Auckland — 11 August
Crossed the dateline, so this is actually the 10th, at home. Will get the day back in a month.
Had an uneventful, if cramped and uncomfortable, eleven-hour flight from Los Angeles. We got to Auckland around 04:30 local time, and got held up by customs — my binocular mounting “looks just like a rifle,” the nervous inspector said. Yeah, but it aims at stuff light-years away.
We hauled our bags to a little shuttle bus that took us the half-hour into town, the driver entertaining us all the way — a jolly guy whose accent was only a little penetrable. Through the window I could see the Southern Cross.
Dawn was just breaking as we got to the Copthorne Hotel, on the waterfront. It was an impressive sunrise, with a tiny sliver of crescent moon — the one that tomorrow will provide an eclipse that runs from England to Turkey. We thought about coming to Oz via Turkey, but couldn’t make the days and dollars work out.
We napped a bit and then went out to walk the streets of downtown Auckland, busy and a pleasant mixture of exotic and familiar. MacDonalds and Burger King vying for your fifty- cent dollars along with lots of Indonesian and oriental fast- food joints. Everything a little bit “off,” like the traffic going the wrong way and the futuristic paper money, protected from counterfeiting with an oval of transparent plastic. All different sizes and colors, of course, but only America has dignified uniformity in its currency.
We walked into a used book store and, weird coincidence, found a display of hundreds of old American pulp magazines. That’s Rusty’s specialty, of course, and I had visions of packing up crates of them to send home. But the prices were ‘way high, reflecting how far they’d come.
We had lunch at a Chinese noodle joint. A good exotic lunch for three, for about nine dollars American. A student joint with no atmosphere other than steam and garlic, but for us, that was exotic, too.
Rusty rested for the afternoon while Gay and I took a ferry out to the semi- island of Devonport. (There’s also a causeway, but it takes a lot longer to fight your way through the traffic than hop on the ferry.) It’s an interesting place, lately transformed into a chi-chi bedroom community for upper-class Aucklanders. Nice beaches and a few lovely houses left over from its Victorian and Edwardian past. Huge gun emplacements rusting away, some from the two world wars, but at least one from a Russian problem in 1898.
We did some laundry and met Mark Turner, a friend from Wellington years past, for dinner. He took us out to Mission Bay, a neighborhood halfway around the harbor, youth-oriented and very pretty during the day, though we had to take Mark’s word for that. It did have a nice multicolored fountain at night. We ate at an Italian place, Positano, all of us enjoying a preparation of John Dory, a wonderful downunder fish, broiled and served on a bed of herbed mashed potatoes, a recipe I must try to duplicate. I suspect it’s not in my Italian cookbooks.
Auckland — 12 Aug 99
Found a cybercafe and was able to download my e-mail, but for some reason couldn’t upload answers or this budding travelogue. The woman in charge was helpful but couldn’t provide any answers. Try again later.
It was a brilliant day, cool and clear. We walked uphill to the Auckland Sky Tower, a 1,182-foot-high needle that looks kind of like a 50’s spaceship. It’s a fast 40-second elevator ride to the observation platform. The view was marvelous this crystal-clear day. You walk around with a hand-held speaker that gives a 90-second spiel that changes every 60 degrees or so.
I’ve been to such structures in cities all over the world, but Auckland’s has one wrinkle I’ve never seen — a glass floor, where you can walk and look down a thousand feet to the pavement below. It’s pleasantly scary. (You don’t _have_ to walk on it; it’s an option more popular with children than their parents.)
After that high drama, we went down to the docks and boarded a ferry to Waiheke Island, a 35-minute fast ride. A smooth trip with good scenery, and a bar with excellent wine at $NZ3.20 a glass.
Waiheke Island was pretty irresistable. We went into town and had a fine lunch of garlicky prawns in an outdoor porch that overlooked the long crescent of Oneroa Beach. Then Rusty rested awhile and Gay and I walked around the town and down to the mile-long beach, deserted except for two people on horseback and a man playing fetch with his dog. We talked about coming back some day — and then decided that some day would be tomorrow. So we’ve rented an apartment overlooking the water for the day.
Back in Auckland, I did my cybercafe thing and Gay went up to the casino next to the Tower, and played blackjack for a while. She couldn’t lose! Several people were betting “behind” her, and they may have made more money than she did. Sticking to pretty low stakes, she cleared $NZ170.
Mark Turner took us to his place for dinner, joining a couple of his diving friends for a pleasant vegetarian lasagne.
13 August 99
When I got up to work at 3:30, there was a ferocious storm sending sheets of water across the docks. I had visions of taking a storm-tossed ferry across to sit shivering in our rented apartment. It was still raining at sunup, but eventually it started to clear, with actual sunshine on the horizon in the direction we would be headed.
When we went aboard the 10:00 ferry, it was all bright sunshine and gentle breeze, but the captain warned us that when we got into the open sea it would be pretty rough. It was indeed a roller-coaster ride, the catamaran zipping along through six- or eight-foot swells, the bow crashing regularly with ominous, but no doubt ordinary, sounds of metal creaking.
A shuttle bus was waiting to take us to our apartment, and it was exactly as the agent had described — spacious and modern with a large wooden deck overlooking the beautiful beach. We admired it for awhile, but then found out that one of the things we wanted to see, a museum of old musical instruments, was only open till noon, so we walked on up there under darkening skies.
It was just a warehouse stuffed with old pianos, stringed instruments, and such, but what set it apart from other such collections was that you were allowed to play the instruments. I can’t play the piano, so was limited to chording them, hearing the lovely sounds of clavicord and harpsichord and foot-pumped organ. They had two pianolas, though, one with “Flight of the Bumblebee” and the other with “How Much is That Doggy in the Window,” and I did manage to master them. They have foot pedals to control the unreeling of the roll. It does take a bit to figure out how to do it properly — but that was a strange feeling, to go from ignorance of a musical instrument to mastery, in thirty seconds.
The place where we wanted to go to lunch was closed for the season, but the lady at the information booth recommended Sjepan’s, a Serbo-Croation joint on the main drag. It was superb; we split whitebait fritters and an avocado/seafood salad. The whitebait fritters were actually a delicate omelette made with whitebait sauteed in olive oil, an extraordinary treat. (Whitebait are minnows, usually served as deep-fried fare in fish & chips shops in Britain. The closest you can come in the US is smelt, usually too large to duplicate the delicious crunchiness.)
We went back to the apartment and lazed around. I did a couple of watercolors from the porch, trying to catch the light on the sea and beach and cliffs. Enjoyed a bottle of local wine — at $NZ28 it was the cheapest available; Waiheke Island wines are much sought after. Some of the small vinyards are sold out years in advance. A single bottle of Goldwater 1991 Merlot recently went for auction in New York for $US7500. (That’s when we were last in New Zealand — if I’d bought a case then, I could retire on it now!)
The place where we’d planned on going for dinner was also closed for the season, so we picked another one, the Fig Tree, which was on the other side of the peninsula, on the Tasman Sea. By the time we cabbed down there, though, it was dark, so the view was moot. I was disappointed to find that the place was not licensed, and was resigned to having a meal with only iced tea, but the waitress rummaged around and found us a bottle of wine anyhow. The long arm of the law seems to have a weak grip by the time it gets out to the islands. We had unusual fish and chips, made with cardinal, a snapper- like fish I don’t remember having tried before.
