Feb 13 – Sweating with the Oldies
The captain assured us for 2 days that the weather in Melbourne would be partly cloudy with temperatures in the low to mid-70s by the afternoon. He was wrong about both; it was bright and sunny with temperatures at or above 90 most of the time we were out and about in suburban Melbourne.
We met with today’s group of intrepid travelers at 8:15 and were among the first people off the ship. Eight of the 10 of us had been together on the trip in Bora Bora, so it was no surprise that everyone was at the meeting point early. As we descended the escalator to exit the terminal, we spotted Brian, our guide, waiting at the bottom holding a sign with our names. This was a good omen. We walked to his van and were on the road out of the city by 8:30.
We had been warned that there would be lots of time spent driving today, so we were not surprised that our first stop was an hour away. We left the city behind and started to climb into the Dandenong Range, low mountains which are part of a north-south chain east of Melbourne. Brian says that this chain of mountains changes names over the course of its 3000 miles [or was that kilometers?].
We drove to Grant’s Picnic Ground in the Dandenong Ranges National Park and had warm, freshly baked scones and tea or coffee as an introduction to the area. Outside, Brian pointed out the big trees which he said were a variety of gum tree. Gum trees have a brittle bark which does not expand with growth, so the bark is shed almost like a snake’s skin to reveal new bark underneath. This particular variety can grow to 300+ feet tall and is prized for its straight, know-free wood.
Outside the coffee shop, there was a display of cockatoos which behaved rather tamely and were being examined and held by tourists. There were pans of bird feed set out for them which probably explains their presence. Brian said that the cockatoos can be a nuisance to homeowners and others because they will eat wood if they think there is any food nearby. He said they especially like window sills and frames and that people have to be quite careful about leaving food around.
Once we were finished eating and browsing the inevitable gift shop, we drove to the Puffing Billy Steam Train. Brian warned that the train left on time and he did not want us to be late arriving. We were on the platform with plenty of time to spare and actually had to kill time in the crowd before the passenger cars were opened for us.
This narrow gauge rail line was originally built to bring timber and, later, food crops from the top of the mountains down to the valley. People started to ride it back up to the heights since it was empty on the return leg and eventually passenger cars were added to the freight cars. The narrow gauge rail line was later abandoned in favor of “heavy” rail and the Puffing Billy fell into disuse. It was rescued as a tourist line which now features open-sided cars with bench seats all of which face outward. While there are no windows, there are openings which have horizontal rails to prevent passengers from falling out. Part of the charm of this train is that many of the riders now sit on the window ledges and ride with their feet outside the cars. As Brian explained it, it is reminiscent of the crowded trains in India without the goats.
We had a car reserved for us which we shared with a young Asian couple and two women from the Amsterdam. There is no escaping the big bus, and we had seen the HAL group at the coffee shop and then on the platform for the train. Everyone with a camera was hanging outside the pseudo-windows taking photographs as we rounded curves and could see both ends of the train [and all those people sitting in the windows]. The locomotives were, indeed, steam engines and they spewed forth a noxious smoke which would have violated every anti-pollution law in the US.
Brian met us at the first stop, about 25 minutes after we left the station and proceeded to drive further into the Dandenong Range. He pointed out the different agricultural areas as we drove. Some farms specialized in tulips which had been imported by Dutch immigrants who arrived after WWII. Other farms had sheep or cattle and some, of course, grew vegetables.
After a while, when we had descended from the mountains into the Yarra Valley, we saw field after field filled with grape arbors. Many had netting over them to protect the grapes from birds, a technique we had seen on a smaller scale outside of Auckland last week. Many of the grape plants were not covered and we assumed that they had already been harvested.
We stopped at the Rochford Winery for a wine-tasting and lunch. As we drove in, we could see workers at the vines although we could discern whether they were pruning or harvesting. Brian told us they were pruning the plants to increase the fruit’s exposure to sunlight. We started with the wine-tasting before having our lunch which also included more wine for those who wanted it [and soda for those who didn’t]. There was an observation platform and D took photos after lunch while others purchased wine or just looked around.
