great time with this group, complete with captions (!), go to

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/394279/582391

Bustling Beijing

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

September 16th-19th: During any long trip, it’s inevitable that there will be ugly travel days. We had exactly that as we moved from northeast Australia to Beijing, China Naively, I thought, “Gee, how far apart can Australia and China be??” Well, the answer is “pretty darn far.” When all was said and done, we left our hotel in Cairns at 4:30 a.m., and hit our beds in Beijing a mere 23 hours later! Ugh!!

I came to Beijing with no idea of what to expect. I have never been drawn to this part of the world, but felt it was important for my children to see China, since it will be the most important foreign nation for them in the course of their lifetimes. So we’re spending three weeks in China, and it’s certain to be educational.

Beijing 116 There may be people who instantly fall in love with Beijing, but I wasn’t one of them. Not even close. The morning after we arrived, we awoke to dreary haze/fog and a surreal muted sense of colors (photo is view from our hotel room). While Australia had been so vivid, Beijing was a blur of gray and brown. If you make it to the end of this blog, though, you’ll see my views on Beijing shifted considerably during our stay in this important city.

Beijing 005On Sunday morning, we went to the Temple of Heaven, a massive park in the center of Beijing. We were fascinated! There were groups of people everywhere, doing all sorts of fun things — practicing ballroom dancing, tai chi, kicking feathered objects back and forth, playing chess or card games, you name it. The park was alive with community and energy. We all had a try at ribbon twirling, with varying degrees of un-success. And our lesson with a tai chi master must have left him shaking his head!

Beijing 054 We spent the afternoon visiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square was hopping; I’ve never been approached by so many street venders in my life. The Square itself can hold some 1,000,000 people. It goes on and on, but IMHO lacks architectural beauty (kind of like City Hall Plaza in Boston on a much bigger scale — tons of concrete, but not a lot else, other than the big portrait of Chairman Mao). That said, it was fascinating to be in the site of the 1989 student massacre, and reflect on how rapidly China is changing.

Beijing 084We then went to the Forbidden City, winter home of past emperors. The “City” consists of one large walled-in square after another, and seems to stretch for miles. The palace was built in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty. The buildings were spectacular and the occasional views of artifacts quite interesting. We finished the day with a rick shaw trip through a local neighborhood and met with one of Beijing’s top calligraphers, who gave us lessons on that interesting art form. I’m not sure that counts as a penmanship lesson for our kids’ homeschooling program, but it’s a close as they’ll get.

Beijing 134 Our second day was just as foggy/hazy as the first, which seemed to sap energy from everyone. We drove to the Great Wall for the requisite hike. Any given section of the wall is interesting, but it’s really the massive scope of the undertaking that gets your attention. It stretches in total some 4,000 miles. I have to think there must have been a more cost-effective way to keep the Mongolians out! Anyway, we walked about three miles of it, and broke for lunch.

Beijing 186 That afternoon we visited someplace that should have been called The Stinky Walkway of Cement Animals. At one point, Elizabeth and I were both looking at our shoes to see if we had stepped in dog poop. Then, we suspected the stone animals were still biologically active, and that was creating the stench. But the culprit was the public bathroom which, sadly, one Beijing 198 of us had to use. On the way home, we drove by the still-under-construction Olympic site. In a city with generally dreary architecture, the buildings look phenomenal (see lousy rainy-afternoon picture from our van of the Bird’s Nest) and will be done well ahead of schedule.

Well, by now, I was looking for the fast forward button to get out of Beijing! But Day Three was one of the best of our trip, and showed us some of the great aspects of Beijing.

Beijing 202 We started the day with a visit to the Beijing Opera school, and met with many students and teachers, and got a chance to observe several of the classes. I don’t think I’m destined to be a passionate fan of that style of opera (although its influence on Puccini’s Turandot was clear), but it was so interesting to see the intensity of their educational setting. I’ve set up a separate photo album (http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/394279/582390) for all my music-oriented friends to look at — be sure to view the videos!

Beijing 225 We then went to the impressive Emperor’s Summer Palace. The Emperor spent eight months a year here (and the rest at the Forbidden City) and it was easy to see why. The buildings were spectacular, the setting so tranquil and beautiful, and the view from the top of the pagoda just Beijing 260 incredible. This was a real highlight for us, and a great afternoon outing. The view of the Beijing skyline emphasized for us the size of this city. Its population is nearly 14 million, and it’s growing rapidly. There are signs of construction throughout the city and government budget dollars are clearly going into new (not terribly beautiful) buildings (while they are saving on things like garbage collection and good public bathrooms, that’s for sure!).

