Archive for September 10th, 2010

I’ve seen the Southern Cross for the first time

After my last blog post I had one last day at Aussiecon. Over breakfast I had a nice chat with fan GoH Robin Johnson (he said he liked my Mars blogs) about Australian politics. The “Bioethics of Terraforming” panel genetically identical to the previous day’s “Race to the Red Planet” with me moderating Kim Stanley Robinson and Greg Benford (Jim’s twin brother), also nearly identical in topic. Benford and I were both deliberately argumentative to raise interest, but the panel went well and there wasn’t any actual acrimony. I also moderated “An Everyday Future: Pop Culture in SF” with Paul Cornell and G. David Nordley.

During the day I tracked down and made sure to introduce myself to several book editors. I don’t know if these momentary contacts do any good but I did get an invite to a private party (which I was, unfortunately, unable to attend) from one of them. I also got to talk for ten minutes with artist GoH Shaun Tan. I’m so glad I got to see his talk about the film of The Lost Thing after having been in Australia for a while, because I noticed many Australian elements in his work (for example, the repetitive suburban landscape, with its trams and hipped roofs) that I would never have noticed otherwise.

Many people here have had problems with the Melbourne taxis. We did too for our last dinner expedition; the “maxi-taxi” we called for the five of us never arrived, so we took two regular taxis, neither of whose cabbies was able to find the restaurant without help from the passengers (thank heavens for Google Maps on the phone). Shouldn’t basic navigation be a necessary skill for cabbies anywhere in the world? The Malaysian food we got at Laksa Me was worth the hassle, though; very much unlike what we expected and delicious in a variety of different ways.

With an early flight the next morning, we skipped the dead dog parties in favor of packing and an early night’s sleep. Alas.

The next day we flew to the small town of Mildura for the next phase of our Australian adventure. Domestic air travel in Australia, at least on the small planes we’ve taken so far, is refreshingly simple; no one here seems to care about ID, shoes, or liquids, and when it’s time to board you just board, without the tedious layers of pre-announcements and pre-boarding we’re used to at home. Also, Qantas served us some food that was actually good, and included free beer and wine.

Mildura, Victoria reminded us both of Kate’s home town of Kennewick, Washington, which is also a small agricultural town in the middle of a desert (Mildura’s crops include dried fruit, citrus, and wheat). The airport was teeny; I don’t think I’ve seen an outdoor baggage carousel before.

From the airport our guide Roger took us to pick up the other two members of our tour, a pair of older women from Sydney named Virginia and Avena. Then we drove to the Australian Inland Botanic Gardens (across the state line in New South Wales) for an introduction to the local flora (mallee, saltbush, emu bush, wattle) and fauna (apostle bird, Major Mitchell cockatoo, red-rumped parrot) and a nice lunch of soup and sandwiches. Over lunch we discussed local history, including corrugated iron as the definitive building material of Australia. Then we were off to Mungo National Park, where we saw a kangaroo right at the gate of our hotel, Mungo Lodge, as we arrived.

Mungo Lake and a half-dozen other “lakes” here have been dry for thousands of years. In fact, there’s barely any water here at all, though we arrived right after a period of rain that broke a ten-year drought and found the entire desert blooming. All the locals kept marveling at how green and lush everything was.

Once we’d dropped off our bags at the hotel we hit the park hard. We visited a dry river; saw some stone tools and a fire pit thousands of years old; viewed red kangaroos a long way off across the former lake bed; got a good look at parrots, cockatoos, and other birds; and got severely annoyed by flies and “mozzies” (mosquitoes) though not bitten. In the evening we had a delicious dinner (barramundi for me, lamb shank for Kate) prepared by our French host, after which we gazed at the Southern Cross, Centaurus, Milky Way, Venus, and Jupiter. The upside-down moon and the Magellanic Clouds were both below the horizon, alas, and the next night was cloudy. Perhaps we’ll see them later in the trip.

The second day’s breakfast included amazing warm-from-the-oven croissants and “Skippy Cornflakes.” For a horrified moment I thought the side panel on the cereal box included the advisory “contains Skippy.” Then we were introduced to Graham Clarke, our aboriginal guide for the day, who shared with us many stories of his people and some… interesting… theories about human development and climatology. We drove to the “Walls of China” (a huge curved “lunette” of packed sand blown off the dry lake bed over millennia) and walked across the fascinating eroded features there. We also saw some ancient wombat bones (Graham claims these show the lake dried up only 8000 years ago, not 12000 as most scientists think). After a simple lunch of sandwiches, tea, and fruitcake, we took a walk along the Mallee Trail for a look at (and occasionally taste of) various local plants and learned how to spot a good hollow trunk for making a digeridoo out of. We were also accosted by a flock of apostle birds, which seem to have no fear of people. We visited a feral goat trap (a water hole surrounded by a fence with a ramp to get over it; they’re smart enough to get in but not out), walked on mobile dunes, and explored a 26,000-year-old midden with mussel shells (from the lake before it dried up) and stone tools (non-local stone) just lying around on the surface. Kangaroos and emus came out as the sun went down, and I got some great photos and movies. The day ended with an amazing digeridoo performance by our guide and another delicious dinner: chicken with tarragon mushroom sauce, lentils, potatoes au gratin, broccoli, and creme caramel. It was a long day and we fell over hard around 9:30.

On the third day we walked the Foreshore Trail, which took us through several biomes of this former lake bed. Roger mentioned that we made a “bow wave” as we passed through the environment, and you could really hear it as the apostle birds in our path took up the cry. We saw a lot of wildlife: a flock of Major Mitchell cockatoos; kangaroos; butcher birds (sweet song); black kites; some very large ant holes (“preparing for rain,” says Roger); an eagle nest with (barely visible) chick; an apostle bird communal nest; magpies, galahs, and many other birds. One bird’s call was the first 4 notes of “Be Kind To Your Web-Footed Friends.” In the afternoon we visited an old sheep-shearing shed with a first-hand description of the shearing process by Roger, who grew up on a sheep station. Shearing is a hard job done by hard men with very soft hands.

After that we flew to Adelaide. Unfortunately Kate has come down with a cold so we’ve spent most of our first day here in the room. I’m sorry she’s feeling poorly but this is about the best point in the trip for this to happen and I kind of needed a day off myself. Tomorrow, if she’s up for it, we hope to visit the Royal Adelaide Show, which is kind of like the state fair.