Australia is known for kangaroos, wombats, wallabies, and …the didgeridoo. Although not an animal, the didgeridoo as unique to Australia as its marsupials. After a week in New Zealand, I returned to Melbourne to spend a day with my sister-in-law Angela and my nephew Josh. They treated me to delicious meals (including ice cream with watermelon and raspberry topping—YUM!) and an enlightening open poetry reading at a downtown pub.

poetry reading 1

An outstanding poet, reading straight from her mac

A number of the poems were quite funny—some even hilarious. A serious piece read by an elderly Scottish poet brought me to tears. Shades of Dylan Thomas. I have to admit, though, there were a few poems that wouldn’t have even survived in my 9th grade classes. Oh, well. It’s all about expression and what each of us has to offer. Josh and I had a heated conversation afterwards about “giftedness.” But I digress.

Back to the didgeridoo.

After dinner, we decided to take in a film (Invictus, a stunning film about Nelson Mandela and the South African soccer team). Just outside the theater we stopped to listen to a grizzled Aboriginal playing his didgeridoo with abandon as he perched on an overturned milk carton.

didgeredoo on crate

Mr. Didgeredoo a la sidewalk concert

I pulled out my camera, shooting photos of him as he played his six-foot instrument, the wide end of which rested on the ground. The sound was deep and haunting, yet captivating. He also marked rhythm by tapping a stick on its side. After we dropped a few coins into his hat, he stopped playing to chat with us.

didgeredoo very close

Our Aboriginal musician

He explained that he’d fashioned his instrument from a small eucalyptus tree he’d found rolling in a river. Apparently it takes years of searching to find a eucalyptus sapling of the right size that has been hollowed out by termites—not too much, and not too little. He lifted the wide end of his crudely-decorated didgeredoo so we could see the termite imprints inside its “trunk.” It was pretty amazing, almost like fossilized images in stone.

Didgeredoo shoing inside to Angela

Showing Angela the interior of his instrument

didgeredoo interior…and a close-up of the inside

He held his instrument as though it were an extra limb—an extension of himself, then sat down to play again. He told us to stand still, and he held the end of the didgeredoo near each of our chests as he played. The vibrations of the lengthy tones emanating from the opening were physically palapable. Quite moving, actually.

Josh and didgeredoo

Josh “feeling the vibrations”.

I later learned that accomplished didgeridoo players master circular breathing to maintain a continuous tone on their instrument; this means they breathe in their nose and blow out their mouth at the same time. To do this, they use their cheeks almost like a bellows to keep the air moving as they inhale. Apparently an accomplished didgeridoo player can play continuously for over a half hour. Unbelievable.

This happenstance meeting offered another fascinating glimpse into Australian culture. Lucky me.

New Zealand’s South Island

New Zealand: it’s all I expected and more. Oh, my goodness.

I arrived an hour late Friday night (my fourth flight on this trip—all of them delayed). I flew Jet Star, an economy airline. Stress ECONOMY. Carry-on only, limit 10 Kilograms (that’s 22 pounds, my friends). I bought myself a huge “purse” to hold my 4-pound computer, my one-pound camera, and my one-pound Kindle, among other sundries. A checked bag costs an additional $160. NOPE! No complimentary anything on the four-hour international flight from Melbourne.

I was greatly relieved to see Mike and Annie’s beaming faces to welcome me—such good friends to be waiting for me long past their bed time.

We drove through clean, comfortable Christchurch (which they assured me I’d love), then settled into our lovely suite, complete with a mega-TV (wasted on us.) Of course, the Australian Open did prompt Mike to tune in tennis. Go Serena!

pink-rimmed begonia

Pink-rimmed beonia

fern tree

Through the leaves of a fern tree

Saturday we woke early to trek into the city, which was hosting the International Buskers Festival—GREAT fun! We meandered through Hadley Park, the third largest city park in the world (behind London’s Hyde Park and NYC’s Central Park). It includes a stellar botanical garden—hence, I have countless flower photos. Amazing. Near one of its splendiferous fountains we came across our first busker of the day, a goofy-looking man who entertained hundreds with balloon-antics.

ballon busker close

Balloon Busker

If you ever go to Christchurch, go at the end of January for this charming festival. We spotted another busker after lunch, a striking woman garbed in a plasticized wig and traveling costume. Mike dropped a few coins into her hat, she gave him a few coy winks, and he joined her robotic antics. We were nonplussed when she collapsed at his feet, but he bent mechanically to assist her re-coiling recovery.