Beijing 312 We ended our stay in Beijing on a spectacular note. Our Baseball Ambassador’s program had its second great outing. We met and practiced with the team from Beijing’s Fung Tai Experimental School. Then, they were incredibly kind and took the four of us and several students (six boys and four girls, all about the ages of Gibson and Sterling) out for one of the most enjoyable dinners of our Beijing 385 lives.

The Fung Tai team is excellent (second best in China last year) at baseball, and they are incredibly nice kids. Smart, huge smiles, lots of energy, and clear affection for each other. All of the kids seemed to have a great time, despite little shared vocabulary, and it was terrific for us to understand more about life growing up in China.

We learned that these boys and girls, starting at age eight, spend all weeknights at their school in dorm rooms that hold eight students. Because China has very strict policies on the number of children any family can have, only one of the ten children we had dinner had a sibling. So their classmates serve as their surrogate siblings, and the closeness of these children to each other was very apparent. They were just unbelievably kind and interesting. We hope we stay in contact with them, and their hospitality made our stay in Beijing very, very special. (See my blog “Baseball in Beijing” at http://ted.dintersmith.org/2007/09/20/baseball-in-beijing/). And for photos from this great get together, go to http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/394279/582391#imageID=26852440.

To see our photo album of Beijing, go to http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/394279/580781.

Australia: Looking Back on Down Under

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

When we organized our trip, we thought it would be good to start with Australia.  We figured it would be an easy transition from the U.S., our kids would start off on a good note, and August/September would be a good time of year for visiting the country.  What we didn’t anticipate was just how much all of us would love Australia.  And we really loved it!

IMG_0181 We started with Sydney, a world class city on Australia’s east coast.  I’ve always thought Sydney would be a fabulous place to live, and actually being there only reinforced that view.  It’s got great culture, some beautiful architecture, an outstanding climate, really great people, and lots to do. 

Tasmania Eclipse 003 Following Sydney, we went south to the island of Tasmania, a really wonderful, unspoiled, and beautiful place.  Its air is crystal clear, as are its skies.  And its wildlife is incredibly interesting.  We met the wombat (a favorite with our family), the Tasmanian Devil, wallabies, and platypus there, as we toured most of the northern half of the island.  The highlight was a great viewing of a full lunar eclipse, during which Gibson somehow produced the above photo, which pretty well summarized our feelings for Australia.

Kangaroo Island 009 We had never heard of Kangaroo Island prior to our trip, but we’re really glad we stayed there.  Sure, there were some kangaroos there (not as many as other places), but we saw koalas in the wild, as well as fur seals and sea lions.  And we loved the place we stayed, perched over the Pacific Ocean.  In exploring the rocks on the beach below us, we encountered nesting Little Penguins, a real find.  We also got a real feel of the power of the Pacific Ocean, as we watched waves crashing ashore on a day when the sea swells were 25 feet high.

Adelaide Baseball 028 A real highlight of our visit to Australia was our stop in Adelaide, where we met many wonderful families from the Woodville Senators, an amazing baseball program there.  Gibson practiced with the team and the hosted us for a fabulous dinner afterwards.  We’ve gotten some follow-on e-mails from these great families, and look forward to more!!

Uluru 282 A landmark for Australia is Uluru, formerly known as Ayer’s Rock.  We spent a couple of days there, and really got a better understanding of the Aborigine culture.  Our daybreak hike around Uluru was spectacular, after we pulled the ripcord and left the very crowded parking areas.  Over 1,500 people were there (with accompanying buses) at 5:30 a.m. to watch the sun rise on Uluru.  Our hike on the west side, away from the crowds, was magical.

Bullo River 235 After a challenging day of travel, we then went to Bullo River Station, a 500,000 acre cattle ranch in the Northern Territory of Australia.  This visit was a real highlight of the trip, giving us a sense of what Australia’s Outback is all about.  While at Bullo River, we took a helicopter trip to a very secluded and stunningly-beautiful area, where we camped overnight and swam in cascading stream pools.   We learned a lot about the cattle business, saw some amazing birds, and felt very welcomed by the Ranacher family and the Station’s staff.

