Monday, April 7, 2014

The Sunburned Country

So we went to Australia. And it was wonderful.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me! 

 from "My Country" by Dorothea MacKeller

The people were friendly. The first afternoon, as we left our hotel to find lunch, my feet went out from underneath me on the wet sidewalk and suddenly there were three handsome young men helping me get up (fortunately, I fell on my butt, and not face-forward) and dust off wounded pride.
Sydney was far more vertical than I imagined.
I suppose that's because when I started writing to my pen pal, Sharyn, in 1964, the skyline was not so developed in post cards. The Opera House wasn't even built then. We walked down to the Circular Quay (pronounced Circular Key, which still takes effort for me to pronounce correctly) every day, easy because it was a downhill trek, not so easy coming back. We discovered a shortcut through an office building that included escalators that made the trip back a bit easier, but it was closed on the weekend and on holidays (of which there was one during our visit.)
We had sticker shock from food prices (minimum wage is $15, even at fast food joints), and a bit of discomfort over the tipping customs (generally, no tipping, because people earn a living wage even in restaurants.) The special price for the breakfast buffet at the hotel was something like $40, but the selection was amazing. There was always complementary fresh fruit in our hotel room, which I thought was a lovely touch.
I enjoyed every view we got of the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a massive structure that we went over, under, and around. We saw them on foot and we saw them from boats. We saw them in the rain, at sunset, and at night. We watched fireworks on the Bridge and all over the Harbour from a patio on the Opera House. Magnificent.
Prince Harry was on one of the boats in the Harbour. Probably not on this tall ship, though.
The fleet was in to celebrate 100 years of something, so there were ships from 40 countries involved in the festivities over the weekend. It wasn't all because there was a celebration of comic arts at the Opera House.
A nice young man named Paul Mason did a lot of research in preparation for doing a career retrospective interview with my husband, Len Wein. I hate that hat.

In addition to his spotlight, Len did a couple of panels and taught a master class on comic book writing.
Len, left, next to Francoise Mouly, art director of The New Yorker Magazine, on the editing panel. Francoise Mouly is the kind of woman who makes all women yearn to be French.
She is an amazing talent and intellect and I only wish I had been able to spend more time speaking with her.
Grant Morrison, Dave McKean, and Len Wein discuss their work for DC Comics on The Creation Myth panel, above. Len during his workshop on comic book writing, below.
Len kept running into depictions of Australia's favorite Canadian mutant. The one above was drawn by a workshop participant.
Dave McKean, Len, and Grant Morrison after their group signing.
Clare and Dave McKean, the Morrisons, Len, and Gerard Way (of My Chemical Romance and The Umbrella Academy.)

After Len's obligations to the conference concluded, we had five days to ourselves and the friends who came to see us. Angus Ledgerwood, who was part of the Sunday Super Supper Squad during his sojourn in Los Angeles a few years ago, came down from Queensland to be with us during the conference.
We are looking forward to his return visit in May. He's been producing music videos while he's been back home, but his hope is to get another working visa for here.
We had a late lunch in a restaurant that had kangaroo on the menu, but I didn't think my first experience eating 'roo should be carpaccio. (Thanks to the waitress who used Angus' camera for the photo.)

Before my pen pal Sharyn and her husband Shane Murphy could get into town, Len and I spent time at the Darling Harbour Aquarium and Zoo. Once again, we ran into the reason the Australians so wanted Len to visit.
The aquarium had one of the things I wanted to see in Australia: a platypus. It's rather like a fat, fur covered duck and about the same size. Not particularly easy to photograph, because they are nocturnal and their pools are kept dark, but rather fun to watch. The aquarium also had an amazing collection of sea horses and the exhibits included large magnifying glasses, because the sea horses were so small.
Some of the sea horses looked like swimming plants.
I was rather taken with this sea anemone. So beautiful.
I have no idea what this blue fish is in the coral reef, but he sure is pretty! 
I did not expect to see penguins, but the zoo had a pretty large population of these cute little Fairy Penguins. Native to Australia, they are the smallest species of penguins. They are adorable.

The second native animal I wanted to see in Australia was in the Darling Harbour Zoo.
Almost wolverinish in its apprearance, this little Tasmanian devil is part of a threatened species. The animals are suffering from a virulant form of cancer and zoologists are hoping to save them with isolated colonies at zoos around the world while they try to find a cure for the cancer. There use to be a much larger variant of the species, but it was killed off a long time ago. They look a lot cuter than the Warner Bros. cartoon, but the zoo keepers carry large shovels to ward them off. They are cranky and will charge the keepers who are cleaning their display. I did spend a long time watching this one.
This is a cassowary. I have no trouble believing that dinosaurs still live after a good look at it. The eyes see back through the ages. That crest is not feathers, it's a shell of something. The claw on that middle toe can grow to 5". They can top over six feet and weigh in excess of 100 pounds. And run over 30 miles per hour. I hear they can jump pretty high and having an artery sliced by their claw would be an unpleasant way to die. Just a warning, in case you are ever in northern Australia or New Guinea.

And just what would a trip to Australia be if you didn't get to see kangaroos?
I did not know they climbed rocks. Actually, I think this is a rock-wallaby, a.k.a. ring-tailed wallaby. Wallabies have different shaped heads from kangaroos, and are smaller.
This little marsupial is enjoying a carrot and what looks like alfalfa. Yes, I thought it would love living in our back yard, giving the dogs some needed exercise.

The same zoo also had the first koala we saw in Sydney. 
Unfortunately, they spend a lot of time doing just this: sleeping. If you are lucky you might catch one in motion, eating. I really, really, really wanted to hug this one. I couldn't.