I’d set up my 15X80 binoculars on their menacing-looking tripod, but the sky was hazy. So I turned in and when I got up at 3:00 I didn’t turn on any lights, to preserve night vision. (Brushing your teeth in the dark is easy at home, where you know where everything is. On the road, you might wind up with something other than toothpaste on your brush.) When I pulled the curtains to go out the glass doors, though, I was dazzled by a disappointing surplus of streetlights. The sky was clear, but I could hardly see the Milky Way or the Magellenic Clouds through the light pollution. I did find a place where the brightest light was in shadow, and looked around. Found the Tarantula Nebula, impressive even under these conditions. Saturn’s rings just visible; Jupiter with four moons all lined up on one side. A bright meteor that might have been an early Perseid.
Went inside and wrote for a few hours, and when the sky started to get light, I set up the watercolors and tried to capture the sea in the lemon light of dawn. Not a great painting, but satisfactory as a travel note.
After breakfast we went down to the ferry landing to catch a tour bus, for a two-hour survey of the island. It’s a lot bigger than it seemed, 250 kilometers of roads, 6000 permanent residents, swelling to 30,000 in season. Lots of rich people. It’s sort of like the Hamptons for successful actors, artists, and writers; the only place to live in the summer. Houses start at around $NZ125,000 for a small cottage or condo, and go as high as seven million. A lot of the people who live on the island commute to work in Auckland — 35 minutes by ferry, ten minutes by helicopter, or five minutes by light plane.
Quite a few of the houses we saw were aiming toward self- sufficiency, with solar panels and wind machines for electricity and large gardens for food. Some of them had weird and wonderful shapes, sculpted out of resin or made with the local mud bricks.
After lunch — I had fine broiled salmon served over mashed potatoes; Gay and Rusty split a strange pasta that featured grilled pumpkin — we hauled our bags down to the ferry and made a calm crossing, and then took a taxi out of town, to Henderson. Peter Preston and his family flew up from Wellington to see us, combining the visit with an annual wine-tasting tour of this area. Will write that up tomorrow if I’m able to find the keyboard.
14 Aug Henderson
After breakfast we drove into town with the Prestons, to go to a famous attraction, whose odd name had led to this exchange when we were getting ready to go —
Me (looking through Fodor’s index): What’s the name of this place we’re going to?
Gay: Cally Tarlton’s. It’s under “C.”
Me (looking in vain): No, it’s not. It’s “Kelly Tarlton’s,” under “K.”
Gay: Under_sea_! Like under the water!
So it was “Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World and Antarctic Encounter,” as any fool can plainly sea. Tarlton was a treasure hunter and explorer, and he made this strange attraction out of an abandoned sewage holding tank down by the sea. It’s a 120-yard-long transparent tunnel that curves in a long oval underwater, under a huge pool liberally stocked with fish from local waters, including plenty of sharks and rays and moray eels. You stand on a thing like an airline baggage conveyer belt and watch the huge fish swim overhead.
The Antarctic encounter was a little fakey, but fun. You ride a simulated Snow Cat through a genuinely cold environment, stocked with a hundred or two actual penguins and simulations of other arctic animals. A very plastic killer whale skooshes up out of the water with a limp sea lion in his jaws.
On the way back, we stopped at two wine cellars. The first one had really impressive dinner wines at stunningly low prices. Peter ordered cases and had them sent down to Wellington. I had to limit myself to two bottles to go with dinner tonight, the more expensive $NZ18, about ten bucks in green. The second cellar, Mazuran’s, was more expensive. It’s a family outfit that has been making tawny port for sixty years. We tasted the current year, and it was heavenly, so we got a bottle for $NZ22. Then Gay suggested we take a bottle to Eric Lindsay, our host in Australia, bottled the year of his birth, which we reckoned to be 1946. That was $NZ200, the most expensive bottle of wine I’ve ever bought. (I’ve had more expensive wines bought _for_ me, by editor and agent, but somehow it’s different when you have to pry the money out of your own wallet. I hope it turns out to be fantastic.)
We went out to Avondale and had dinner with Alan Robson, whom we met in Wellington last time down. He made an ambitious Moroccan-style chicken with cous-cous and stir-fried vegetables. A really good fan writer, he’s a funny guy and excellent host.
15 August 99
The Prestons took us ‘way out into the sticks for breakfast at Blossoms, a country restaurant that had been recommended by one of the wineries. It was quite worth it — I had Voodoo eggs, poached eggs served over toast with sauteed mushrooms and bacon, with sour cream and pesto sauce on the side. And a nice morning Gewurtztraminer to go with it, breakfast of champignons.
Then we went out to MOTAT, the Museum of Transportation and Technology, which is both interesting and kind of a local joke. They’re always scrabbling for money, and the local and national governments pinch pennies on them, so half the low- tech exhibits haven’t worked in years, and many of the rooms are euphemistically “under construction.”
Still, it had some fascinating stuff. There were some surprisingly effective things in the hands-on part, supposedly for kids. One was “the kaliedeoscope room,” a simple 16-sided box with mirrors, carefully aligned. You duck under a barrier and find yourself surrounded by an army of doppelgangers. There were interesting things about sound and light and magnets, including a working theramin, which was a gas to play.
(The main reason Peter and Teresa wanted to visit the MOTAT, and Kelly Tarlton’s, for that matter, was for their five- year-old boy, Matthew. He is a fascinating little guy, very smart and charming — though sometimes exhausting for Teresa, who’s fighting a cold.)
Interesting early aviation exhibits. A Kiwi inventor flew a home-made plane only three months after the Wright brothers, though it unfortunately crashed. They had an aviatrix hero, Jean Batten, who was prettier and gutsier than Amelia Erhardt, according to a long film.
A separate warbirds museum was the most impressive part, though, for me. They had a huge hangar full of planes from WWII, with a few examples from earlier and later. There was a bomber bigger than a C-130, which ground along on four huge propellors. A flying boat as big as some cruise ships. And a harrowing movie of planes trying to land on aircraft carriers, and crashing, and of kamekazis coming in and being successful every now and then. (A crusty old air force general expressed his admiration for them: suicide mission or what, they were good pilots who gave everything they had — not, as “common knowledge” has it, unskilled cannon fodder.)
Then the Prestons dropped us off at our downtown hotel, the Albion, which turned out to be superb. We have a large room with attached Jacuzzi (perhaps the only room that sleeps three) for about $NZ120, which would be chump change in most American capitols. It’s right next to the casino, which Gay and I visited a few times. I’ll spare you the dramatic tale of our ups and downs — only slightly more boring than people telling you their dreams — and note that I eventually wound up $250 ahead, and Gay did even better, $573. New Zealand dollars, but we’ll change them directly into Australian, and doubly enjoy spending them.
We spent an evening with the local science fiction group, having dinner at a nice seafood buffet, Valentine’s. It was like most such gatherings, a few dominant people telling the guests their life stories, but they were reasonably interesting stories. And the marinated baby octopus was superb. And the Gewurtztraminer, which I think was Blackthorn; they bought several bottles to keep me happy.
