Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Coolamon Scenic Overlook

Click to enlarge and appreiciate - look for hobbitses.

Oct 26 Bangalow Market, More Surfing Clarks

The Sunday Market is a moveable feast around the Byron Shire, and this day it is in the historic village of Bangalow - an utterly charming little spot nestled into a hillside just inland. The market overwhelms the grounds with farm goods, take-away lunch yummies, locally designed & produced clothing, imported fashion - mostly Thai, musicians & entertainers, a range instruments for purchase, linens, incense, organic soaps & lotions, artwork of all sorts, toys.....

We meet Jessie - a one-man band playing the didgeridoo, ankelet bells & shakers and a hangdrum. The drum has lovely steeldrum tones with tremendous range, and we’re told there is only one company that is making them. The company is located in Bern, Switzerland, and, due to demand, will only sell to musicians and are booked into 2009 and not accepting more orders. The reason for the popularity is audible immediately. We buy a cd to share.

Next, we have the pleasure of meeting Tim, in Didgeridoo Sales. He takes all the time in the world to carefully coach didgeri techniques as we experiment with several different types of the instrument. The finest, from which Bailey is able to wrangle sound, is a bloodwood piece with ruddy browns, blacks, deep reds and a natural knot of wood forming a trumpet-like end. All are topped with natural beeswax on the blowing end, then the flared side is set into a wooden dish or tray to reflect sound and prevent the pipe from sliding about and/or digging into the ground. Tim does beautiful finish work on the hardwood pieces, but he points out they are carefully selected from trees from the North that have already been largely hollowed out by termites. I ask Tim if he had a shop or studio space elsewhere to visit, but he says he’s keeping sales restricted to markets as he’s really focused his time on his real pet project - building a psychedelic time machine.

After a lazy market morning and lunch, we stop at stunning Coolamon Overlook to take in the vistas of what truly seems a panorama of a fairytale shire of rolling hills out to the sea. Quite likely, there are hobbits running unseen and barefoot just behind the next tree, or cozied into a hillock cottage for tea. It is such the perfect combination of good air & beauty, that there is a rustworn metal sign with hanglider landing instructions permanently mounted to a fence gate. We then head to Clark’s Beach for a bit more surfing. Maddie meets her goal of “Today, I’m determined to stand up!”

Oct 25 Surfing Clarks Beach

We tried to get in on a surfing class, but the several surfschools in town seem all booked for the weekend. Instead, Bail & the kids get board rentals, which come with a wetsuit, and I beg off, as photographer, to just enjoy Clark’s Beach. It’s the most populated beach in town, which doesn’t really mean much by Northeast standards, and we’ve not yet experienced a problem finding a parking spot. The surf is kinder for beginners, with gentle rollers a few feet high touching in to the unlittered white sand.
Team Surf - Pryor seem to thoroughly enjoy themselves, mostly belly- and knee-boarding with a fair amount of bruising. Finn stands up a couple of times and declares he has a new life calling.

Oct 24 Organic Donuts

Maddie & Finn had been craving these since the first day we spotted the sign in town. If you’re gonna go donut, it might as well be the real deal.

Sustainability in Oz

Historic cottage with simple water capture system.

Online research over the last decade or so has consistently directed me to sites in Australia which seems to be at the forefront of sustainable cogniscence and technology - if nothing else, out of basic necessity. An enormous continent with diverse, but limited resources, Oz has what we would consider an underpopulated, but still rapidly growing culture to support.

Some of the simplest ideas are immediately experienced by the briefest of visitors. Many hotels here (and elsewhere in Europe btw) operate on a card key system that requires your room card to be inserted in a slot near the door in order to activate all electricity to the room. There is no standby current. When your card activates the electricity, you are welcome to do as you need, with the added bonus of a small exterior light indicating that the room is occupied. Upon leaving the room, you remove your card for re-entry, thereby instantly shutting off the current. No leaving the light on, no wondering about that pesky iron....
We’ve seen the same electricity limit principle used residentially here and in South Africa (which has similar power & water challenges). With each outlet, there is an on/off switch to activate power. There is, of course, more room for error here, as you don’t necessarily remember to switch off the outlet energy when you’re done with an appliance - but it’s just a matter of habit. And a handy safety measure as well, I’m sure.