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 097 We concluded our stay in Australia in Cairns, located close to the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree National Park.  Both were fabulous, but we had a very special day at Daintree.  It’s a 120 million year old rain forest, and the flora and fauna were interesting beyond words.  And seeing the coral reefs, and knowing how fast they are disappearing, made our visit to the Great Barrier Reef unforgettable. 

Our biggest issue with Australia is that it may set too high a standard for the rest of this journey.  As our daughter Sterling said, “Why don’t we just spend ten months in Australia?”  Well, during a twenty-three hour travel day from Cairns to Beijing, her words came to mind from time to time, but stay tuned to hear about our transition to China!!

If you are interested in more detail on our time in Australia, you can check out our blogs on each destination, or our photo galleries.  If you go to http://www.dintersmith.org/pmwiki.php?n=Main.Itinerary, it will point you directly to these. 

The Food of Australia — Another Highlight

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

 

We have gotten several inquiries (and keep those questions coming!!) about what the food is like in Australia.  I’ll give a brief report here, but you might also want to check out what others in our family thought about Australian food:

http://sterling.dintersmith.org/2007/09/19/australian-food/

With only occasional exceptions, food in Australia is more similar to food in America than different.  Breakfasts include cereal, fruit, eggs, a form of bacon (more like a fried slab of ham, than a bacon strip), and toast.  The only real wrinkle is the ubiquitous Vegemite, a nasty spread for toast that all of us judged as inedible.

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 138For lunch and dinner, the options were generally meat of some type (often steak or lamb) or fish (with the barramundi being our favorite).  Pasta or Asian preparation is also frequently offered.  Occasionally, some wrinkles would crop up, like Crocodile Fettuccini (left) or grilled Wallaby (not a favorite).  And if you’re wondering, crocodile does indeed “taste like chicken.”

We generally don’t eat deserts, but Australian deserts also seemed quite similar to American deserts.  Lots of cakes, ice cream, and fruit. 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 137 Maybe we were just fortunate, but the food in Australia that we encountered was fabulous.  There is a big Asian presence here, so we often had stir-fry meals, which were almost always spectacular.  The Aussies grow so much cattle that the beef was terrific.  And some of the fish meals I had were among the best I’ve ever eaten.  So while I didn’t expect the food in Australia to be a highlight of our visit to the country, it was! 

As a final note, a big fringe benefit of food in Australia is that we could easily understand what a menu said, and what we were ordering!  That won’t be the case for most of the rest of our trip, and — believe me — we’re not taking it for granted!!

Finding Nemo and Jurassic Park

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 181 September 11-15, 2007:  Our last stop in Australia was to the Cairns (pronounced, inexplicably, “Cans”) area, on the gorgeous northeast coast of Australia, where we explored the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree National Park, as well the surprisingly-interesting Cairns Tropical Zoo.  The northeast coast of Australia is breath-taking, with kilometer after kilometer of rocky or sandy beaches abutting a deep-blue Pacific Ocean.  Cairns itself has a population of 100,000, and most of the neighboring towns are much smaller, so it’s not terribly developed. 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 272 We put Cairns on our itinerary because we all wanted to snorkel and explore the Great Barrier Reef.  The proposition involved an hour drive from the hotel, an hour and a half boat trip to get to three drop-off points, and then about 2 1/2 hours of fish and coral-gazing.  I asked the tour group organizers if they’d be showing Open Water on the ride out, but got few laughs (Note:  Open Water is about the last hours of a couple left behind by one of these boats and eaten by sharks :-) ). 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 301 The reef is under serious duress from challenges — rises in the water temperarture, pesticides in rain run-off, and the crown-of-thorns starfish.  Signs of strain are apparent in the bleaching that’s occurring.  We went on a smaller boat (100 as opposed to 300-400) with ok naturalists, and it was a bit more touristy than we are generally excited by.  It felt like exploring another planet to see the vast expanses of beautifully-bizarre coral and colorful tropical fish.  But by the end of the day, I was glad to have had a chance to see the GBR, but ready to get away from a group this size.

