Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hello, Cuddly

Koala!This is first wild koala I've ever met. I didn't see the guy until he was nearly on top of me. I'd come to this place called Teddy's Lookout to see the view. It was a short hike out of the town of Lorne, sitting at the beginning of the Great Ocean Road and the Great Otway national park. There was a platform leading out to the view over limestone cliffs to the sea and the George River running between hills of rain forest. A finger of the platform was jutting back in the opposite direction. Intrigued, I walked down, looking at the view of the trees below. Then I looked up and found two small eyes, a big nose and big furry ears staring back at me about five feet away.

Koalas are typically silent, lethargic animals. When I say lethargic, I mean I've been told they sleep something like twenty hours a day. As for silent, it's probably a good thing. Search for the sound a koala makes on youtube sometime and you'll see why-- someone started calling this marsupial a 'bear' for a reason, and it's not just the face.

If this koala was any indication, they have a distinctive sense of humor as well. A few seconds after I spotted him, one of what I thought was a trio of tourists behind me saw where I was and a second later, why I was there and what I was looking at. Seven more tourists materialized out of thin air and all ten rushed forward cooing and smiling, cameras at the ready, focusing on the cute furry face with their viewfinders. The koala finished munching his eucalyptus leaves, looked at the tourists and cameras, and turned, spreading his legs wide for the photo op. This meant that while all gawkers were focusing on his face, their cameras also got to pick up a few more features for the shot to show the kids the difference between little boy koalas and little girl koalas. Click, click, beep go the shutters, the oblivious tourists beam as they lower their cameras, the koala closes his legs, and turns, steadfastly facing away from all the cameras that return for second shots, no matter what angle they circle his tree from (at least until I sneeze, getting his attention long enough for a few shots of my own).

That's Australian tourism for you. The tourists enjoy themselves. The locals do too.

I've spent the last few days exploring. Hikes in the Great Otway park are a bit different than hikes back home. I don't ever remember finding private land in the middle of a national park in the US. But one of the better hikes I went on led my right through an apple orchard, past a horse paddock, and a field filled with, of all things, llamas. The more interesting example was finding the art gallery in the middle of the forest. A pretty posh one at that, with an attached "cafe" serving prix fixe dinners at $60-$100 a head and modernist cabins on the other side of the sculpture garden. Great setting. Not exactly what I expected.

You may have read about the brush fires that have happened in Victoria, Australia. some are calling it the worst natural disaster in the country's history. Entire towns have been wiped off the map. This is the same state I was hiking in. So I was a little alarmed to find a log or two of the brush I was hiking around charred and smoking.

I hightailed it back to the trail head and looked for a number on the noticeboard for the parks dept. The only number I could find was for a local council that you should call if you wished to have your wedding in the park. I called it, and got three dial tone options which, on the third go around, I finally understood to be the Lorne Caravan campground, a different caravan campground, and the council. I tried the Lorne one first, was told I had called after office hours and should leave a message. I tried again, this time calling the other camp. I heard a number being dialed, then a different voice thanking me for my call and offering the same three options. I tried the second option again and got a different message saying I had reached them after office hours and would I leave and message. I called the first number again, and tried the third option. Yet another after office hours message, but this time with a number to call if it's an urgent matter. On the third try of calling this number it connected, and turned out the be the second voice offering me the options of the campgrounds and council. I hung up, looked at the smoke, and dialed 000 (international 911 for any phone using a SIM card).

That's how I found out that there were controlled burns happening in the area to keep down the undergrowth. They sent a team of balding firemen with white beards out just to be sure (who kept asking "where are you taking me?" as I pointed them to where I saw the thing. But it was all under control. That was the first of at least three such fires I found. Moving on from Lorne to the rest of the Great Ocean Road, we stopped at these huge limestone formations eroded away from the rest of the cliff called The Twelve Apostles. I turned away from them and the sightseeing helicopters circling them to look at something else, then turn back a few minutes later to see a plume of black smoke rising behind them. Nobody around me seemed in the least perturbed. I had to check my camera to make sure it hadn't been there all along and that I'd just been too obtuse to see it the first time. But no, it was definitely new. I tried pointing it out to people. The first time, nobody even glanced up. the second time, somebody said "Yup, probably just a helicopter", chuckled and clapped me on the shoulder as if he was indulging a pre-teen boy who had just told a clever joke. Sure enough, the thing was another controlled fire.

I'm in a different state entirely now, in the Blue Mountains, and I've found a notice saying they're closing some trails to do the same thing here. Even if they are controlled, it still makes me wonder. I'd heard the country was in a drought, but what I hadn't realized was that it has been in a drought for the last ten years. My family comes from a place in Eastern Washington state where we have serious fire issues every year. So seeing fires burning in a 10-year drought, even if professionally controlled, still makes me a bit nervous.

Still, same as usual, I've managed to have a great time seeing sites and meeting people. Sights included my first wild kangaroos, gigantic and deafening wild white cockatoos, a fallen limestone arch aptly named "London Bridge", and the nightlife of the legendary Fitzroy neighborhood in Melbourne on a Friday night. The people included another younger rich retiree, this one a very talkative expert on most intellectual subjects with a passion for steam engines, a pair of classical saxophone players, and an aboriginal elder and didgeridoo expert who taught me the origin story of the instrument-- the great hunter finding a hollow log eaten out by termites, blowing the rest of the termites and then using the same blowing to imitate all the animals he could think of. His spirit still rests inside each instrument.

I should say, since I've gotten a lot of comment on it after my last post, that after I wrote up on it, the anti-american treatment has all but vanished. I haven't had a single problem since then. Either it was extremely localized or I just had a run of bad luck. I'm still seriously considering sending an email to every Sydney backpacker travel agency I can find as well as the city tourist board with the name of the hostel where the door was slammed on me (The Broadway Inn), explaining that, for their information, the establishment does not welcome Americans and CCing the hostel so that they can contact them for details on their policy. Just to avoid future mishaps.

Anyway I've got the basics of a plan worked out for the rest of my stay here, working up the east coast, flying out west, then making my way across the Kimberly to my flight out of Darwin. ready to drop it all on short notice, but after I'm done doing some hiking here and head back to Sydney, my next destinations will be beaches and a port city rumored to have a koala hospital in town that allows visitors. Stay tuned.

Check out this entry's Photos.

1 comment:

  1. Koala's do have that cute factor. The description of its posing when there were tourists reminds me of years ago when our ranch dog seemed to take the most prurient interest in pigs when we had city visitors at the ranch. Animals are blessedly frank.

    Would be interested to know if controlled burning for forest management has been as argued there as much as it has been here in the western US.

    Beautiful pictures of that coastline and nice to see you there.