Grey water capture & useage is also very big here (and, again, in SA). Some houses have simple, comprehensive set-ups for rain collection with directed gutters and linked storage, others just use a simple gutter irrigation system. We have seen a total of zero sprinkler systems. The Parks Department in Sydney uses a small greywater tanker truck (the size of a mini-pickup) and a hose to make sure that only the plants that need watering are watered only when needed. Dish & laundry soaps are certified graywater friendly, as I’m sure many people have in-home graywater processing systems.

Other watersmart measures include installing a rooftop hot water tank & solar panel - relatively common. There is a small panel near our shower that, presumably, monitors the rooftop tank with a digital thermometer & power switch. (We’ve not been coached on useage.) And, also in the bath, even the most antique of toilets are equipped with a half-flush option.

Solar panels have government support & sponsorship, and we’ve seen ads for complete residential solar systems installed, beginning at Australian$1500, around $900 US.

And the entire country is very big on “Australian Made & Owned”. Going local and proud is a big deal when your nearest exporting neighbor is New Zealand.

The Lorikeets & Lawnbowling pix

Oct 23 Tallow Beach, Lorikeets and Lawnbowling

Today, we decide to make it a walking day. Arakwal park is just out our doorstep. The sign for Arakwal Park - just at our doorstep, is filled with reminders, warnings and handy illustrations that leave one feeling both bemused & sorry for the heavily pummeled little stick figure. We wander downhill along a baked & crackled terra cotta soil footpath, through the underbush to where the path falls away onto an open field that looks like it may be kept clear by occasional flooding. Another path through the brush opens out onto the beach - empty except for one well-tanned and bedreaded couple out for a quick skinnydip. Further on, we have a little picnic with the requisite seagull and the beach is open out to Byron Light. We find a mini marine Sydney Opera House, and a palm stump walrus - googoogajoob. There seems to have been a fairly constant wind since we’ve arrived, likely augmented by yesterday’s storm, and today is no exception. The surf is a bit chilly and boiling madly, but we’d not planned on swimming anyway as the adult segment of us had been warned against it by locals with shark pattern knowledge.

We hike back up to the house, then north, into the sun and town. We pass some of the charming “character homes” - older bungalows with gingerbreadded deep porches and well developed gardens. There seems to be an entire flock of lorikeets - bright males bickering - fluttering back & forth among the trees of one neighborhood. I’m reminded of a sign from Taronga zoo stating that birds were around about 150 million yrs ago, rainforests showed up abt 60 million yrs ago, predating humans by about that same amount. Even though it seems incredibly lush in the coastal area we’re in, about 3/4 of Australian rainforest has actually already been cleared for agriculture & logging, so if you look at a rainforest map of the continent, you’ll see only specs of forest residue along the Eastern shores & in Tasmania. And because they take about 1500 years to form, (and, presumably have some climate & other assorted requirements as well) - rainforests are not readily replaceable.

Just the other side of the lorikeet trees sits the Byron Bowlo - a clear community staple, well-used & maintained since about the early ‘60s. We have the benefit of coming in at an odd hour and before the workday lets out, so we get some tips on the sport from Steve From The Pub. The basic premise aligns with bocce - with a target ball and points for proximity - but the greens are kept at a verrrry short clip with real grass that appears astroturfy, and the balls are slightly oval and weighted to one side to curve when rolled. It keeps us out of trouble, and we make a decent game of it, although Steve pops open a window from the clubhouse to shout out with a grin “Ya naow thi poynt ah thi gaim is ta git NEAh tha bull, don ya?!

Oct 22 Mullumbimby & A Crazy Hailstorm

The kids and I spend the better part of the day about 20 minutes away and through some sugar cane fields - just outside the town of Mullumbimy. We meet with a group of self-titled “Natural Learner” homeschoolers (unschoolers) that I’d found & contacted online from Connecticut. The group seems to be mostly younger families - and fairly geographically spread out due to an overall thinner population base. The Byron Homeschoolers meet weekly for the usual sort of park or project events, or hanging out at Durrumbull Hall.