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 061 The next day, we had a fabulous guide, Rick Hall with Outback Expeditions, who led us on a tour of the Daintree National Park.  Daintree is only recently appreciated, but it’s a rainforest that dates back 120 million years!  The Amazon, by contrast, dates back 15-20 million years.  Daintree has more plant species in its 250,000 acres than all of North America!!   We loved our day at Daintree and, for me, it was the best single day in Australia. 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 118 We saw some amazing birds, mammals, and reptiles, learned boatloads about botany, zoology, Australia and its culture, used local rocks and water to make paint used by Aborigines as warpaint (imagine encountering the ferocious tribe on the left in the wild!), liked the backside of an ant loaded with vitamin C, and swam in a local stream that was so clear that, to the eye, six feet of water looked like six inches!  We saw the endangered Cassowary (a huge, tall, and fierce bird, with only 240 left on the earth), and the tiny musky-rat kangaroo, as well as Australia’s legendary saltie (the estuarine crocodile).  At the tail end of the day, Rick took us to a spot where the trees are full (and I mean FULL) of spectacled flying foxes, a type of bat.  WeDaintree and Great Barrier Reef 166 walked about a kilometer, and tree after tree was full of these very curious, and in many ways beautiful, creatures. 

Our last day in Cairns was spent at a local attraction that required an hour train ride to get to, had a Venomous Animal House (our kids are now infatuated with reptiles), an aviary with all sorts of exotic birds, and way too many touristy shops, where we managed to add Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 217 two more wombats to our growing family.  We returned by the world’s longest tram (45 nervous minutes from start to finish).  The day was shaping up as a loser for me until the very end, when our tram passed over a little lagoon.  I checked out the birds with my binoculars and didn’t see anything of note, but Gibson said, “Hey, that’s a spoonbill.”  The Royal Spoonbill, which I mistook as an egret, made for a great “last bird” on our stay in Australia, where we saw 132 different species in the wild.

 

    WILD AND EXOTIC ANIMALS OF THE DAINTREE RAINFOREST

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Endangered Cassowary.  This picture was taken in a zoo, but we saw one in the wild (with a much worse picture).  They have an incredibly sharp middle toe claw and can, if threatened, attack and even kill people.

 

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Close-up of the spectacled flying fox.  These guys were fascinating.  They’d open up their wings and then close them, wrapping themselves up in a blanket of “wing.”  They had the cutest looks on their face, and would seem quite curious about us down below.  Hard to believe these flying foxes, with their 4-5 foot wing span, are actually bats.  And they hang upside down because they have an incredibly light bone structure suited for flying but which can’t support their body weight.

 

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Two-headed lizard, which, when attacked, runs backwards and if the predator catches up, it will eat the lizard’s tail (which can be re-grown).  Not the dumbest animal in the world, and quite possibly smarter than our not-too-on-the-ball tour guide!

 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 143 Musky-rat kangaroo, unusual in that it doesn’t hop, but walks on all four legs, and is less than one foot in length.  We saw a parent (probably the mother) and two babies in the wild, and were able to watch them for several minutes.

 

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The golden-orbed mega spider, which actually gets much bigger than this, but even so is very big!  After this, we got serious about checking our shoes each morning before putting them on!

 

 

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We were lucky enough to see the common tree snake while navigating along the Daintree River.  About 1-2 feet long and harmless, this snake is unusual for Australian snakes.  Australia is home to all ten of the world’s most poisonous snakes, only one of which we saw while we there there (to Elizabeth’s and my relief and our kid’s chagrin).

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Probably the single most frightening animal sighting during our three and one-half weeks in Australia.  These tree-dwelling and highly-aggressive creatures make the crocodiles, snakes, and sharks of Australia look tame by comparison.  Naturalists advise you to run, not walk, from these wild animals!

Bullo River Station

Friday, September 14th, 2007

 

Bullo River 212 September 6-10, 2007:  Imagine owning a cattle ranch (or station, in Aussie-speak) almost the size of Rhode Island.  Well, Franz and Marlee Ranacher do, and they were our hosts at Bullo River Station in the Northern Territory of Australia, where we hiked, camped, rode horses, fished, mustered cattle, saw amazing birds, and ate incredible food.  Best of all, we got a real feel for life on a cattle station in Australia. 

Uluru 407 We flew from Uluru in a tiny prop plane and learned when not to fly in the dessert.  Our mid-day flight was after the dessert had heated WAY up, so we ran into lots of rising air pockets — meaning a very bumpy flight.  When we landed to refuel (in a tiny town of 1,000), we weren’t all that sure we wanted to get back on the plane, but it beat — barely — walking 350 miles through the dessert.

