Drinking hoppy beer and eating hoppy kangaroo – the joys of Sydney.

When you visit Australia, what’s the one thing you must do? Obviously, you need to eat their national animal, the kangaroo, right?

Australia and New Zealand. They go together like peanut butter and jelly (or jello, as they call it here). Frick and Frack. Shields and Yarnell.

They’re really quite similar, aren’t they? For starters, their flags are practically identical.

Aussie on top, Kiwi on the bottom.

Aussie on top, Kiwi on the bottom.

They both say “g’day” and “no worries.” In both countries a double espresso is a “long black” and a cappuccino is a “short white.” Their accents are pretty similar, although Kiwis say “fush and chups,” which is how I tell them apart. From now on, if I can’t tell if someone is Aussie or Kiwi, I may be forced to trick them into saying either “fish” or “chips” or, if I’m lucky, both. My sense is, however, that Kiwis have a bit of a chip (or chup) on their shoulder about their bigger, richer neighbor. While we were in New Zealand, we heard more than a few barbs aimed at the folks next door. Eec/ Dare I say it? New Zealand seems like Canada to Aussie’s America, which is to say that the place is nicer, safer, and cleaner, and all that pisses the Kiwis off just a bit. As far as I can tell, the Aussies don’t seem to notice.

Anyway, notwithstanding the shocking similarities, seeing as how we made it all the way to New Zealand, it made sense to give Australia a chance to show its stuff.

I will say that the bar was sitting a bit high. New Zealand was lovely. We covered almost 1200 miles over the two islands. Here’s the final route:

Our route through the Shire.

Our route through the Shire.

The people were almost comically friendly. Eighteen seconds out of any downtown in New Zealand and we were back in Middle Earth. The whole country is basically one big Shire full of happy hobbits. Top that, Oz!

On the other hand, we’re city people, and as it turns out, our first stop, Sydney, is an excellent city.

We hit the ground running. In December when we were still in Egypt (which feels like lifetimes ago) I bought tickets to the February 13 Paul Simon/Sting concert in Sydney. We landed, dropped our bags at our hotel (after three weeks in an RV we got to sleep in an actual bed again!) and dashed over to the arena for three hours of real, live popular culture. The walk back to the hotel took us through some of the gritty sections of downtown, complete with more than a few clubs of ill repute, drunken revelers, and other non-Kiwi like experiences. Unlike Wellington, New Zealand, which is just a nicer version of Victoria, British Columbia, Sydney has an underbelly.

In addition to all the fine culture, the nice people of Sydney also served us what may be the best meal of the trip so far, if you don’t count Peter Lugar. We went to a place called Monopole, in the Pott’s Point neighborhood. Despite its name, which brings to mind the central feature of a strip club, it delivered a near-perfect meal. We started with a scallop ceviche, served with grilled avocado and corn and topped with a buttermilk avocado cream and a hint of fresh tarragon. Damn, friends, this was a good dish.

Then there was that kangaroo. It seemed kind of rude to come to Australia and eat their most famous animal, but I just couldn’t help myself. They served us a simply smashing kangaroo loin in a red wine reduction with a dandy little raw beet salad. The ‘roo was tender and tasty and I don’t care who knows it. I promise, however, not to eat koala. (For the record, Janine wants me to remind everyone that there are lots of kangaroos in Australia and that eating the national animal is not against the law or anything.)

Sydney is known for its Asian food, and we went all in, searing our innards at a northern Thai place called House. Isan food from northern Thailand is known for being fiery, and let’s just say that the House burned down, despite the copious amounts of India Pale Ale I used to attempt to put out the flames. We also had really good ramen at one of the very many good looking ramen joints in town.

We went on to sample even more culture in Sydney. After touring at least a half dozen theaters in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Argentina, we finally saw a show. At one of the six theatres in the Sydney Opera House, The Sydney Theatre Company (run by Cate Blanchett’s husband) presented a strange but good production of Tennessee Williams’s play Suddenly Last Summer starring one of Australia’s most beloved actresses, Robyn Nevin. The production employed a very weird technique – half the time the actors performed behind a white cyclorama, but the live performance was captured by cameras and projected on the screen. Every so often, the stage would rotate and the audience could see the actors directly. The technique distracted me from the (mostly) great acting, but Janine felt it gave the wordiness of the text some oomph. I’m happy to say that we disagreed unbickeringly. No matter, this was risky theatre done with verve and I give them points for that.