The hall is an actual community hall, the likes of which we don’t seem to have any more in the States - I can tell you with some certainty from experience. The local folks came together, created the design plan, made the (mud/adobe) bricks, and began construction in the mid ‘80s on the building with a large open hall, kitchen, baths, storage and extensive wrapping porch & grounds. It opened in 1993 for use at a very small fee for meetings, events & celebrations. There is a family oriented Halloween Festival there on the 31st.

The people are a very laid back, welcoming and well-travelled bunch. We make friends whose heritage includes Israel, Brazil, Scotland and Germany within perhaps just a half dozen families represented. Someone has brought a cd player. Finn’s face lights up, “Mom, listen!” when the first track that comes on is “Pata Pata” - one of the folk classics the kids had learned in South Africa last year. One of other the homeschool families there had also spent time living just outside of Capetown.

Maddie & Finn enjoyed running amock within the palms & vines and climbing more fabulous trees. They fall in with a family of four children, the oldest Maddie’s age, and we are invited to their house - “just ring, anytime after 11 is good”. Goodbyes are cut short by threatening storm clouds and a few juicy drops and bits of hail. In the melée, I proceeded to store the note with our new friends’ contact information in an unfindeable position between the seats of our car for 5 days.

We get some fair-sized cloudbursts dumped randomly on us in our ride home, and as we pull into Byron, Maddie exclaims about what looks like cooler dump zones of ice piled beneath the palms. Though the roads have melted evidence, huge piles of freezer sized hail line the grass, and leaves & fronds litter the streets. Everyone is still scurrying close to buildings with newspaper & cardboard as protective covering just in case the mold green-grey skies let loose again. Waiting at home, Bail has tried to call my cel - which we haven’t activated here - worried about the storm which absolutely pummeled the house with literal golf-ball sized hail. The racket on the metal roof was deafening. He disn’t get any pictures/footage as he had pulled all the equipment away from the porch & windows as shattering seemed imminent. Ever since, we’ve been seeing the local cars that look as if they’ve been ambushed by angry golfers armed with a modified ball cannon.

Our car has remained dent-free away from the storm, so we pop down to Woolworths (the grocery store, not the department variety) as it is nearly the only market open past 7pm. With a goal of comfort food and a movie, we stock up on spaghetti supplies - in this case, Kangaroo Bolaignaise! Hey, ya always have to try the local stuff. We’re not ready for the steak version, but Bail whips up an awesome sauce with the ‘roo meat which has a bit of an earthy-gamey flavor -- perhaps closer to venison.

Oct 20 - 21 Byron Bay

We settle in our our house, our maison-du-semain? Unpacking, discovering the lay-of-the-land, the defunct wifi, and generally a whole lot of well-needed (particularly for Bailey) nothing-doing.

As our biological clocks are still just a tad off, we all awake for a 6am sunrise over the Pacific. (I know, I know - it’s not possible to properly capture a portraist of sunrise or sunset - but it doesn’t stop all of humanity from trying....) From the back deck, we have the perfect sunrise experience with wild birdcalls abound. Our favorite, as yet unidentified, birds have a clear multi-note song that we initially mis-took for a happy early-morning riser of the human variety on a mission to wake the neighborhood. A moderately capable musician could easily capture the sheet music. Musician of any capability, I am not.
Other singers have a lower, single-note whistle, followed by a heightened water-drop sound:
One bird tone makes a quick, bright pinging noise almost like the sound of ice cracking on a pond “TsseeOW!”
And there is a long, lower calm warble almost like that of someone burning out their starter on an engine that won’t catch...
“drrrrrrrrrrrrrh.” Finn can imitate it pretty well.
A lesser favorite is one we call the monkeybird. It makes the rattling stuttered stream of “woo-o-oo-oo-oo-Ooh” punctuated by crow/monkey-like cries “gagh-AGH-AGH!” One monkeybird engages another in fiery dispute until a treefull of raucous monkeybirdbicker fills the air - sometime around 4 - 5:30am. Understandably, Actual Serious Birders - who could likely identify any of the above from their voice - come here from around the world to check out the rainforest & bush avian life.