Mike & rusty busker 1

Mike with the traveling costume robot busker

We whiled away our day with museums, buskers, and the Christchurch Cathedral. (I paid a kings fortune for lithium batteries nearby—live and learn.)

Christchurch Cathedral

Christchurch Cathedral

Dinner at a Burmese restaurant with Mike and Annie’s friends topped off a delightful day in Christchurch. Yes, I’d return, for sure.

Sunday we rose with the sun to board a train for a 4-hour scenic trip across the mountains to Greymouth on the West Coast. We chatted, marveled at the scenery, lunched, and snoozed on the ride. The best views were from the very chilly open car, but our cushy seats couldn’t be beat. It all seemed spectacular at the time, but the vistas we enjoyed afterwards tempered my enthusiasm about the train. We rented a car in Greymouth and headed straight up the coast—breathtaking views at every turn.

Ann & Annie west shore

Me and Annie at our first breathtaking shoreline view

We had to discipline ourselves not to stop at each pullover. We did the tourist thing at the Paparoa National Park, where rocks have been formed in horizontal layers like stacks of pancakes, supposedly caused by something called stylobedding, whatever that is. At any rate, it was spectacular—and very hot.

Pancake rocksPancake Rocks

Soon we were crossing the mountains again, an inevitable occurrence when you leave the west coast. They call their mountains the Southern Alps; some are snow-capped, but not many. We stopped again at the Buller Gorge Swingbridge, where Annie and Mike took a zip-line ride across the gorge as I shot photos as I swung on the bridge. We were all a bit jealous of the kayakers below, but our time would come.

swinging bridgeThe Swinging Bridge

We spent a buggy night in a little mountain chalet near Motoueka, then headed across more mountains (hair raising pin-turns) to Takaka, a darling little city replete with hippies, artsy shops, and funky restaurants.

hippie park

Takaka’s Hippie Park

After a berry smoothie, a savory muffin (YUM!) and a strong cup of coffee, we headed to Golden Bay Kayaks. Good call. We rented sea kayaks and headed out, happy as clams. Happier, in fact. On our little tour we saw spotted shags (birds), a colony of pied shags (more birds), a fur seal (who cavorted near our kayaks), a blue penguin (a VERY lucky find), and Australasian Gannets—a first sighting for my bird-watching buddies. What a day!

Annie & Mike kayak

Annie and Mike setting out on Golden Bay

seal whiskersOur seal cleaning his whiskers near our kayaks

kakak group

The inevitable posed kayak photo

gannetThe graceful Australasian Gannet—quite a diver, too!

We stopped about an hour for a picnic lunch, and when we returned to our kayaks, they were 100 feet from the water. Wow. The tide on Golden Harbor was amazing. We paddled back to return the kayaks, then drove to our bach” for 3 nights (short for “bachelor”)—a lovely summer home on the beach. When we arrived, the tide was out and our bach’s  beach consisted of nearly a mile of muddy-looking ribboned sand. Low tide. Because of the the full moon, the tide rose a record 5.3 meters, and as the bay was shallow, it receded over a kilometer from the high tide shoreline.

low tide sunrise

Low-tide sunrise (photo by Annie DeBevec)

After dinner we found a spit where birds hang out at low tide—scores of black swans. Mike stayed near shore birdwatching, while Annie and I picked our way through “rising tide” streams to the water’s edge. It took us a half hour to get out there, and we scared up a bevy of swans. (Sorry, Mike.) As we stood at the water’s edge, the rising tide pushed us back about a foot every 30 seconds. The setting sun over the tide streams was breathtaking, and we also discovered a many-legged starfish stranded upside down in a small pool. He was still alive, wriggling his tiny tentacles in search of sustenance, no doubt.

black swansBlack Swans (photo by Mike DeBevec)

Tuesday we hung around the “bach” (short for “bachelor shack”) until noon. Annie and I took a swim down the shore at high tide—in water that was surprisingly over our heads within feet of our rock stairway. The water was warmer than any lakes at home (NE Minnesota). Afterwards we headed for Farewell Spit, a long spit of land north of Golden Bay, including the northernmost point of the South Island. A 3-hour trail snakes along rolling cliffs across the top of the island, and Mike decided to do the whole hike. Annie and I opted for a truncated version, indulging in an hour on the magnificent Wharariki Beach, where we saw a bare-butted little girl, a few other tourists, a family of fur seals, and a whimsical pair of black oyster catchers.