The next morning, Aug. 16, we walked down the hill to the big America’s Cup Village, which isn’t quite done yet (the AC won’t be till 2001), but it was interesting to nose around in the non-hard- hat areas. We had a snack in a curious modish pub, the Loaded Hog. Good food and decor, and no customers but us, at 11:30, which was restful.
Then Gay and Rusty relaxed while I made a hadj out to the planetarium outside town. They didn’t have much at my level, but they did have a Patrick Moore guide to the southern skies, which ought to do.
We spent the afternoon wandering around Parnell Village and its environments, an attractive jumble of old Victorian homes that an investor saved from the bulldozer and rented out as shops. We did some Christmas shopping and also bought a few things for ourselves — alpaca cardigans and an outlandish teapot for my collection.
Parnell Street is full of foodie restaurants. We’d walked by all the ones recommended by Fodor’s, but chose Aqua because it smelled good and had an open fire with a free table in front of it. Good food and service; I had venison sausage over garlic mashed potatoes and Gay and Rusty split an order of roast lamb. Delicious salads, as we’ve had all over NZ, not a shred of boring old iceberg lettuce in them. All spicy and strange greens that may not have come from the vacant lot out back.
Only a few pages to go on my novel. I haven’t rushed it; might as well add another continent to the list of places where it was written. Off to Australia in the morning.
17 August — Sydney
The flight from Auckland was long but unremarkable. Since we were only going to be in Sydney a day and a half, we stayed at an airport hotel.
We got together with Terry Dowling, Nick Stathopolous, and Gerald and Womble Smith for dinner at the hotel restaurant. Caught up on old times for awhile and, with three new time zones added to our collection, turned in early.
Long and interesting cab ride into Sydney proper. There’s no freeway system, so it was a slow crawl along local roads. Architecture a quirky mix of Victorian, Edwardian, modern, oriental, and goofy.
We had about 45 minutes to kill before meeting Terry Dowling, so I went into a cybercafe to try my luck. Another strikeout for Earthlink; not holding my mouth right.
Met Terry at the wonderfully ornate Queen Victoria building. It’s a hundred-year-old preview of Malls to Come. Three stories of shops with a huge open space in the middle. He took us to a couple of science fiction book shops, where I signed all their stock of my titles, and found us a book store with a lot of science books, where I finally was able to find an observer’s guide to the southern sky.
After lunch at a sandwich shop in the Queen Victoria — a cute Polish waitress who kidded us, especially Rusty, unmercifully — we walked down to the waterfront and took a ferry ride out to Manly and back. Beautiful sunny day; fine view of Sydney from the harbor.
(Waiter and waitress footnote — in both NZ and Oz, when somebody is friendly or amusing, that’s just the way they are. There’s no tipping.)
We took a city bus out to the Rocks area, an old historic district with chi-chi shops and interesting joints. Gay and I went into an opal shop and marveled at stones going for as much as $A60,000 (about $US40,000). Looking for a place to sit down and have a drink, we stumbled upon Philip’s Foote, where we’d eaten 19 years before. It’s a place where you choose your own cut of meat or chicken and grill it yourself. Fixed price of $A18.50, the more expensive cuts in smaller servings. With a baked potato and large salad bar, it’s a good deal. We Americans had 8-ounce filets mignon wrapped in bacon; Terry had a big slab of sirloin. (The woman he’s living with is vegetarian, so he takes his animal protein when he can.)
Terry had a job disaster last year — the university where he’d taught for 22 years went under, taking his pension with it. Now he’s teaching a couple of days a week at a college in the city, and he’s actually found the experience liberating. He’d been carrying too heavy a class load, teaching the same things year after year. Now he has a lot more time to write, and he’s selling stories everywhere and working on a novel.
19 August — Airlie Beach
Early flight to Brisbane and then a puddle-jumper out to Proserpine, Queensland. Eric Lindsay, our oldest and best Aussie friend, was waiting for us there, to drive us the forty miles to Airlie Beach.
Nineteen years ago Eric came along with us, with little enthusiasm, to Shute Harbour, outside of Airlie Beach. At the time, he lived in the Blue Mountains, overlooking Sydney, where he had the beauty of the country with the city a short train ride away. Why would anybody want to go to a little one-horse town like Airlie Beach?
Well, he wound up here. His companion, Jean Weber, used to vacation here with her family, and talked him into moving up when he left his banking job to freelance in computers. Now he loves it, and, though he’s able to work anywhere, would never go back.
He’d booked us into the Windhaven, in the middle of town (which is only about six blocks long), in a wonderful light-filled room that overlooked the beach. It’s technically the Pacific, but so protected that “Surf’s up!” means the waves are cresting at six inches.
We met Gregory Benford and Elizabeth there, and went out to an open-air grill for lunch. They had kangaroo steak on the menu — not legal the last time we’d been downunder — so Greg and I ordered it. Not bad; slightly gamey in the direction of elk. Good wine, of course. It’s hard to find _bad_ wine in Australia.
Eric and Jean’s place is an aerie condo, the highest one in a development built on the side of a cliff overlooking the town. It takes ten minutes to walk up to it at a liesurely pace; maybe five minutes at Eric’s lope. A couple of years ago he had a heart attack, and is supposed to have regular aerobic exercise. Walking up and down the hundreds of steps a few times a day will do it.
They have a stunning view out over the harbor, the Whitsunday Islands rising out to the horizon. Jean redesigned the place into a simple and modish “industrial” style, which suits them both. She also works at home; they have two connecting suites.
I’d seen crocodile on the menu board at a place we’d passed, so we went there for dinner. Surprise, it tastes a lot like alligator. Tender and well prepared, sauteed in butter with white wine. Gay and Rusty had Moreton Bay bugs, a delicious lobster-like dish. We were joined by Craig Hilton, an amusing guy who’s a doctor and fan cartoonist.
20 August–Airlie Beach
This is one partying town. When I got up at 3:30 to work, they were still going strong, singing and hollering out on the street. The last bar closes at six, though, and they don’t open up again until sunup.
There’s a lovely bakery nearby; I went out and got us fresh pastries just before Eric came by to escort us to the bus stop. We got on a “kneeling” bus — odd sensation — and went up a couple of stops to Shute Harbour. Passed the hotel we’d stayed at 19 years before. (Good memories of their fabulous cholesterol-packed breakfasts. You’d write out your order the night before, and in the morning they would deliver it to your room; each room had a small door like a dumbwaiter. Lamb chops garnished with bacon, eggs, hash browns.)
From Shute Harbour we took a three-island tour in a fast catamaran. Daydream Island was nearby, just a whistle-stop. Cool and cloudy, but the sun came out as we headed for South Molle. Took a bush walk that started out perilously, crossing in front of the first tee of a crowded golf course. (They don’t yell “Fore!” before they hit the ball — it would compromise your independent spirit to be warned.)
It was a nice bit of jungle, odd brightly colored birds and spectacular spiders. The highlight, though, was a colony of fruit bats, a hundred or so of the cat-sized things hanging in the shadows, mumbling and screeching at each other.