After an early breakfast at a blissful beachfront cafe, we spend the day wandering the streets & shops of Byron Bay. Overall, the vibe is one that one-ups North Hampton and out-Boulders Boulder in a neoHaight Ashbury concentrate with more blonde dreads than I’ve seen outside of a Dead show. Peace, love & surfing. There are lots of contented smiles, tattoos & piercings, self-aware clothing choices, self-aware-but-not-self-conscious lack-of-clothing choices, international accents, 7 pregnant bellies, veggie/vegan options, outdoor eateries, organic/local market choices, cybercafes, campgrounds, youth hostels/cheap motels, bikes with surfboard rigs, hitchhikers (not left standing), gorgeous vintage VWs, an entire line of fantastically graffitti’d mini-campers available for hire, a ridiculous line-up of live music & festivals - lots of reggae, ska, blues & folk (most of which we’ll miss due to their yet upcoming summer schedule) and a lorikeet in a ficus tree.......

Interspersed with the granola aspect are some of the results of clear & rapid overgrowth of the original small town - those somewhat seedy tourism travel hawk shops, overpriced real estate, some homeless/street peeps, too few crosswalks and some similar urban planning glitches. However, one truly brilliant move of Byron Bay planning is that private beachfront property doesn’t exist. All the area coastline is public-access beach, and/or part of a larger park. All real estate - both commercial and residential, seems to start at about a 500 yard coastal buffer.

Monday, October 27, 2008

October 19 Sydney to Byron Bay

On our last day in Sydney, we followed up on Todd’s zoo suggestion, and take a water taxi across the regatta-filled harbor to the Taronga zoo. A gondola ride from the waterfront taxi-drop to the zoo entrance teases an overview, but I believe the hands-down highlight was on the ground: a walk through the kangaroo enclosure puts red kangaroos and tiny wallaby joeys popping about within petting distance. Larger male red kangaroos pose lazily in the shade... “Check me out.”

We hop a bus back through a Beverly Hills-but-more-cottage-charming neighborhood, over the bridge, and back to town, where we opt to walk the rest of the way, glimpsing the Needle and meandering through the park for a last tree climb before packing up and heading out.

The city thins quickly as we drive North along the Pacific Highway. There are still an assortment of roadsigns that are both helpful and entertaining - reminding drivers to go slowly, rest often, and, of course, stay left. We see at least a half dozen kangaroos within the first few hours - unfortunately all in varying states of rigormortis -- kangaroadkill. Ugh. At long last, we do spot several groupings - generally known as “mobs” (thank you, Josh!) or also “troops” or herds.

An overnight in Coffs Bay - more attractive than the name would imply - plus a few hours brings us to Cape Byron, where we pause at the first available overlook to ooh & aah at the view. Gazing past the hangliders & model planes, the eye can follow the curve of the coast all the way to the landmark Cape Byron Lighthouse perched on the headlands. Incredibly, whales are spouting just offshore.

Friday, October 24, 2008

October 16 - 18 Sydney

Somewhere around 7000 miles into the flight, we cross the International Dateline, then passing over the islands of Fiji at about 530mph with headwinds of 35mph at, I think it was 35000 ft. The Northeastern tip of Australia is now visible on the airplane chart map. Much to Finn’s delight, the Early Morning movie selection is “Speed Racer” - so there’s all that and a sketchy airline breakfast before 7am. We’ve flown into a gorgeous sunrise and get to see the rolling green terrain of the Eastern edge of the Australian continent as we land by 9:45. We collect baggage and find our rental car again, blissfully, without incident. A cheerful lot attendant at Hertz asks if he can be of any assistance. His easy-peasy directions to Sydney are:
“Gaow lift, thin a royt, thin fallow thi soyns ti thi siddy, mite!” Thankfully, a generous traffic-flow and lots of signage remind drivers to also keep to the left....

Sydney is fairly short in stature with the exception of the immediate downtown, and feels very accessible, with a focus on All Things Water around the very active harbor. Our hotel is on a remodeled quay in a former factory building in the now-posh Wolloomolloo waterfront. (Apparently, we later learn, Russel Crowe occupies the end unit of the building when he’s in town.) We can look out over the docked boats to the cityscape punctuated by the Sydney Needle, and over the Botanical Gardens on the peninsula - the lush trees & outcroppings of which just block the famous sails of the Opera House on the other side.