Our final destination on the tour was the Healesville Sanctuary, a former animal rescue facility which now serves more as a zoo even though it has one of Australia’s largest and best veterinary hospitals. The Sanctuary is a non-profit operation and most of the staff are volunteers; the Puffing Billy is also a volunteer organization. At Healesville, Ray, our docent, said he has been volunteering 2 days a week for 22 years not counting some summers when he has worked almost every day. He said it is a calling and who can argue with that?
Ray led us through the Sanctuary pointing out animals on exhibit and discussing their habits and peculiarities. Among other animals, we were able to see kangaroos, pelicans, emus, cassowaries, black-headed ibis and echidnas [which we had seen as we drove through the mountains]. We spent some time trying to see the platypus, but they are nocturnal aquatic animals and were hard to see in their dimly lit exhibit. Likewise, the wombat hid in a hollow log and the Tasmanian devil hid behind something, so we didn’t really see them, either.
What we did see was a demonstration of raptors, birds who hunt for their food. Two handlers had owls, vultures and eagles flying from one to the other as they moved around an open-air amphitheater. The birds swooped low over the audience and some looked as if they would hit audience members. We were a few minutes late for the start of the show because we spent so much time looking for and at the platypus, but we did not miss very much. Once the show ended, we trudged through the 90-degree heat back to the entrance and the van.
Brian had estimated that we had a 90-minute drive to the ship, so when we left Healesville Sanctuary at 3:15, we felt confident that we would be back by 4:45, well before our 5:30 deadline. We even teased Brian a bit about his consistently getting red lights. We did not start to worry until we got on the M1 highway heading into town and discovered it was one long traffic jam. The clock was ticking but there was nothing to do except be patient. Some people in the group were becoming visibly agitated and Brian telephoned the port agent for HAL to let them know we were running late. As it turned out, we returned to the dock at 5:15, later than planned but with time to spare. Brian was as relieved as anyone although he had hidden his anxiety well. In fact, a HAL tour returned at the same time and we all walked through the terminal and onto the ship together. One group was not as lucky: The captain announced at 5:35 that we would be a few minutes late leaving Melbourne because a tour had been caught in traffic!
We were hot and sweaty for a variety of reasons, but we had a great day.
TOMORROW – A day of rest
Feb 14 – Valentine’s Day at Sea
Valentine’s Day was like every other sea day and yet wasn’t.
D took the laptop to the onboard “techspert” because MA’s mail was not loading in Outlook. The “expert” had no solution to the problem, so we have to access the mail the old-fashioned way through Hotmail.
We ate lunch in the Lido with Arthur and Linda and the self-appointed Cultural Ambassador from Tribal Australia. Dhinawan has presented a series of programs on everything from the didgeridoo to aborigine painting. A well-spoken young man, he has had the unenviable task of explaining a completely alien lifestyle and culture to a group of old people. Surprisingly, none of the passengers has said a word about his full-body tattoos and there has been so much interest in his painting that 4 sessions were scheduled with the passengers reminded that they could only attend one in fairness to others.
At lunch, he and Arthur discussed the similarities between the aboriginal and Jewish views of life and ethos as well as comparing the treatment of the aborigines to that of the American Indians [oops, native Americans]. It was a short lunch because Dhinawan was late arriving and had a 1 p.m. program, so he and we ate while we talked. Ironically, today was the day that the food service crew barbecued emu, kangaroo and crocodile on the back deck. We had brought some to the table to sample and Dhinawan gobbled up the kangaroo and some crocodile but would not touch the emu which, he said, contained the spirit of his aboriginal tribe. Shinawan hrried off and we continued the discussion without him.
Tonight was a formal night. The MDR was decorated all in red and the stewards wore red or white vests rather than the regular uniform. Each table had decorations, too, including helium-filled balloons weighted down with little “LOVE” sculptures. We shook our heads when we saw people walking out with the decorations, but then our stewards handed them to us as we left. We guessed that they would rather give them away than have to pop the balloons.
TOMORROW -- Adelaide, AU
Feb 15 – Eat, Drink and Drink Some More
It was hot. Period. Our guide, John, estimated that the temperature was about 97 degrees, and none of us in the group argued the point. Today’s tour to the Barossa Valley was one of only a three out of twenty private tours we did not schedule.
We left promptly at 9:30, met John, and drove for over an hour to the Barossa Valley, one of Australia’s many wine-growing regions. Naturally, the people here believe theirs is the best wine produced in the country. Based on the reactions of the group, they might be right.