bare butt girl

Bare-butt beach babe

black oyster catcher 6Black oyster catchers in tandem

We could have stayed there all day, but our goal was Cape Farewell, the northernmost point of the island. We barefooted our way through a stream along the far edge of the beach, then painstakingly dried our sandy feet and donned tennis shoes. There’s nothing worse than hiking with sand between your toes, believe me. We headed up toward the path, only to discover that we had to ford a stream, the same one we’d been walking. DUH!!! We scratched our heads, laughed at our folly, then removed shoes and socks to wade across. Begin again. Another life lesson.

foot fiascoAnnie donning shoes–the second time around

The hike was grueling at best, with straight uphill climbs and vertical descents along the ridge. The path meandered from white post to white post, sometimes disappearing in the grasses. Our hearts went out to Mike, who would be doing the same for three solid hours. The vistas were spectacular—one after the other, and we soon realized we were sharing the fields with sheep and cows as we picked our way around their offal. On our last vertical descent we scared a handful of sheep down the hill. Our final destination (after an hour and a half of hiking) was Cape Farewell. We lifted the fallen sign for a few photos, exhausted. Below us were spectacular rock formations and another family of fur seals.

Cape Farewell

Cape Farewell—the northernmost point of the South Island

We headed down the gravel road back to the car in late afternoon heat. We were late to meet Mike, who had been waiting over twenty minutes. Oops. He’d hiked three hours with no shade, little water, and no hat. As we passed a rushing stream, he jumped out of the car, dropped shoes and shirt, then lay moaning in pleasure as the rushing water cooled him. We were all wiped, but happy.

Burgers on a wood grill finished the day. Another fabulous day in New Zealand.

Wednesday Mike hiked further out Farewell Spit while Annie and I drove back to Golden Bay Kayaks to paddle the day away. Though nothing particularly eventful happened for any of us (except sunburn—the sun here is fierce), it was another spectacular day doing what we loved.

Annie kayak tunnelAnnie kayaking through a rock tunnel

We reconvened at the “bach” for cocktail hour and a scrumptious homemade pizza, celebrating our last evening on Golden Bay. Annie and I trekked out for one last “scourge” of the tide flats, this time in sandals that could weather the many criss-crossing rivulets of receding water. We discovered countless starfish (with countless legs) and hundreds of sand dollars in the waning tidepools. Hopefully the tide would be turning soon to save them from the fate of some less fortunate ones who had provided dinner for plovers and gulls.

starfishOne of our many-legged starfish

moon over Golden BayMoon over Golden Bay

Thursday morning I lingered over coffee, trying to delay our inevitable departure. Charlie the border collie stopped over for one last visit; the little stinker catches tennis balls mid-air. Amazing dog. Indefatigable. His owner must have steel biceps with all that ball-throwing.

The time came, though, that we had to head out on the long trek back to Christchurch. In between breathtaking scenery and winding stomach-wrenching mountain roads I read aloud from a fascinating new novel, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. We were soon entrenched in this story of a young woman writer who attempts to relate the stories of black housemaids in Mississippi in the 60’s with a backdrop of John Kennedy, James Meredith, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Stockett portrays her story through the voices of a number of women—the best attempt at this technique since Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. But I digress.

After an eventful week together, it was hard to say farewell to Mike and Annie and their stunning New Zealand, but I have a feeling we’ll all be returning. It’s just too amazing not to.

Melbourne with the Soderlinds

I’m sitting in the Melbourne airport, and just hugged my niece Laura goodbye. She’s off on a 12-month round-the-world adventure with her friend Yvette. Oh, my. What an exciting thing to do at 23. Their itinerary includes 16 flights (paid for) on a budget of $40 a day. Hmmm… I think they’ll be trading weight for adventure.

I, on the other hand, still revel in the memories of a week with my Australian family. It started with my brother Dave, who lives in a western suburb with his elder daughter, Jodie, who spent her sophomore year with me in 2002. She’s a cheerful, eager, and talkative companion. We spent the better part of four days together, touring the city, the Melbourne Zoo (which was fabulous), and the Yarra Wine Valley (with Laura and Yvette). It’s been a full, fun week for me, and I leave knowing that everyone is doing well. That feels great.