At first glance, the environs seem an easy transition from Los Angeles - palm-laden, breezy, sunny, 70ish, tropical flair. But the reality is no comparison. All the roadside media, shops, radio and an evening stroll give us the Cliff Notes of Sydneysiders: open, direct, fun-loving with a sense of humor that would... say... make a sailor think twice in polite company. Habits include swimming & jogging, yes, and also unabashedly, cigarettes & beer a-plenty, savory pies and various other yummycarbygreasy meat & potato combinations and raucous street-spilling parties --- good on ya!
(Spotted engraved in the filth of a Sydney SUV: I wish my wife was this dirty!)

Mostly the kids and I try to get our bearings and rest up -- Maddie is still a sickie -- but Bailey hits the ground running to get some shots off. We go as a family for a city tour-de-taxi and grab some of the requisite tourista mug shots in the fading spring light....

The next day, we rally as crew for Bail’s interview of Todd Woodbridge - with Finn on Camera Assistant duty, and myself with the unique position of fully blinding the nine-time Wimbledon Doubles Champ and Gold & Silver medalling QuadOlympian with a bounce card that completes the job of reflecting Sydney sun from harbor to Opera House to Todd’s inner ear. He is incredibly accessible and gracious, and clearly a skilled interviewee - providing all the right sound bytes and just the right tenor of enthusiasm for Things Sydney inside of about 20 minutes. A family man himself, Todd also encourages us to visit Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. Upon hearing about the kids’ own sporty side, his words of advice are: Nothing happens by accident.

The continuation of the morning includes an insiders tour (and more interviewing) at the fantastic Sydney Opera House. It truly is an architectural marvel. Danish architect Jorn Utzon won an international contest with his design in 1956, and the Opera House began construction in 1957. The contest had not specified design or budget parameters, and the challenges of meeting design with building & fiscal solutions along with a governmental change of hands and the inevitable critics, drew the construction period out through 1966, when Utzon resigned. The building did move forward with construction and new venues to be completed and opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1973, then some additional work in the mid ‘80s. In 1999, 43 years after its inception, the Opera House regained Utzon as a shepherd to maintain & guide further design principles with his original vision. In 2003, Utzon received the Pritzker Prize, the highest accolade of international architecture, and the Sydney Opera House was listed as a World Heritage site in 2007.

So we figured we had to see a show in all the Opera House glory. While Bailey slaved away the next day, the kids & I attended a matinee of La Boheme - an updated interpretation of the performance - perfectly Aussie. We sat just back from the orchestra, and so were able to see both the singing and playing musicians fabulously, then had to crane our necks back to read the supertitles.
We were okay with the general idea of La Boheme, as I had done a little research so we could be more familiar with the story and music. Also, I wanted know, why “Bohemian”? ‘Turns out, in the mid-1800s, when the artsy types were living in, of course, the “less desirable” (read, “cheap”) parts of the city, the other large part of inhabitants with the same budget tended to be gypsies. Despite being from many various areas, Gypsies tended to be, not surprisingly, lumped into a single category of heritage - the Bohemian district of Czechoslovakia. Hence, all people living in the alternative part of town - Bohemian. I suppose it’s easier to abbreviate and has a slightly smoother ring than, say, Herznegovian.

Walking back through the Royal Botanical Gardens after the show, we saw at least a half dozen weddings under fantastic ancient trees and/or overlooking sparkling harbor vistas. The kids found the Swiss Family Robinson trees hard to resist. Apparently, however, so many of the trees are irresistable, that there are warnings to avoid over-climbing, and even fenced-off areas of arbor refuge for fine samples like the awesome “Bottle Tree”.

We also came across a clearing where an entire flock of cockatoos had settled in the lower tree branches and on the ground, happily being hand-fed by equally happy tourists. The kids were gifted some birdseed and words of encouragment and won the company of a few of the bolder birds. I’m certain it’s a habit that is about as highly encouraged as feeding ducks or seagulls - but, there it is - we get to play the dumb tourists. We did later see the sign asking us not to feed the birds, of course.

Monday, October 20, 2008

October 15, 2008

We sleep through the first wee hours somewhere over the Pacific and it’s gone. We were not touching the planet for any portion of this piece of day. Hmmmm - we could wax philosophical here. Cogito ergo sum.