We kept running into the giant snails all over Sydney.
 I asked if there was a particular reason for snails (Los Angeles has angels, Chicago has cows, and New Mexico has Painted Ponies), but I did not get a definitive answer. It's not like there are giant snails living in Australia. At least, I do not think that there are.
The pink one was about a block away from our hotel, at the Museum of Sydney. One yellow snail was down by the Quay, the other was at the Westfield Shopping Center.
We saw some blue ones as we drove by a park. Unlike the Painted Ponies, they were all just painted flat colors, not theme-decorated. I think I'd like to see a paisley snail.

Sharyn and Shane Murphy arrived on a Tuesday and checked into our hotel. The last time I saw them was in Vancouver in 1975. They were on their way back to Australia after a two year stint at a university in Ontario where Shane did his post-doc work. Sharyn was a bridesmaid in my first wedding, because the timing just worked out that way. They had an infant when they arrived in 1973, and she was a toddler when they left. They had two boys after that and now all their children are married and one has a baby of his own. They are also scattered. The older boy is back in Australia, but the younger boy lives in Canada and Jenny lives in London. Sharyn became an attorney and they are now both happily retired.
 Len, Sharyn and Shane on the ferry to Manly Beach.

When Sharyn and I started writing in 1964, we had being the eldest of a large family in common. And we were both Beatles crazy. We wrote regularly for years, then sporatically. And, somehow we got back in touch via the Internet, which is a much easier way to communicate. Eventually, I hope that she'll give social media a try.

Sharyn grew up in a suburb of Sydney called Fairfield. She and Shane made their home in the Blue Mountains while they raised their children. Now they live in a home they designed somewhere 3-4 hours north of Sydney, but they did drive us out to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains to see some beautiful country.
This outcrop is called the Three Sisters.
The area around Katoomba area was part of a 1500 mile firestorm front just a couple of weeks after we were there. Fortunately, the Murphy house, which had been on the market for over a year, survived and Sharyn and Shane closed on the pending sale in November.

Our last full day in Australia consisted of going to Taronga Zoo, a short ferry ride to the northeast of Circular Quay. Janis Ian had put us in touch with a friend of hers who is the zoologist in charge of the great apes there, Geoffrey Kidd. Geoff met us at the gate, comped Len and I, and spent quite a bit of time showing us around the zoo and suggesting things we should see while he was at work. We even got up close and personal with some very tall critters who were as happy to take carrots from us as my horse is.
Trust me, that tongue is very long.

Len even got photobomed by a giraffe later in the day when we were pretty much the only people left at the zoo except for the attendants.
You can see Sydney in the background across the harbour. It is no wonder that my friend Bob Harris calls Sydney his "someday home town."
Here's a better view of Sydney from the zoo. We were waiting for a program of an amazing display of some of the birds who live at Taronga. There were a number of school groups visiting, and you could tell them apart because they wore their school colors. It was great.
I was very excited to get a look at this Andean condor, which was impressive in flight and landed on her perch for all to see. Taronga is helping to fund projects to save birds, including the condor.
At the end of each performance of the bird show, visitors can hand a donation to one of the birds, which then drops the money into the box. Who could possibly resist emptying their pockets?
The zoo has several koala exhibits, and while this one was sleeping, Sharyn and I did manage to catch a couple eating eucalyptus as the afternoon wore on.
 This koala actually moved around quite a bit while we watched.

At Taronga, we were able to walk inside a corral where kangaroos and wallabies and emus had free range. Some of the videos I've watched make it quite clear that you don't want to irritate a big red kangaroo. They may not be able to back up, but they can turn on a dime and land a kick which can burst your internal organs and shatter bone. Zookeepers were constantly warning about the danger.

This female chimpanzee is in heat. Obviously. I can't say I had ever seen such a display before. The chimps had a huge play area, with lots of trees and climbing platforms and ropes. And they made good use of them as I sat and watched at the end of the day.

Geoff took us backstage to see a couple of orangutangs and then let us come and watch the bedding down of the chimpanzee house. All of the apes come in to be counted, fed, and, where needed, medicated. We had to be careful to keep a safe distance from the cage, because if you got too close you might be grabbed by one of the chimps. They were curious and they probably would have been happy to get extra treats, but we weren't there to give treats, just watch.
Geoff was kind enough to drive us back to the hotel, which gave us a different perspective on the city. Parts of it are built on hills like San Francisco. And we got to drive across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The Sydney Opera House as viewed from the Sydney Harbour Bridge near sunset. So pretty.

The non-official days in Sydney are the longest Len and I have ever had that approaches a vacation. We never travel unless it is work related, especially now that he's on dialysis three days a week. It's a good thing we've got a house at which I'm happy to stay home and receive friends.
I would go back to Australia in a New York minute, which is pretty amazing for someone who hates to fly. It was worth the travel time to get there and I would so love to go back and see more of the country. I'd like to take a train across the outback, I wouldn't mind seeing the Gold Coast or the Great Barrier Reef. I'd like to visit my friends in Melbourne. And I'd like to visit some more of the places of which I read in Bill Bryson's hysterical book In a Sunburned Country. I wouldn't mind seeing an opal mine. I never got to see brumbies or kangaroos in the wild, so that is still on my bucket list. Nine days in Australia was just too short.

After a final dinner with Sharyn and Shane, we went back to our room to pack. In the morning, I ran out to find some English candy bars that a friend had requested we bring back to the states. I also stopped in the chocolate shop and picked up a gift of premium chocolate from his home town to give Hugh Jackman when we saw him at the Dolby Theatre the night after we got back.

How appropriate that we saw this reminder of Len's influence on pop culture in a chiller at the airport while we waited for our (delayed) flight home. Pretty cool.

I did a post about some of the wonderful food we ate over on the Valada Kitchen blog. You can check that out here.

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