A good plain buffet lunch on the island. I wouldn’t have minded spending the day there; it’s a resort with a beautiful white beach, where you can rent little sea kayaks and two-man sailboats to explore a big calm bay. I would’ve liked at least an hour for a watercolor; there were several spectacular views. But back on the boat; off for Hook Island, argh, mates.
The boat tied up at Hook Island’s Underwater Observatory, which is on a small coral reef about 100 meters from the island, connected by a walkway. From the walkway, we fed fish handfuls of pellets and chunks of stale bread, and all sorts of interesting species came up from the not-so-vasty deep. Parrot fish and angel fish the size of manhole covers, and a big hulking wrasse. The observatory itself was less impressive to me, cloudy windows and dim views of various kinds of coral, with an occasional small fish.
They gave us directions to the main beach, smooth path or the short way, a bush walk. Greg and I took the latter, and it was a bit of exercise, clambering over rocks and stumps, talking about cosmology and metaphysics and the latest publishing disasters in New York. At the beach you could snorkel or SCUBA, but we put one toe in the water and said no way, mate. Never swim in water that’s cold enough to make bourbon and branch. So we sat on the beach drinking plonk (box-o’-wine), waiting for our turn on the glass-bottom boat. Some kids went in the water, but I think the only adults who dared were the ones with wetsuits.
The little glass-bottom boat did give us a pretty good view, the sun coming out from behind the clouds long enough to show off the colors of the coral. The ride back to Shute Harbour was long, but leavened with tea and sweet rolls and tapes of the Chaplinesque Mr. Bean.
In the evening we took Greek carryout up to Eric’s, where he figured out how to get me online to do the email I had hanging around since Auckland. I was relieved and annoyed to find out that it was Earthlink’s fault that I couldn’t get through, rather than my own ignorance.
This morning I finished the first draft of _The Coming_! And it’s our 34th wedding anniversary — or at least it would be if we were on the other side of the IDL.
Nice to have the novel done early. Gay has more than half of it typed into the machine; I should finish my rewrites sometime in October, and deliver it more than two months ahead of time.
Eric took us down to the Saturday morning market that lines the southern part of the beach. Gorgeous fresh fruit and vegetables in orderly array in one section, with people standing patiently in a long queue with their baskets and carts. A far cry from the clamor and chaos of Boston’s markets.
There were the expected silly souvenir stands and craftspeople selling Aussie versions of the ceramics and woodworkings you would find at home. I did find one thing I’d never seen before, and bought four of them — it’s a thick dowel turned on a lathe so that it serves as a handle for plastic shopping bags. That will ease shopping in Boston, particularly, where we walk and ride the subway a lot, the plastic strips cutting off circulation to your fingers.
We drove a few miles out of town to see the Australia Wildlife Park, and immediately got into a small adventure. We bought our tickets and were advised that the small animal show was in progress, so went on down there. The guide was passing around animals, and brought out a four-foot pink python, beautiful if you like snakes, but kind of big and powerful-looking if you don’t. A guy in a wheelchair asked whether he could handle it, and she carefully transferred it to him — and he leaned back and fell over backwards, the chair being at a slight angle. The python went flying, which produced an intense eek factor amongst the herpetephobic. Here’s an interesting psychological exposure: Rusty went to help the man who fell over, and I ran after the snake. I picked him up with two fingers behind his head, and loosely grasped him halfway down. He wriggled but didn’t really resist, and calmed down immediately. I let him crawl up my arm, around my shoulders, and down the other arm, and then passed him on to Gay. The wheelchair guy got himself back up and had a good time with the snake. We went on to pet a koala and a blue-tongued lizard and a something-dragon, a hard knot of scales that showed no sign of life. And a sugar glider, a lovely little creature the size of a large squirrel, with webbing between its legs so it can glide from tree to tree.
Then we went on to the crocodile show, which was interesting. The owner of the park has been collecting them all his life, as his father did before him, and walked barefooted among some big specimens with aplomb. Well, they were pretty fat and sleepy-looking, so I was thinking they’re really no more dangerous than alligators. Then he threw a piece of meat at the biggest one and it snapped it out of the air, literally faster than the eye could follow, its jaws making a sound like two heavy boards being slapped together. It sat there with jaws wide open, and he gently placed another piece of meat in its mouth. It eased down on the meat slowly and swallowed it. He said crocs have different patterns for live (moving) meat and carrion. Not a trick I would feel comfortable duplicating.
After feeding a few more crocs, he led us to a shaded seating area and gave a lecture about snakes. Pretty standard stuff about how useful they are and how to behave around them. He passed around some pictures, including a grisly one of an person — adult if small — who had been crushed and eaten by a huge python. He was half digested when they killed the python and cut it open. A slight cultural difference between Oz and the U.S. — they’d never show that picture at Ross Allen’s snake show in Florida. Kids would throw up and parents would sue.
We looked at some birds and petted some kangaroos and dingos (or dogs whose cage said “dingo”), and then Eric went off to take Greg and Elizabeth to the plane, so we had an hour and a half to kill. I looked for a piece of landscape to paint, but there was nothing that didn’t look like a scruffy little zoo in the wintertime. So I sought out animals that would stay still long enough to paint — a koala, a stick-legged bird, and a snake resting after a meal smaller than the smallest human.
We had a celebratory dinner at the fanciest place in town, the Courtyard. It’s BYO with a corkage fee, so I found a bottle of good champagne as well as a nice red and white. The food was excellent; I had kangaroo done in an upscale way — seared on the outside, rare inside, served with a berry- flavored reduction. The restaurant also had a “cakage” fee, since there’s a great bakery next door, but we were all too full to take advantage of it.
Lazy day. I worked on a short story for a few hours and when it got warm, went out to ogle the beach a little. Only one brave topless lass; Eric had warned me that sometimes the beach is full of beautiful women wearing nothing but tiny thong bottoms. I had steeled myself for that.
We had a leisurely lunch at the Hog’s Breath Cafe, distantly related to the chain in Florida with the same name. Good ice cream afterwards. Then we packed up and Eric drove us to the airport. We were the only passengers they picked up here; the pilot didn’t even shut down one of the engines. About a two-hour slow flight to Cairns. Gay sat next to a precocious fourth-grader who kept up a nonstop stream of jokes, some of them pretty salty. I enjoyed the flight, complimentary wine and some fine stories in Gardner’s Best Of anthology.
It was late when we got in, so we just had a light meal at the hotel restaurant — pumpkin and potato soup, something you don’t find at McDonalds — and watched some odd Ozzish TV.
Out of the hotel at dawn to be picked up for the Quicksilver Reef Tour. Rode a bus around for awhile, picking up people at various hotels, and then drove north for a couple of hours. Got aboard the Quicksilver at Port Douglas and had tea, then they stowed all the hot drinks, because it was going to be a pretty rough ninety minutes out to the reef.
The Quicksilver’s a big ship, an oceangoing catamaran that can do 30 knots. It was a wild ride, the ship pitching and yawing as it sliced through swells. People did a lot of falling down and a little throwing up. Mental note: think twice before you get aboard a vessel with more barf bags than passengers.
Our destination was a large semi-permanent diving platform on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. It was big enough for 150 people, with snorkel and SCUBA equipment ready and waiting. It also had a semi-submarine; a boat with a lot of weight in the keel, so you sat on benches below the waterline and looked out of large windows.