Kangaroo rooftop

A rooftop ornament on my first night in Melbourne

I ran into problems getting here; my flight from Istanbul was delayed by two hours, so I missed my connection in Dubai. Flying experience has taught me not to stress over these inevitable bumps, so I relaxed in the Dubai airport as I waited six hours for the next flight out. Sigh… I watched a movie, caught up on e-mails, and nibbled on a fruit cup. I was re-routed through Singapore, and the good news is that they upgraded me to business class for the final leg of my trip. My goodness. Not only did I enjoy champagne, juice, and a mixed nut dish as we waited to take off, but my seat was soon fully reclined into a bed, with the kind addition of a mini-mattress to soften my already-cushy bed. The stewardess gently woke me for a four-course dinner, so much food that I had to refuse dessert. Within minutes I was fast asleep again until she woke me for a breakfast of yogurt, croissants, cheese, juice, and coffee. Heaven! I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a flight more, although I slept through the majority of it. OK, so I did feel a bit guilty as the other passengers walked through, but not guilty enough to offer anyone my seat.

Dave was there at the airport to pick me up, and he brought me to a nearby coffee shop for a morning java. I was thrilled to learn that the previous week’s hot spell had abated and temps would be in the 70’s, perfect for me. We got back to his house where his trusty terrier Soot met us, and soon Jodie roused to welcome me. We all chatted until it was time to pick up his 17-year-old son, Josh, who I haven’t seen since he was six (my last trip to Australia). We picked him up at his mother’s house, then headed in to the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration on Victoria Street. It was mobbed, but fascinating. Dave’s daughter Laura (who lived with me a full year) met us with her grandmother, Anse. After wandering the streets for a while, we stopped to indulge in spring rolls with an oddly-flavored sweet three-color bean drink. It was actually quite nice.

family at ThyThy

My nephew Josh, me, neices Laura and Jodie, Anse (their grandmother), and my brother Dave.

Jodie had spotted a booth with snails, so we headed back there. Although she coaxed us all, she was the only one willing to suck the little buggers out of their shells. They were a bit green and brown and looked very unappetizing to me. She’s a brave girl. Of course, she’s been to Thailand and Singapore a few times, so maybe she acquired a taste for them over there. She loved how they “sang” as the woman scooped them out of the big pot.

Delectable snails …and Jodie enjoying them

snailsJodie snails

We got home late, and I slept through most of the night, though I woke to hear Josh playing his guitar well into the wee hours. It was lovely—softly comforting in this strange new place. It brought back memories of my older brother Steve playing the guitar up in his room as a teen. I loved it.

Monday we went into the city to explore the musems, art galleries, and parks along the South Bank of the Yarra River. Melbourne’s architecture ranges from Victorian posh to post-modern extravaganza. Though there appears to be little planning, the buildings merge into a fascinating array of styles.

architecture contrast

Architectural contrasts: viewing the old through the new

Josh Jodie gargoyle

Josh and Jodie with a Gargoyle busker

That evening Josh headed back home to prepare for an audition, and Dave, Jodie ended up dining at their favorite Turkish restaurant—normal fare to me, but a treat for Dave and Jodie. I’m really here for the company, so my needs were fulfilled.

That evening we took in an Australian movie: Bran Nue Dae. It was a zany musical about an aborigine teen escaping from a Catholic school, filled with slapstic humor, music, and coincidence. Very light, very fun, and very Australian.

Tuesday was Australia Day, which traditionally marks the landing of Captain Arthur Phillip at Port Jackson (now Sydney), claiming Australia for the British Empire. We began our celebration with eggs benedict (a personal favorite), then a trip to the Melbourne Zoo. I saw my first kangaroo (as far as I can remember) and thoroughly enjoyed the aviary and the new seal enclosure.

Kangaroo resting at the Melbourne Zoo:

kangaroo signkangaroo resting

One delightful feature of this zoo is poetic phrases from a famous poem called “I Love a Sunburnt Country” painted onto “outback relics” posted throughout the zoo. “The stark white ring-barked forest, all tragic to the moon.”, “an opal-hearted country, a willful lavish land.”, with more of Dorothea MacKellar’s poem written on a rusting mobile that swings overhead near the zoo entrance.

kanga poem 3

We particularly enjoyed the zoo’s new seal enclosure, where we watched the staff training a seal to be comfortable with a “fin tournequet” which would be used later to draw blood. Much of their training is geared towards making animals familiar with the intricacies of physical exams, such as looking in their ears, holding their mouths open, etc. Very wise. The seals, of course, enjoyed showing off for their small audience, perhaps as much as they enjoyed the fishy treats tossed to them after each trick. Impressive.

seal training

Ever seen a seal flipper tourniquet?

boy girl seals

How about these sweet seal-watchers?