We also saw Tosca at the Opera House, which reminded me why I have come to really like opera. It was a huge production with massive sets, a cast of more than fifty, an enormous and wonderful orchestra, an overwrought love story, and great big, unamplified voices. Opera audiences are almost as fun as the show itself, and Sydney’s didn’t disappoint. There were dowager empress types, old guys with short ties and pants up to their necks, and a goodly assortment of the aged and the aging out for a night on the town.

The Sydney Opera House really is all that. It’s every bit as dramatic from the inside looking out as it is from the outside looking in. As you might imagine, building it was no picnic. Before the opera, we dug deep for the guided tour, in which we learned of the tribulations of its construction. For any of you out there who have remodeled your house, or, heaven forbid, built one from scratch, take heart – this project went ten years and $70 million over budget. The architect quit two thirds of the way in. When they poured the foundation, they didn’t actually know how they were going to build those famous sails. I’m here to tell you that it was worth it. When Washington, D.C. wanted to create a big performing arts showpiece, it settled for the square, boring Kennedy Center. Sydney built this. These are my kind of people.

The Sydney Opera House - worth every penny.

The Sydney Opera House – worth every penny.

There was so much we didn’t see or eat in Sydney, which in addition to being cultural and delicious is also a truly beautiful city. It’s got harbors, hills, some really lovely neighborhoods, and the famous Bondi Beach. What’s not to like? I’m only sorry that we didn’t have more time. We are told that Melbourne, the big city to the south, is more elegant, more hip, and even more delicious. If that’s the case, we may never leave.

Cheating the reaper in the adrenaline capital of the world – Queenstown, New Zealand

Queenstown, New Zealand calls itself the “adrenaline capital of the world,” and that may be so. After all, when you sit in a whitewater raft with a group of people who may just get you killed, it gets the heart beating.

We decided to make for Queenstown and get out and about. We had spent a lot of time on our keisters rolling past all the nice scenery, but we had spent very little time actually standing in that scenery. True, we did hike a glacier, but that was just the price we had to pay to ride in a helicopter. And so for our first stop in Queenstown we decided to go for a luge ride! Well, it wasn’t an actual luge, which is a sled that flies down the mountain on a sheet of ice at seventy or eighty miles an hour. This was a little plastic gizmo on rubber wheels that slithers down a small section of paved (and bumpered) mountain track, but it was a start. Okay, and little kids and senior citizens are also allowed to ride, so maybe we weren’t exactly pushing the adrenaline envelope, so to speak.

12 - the fearsome luge

Do you feel the fear?

To get to the “luge,” we took a lovely mountain gondola that deposited us high up above Queenstown (a condition that would soon factor into our story), where we watched actual crazy people bungy jump from high platforms and paraglide down to the valley below.

Um, no.

Um, no.

We were sparing our hearts for later in the day, when we would raft down the Shotover River, which boasts Grade 3-5 rapids. We had almost an hour before we needed to be at the rafting shop, so it made lots of sense to walk past the nice comfortable gondola ride down and opt instead for the hiking trail to the bottom of the mountain, right? I’ve made a lot of dumbass suggestions over the years, and this one qualifies. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that the reason people paraglide from the tops of mountains is because they are high and steep.

If you look waaaay up to the top of the mountain, you can see where we started our descent. Oops.

If you look waaaay up to the top of the mountain, you can see where we started our descent. Oops.

After about ten or fifteen minutes of hiking, slipping, and sliding down the mountain, it occurred to me that we weren’t making a whole lot of progress, and our knees and quads were starting to complain. Every so often someone would pass us as they were making their way up the mountain and we’d inquire as to how much further we had to go and they would make a noise and maybe roll their eyes. We had no choice but to pick up the pace. At one point my feet went completely out from under me and I landed flat on my back. Janine took a slightly gentler tumble as well. The clock was ticking and we were in danger of missing our rafting trip because Knucklehead Jones thought it would be a good idea to go for a walk. After almost an hour and more than fifteen hundred vertical feet down a slippery, rocky cliffside later, we stumbled into the kayak place, lucky to have made it in time and not have lost our lives in the process. Adrenaline indeed.

The bus ride to the place where we launched the rafts was exciting enough. The last several kilometers to the river occurs over a one lane cliffside dirt road, which would have been fine if we hadn’t encountered a family of tourists coming in the other direction in an SUV. Neither of us could back up far enough to find a safe place to pass, so we tried to make the best of it. The SUV mushed into the hill on one side and we hugged the cliff on the other, but the physics were against us. The SUV started scraping against the bus, busting a taillight in the process. The bus was on the verge of inscribing its name in the SUV’s side when our driver had us all jump out of the bus and push ourselves against it, giving the SUV just enough room to slither away.