The water was still cold, though not as cold as at Airley Beach — 19 degrees C., which is about 66 F. We decided to do it, even though we don’t normally expose ourselves to water under 80.
But first, after a buffet lunch, we took the submarine ride. It was marvelous, complex and colorful coral mountains with all kinds of brilliant fish. Giant clams with bright blue and green lips. When we returned to the platform there was a group of SCUBA divers playing with a blue Maori wrasse the size of a St. Bernard, and with a similar temperament. As long as they fed it, it would allow itself to be petted and hugged for photos.
Then Gay and I went into the water, which was not so cold once you got totally numb. I had a shortness of breath that may have been partly panic (partly an allergic response I’ve had off and on since we arrived), so I didn’t venture far from the platform. The most impressive fish were near there, anyhow, since they were being fed. Lots of bright red snappers and clownfish and angelfish. The huge Maori wrasse came up to give us a look. There was a beautiful giant clam, more than a meter wide, with glittering green-on-blue lips. I was comfortable in the water after about fifteen minutes, but started to get piercing earaches in both ears, so I got out and took a healthy cold shower and gratefully got into dry clothes.
The ride back was pleasant though no less rough; some people did get sick. I just read and drank wine. On that leg and the bus trip back, I read two good novellas, Ian McDonald’s “The Days of Solomon Gursky” and Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” which I think is one of the best science fiction stories I’ve read in years.
We had dinner at Barnacle Bill’s, an upscale seafood joint that the hotel recommended. I had lightly fried Moreton Bay Bugs, a toothsome delicacy that’s either a small lobster or a large crayfish.
We caught an early bus to the Kuranda train. The line from Cairns to Kuranda was built more than a hundred years ago, and was a remarkable feat of engineering — fifteen tunnels hand-hewn through the mountains by Irish and Italian laborers, and the tallest trestles ever raised. There were evidently a few one-sided battles with the aboriginals, though that’s only alluded to vaguely in the tourist displays. The track that the railroad followed was one that the natives revered as having been laid down by a creation serpent. A breathtakingly beautiful ride with occasional broad vistas overlooking the sea, with Cairns on the horizon.
Kuranda is a pure tourist trap, but interesting enough. I actually would have liked to have spent a day there, eating emu-burgers and shopping for presents. We were on a semi- organized tour, though, and only had two hours. So we went through an interesting butterfly enclosure — set up almost exactly like the one outside Atlanta, but with different butterflies — and an aviary full of, surprise, birds. Lots of brightly colored cockatoos and cockateils and parrots, and grouchy-looking emus and cassowaries. One drab little bird landed on the railing in front of me and I reached my finger under it, and it hopped aboard, scrambled up my arm and perched on my shoulder. When I didn’t feed it, it flew away.
We returned to sea level on the Skyrail Rain Forest Cableway, which gives a breath-taking ride over five miles of rain forest, just above the forest canopy. Local environmentalists opposed it (a group of them formed a circle around a huge tree, with their hands Superglued together, but it turned out to be the wrong tree), but it seems to have been done with minumum impact. No roads were cut through the forest; the supports for the cables were brought in by helicopter. There were two stops on the way down, where you could walk through the rain forest on a boardwalk — with an umbrella; it was raining wombats and dingos.
At the bottom we went to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, where we had a surprisingly good buffet of curries, and then saw a couple of shows, a well done creation myth play with live actors supplemented by holographic “supernatural” projections, and a movie about aboriginal history, which does not paint Europeans in a very sympathetic light. Well, we _did_ steal all their land and kill 90% of them, some for sport (“snipe hunting”), so you can’t blame them for being miffed. Outside, we saw demonstrations of the didgeredoo, a marvelously flexible instrument in skilled hands (a one-note tuba for the rest of us) and native aboriginal food. We got to try throwing a spear with a spear-thrower stick, and then hurling a boomerang. I was less than successful at both.
When we returned, I thought I could make up for my shortcomings as a great white hunter by going to the casino. Wrong; I lost $200 at blackjack, all but erasing my $NZ250 win. Gay won $202, though, so at least the casino came out slightly in the red from the two of us. Went to a food mall in the “Night Shops,” a sprawly mall partly open to the air, and picked up takeaway chicken-and-avacado rollups for dinner. Early plane tomorrow.
The flight to Alice Springs took us over dramatically inhospitable territory, pure desert with occasional patches of green, sliced through with broad dry river beds that flood with the occasional typhoon. There was a half-hour time change; the first time I’ve ever experienced that.
Rented a car and had the usual problems, cautiously driving on the left. You keep signalling with the windshield wipers and scraping rubber on the curb, turning left. I managed not to hit anything heavy. At noon we drove out to the Alice Springs Desert Park, stopping on the way at a little take- away for fish and chips. Delicious barramundi, but a disquieting note — the modest place was protected with bars on the windows and a heavy barred door. We’d been told that the crime rate in Alice Springs was very high.
The park was set up well, lots of different habitats. You walk a winding trail a mile or so long, with stops here and there for aviary enclosures and timed demonstrations. We saw one on finding food in the desert, not all roots and berries. There’s a kind of ant that carries around a sac of honey, and a yummy worm that hides in a gall on the side of a tree. Witchety grubs, we knew about.
There was an interesting program on birds of prey, released one at a time by a falconer who stayed out of sight. One was an egg-eater who goes after eggs, or egg-shaped things, by instinct; it’s not learned behavior. Only two species in the world do that. They demonstrated with a black L’eggs “egg.” It pecked it to pieces. They had a magnificent black eagle, a predator whose behavior has been profoundly modified by human behavior … their numbers greatly multiplied when rabbits were introduced, and now that rabbits are coming under control (because of an introduced virus) they’ve had to become scavengers, subsisting on roadkill. They cause a lot of outback highway deaths, because they sit protecting their “kill” until the last moment, and then fly up slowly, gorged with food, to windshield height.
They had the largest nocturnal animal building south of the equator, full of interesting rodents and echidna and snakes. Bats and bugs and lizards, oh my. Walking sticks a foot long.
Back to the hotel for dinner. I had a lamb butt, which sounds funny but was pretty good. Then we went to the hotel casino, which was a mistake, for me (Gay won some). I went in for $A500 and lost it all, finally to a dealer who kept getting 21. Everybody else had left the table, but I stayed on, having faith in mathematics. Somehow he kept getting blackjacks. Gay later observed that it wasn’t exactly Las Vegas. He could have been doing card tricks on me, the pit boss approving.
Drove into Alice for breakfast on the outdoor strip called Todd Mall. Pleasant enough, but then I went into a cybercafe and wasted 45 minutes trying to make things work. After two “helpers” weren’t able to help, I found out that the machines “didn’t take” floppy discs. Well, I got news for them. The machine halfway took my Eudora disc — it read it but wouldn’t process it. Anyhow, I wasted 45 minutes, $A6, of computer time that they might have saved me by putting a piece of tape over the floppy intake.