October 14

Specifically, we are being treated to a stay in Santa Monica, overlooking the beach and famous Pier - As Seen On TV and in many a film. Similarly, Day in LA, the Sequel, brings quite the quintessential lineup of activities: meetings, shopping on the Third Street Promenade, an attempted workout at Muscle Beach, margaritas & rides on the Pier, and a celebrity-sighting (the wild-haired Gary Busey, wrestling a curtain in his beachfront condo.) Yankee Shopper Fun Fact: shopping the clearance racks in L.A. is actually a more promising activity for the, ahem, average sized human - what with all those size zero inhabitants, there are plenty of “M”s left over...!

The LAX airport passage is blissfully incident-free and our plane departs at 10pm for the 14+ hour flight to Sydney. The kids are disappointed that the ol’ 747 beastie transporting us has only the cabin section drop-down screens and not the individual headrest mini-cinema experience they prefer... wah, wah. We all do manage to contort ourselves into some fantastic sleeping positions for a bit.

October 13 Los Angeles via Boston

Thanks to a very early start on the East Coast (3:45am for a 6am flight!) we all have a full day ahead in L.A. Bailey has to hit the ground running for his incessant slate of meetings - the usual schedule for him in this town. The kids and I take it slowly, as Maddie has started our long trip with a low-grade fever and slightly nagging cough - both of which were surely nurtured, and probably passed along, in the petrie dish of our plane. Yummy.

Suggestions of napping were roundly dismissed in favor of inspecting the hotel pool and waiting for my sister, Emily, who is generously making the drive up from San Diego for an afternoon visit. Upon arrival, Emily is well-camouflaged in the fashionista stylings of the courtyard at the Viceroy. We spot her anyway and all head out for lunch - wandering down Main Street until we happen upon Urth Café - touting teas, organic & vegetarian selections and a clipboard-wielding Obama promoter out front. We place our orders, then luck into a sunny sidewalk table.

Aaah, L.A. A Unique Corner of the Planet. People-watching the most watch-conscious of all populations is quite an adventure. During our brief lunch alone, I spot several apparent male models who have been loosed onto the street with the most bizarre of accessories - toddlers. Naturalist Announcer Whisper: (The lone male of the species holds its young awkwardly, apparently unsure of which limb to grasp. Sensing an onlooking crowd, he deftly adjusts his Dolce&Gabbanas while simultaneously tucking the offspring horizontally at his waist... perhaps a protective gesture... perhaps a maneuver to display sculpted biceps... one can’t be too sure.)

A little beach-play and a post-lunch food coma does finally convince the kids of the brilliance of the nap concept. As they rest, Emily and I retire to the courtyard for overpriced & delicious cocktails until Bailey joins us and we plot our next meal - dinner at Cha Cha Chicken, an oasis of low-key authenticity and killer Caribbean food. Hugs all around afterwards as we say our last in-person goodbye on this continent and Emily heads back home.


It’s funny, many people, upon learning of our latest trip, would ask if we were packed yet. Even just 24 hours in advance of leaving the country for two months, those of you who know me could confirm, that sort of pre-planning borders on absurd. We were far too busy clearing the desk of projects; meeting important teen social agendas; making sure the crazy pup & serene cat had a caretaker & backups; clearing the cellar of debris in case of potential fall flooding... that sort of thing. The garden is still a mess.

When it came to sitting down and actually considering which items to put in a suitcase, I stood back to admire the challenge. We needed to pack for:
1. Australia in early summer - 3+ weeks in a Southern California climate of steady 70s with some cool evenings & winds in city, town and, potentially, outback locales, from Sydney haute event to Byron Bay beach boho to hiking the marvels of Australian terrain.
2. Thailand in, technically, fall/winter - 2 + weeks total in steamy Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the jungles in the northern mountains. Wardrobe to include items appropriate for 5 star resorts events, or, potential highland village touring.
and, certainly not least, maybe even not lastly
3. Paris, France into early December - clothing enough for 2 weeks to make it possible to warmly & comfortably do anything from explore the streets & museums to sample haute cuisine or culture in the World Capital of All Things Fashion. Hm.

The final strategy, for my part, was to pack with a focus on French chill, despite it being the shortest of our visits. Finding or replacing a clothing mishap in Paris -- say, a winter coat -- is a far more costly prospect in both the wallet & suitcase real estate than picking up an extra t-shirt in Australia, or sarong in Thailand. We’ll see how it all pans out. Thank goodness we’re not going skiing... at least I don’t think so....