Oh, but the story gets better, my friends, as I hinted to earlier. Finally, after being outfitted in wetsuits, booties, jackets, helmets, and life jackets, the float leader broke the big group up into eight-person rafts. Imagine Janine’s and my delight when we were paired with five other people who spoke almost no English. I knew this because our river guide, Nick, turned to one of the guys and asked, “What’s your name?” and the guy looked at Nick and shrugged. The thing about white water rafting is that coordination and communication are essential. You know how they don’t let people sit in the exit row if they can’t understand the directions of the cabin crew? Well, a white water raft is one big floating rubber exit row.

Before the float, with hope in our hearts. In the background is one of the many very laid back raft guides.

Before the float, with hope in our hearts. In the background is one of the many very laid back raft guides.

Nick would sit at the back of the raft and issue a complicated instruction like “paddle forward!” and our five raftmates would stare at each other. One might dip a paddle into the water making a half-hearted attempt to comply, but they really just had no idea what to do. Now was the time for Janine and me to put our kayaking debacle behind us and step up to the plate. Nick had placed us in the front of the raft in the fruitless hope that maybe the rest of the group might get the hint and copy us. More important, though, Janine and I needed to be in sync so we could at least attempt to navigate some of the rapids. It was asking a lot. Like Rocky or the Bad News Bears or the Jamaican bobsled team (okay, not them), I’m happy to report that when the chips were down, we stepped up. The Harvard crew team would have been proud. The trip was not without its moments, though – in one tricky segment of the river, called the Toilet Bowl, our five friends all stopped paddling, the raft tipped all the way onto one side, and Janine went right into the water. One of the other raft leaders mentioned that the raft was about to capsize, but was righted when Janine went over the edge. Thus, she took one for the team, for which we should all be grateful. I will tip my helmet to one of my raftmates, who yanked Janine out of the water almost as fast as she went in, preventing her from drowning in a toilet bowl.

We debriefed on the whole experience at a local burger joint with a really fun couple from San Francisco that we met on the bus to the river. As it turns out they live about five blocks away from us in the Mission. It makes me feel ancient to say this, but Dave and Kaitlin remind me of us when we were…cough…cough…young. We’re young at heart, though. Like a couple in a Cialis commercial, in one day we screamed down the mountain on a luge (okay, maybe not), power-hiked a rutty trail, shot the rapids almost single-handedly, and lived to tell the tale.

Welcome to Yes Day, when we just said no to no.

Yesterday was Yes Day. Like super powers, Yes Day could be very dangerous in the wrong hands, but it can work quite well when used with care and discretion. What is this Yes Day, you ask? Simply put, on Yes Day all suggestions are accepted.

We didn’t plan it this way, but that’s how it turned out. It went like this, we’d pass a cool waterfall and one of us would say “Should we stop at this cool waterfall?” and the other would say yes, so we’d stop.

Thunder Creek Falls on the Haast Pass. This is what Yes Day gets you.

Thunder Creek Falls on the Haast Pass. This is what Yes Day gets you.

Then there was this short hike to what they call “blue ponds” but what it doesn’t say in the guidebook is that these ponds are the color of a chemical toilet. Somehow when glacial ice melts, it still appears blue (Glacial ice looks blue because it’s very dense, which makes it look blue. Glacial ice melt isn’t dense anymore, so why it looks blue is beyond me, but maybe it’s just me that’s dense). Then we stopped for eggs on the side of the road. I’d been wanting roadside eggs for days, and Janine said yes!

Glacial melt pools bluer than Sinatra's eyes or the Tidy Bowl Man's waterway.

Glacial melt pools bluer than Sinatra’s eyes or the Tidy Bowl Man’s waterway.

Then we passed an RV park set beside a lovely little lake. It wasn’t on our itinerary, but it was Yes Day. The place reminded Janine of her childhood experiences at summer camp, so we pulled over at the ungodly early hour of 2 pm and rested our not at all weary bones. Yay, Yes Day! Today we will surely revert to Maybe Day, or Let’s Keep Driving Day, but we’ll need to toss in a Yes Day every so often just to keep things interesting.

New Zealand is comprised of two islands, conveniently named the North Island and the South Island. We arrived in Auckland on the North Island and worked our way down to Wellington at the southern tip, where we drove our rolling home onto a ferry and made the three hour sailing to the South Island.

Who doesn't think this would make a great disaster movie?

Who doesn’t think this would make a great disaster movie?