About a third of the people wandering around the shopping area were apparently poor aboriginals. I say “apparently” because they were mostly unwashed, unshaven, dressed in old rags — but that would have described most of my friends in the sixties. Maybe their appearance was at least partly an expression of cultural apartness. Maybe they were just dirt- poor, too. They wandered into shops but I rarely saw them buying anything but booze. (I wanted to buy some wine myself, and followed a big arrow to a “Bottle Shop.” It turned out to be a little smoky bar with shoulder-to-shoulder aboriginals, which probably didn’t dispense the vintages I sought. The clientele were drunken and loud and looked at me, in unison, as if I were a martian.)
I don’t mean to be coy about the unwashed bit — out in the outback, of course, people don’t wash, for lack of water, and if you’ve grown up that way, you might think that daily bathing was strange and even unhealthy. I once went without bathing for eight weeks, in the dry season in the boonies of Vietnam, and when I finally took a shower it was both refreshing and weird. White or black skin under all that red dirt! I’m sure we smelled totally rank, but when everybody around you does, you don’t notice.
We spent the afternoon on a bus tour of the town and environs, which turned out more interesting than I had expected. First we went to an odd art gallery and museum, Panorama Guth, whose main feature was a giant painting-in- the-round, a 20-foot-high canvas in a circle about a hundred feet in diameter, showing typical Australian sights as well as singularities like Ayers Rock and the Reef. Guth also painted competent portraits and figure studies and smaller landscapes.
From there we went to the only part of Alice Springs that everybody knows about: the Royal Flying Doctor Service. In service since 1939, the RFDS serves an outback area larger than Eastern Europe. Anybody in the outback who can get to a radio or telephone or the Internet can call for help, and a doctor will either fly out or prescribe medicine for you. Hundreds of places like large farms, churches, and tribal centers have “medicine boxes,” with 100 different medicines that are updated regularly by nurses in 4WD vehicles. The doctor advises which medication to use and keeps in touch.
(It’s led to some obvious jokes. “Doc, we was all out of Number 10, but I gave ‘er two 4’s and a 2, and she’s doin’ fine.”)
A similar institution, one that grew out of the RFDS, is the School of the Air, which gives instruction to outback children from preschool through grade 8, whereupon they usually go into Alice or Adelaide to boarding school. (It comes to about 140 students in 1.3 million square kilometers.) The teaching methods are peculiar but effective; their children wind up at least a grade ahead of those conventionally taught, when they reach high school. Part of the service is that all the kids are flown into Alice for a week each year, so that they can learn to get along in a normal classroom situation, and get a semblance of the social skills that children normally pick up on the playground and in class.
The government pays for it. All the kids’ computers we saw on the film were new Apples, so I suspect there was some kind of semi-charity thing. They do a lot of their homework via the Internet, though cloudy weather means down-time; they’re all solar powered.
We made a stop at Anzac Hill, a war memorial on a hill that towers about a hundred feet over Alice. It looks like a small town with a lot of trees, which is kind of remarkable when you think about it. They’ve only had three inches of rain in the past eight months. But they were smart enough to plant only autochthonous desert trees, and so haven’t suffered the water bills that places like Palm Springs bought into.
The end of the tour was a walk around the old Telegraph Station, which was a big deal a hundred years ago. England was months away by boat, but the Crown had run telegraph lines as far east as Singapore, and they were laying one to Java. So there was a lot of interest in hooking up to it. The Alice Springs station was built as the midpoint of a line that ran through the wilderness from Darwin down to Adelaide. It was a huge enterprise for its time, and it lasted until World War II, when the Japanese bombed Darwin and the line was cut for security reasons.
We had dinner at a sort of outlandish place, Overlander’s Steakhouse. Their claim to fame is the “Drover’s Blowout,” which is sort of a little bit of everything, plus dinner. It’s probably the only time I will ever sample six different species of meat in one meal. After your pumpkin soup, which was delicious, they bring out the “entree” (appetizers, in Oz) — a few bites each of crocodile, camel, emu, and kangaroo. It wasn’t easy to compare them, since each was prepared with a different sauce, but we all liked the ‘roo best. Camel was interesting; a texture like liver but flavor like mild beef. Then we had our main dish, in my case barramundi. But I had a bite of Gay’s beef, just to make it six species. (If only Rusty had gotten lamb…) Lots of good vegetables and a desert of pavlova, fruit around a cake of meringue.
We got up at a reasonable hour and set off down the road to Ayers Rock. Various people had told us it was a four-hour or a five-hour drive; we figured on six, for conservative Americans not used to driving on the left.
The road surface was good but the road was rather narrow. Interesting desert (actually semi-arid) scenery as we rolled along, and we did see several of those black eagles feasting on kangaroo roadkill, fortunately well off the road.
Both Gay and I found it hard to keep the speed down, since there were none of the usual referents — odd car, odd scenery, no rules — but I was passed even at 140 kph (87 mph) while we were still fairly close to Alice. I eventually, with coaching from passengers, was able to keep it down to 130 and even 120.
About a third of the way to the Rock, we hung a right and chattered down a half hour’s worth of cordury road, all dust and loose rock, to visit the Henbury Meteorite Craters. An absolute must for anybody interested in astronomy or space, though most of the guide books ignore it or dismiss it with a line.
Four thousand seven hundred years ago, a large meteorite came in and broke up into fragments before slamming into the earth. Probably several tonnes of iron and nickel, it left a cluster of craters, four of which are still prominent after millenniums of weathering. More than a half-tonne of metal has been collected, with one chunk over a hundred kilograms. Twelve craters are still visible, the smallest six meters wide and only centimeters deep.
The largest one, about 180 meters across by 15 deep, is actually a pair, the relatively soft ground between them having washed away. You can still see the molten material that comprised the inside walls of the original craters.
One smaller crater is also the deepest, so it gets most of the water, and is filled with trees and spinifex grass. Birds and animals are attracted here, to mate with and eat one another. It’s reportedly a popular night spot for dingos.
In its quiet way, the site is more impressive than the big Barringer crater in Arizona. The craters are the size of the ones we’ve seen on television, when the Apollo astronauts were tooling around on the Moon. The iron-rich dirt makes it seem like Mars.
On our way out, we stopped the car to investigate a pile of bleached bones. It was a cow that had wandered god knows how many miles from home. The bones were heavy, and were scattered far enough that I don’t think it was just birds pecking away. (Two days later I had a nightmare where I picked up that thigh bone and heard a chorus of growls behind me.)
There are four gas station/restaurant stops along the road from Alice to Ayers Rock, and, like most people, we stopped at all of them. At the second one we had lunch, and I finally succumbed to ordering a hamburger with “the lot”: a four-inch high sandwich with a (small) hamburger, cheese, fried egg, bacon, beetroot, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a fried slice of pineapple. It’s the beetroot and pineapple that makes it. One per decade won’t kill you.
In late afternoon, we finally saw Ayers Rock looming over the horizon. Gay confirmed our reservations for the sunrise trip tomorrow, and we went off to explore the Ayers Rock Resort, a large complex that was to hold us captive for four days. There’s nothing else within hundreds of miles except the airport and the closed-to-tourists aboriginal camp.
It’s reasonably well laid out, if you don’t mind long walks and don’t need a wheelchair. Lots of steps and no elevators. But when you do get to the central area, it’s kind of interesting, shops and cafes that are high-priced but not unreasonable.