Bullo River 184 When the plane was 30 minutes from the main house, the pilot told us we were now over the Bullo River station — it’s that vast.  And when we finally landed, Elizabeth became the first person in  the history of the station to crawl off a plane with a green complexion.  We said a big hello to our hosts, and  looked for a discreet way to dispose of multiple air sickness bags.  Not a trip highlight, that’s for sure.

 

Bullo River 164Next day, Sterling and Elizabeth went on a long horseback ride, while Gibson and I fished.   Gibson hooked a good-sized catfish, and his many years of training under his Uncle Jim of Seattle paid off as he landed it!  We got some barramundi bites, but didn’t land one of the area’s best eating fish.  We saw one fresh water crocodile on the fishing trip (a ‘freshie’ as opposed to a ‘saltie’), and after that I got a lot less interested in putting my hand in the water to test its temperature!

 

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The highlight of the trip was camping overnight in a remote spot on the station called The Cascades.  Believe it or not, the little whitish area in the center of the photo on the left (taken from the helicopter as we landed), in the center about 1/4 of the way down from the top, is a flat sandy area  where the helicopter landed.  We set up camp,  andthen went swimming in stream pools  that were crystal pure, and served as our source of drinking water.  At one point, I said to my kids, “Remember this.  It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”  They responded, “No it isn’t.  We’re coming back!” 

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The geology of the Cascades is fascinating.  Over millions of years, a deep notch (fifty meters deep at some places) had been carved out of the rock by the running stream water.  Where we swam, we could explore the various caves and eddy holes the river has made over the course of time.  At one point, I detected a shape of concern and hustled my family out of the water — only to discover, to my embarrassment, that the crocodile I alertly spotted was a “rock-odile”!

 

 

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We explored up and down the cascades during the afternoon, had a great campfire dinner that night, and then got halfway decent sleep in Australian swags (their version of a sleeping bag).  

 

 

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While the helicopter came in handy for our camping expedition, its principal use on a station is to muster cattle.  Bullo River has two small helicopters that are ideal for herding cattle, and are used extensively.  The stations of Australia have increasingly relied on newer technologies to improve cow economics, and one cattle station is a big enough business that it is now a publicly-traded stock.  I suspect the market there is “bullish” on the stock :-) .

 

Bullo River 083 Bullo River has about 7,500 head of cattle, raised on their 500,000 acres.  When the cattle are sold, some poor soul drives a cattle truck (see right) a LONG way over lousy roads to pick up the cattle from the station.  They sell for about $500 a head.  There are other stations even larger than Bullo River.  We talked to someone from Victoria River Downs, which is 6,500,000 acres (the size of Massachusetts), with 125,000 head of cattle.   The folks at Bullo River do a great job running the station and supporting touring visitors with a staff of about 10 — or one per 50,000 acres!!!

Bullo River 279 You wouldn’t think a cattle station would be a fabulous birding spot, but we saw 27 trip/life birds while we were there.    The breath-taking Rainbow Bee-eater was as omnipresent as a sparrow in the U.S., and everywhere we looked we’d see Corellas, Ibis, Wedge-tailed Eagles, and Galahs.  We were really lucky and saw an adult male Emu, with two baby chicks (it’s the father Emu that watches the babies for 18 months, while the mother heads off looking for other male Emus to hook up with), and Gibson got a photo (below) of the elusive Emu.

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The Emu is the second tallest bird in the world (about 6 feet tall, just shorter than Africa’s Ostrich), can’t fly, can run 30 mph over long distances, has a loud call that can be heard over a mile away, and looks a lot like Big Bird from Sesame Street.  We were thrilled to get a great view of one on the side of the station’s main road.  BTW, the station has its own bull-dozer and grader to keep these dirt roads passable, and Marlee operates and repairs them!

 

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 Well, sorry to have gone on (and on) about this most interesting place.  It wasn’t easy to get to, but it was a real treat to visit, and educated us about Australia’s  economy, history, and way of life.  I don’t think our visit to this amazing country would have been complete without this experience.

"It’s Just a Big Rock. It Doesn’t Even Move."

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

 

Uluru 282 We spent two days at Uluru, formerly known as Ayer’s Rock, in the middle of nowhere in Australia.  We flew from Adelaide to Alice Springs to Uluru, and — honestly — I’ve never seen so much dessert.  But we arrived at this national landmark for Australia, not entirely sure what we would be seeing.  Our skepticism was best summarized by Sterling, who said, “It’s just a big rock.  It doesn’t even move.”