Our first stop on the South Island was the Marlborough region, where all that famous wine comes from. We really wanted to do some wine tasting, but I had bad visions of driving this massive contraption around on the wrong side of the road after hitting our fourth winery. Instead, we found a very nice wine tour and left the driving to someone cleaner and soberer. Over the years I’ve had a lot of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, the grape that the area is best known for, and I confess that they can start to taste the same after a while – very acidic with a famous grapefruit quality (although many would say they smell like cat pee). The fun thing about wine tasting is that it gives you the chance to focus on the subtle differences in the wines, and you also get to see where the stuff is made. We once visited a winery on the side of a cliff on the Amalfi Coast and every time I have a Marisa Cuomo wine I’m back on that cliff. I know I’ll feel the same about Marlborough.

Wine making regions tend to be pretty nice, and Marlborough is up there. It’s set in a lovely valley next to fairly steep mountains. There are cliché rolling hills, gently sloping vineyards, and picturesque back roads. The wineries we visited all knew what they were doing, too – the wines were exceptionally well made. They were crisp, bright, and absolutely delicious. They don’t only make Sauvignon Blanc here either. We ended up buying stunning Rieslings from Framingham and Bladen, Pinot Noirs from Nautilus and Bladen, an amazingly good Chardonnay from Fromm, and a classic Sauvignon Blanc from Serasin.

Most of these places are very small production outfits. Bladen was planted by hand as a hobby and now produces about 10,000 cases a year. Serasin is owned by Kiwi cinematographer Michael Serasin, who shot Midnight Express, Fame, and Prisoner of Azkaban, among other films. His wines were particularly interesting. Fromm and Serasin (which were recommended by our friend John) are bio-dynamic wineries that are not only organic but which plant according to some kind of planetary calendar or some such, and they let the wines ferment with whatever yeast is on the skins. And I think they dance around the vineyard and sing songs or something like that. Whatever they’re doing it’s working.

Vineyards in Marlborough.

Vineyards in Marlborough.

From Marlborough, we pressed on to the South Island’s almost cartoonishly beautiful west coast (the rest of the country is merely live-action beautiful), which is full of silly feats of nature. Over the course of three days we saw the following: 1. Crazy coastal blowholes at a place called Punakaiki that were created when limestone cliff eroded unevenly, forming little chimneys through the rock. When the tide is high and the seas are rough, the water comes screaming into the chimneys and out the top. You half expect to see a guy turning a valve somewhere.

Crazy blowholes at Punakaiki. Almost NFW.

Crazy blowholes at Punakaiki. Almost NSFW.

2. A crystal clear lake formed by glacial runoff on which we kayaked very poorly. Among the many things Janine and I probably should not do together, I now officially add tandem kayaking to the list. I was in the back and thus controlling the rudder, but Janine was displeased by my ruddering so she would adapt her rowing rhythm to better reflect the direction in which she wished to travel, which may or may not have been the direction in which I wished to travel. Needless to say, this made navigation a bit challenging. For this very reason we avoided tango lessons in Argentina like the plague. I shudder to think what would happen if we ever attempted a tandem bicycle, or, heaven forbid, tandem skydiving.

A relatively rare moment of concord on the lake.

A relatively rare moment of concord on the lake.

3. We saw and then hiked on an actual glacier. This also involved my first helicopter ride, which was far too exciting to describe. The helicopter swoops in, you get in, it flies up to the glacier, lands on a piece of ice, and you get out. Then you hike for hours on a glacier. Crazy!

On Franz Josef Glacier.

On Franz Josef Glacier.

Creeping through an ice cave on Franz Joseph Glacier.

Creeping through an ice cave on Franz Joseph Glacier.

I confess that the irony is not lost on me that I would take a helicopter to a glacier, which like most glaciers these days does more retreating than it does advancing. The nice glacier people say they are purchasing carbon offsets to mitigate the problem, but still. Oh, and let’s not forget that we’re flying hither and yon on this great adventure. What about that? Shouldn’t we wear a loin cloth like Gandhi and walk from place to place with all our worldly possessions in a gunny sack? On the other hand, hiking a glacier is an experience that I will never forget. It’s at times like these that I wish I was born a Republican. Oh, what would the Ethicist say??

After carefully sidestepping our moral challenges, we pressed on in the direction of Queenstown, from which we thought we might proceed to either Doubtful or Milford Sounds, which are beautiful but far. Thanks to Yes Day, we hit the brakes at Lake Hawea, where we spent a joyfully unproductive day staring at the lake. The Sounds are looking doubtful, but we don’t mind. We’ll just blame it on Yes Day.

Our idyllic little spot on Lake Hakea.

Our idyllic little spot on Lake Hawea.