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Thru the Window




mar 18
Sydney Harbour gleamed in the sunshine as I walked from the bridge and wharfs around to the opera house, watched the ferries come and go, and breathed in the fresh sea air. There were many historic spots along the way: Cadman's Cottage, named for a convict (for stealing a horse) who became coxswain or boat superintendent; Campbell's Storehouses, a picturesque row of tan brick buildings now fronted by outdoor cafes; Writers' Walk, quotes by authors from Australia and afar embedded in a zigzag walkway. An Aborigine musician told me about his handmade didgeridoos carved from trees in the rainforest and painted with natural pigments. 'The wood is better if it's softened by termites,' he explained.

Sydney has a huge green swath of connected parks including the Botanic Gardens where a moving display described life before the arrival of Europeans, their arrival and impact from a native point of view, to the recognition of the Aborigine vote and most recent Sorry Day, a celebration of Aboriginal culture. A wild, natural looking garden of both native and transplanted flora filled the historic location of the 'first farm'. There's a fine collection of Aboriginal and Australian art in the Art Museum of New South Wales. I was fascinated by the paintings representing indigenous stories of creation called dreaming, about ancient spirits and animals that formed the landscape.

My little neighborhood had old row houses with balconies and curlicued ironwork trim and great little Asian restaurants. On my last day in the city, I took the ferry to Darling Harbour, just to see the harbor from the water. After a month of traveling, I later returned through Sydney and caught King Lear at the opera house, and just had to visit the marsupials at Wildlife World since I hadn't seen any kangaroos.

Melbourne has a more open feel, a harmonious blend of Victorian buildings and attractive modern architecture, topped with a crisp blue sky during my visit. I rode the train to Southern Cross station, an open metallic structure with a flowing wave of a roof, then hopped on the free shuttle, an old cable car, to Flinders Street station, a stately orange block-long Victorian masterpiece with clock tower. This was the one place on my journey where I would have warm reunions with friends: two women I taught with in Prague, and one in Japan.

In the southern suburb of St Kilda, I got off the tram at Luna Park, where a huge face formed the entrance to a small amusement park. I looked around to find an endless expanse of beach and blue sky - I couldn't have chosen a more beautiful spot if I had scoured the guidebooks. From my friend's eleventh floor apartment with two furry cats, you could see blazing orange sunrises, hear birdsong and a rhythmic surf floating up from below. A balloon drifted effortlessly by the window while we sipped morning coffee. A modern boardwalk snaked along the waterfront with little boats on one end, and a bay full of kiteboarders on the other, the Melbourne skyline as backdrop. Aussies are an outdoor, athletic people - out running, cycling, surfing, a group training for a triathalon. A night market livened up the park.

In the city: At the State Library, an interesting exhibit of paintings of old Victoria (province), and a vaulted dome over green lamped tables surrounded by shelves of antiquated volumes. I loved Ian Potter museum's Aboriginal art with dreaming stories and videos of artists at work. There are many indigenous tribes, 38 different languages in Victoria alone. The Immigration Museum sensitively told stories of Australia's diverse immigrant groups, mostly from Europe and Asia, featuring touching individual voices. And I met the imposing Phar Lap himself dominating one room in the Melbourne Museum, along with a wonderfully recreated slice of a recently excavated poor neighborhood that had been paved over in the 50s.

A beach day was in order, so good for the soul! Walked the boardwalk and bike trail along the water's edge in the morning. My friend drove to eastern towns to tour Rippon Lea, a Victorian mansion preserved in the genre of its last residents in the 1940s, and a trendy beach with little brightly painted wooden cabanas lined up in colors like a box of crayons.

The Great Ocean Road follows the rugged coastline west of Melbourne. First stop on a day bus tour was Bell's Beach, the famous surfer's beach, relatively calm on this day. Fishermen were out early on Lorne's pier, sting rays circled in the water below; and wild koalas slept in the trees along the Kennett River. We walked among tall hardwoods through the Otway National Park rainforest to the sound of riotous colorful little parrots. The natural formations along the weather-beaten coast were breathtaking, huge eroded creations sculptured by sea and wind.

As a constant traveler, I have been exceedingly lucky. But my last day in Melbourne, I fell off an unexpected curb around a tram island while crossing the street. My friend took me to the hospital, where a doctor confirmed a sprained ankle and advised me to keep my foot up and iced for 48 hours. I pondered what changes I would need to make to my trip plan.

It was pouring in the rainforest coastal town of Cairns. When it stopped for brief periods, I was lulled by the drip-drip from the palms and the dissonant chattering of a cacophony of birds. I tried to pick out individual voices of birdsong - high chatter, low whistles, raucous calls. After carefully negotiating myself through a morning flight, with wheelchair assistance, I settled in to read an Australian classic novel. The timing was good to hole up for a couple of days. I rescheduled a snorkel trip for my third and last day in the area.

It was a two hour boat ride out to the Outer Barrier Reef from Cairns. We snorkeled around the fishbowl area at Rigg's Reef, a heavenly landscape masked from above by brilliant turquoise and deep blue. The diversity of plant and animal life on the coral reefs was truly astounding. Peaks and valleys crowded with fantastical beings in so many colors, some waving their fur-like appendages, others brain-like and intelligent looking, some pointing and curving like bones or trees or elk horns, and sheltering, caressing or being nibbled at by the loveliest of sea creatures, some identifiable like clownfish nestling in anemone, long nosed yellow and blue tangs, giant clams. There were schools of little bright blue fish with yellow tails. Some larger fish looked like they had swum through an artist's palette. I floated through a mass of tiny long slim silver fish, passing by like a river - I seemed to be showered with sparkling confetti. It's all densely packed together growing on the walls of silent underwater hills, spread out over miles. I was swimming in Nemo's world. My foot felt much better after some therapeutic exercise too.


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