Uluru 372 Well, Uluru, and neighboring Kata Tjuta are two geological freaks of nature — large protruding rock formations in an otherwise flat and desolate dessert.  They were, apparently, formed by run-off from long-gone high mountains, which gathered in a lake bed and was gradually submerged 4 kilometers below the earth’s surface, metamorphosized, contorted, and popped back up hundreds of thousands of years ago.  While the above left picture stinks (it was taken from the window of our plane), it shows how Uluru rises up from the desolate plains of central Australia to form a most amazing formation.

Uluru 286 Well, we were warned that Uluru can be a bit “touristy,” but imagine our surprise when we went there to watch a sunrise.  At 6:00 a.m., we were surrounded by tourist buses :-( .  Well, we beat a path out of there faster than you can say “Cheese” to a 45 person touring group!  We proceeded way past the crowds to a spot on the north side of Uluru, and took an incredible hike along Uluru’s base at sunrise.  Uluru 299

One of the unusual things about Uluru is its ties to the Aborigines of Australia.  Some thirty years ago, the lands were partially returned to the control of the Aborigines (specifically, the local Anangu tribe), for whom it is sacred.  While you can hike around it, there are areas where you can’t go, formations you can’t photograph, and parts of it history and meaning that no non-Anangu ever hears about. 

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The sister rock formation, Kata Tjuta, was also quite impressive.  The geological history is related to Uluru, but differs in that it consists of a set of huge (and I mean HUGE)  rocks, while Uluru is monolithic.  Either in its own right is magnificent, but together they’re worth the sizable detour to take them in.  The one regret I had is that we didn’t do more hiking around these areas.  The challenge is that much of it is off-limits, and so the Uluru area is more of a “watching” than “hiking” place.  But the magical beauty of these “rocks,” together with the special feeling of a sunrise hike, made this experience unforgettable.

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While at Uluru, we went to their Predator Center.  Sterling, always quick to make friends, got on quite well with a Stinson’s Python (right).  Since she can’t have a wombat or echidna as a pet, the python looks awfully tempting.  And the naturalist explained that they can go months without food, making them ideal for families that travel.  Fabulous news!  I’m sure she’ll put this on her Christmas list, but her parents and brother might just exercise some “veto” power on this future pet!

Baseball in Adelaide!

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

Adelaide Baseball 006 Baseball is a terrific sport, and we knew that we’d miss it being out of the U.S. for ten months. So we came up with the idea of trying to find teams in locations we visit and set up practices where we could play, meet people in the country, trade stories, bring something for the kids from the U.S., and see how we can help their program. We’ve gotten help on this initiative from the Boston Red Sox and Major League Baseball. And a long-time friend of ours, Kristie Jochmann, has been driving the program from Milwaukee (!!) and working wonders.

Adelaide Baseball 009 So our first global baseball experience was in Adelaide, where we visited with the Woodville Senators. Kevin Stephenson was our point of contact, and was kind enough to set up a great get together. Some fifteen kids were there, ages 8 through 14, and both boy and girl players. And they were extremely skilled at the game. Their outstanding coach, Lawrie Moore (above), ran a great practice, and put the kids through their paces.

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It was great for Gibson, because he got to play some high-level baseball with some great kids, and get to know kids from another country (who were exceptionally nice to him!). And a dozen parents were there, who were soooo nice and hospitable. I got a chance to talk to them, learn lots about Australian sports, schools, and baseball in particular. (I was amazed to learn that languages taught in schools in Adelaide include Indonesian and Italian, for instance).

As you probably gathered, we brought Red Sox baseball hats for all of the kids there. At the start of the practice, they gave us Woodville Senators hats, which are terrific! I grew up in the Washington, DC, area and was a loyal Washington Senators fan, so I’m particularly enthused about a Senators’ hat.

Adelaide Baseball 031 Afterward, we feasted on a great meal that was prepared, after careful consideration for what Americans like to eat, and traded more stories. They gave us shirts, Woodville Senators’ balls, two great bottles of wine, and a fabulous DVD about their team’s past. I have to say, the baseball and hospitality these great people were kind enough to share with us made it abundantly clear to us how incredibly nice and talented the Aussies are!!!

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