The Barossa Valley is approximately 1200 square kilometers although that seems too high. While wine grapes are the primary crop, farmers also raise almonds and olives. Other food crops are raised outside the Valley and we passed numerous farms driving to and from the wine-tasting tour. The valley was discovered in 1840 by the British, but real development of the area did not begin until the first wave of German immigrants came in 1842. There is a monument on Mount Mengler commemorating the 150th anniversary of their arrival.
The German immigrants brought several things with them. First was their knack for small-plot farming. Each could produce enough to sustain the family with some left over to help any who had not been as successful. The second thing they brought was the feeling of community. They also brought a desire to practice their religion freely. The charter for the Barossa Valley specified that there would be religious freedom. For a struggling Lutheran population, this was a miracle. Each Lutheran sect could practice its version without interference from anyone. This is evident today in the village of Tununda where the population of fewer than 4000 people supports 7 Lutheran churches [and probably at least one Anglican one].
There are many vintners in the Valley and many vineyards, but many, if not most, of the vintners do not grow their own grapes. Instead, they contract with the growers to purchase the grapes and then process them. In order to be labelled a Barossa Valley wine, at least 85% of the grapes used to make it must have been grown here. Anything less than that will bring a designation of “Southeast Australia” if 85% come from that rather large region. If a winery is using its own grapes, then it can be called “estate bottled.” We saw grape vines which were over 100 years old and still producing. That is an exception, but it reinforces the idea that grape vines can be productive as long as they stay healthy.
We visited 4 wineries today, all boutique ones which sell most of their output in Australia. Some of the wines they produce are sold only at the winery. Our group of 17 had been scheduled for a specific time, but wine-tastings were available at all of the vintners to anyone who drove up. It may have been Sunday, but there was money to be made.
We ate lunch at our second stop, after the sampling, of course. The previously mentioned German roots in the Valley were visible on the plates we shared. Each couple had a plate containing thick-sliced bread; almonds, olives; summer sausage; chipped beef; and pickles. John, the guide, said that he had eaten this same lunch at the winery 3 – 4 times per week for the last 4 years and still enjoyed it every time he brought a group.
We were a bit ahead of schedule after lunch, so we drove to a lookout on the ridge separating the Barossa Valley from the Eden Valley. Because the elevations are different, temperatures are as well, so the grapes from the Eden Valley are different from the Barossa’s. The Barossa has a warm Mediterranean climate which differs from the Eden and the other growing areas. This difference accounts for the variation in grapes and also in the other food crops grown. We also stopped in Tununda in order to kill time before our next tasting; we split a muffin and a Coke.
The Flat Grandchildren did not visit the wineries today because we worried about the reputations they were getting. We were not as worried about ours and bought a bottle of 20-year-old tawny port for ourselves and a bottle of Merlot for Afid, the silly “waiter next door.”
We attended tonight’s show which showcased a brass band from Tununda in the Barossa Valley. The music was familiar – everything from Cole Porter to Tom Jones to Les Miserables – and enjoyable. The band is an all-volunteer group and had marched in a parade earlier in the day in Tununda. We must have just missed them.
TOMORROW – Day 2 in Adelaide
Feb 16 – Computer Games
We decided to stay on board today rather than taking the 45-minute train ride to the city . Others who went said they had a good time but did a lot of walking. Even though temperatures were 25 degrees cooler today, we did not regret the decision.
Instead, we decided to utilize the free wi-fi in the terminal and had some initial success. We were able to check email, Instagram and Facebook without too much waiting. We even chatted with MA’s sister on Skype. We texted the children about Skyping with them but then could not get a good connection. By this time, there were more passengers and crew trying to use the internet and the terminal’s system could not handle the load. Our computers showed the children were off line and theirs said the same about us. When we tried to connect with MA’s tablet to call Jon, we heard it ringing but he didn’t. We gave it up in frustration and returned to the cabin where we had no better luck. Somehow the connection problems in the terminal fouled up the program so D had to use the ship’s connection to uninstall and reinstall the program. When it opened, it showed that Jon was on line but by then The Boys were in bed.
Other than that excitement, it was like a sea day without moving.
TOMORROW – At sea once again