We joined Laura and Yvette for dinner at a charming pub, where we all tasted roasted kangaroo meat. It was delicious—lean, but rich. I opted for a salmon dinner, though, happy just for a taste of Laura’s kangaroo.

family pub

Jodie, me, Dave, and Laura at the pub

After dinner we drove down to the beach, where we all walked out a long pier to see tiny fairy penguins that hang out on the rocks. There were quite a few people there, all with rose-colored flashlights. Luckily, there was also a wildlife specialist who kept on top of the few thoughtless tourists who tried to take flash photos in spite of clear warnings. After that we settled on a grassy lawn to enjoy carrot cake that Jodie had baked for us. Not exactly the usual Australian BBQ picnic, but it worked for us. DELICIOUS!

Then came the hand-off. I hugged David, Jodie, and Tom (Jodie’s boyfriend) goodbye and hopped into a car with Laura and Yvette for the second half of my Melbourne stay. The girls were staying with Yvette’s mom, Pam, the last few weeks before their world-tour departure, and Pam had prepared a five-star room for me, complete with fresh lavender, lace, and fresh, fluffy towels. Lucky me!

Wednesday morning we woke early for a tour to the Yalla Wine Valley. HOORAY! We picked up Jodie along the way, then drove the hour-and-a-half into a lush, mountain-ringed valley. Our first stop was at the Yering Farm Winery, a quaint pastoral setting that overlooked orchards, cows, fields, and mountains. Though it felt a little selfish to taste without buying, we somehow managed. Lots more wineries ahead! By the end of the day, we’d visited 7 wineries, a dairy with mouth-watering cheeses, and a trendy restaurant. Some of the wineries also had exclusive restaurants and/or art galleries. At one we climbed up to a roofop gazebo overlooking the entire Yarra Valley. Stunning!

wine taster hostOur gregarious hostess at Coombe Farm Winery

At around four we abandoned our wine-tasting and headed out to visit Laura and Jodie’s Aunt Mary Ann, who I’d met a few times in the States. We clambered out of the car to strains of Michael Nyman’s theme from The Piano, and Mary Ann didn’t notice us until the end of her piece—and our enthusiastic applause. An accomplished pianist, she has recently settled in Australia with her gregarious musician husband Alex and their two little boys, Atsin and Ki. Our visit there included a walk along the mountain near their home, wine, hors d’oeuvres, and mouth-watering fish burritos. I was touched by their warmth, their enthusiasm, and their idyllic life.

Atsin Laura

Laura with her little cousin Atsin

Thursday was my last full day in Melbourne, and I had arranged to meet teacher friends who were attending The Australia Cup Tennis Tournament in Melbourne. It was a treat to see them after 2 ½ years; Louise is enjoying her retirement, while Al has taken on a12-week teaching stint in China, so they’re soon off again. I have to admit, it’s hard to resist the pull of international adventures.

Ann Al, Louise

Yet another posed photo–the semi-retired teachers, me, Al, and Louise

After we parted, Laura and I headed for a tour of the Parliament building, which was interesting mainly because of our animated host. We chatted with him after the tour, getting more of a feel for the state politics of Victoria. We hopped on a free tourist tram that circles the city, only to stop just a few blocks later. “Please get off the tram, and if you can help us, please give us a push.” WHAT??? Yes, the conductor sorted the willing into groups, and about a dozen of us pushed the tram back under its electric wire. Apparently the connection had slipped off. Not a common occurrence, but fun.

pushing tram

Yup, we actually got to push a Melbourne Tram!

Then Laura toured me through the State Library of Victoria, the most incredible library I’ve ever seen, with endless computers, quiet reading rooms, art displays—and a beautiful glass dome. Heaven for any bookworm, art lover, or computer geek. After that we went to the beach at St. Kilda, where there’s a sweet little amusement park (Luna Park) that must date back at least a century to when the community was a resort outpost. After sharing a gourmet smoked salmon pizza, we wandered through a botanical garden before heading home.

library wallThis is one classy library reading room, huh?

library dome

And the dome above the reading room

There we relaxed with Yvette and Pam over Yarra Valley wine and cheese.

Today: breakfast, organizing, sorting, packing, and off to the airport for our individual adventures. Bon Voyage to Laura and Yvette as they explore the world, and Bon Voyage to me as I trek to New Zealand to meet Mike and Annie.

I almost envy my own life. Of course, home sounds mighty good, too. It always does.