The main restaurants are all associated with the three hotels. Ours has the unfortunate name “The White Gums Restaurant,” which is not a warning about dietary deficiency or periodontal disease, but rather the name of a local tree. We shied away from it and had a light dinner at Geckos Cafe, which is not such a great name, either.
The next day we got up before dawn and got on a tour bus for “Sunrise over Ayers Rock.” Actually, it was “Sunrise Whilst Picking Up People From Every Hotel,” but never mind. The Rock did look beautiful in the clear desert air, looming impossibly large as we approached it.
It was only a couple of degrees above freezing, but we’d dressed for it. We drove around the Rock, stopping three places to look at cave/wall paintings and a watering hole, which looks like a spring but is actually a catchment — the lowest place around, where rainfall runoff accumulates.
Of course the aboriginals used the catchment as a supermarket. They were careful not to leave human scent around it: instead of taking water from it directly, they dug holes some distance away, the water table being close to the surface. They could then hide in the caves near the approach to the water hole, and wait until a couple of kangaroos went in, and then close them off and attack.
Some people make a big deal of climbing Ayers Rock. They weren’t allowed to this morning, because of high winds. There are signs all around saying that climbing the Rock is an insult to aboriginal culture, but people do line up for it anyhow, and the state has provided handrails and chains to minimize legal difficulties.
I wasn’t really tempted. It’s much less than a 45-degree climb, most of the way, and I trudge about as high every morning in Boston, climbing 29 storeys while reading the morning paper. So it wasn’t worth getting the collective aboriginal nose out of joint.
We spent an hour or so at the Cultural Center, which is a museum with a gift shop attached, or vice versa. Neat stuff about language and living patterns; hands-on displays and videos. I actually bought a necktie with an aboriginal gecko design, and an irresistible notebook. I guess you know you’re middle-aged when you go into a place full of hiking gear and buy a tie.
For dinner we went to a cook-it-yourself barbecue, and did skewers of kangaroo, delicious with “chilli sauce,” which is a ubiquitous medium-hot sweet sauce that tastes kind of Chinese-Texan. We got the ‘roo and a baked potato and corn on the cob, plus salad bar, for $A13.50, less than ten green, not a bad deal for a captive audience.
The next day we went out to the Rock on our own hook. I dropped Gay and Rusty at the Cultural Center, and drove back to a turn-off a few miles away, and spent a couple of hours painting. First I did an ink line drawing of the Rock, and colored it in, to get the feel of it, and then a watercolor without line. The first one actually looks better.
In the evening we’d booked a “night under the stars,” actually an hour or so with a local amateur astronomer. There was only the three of us and another couple, for the 7:30 one, which I’d chosen because the almost-full moon was rising about 8:30, and I knew its light would wash everything out.
It was most interesting. He showed us the southern constellations, using a powerful searchlight as a pointer (which would also destroy your night vision if you weren’t careful). Something I’d never seen before was the aboriginal “constellation” of the Emu, comprising a dark cloud in the Milky Way that stretches over about a third of the sky. There’s a whole menagerie up there, I knew from reading; the aboriginals didn’t make constellations out of star patterns, but only from the dark shapes. He didn’t show us any others, though.
Then we moved to the telescope, an 11″ Celestron, and looked at a few things, notably the Eta Carinae Nebula, a fantastic blob of glowing gas, and Omega Centauri and 47 Tucanae, two amazing globular clusters that aren’t visible from most of the US, and the lovely Jewel Box, an open cluster next to the Southern Cross. I would have spent more time at the eyepiece if I’d known what was coming the next day.
Then the moon came up and everything was pretty well blotted out. We chatted for awhile in the observatory shed, and then a busload of Japanese tourists showed up, and we took the bus back.
Finished writing a short story, “Four Short Novels,” this morning.
Ayers Rock isn’t the only geological singularity out here. “The Olgas” is another outcropping, thirty-some miles south, which is almost as impressive. We drove out and stopped some distance away, at a covered rest stop, where I spent an hour or so doing a watercolor, while the ever-patient Gay and Rusty read the signs about what kinds of tracks to look for, over and over. I wasn’t ecstatic with the painting, but looking at it now, I think it’s better than either of the Ayers Rock ones.
The goanna lizard tracks were neat, the broken line of the tail dragging through the sand between the pitter-patter of little feet.
Gay and I picked our way up a 1.25-kilometer rocky track, a wedge-shaped space between two huge rocks called the Valley of the Winds. It _was_ windy at first, but then it calmed down, worse luck. The wind had kept the biting flies away. But it was interesting anyhow, an otherworldly landscape that ended in impenetrable bush, around a catchment. Many odd birds.
Close up, the difference between the Olgas and the Rock was striking. The Rock is an asteroid-sized chunk of smooth red sandstone that thrusts out of the desert literally like the tip of an iceberg (the underground part is five kilometers deep); the Olgas are a set of similar rocks that are conglomerate, not sandstone. Not only is the surface of the rocks rougher, but there’s dramatic evidence of shattering due to water seepage: water will work its way through a fault in the conglomerate, and then freeze and expand. This results in holes in the rock face, with car-sized boulders resting on the ground below.
In the evening we’d signed up for “Sounds of Silence,” called the ultimate alfresco experience, dinner in the desert, under the stars. It was pretty neat. We took a bus out into the middle of nowhere, and walked up a dune to drink champagne and watch the sun set. Then we walked down the other side of the dune, to where there were linen-set tables with elegant dinnerware.
We’d met an interesting pair of guys, German and Australian, old mates who were taking a holiday together. (The German had worked in Australia years past; the Australian was a transplanted American.) We took a table together and had a fine time trading jokes and getting, perhaps, a bit tipsy on the unlimited wine of a vintage appropriate to the $A95 tariff.
Disaster struck. For weeks I’d been lugging around my heavy 15X80 binoculars with their heavier tripod and parallelogram mount. I’d brought them out here, knowing the sky would be dark for about an hour and a half, before the moon rose. But when I opened the case to set them up, I found the binoculars had broken in transit. The post that connects the eyepieces to the body of the instrument had sheared. So I had two pieces of elegant but useless optics.
It might be hard for someone who’s not an amateur astronomer to understand how shattering this was. The highlight, for me, of the $7000 trip was going to be looking around at skies I’d never seen, with my huge light-grabber binocs. I’d known there were only two days when the moon would let me do it; tonight and tomorrow. So now I had nothing.
(It’s ironic that I almost left the 15X80’s behind, because the rig was so heavy. I tried packing my Pronto, and that was too much; likewise, an old Astroscan reflector, which would have been great on most of the things I wanted to look at. I came within an inch of just packing plain 7X50’s, of which I have a nice Pentax pair. But I finally went with the big rig.)
The dinner was good, though, and afterward we retired to the hotel bar with our pals, and Gay and Rusty watched us drink outlandish things. If you’re ever in the Ayers Rock Resort area, don’t drink the Lemon-Lime-Mint Julip. It has gin in it.
We drove out to the Rock and Gay and I walked a circuit around about a third of it. There were interpretive signs about this and that, but I got a little annoyed at the lack of geology — there was absolutely no explanation or description of what the rock actually was, but plenty of stuff about how this or that was sacred to the men or the women. A little of that goes a long way with me.
The sign-writers continually stressed how well the aboriginals lived in harmony with nature, and we should only do the same. That’s really a whitewash, so to speak. These primitive tree-huggers were so much in harmony with the land that they burned out areas larger than Kansas, and hunted to extinction every large species that was easy to slay. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with killing a two-tonne kangaroo, so long as you have plenty of freezer space. But I suspect there was a certain amount of wastage.
We lazed around the rest of the day, doing laundry and reading. I’m preparing my reading lists for the MIT classes, stories out of Gardner’s Best of the Year and the Greenberg _My Favorite Science Fiction Story_.
In the afternoon we went to see a slide show, “The Spirit of the Red Centre,” which was interesting but didn’t have much we hadn’t seen before. The guy who delivered it was an earnest New Zealander, who had more enthusiasm for the aboriginals than any native Aussie, which makes a curious kind of sense.
Then I walked around looking for something to paint, and wound up trying a picture of a stand of white gum trees, not because they were particularly attractive, but because I could sit in the shade while painting them.
Gay and Rusty met me at 6:30 for an okay buffet dinner at the “Bough House” (which I didn’t realise was a pun until I said it out loud), and then we drove out into the outback to look at the stars. The Milky Way was stunning, and the zodiacal light was almost as bright, something I’d only seen before in the Texas desert. We did have a little pair of bird-watching binoculars, a Minox 10X25, but most of the sky looked better without magnification. I have to admit a feeling of frustration and disappointment; what we saw was only a faint ghost of what the big binoculars would have shown. Well, I’ll come back some day, some night.
1 Sept — Melbourne
We had some time to kill in the morning before getting on the plane, so we went out to a camel rental place and rode a camel around a small circle. It actually was a lot of fun. I find the camel’s rolling lope more comfortable than a horse’s jogging. The place was also a camel museum, where I learned more about camels than I will write down here. It’s interesting that there are about 200,000 camels in Australia, most of them running wild. Which is how they wind up on the menu, I think; they were asterisked “wild” in Alice Springs restaurants.
Most of the day on planes, reading and watching _Zombie_ with one eye. When we got to the Melbourne hotel, there was a message from Pat Duvic, our best friend in France; he and Monique were in the same hotel and wanted to have dinner. We were all bushed from travel, so we just met in the hotel restaurant. Good food and good company.
We had a day to kill before the worldcon actually started, so we explored a bit of the city. Melbourne has a good trolley system, which includes one free trolley, that skirts the outside of the inner city, with a recorded voice telling tourists this and that. None of us could quite understand the voice, but it was a nice gesture.
I suggested going out to St. Kilda for lunch, and we wound up spending most of the afternoon there. Sort of like going to New York and spending most of the day in Greenwich Village, which isn’t such a bad idea. Very attractive Victorian architecture, a funky youth subculture, an amusement park, and a lovely beach. Monique collects oceans, so even though the water was cold enough to give you frostbite, she took off her shoes and dipped her feet in the surf, which (as far as I can tell from the available references) was the Bass Strait, part of the Tasman Sea.
Bob and Karen Silverberg met us for dinner at a lovely and thoroughly weird new restaurant, an “Asian fusion” place called Ezard. I had lamb shank in alien sauce, with (truth) deep-fried cole slaw. It was delicious, crunchy like the fried spinach you get in Japanese restaurants.
Went to the Convention Center and met loads of people. All worldcons are old home week, but foreign worldcons are of course selective; none of our Starving Artist friends in attendance. This is the smallest one in years, only a couple of thousand fans, which makes it manageable — the first one we’ve been to in a long time where all the programming was in one place. The Convention Center also has a good-sized bar, where you can sidle down and find an editor or two.
I was on a generic panel about Sex and SF with Bob Silverberg and a couple of Australians, which had the usual stuff plus wombat jokes. Then had an hour of pretty busy autographing. I haven’t signed books in Australia in ten years or so.
In the evening Peter Nichols invited a hundred or so people over to his house, which is a wonderful quirky mansion full of good art. It was a lot of fun, crowded and boozy and chatty. I was glad to spend a lot of time with Joan Gordon, our Long Island pal who did her Ph.D. thesis on my work, lord, twenty years ago.
Gay dragged Rusty and me to the Melbourne zoo, where we spent the morning looking at the Australian part — why go to the other side of the planet to see lions and tigers? — and found it very charming. My favorites were the echidnas, three of whom beetled along on a path, bumping into each other and occasionally mating. The hairy-nosed wombats were cute and cuddly. The most impressive part was a huge atrium, which was divided into four distinct Australian biomes, so the birds pretty much stay in their own area. It’s kind of odd to be inside this huge cage and see strange birds hanging around the signs describing them, even though they’re free to fly anywhere.
Went back to the con where Gay had a “Living With a Writer” panel at 2:00, where she told all of our embarrassing secrets. Then I was on another generic panel with Bob, Politics and SF, which actually covered some pretty serious stuff. Then I signed books for another hour and we went off to a “launch party” for Jack Dann and Janeen Webb, who’ve put together _Dreaming Down Under_, an anthology of Australian sf writers. Had a good time with Jack and Janeen and George Martin and Parris.
Then off to a very odd dinner. My agent Ralph Vicinanza wanted to take us to the best restaurant in Melbourne, along with the Silverbergs, and so Bob did some research and came up with Est Est Est, which is the only starred restaurant in Fodor’s “Modern Australian” section. The food and wine were good, but the service and ambience were disastrous. It was like trying to enjoy a meal in a boiler factory, served by rude staff. I couldn’t hear what people on either side of me were saying. Any clattering McDonald’s has better acoustics.
At 9:00 I had a congenial video interview with Pat Duvic, a couple of hours that he’ll edit down for French television. Gay went out to shmooze with Karen Haber, so I wandered around Melbourne for a while, making my final unsuccessful expedition into cyberspace, and getting a pleasantly hot Szechuan meal in Chinatown.
At 1500 I went to a pleasant panel on sf poetry, and then did a two-part internet interview, the first part being a fast typist transcribing while a woman asked prepared questions; then I moved to a keyboard and did a couple of hours of live chat. Quick sandwich and then off to the Hugo Awards. No big surprises or disappointments there. We partied until fairly late with the winners and losers.
This noon was my only foray into the academic track of programming, with a two-hour symposium about the post-human condition. Four of us presented short papers and then fielded questions from the audience, which was large and well informed.
The Liar’s Panel at 1600 was a lot of fun, Robert Silverberg leading Jack Dann, Karen Haber, and me into dizzying heights of prevarication. Later on, I played a couple of songs, opening up the costume contest.
Last day of the con, we had our more or less traditional lunch with Charlie Brown, happening upon a lovely waterfront bistro, then off for a final signing and a reading at 1500. I’d assumed not many people would come, that late on the last day, but it was standing room only, sixty or seventy people. I read the new story “Four Short Novels” from the computer screen.
About 30 hours on planes and in airports, Melbourne/LA/Atlanta/ Boston. We got to our apartment about one in the morning and it was locked. Gay found a maintenance guy who let us in.