All twelve days of Australian adventure can be found here.

Notes on the Country of Australia

Day Ten (May 16, 2012)

in which some good friends take us to the countryside and make us dinner

Vacations take you to places, but to many folks, the essence of travel is the people that you meet. As a closed-off narcissist, I am not one of those folks. I enjoy seeing buildings, preferably built by people who died several centuries ago.

But as it turns out, the people who raised a closed-off narcissist are pretty good at making new friends on vacation. Once their sons were grown, Mary Anne and Dave White began taking a series of exciting trips to destinations all around the globe. In one sense, it was touching to see a couple embarking on new adventures together after more than 30 years of marriage. In another sense, it was disheartening to see them spend money that would almost certainly be inherited by their grown sons.

On one of those trips – an Alaska cruise – Mary Anne and Dave befriended an Australian couple, Alan and Dianne Hee. You might dismiss this as no great feat, as Australians love to party and speak something close to English as a primary language. They are ready to be befriended. But the story gets more impressive.

“The Australians,” as Alan and Di became known, are legendary travelers. They owned and operated a business for many years, then sold it for an amount that allowed them to have an early and comfortable retirement. They now spend their time either planning trips or taking trips. They have been to all seven continents; they have been to all 50 states. They have seen more of America than just about every American has.

In discussing their travels with the Whites, they revealed that they would be visiting the Mid-Atlantic at some point in the months ahead; Mary Anne and Dave asked them to get in touch when they reached the vicinity of Philadelphia.

Now: We all make these kinds of offers all the time. “Hey,” we might say. “It was great going to college with you, and you should totally give me a call next time you’re in my part of the country.” Or maybe, “that was one heck of a seven-year marriage, and I feel terrible about sleeping with your sister, but I really think we should have dinner sometime soon and just keep the lines of communication open.” Or maybe, “Hey, I’m sorry we haven’t been in touch about that dinner in the last two years, but do you happen to have your sister’s cell number? She’s not returning my calls. And seriously, let’s have dinner, I would love to hear about how our children are doing.”

These offers are made, and accepted, with no expectation that either party will ever see the other again. They’re a formality, because it spares us from acknowledging that most human contact is fleeting and superficial. We do not want to say, “Have a nice life. And oh yeah, is it cool if I try to explore this thing with your sister?”

On their approach to the Philadelphia area, the Hees contacted the Whites, who invited the Hees to stay with them for a few days. After some careful consideration the Hees accepted. It was a bold move for both parties, as the people you meet on vacation could be complete whackadoodles. But the Whites are only partial whackadoodles, and the visit turned out to be pleasant. The Hees visited several more times over the years; I myself helped show them around my adopted hometown of Washington. The Whites visited the Hees in Australia, staying with them for several days at their suburban Melbourne home.

When the word got out that Allyson and I would be visiting Melbourne, there wasn’t much discussion. If possible, we were going to see the Hees. On our second day in Melbourne, they drove downtown and picked us up, to rescue us from the city they call home. The Australians, you see, like open spaces and natural wonders and animals, far more than they like museums and building tours. It just makes sense that a race descended from prisoners likes to be outside. Heyooooh!

Seriously, we were happy to go wherever they wanted to take us.

For starters, they took us south. Port Philip Bay is a very sheltered body of water – the opening to the sea, known as “The Rip,” is a little over two miles wide. Melbourne is at the northern tip of the bay, and from there two arms of land stretch south to encircle the water. We drove down the eastern arm – the Mornington Peninsula – which took us out of an urban setting pretty quickly and into something a little more pastoral.

That meant it was wine time. This was something Allyson and I had discussed even before we reached Australia. I am not a big wine drinker, and Allyson, on completing her second glass, alternates between hysterical laughter and crying. But we like wineries. By definition, they have to be in pleasant-looking fields, they usually have lots of nice cheeses for purchase, and the glasses they give you for a tasting are tiny. My wife likes tiny glasses, because after two of those, she laughs or cries, but not both. And like all Americans, we have a soft spot for Australian wine. Anyone can appreciate that Yellow Tail is just about the cheapest brand that you can buy in an American supermarket, that you would not be completely embarrassed to serve to guests.

The road we were on took us past all kinds of vineyards, and Alan and Di were happy to pull over. Our first stop was fruitless – there was a sleepy looking vineyard with barrels and fields and everything, but the main building seemed to be closed for lunch. A few more minutes down the road, we found a sure thing in the Morning Star Estate. I am informed by the Hees that it is a high-end wedding destination – the kind you reserve when you want people to know that you’re doing quite well, and by the way, your daughter is also getting married. It was the middle of the week, and not quite noon, so we didn’t have to elbow through the crowds once we walked into the very elegant tasting area. We were the entire crowd.

The employees seemed a little skeptical about people stopping in for a tasting before lunch on a weekday. But you can’t live your life trying to please everyone, least of all the people working the counter at an Australian winery before noon on a weekday. We powered our way through a selection of whites and reds, none of which I can particularly remember, then piled back into the car and kept driving. It was not a particularly memorable winery experience, and there was nothing uniquely Australian about it – for example, we didn’t eat oyster crackers out of a kangaroo’s pouch. But we scratched “Australian winery” off our list. Everyone was happy.

From there, it was on to Arthurs Seat, a spot about 1,000 feet above the bay. The state park at Arthurs Seat is one of those old-timey tourist attractions: it’s up high, and it gives you a nice view of a lot of things below. In the time before mass media and chain restaurants, it would have been a perfectly nice place to romance, and possibly impregnate, a young lady. It was Eureka Skydeck, before God had blessed man with 88-story skyscrapers. Alan and Di took us straight to the top to have a look around.

A few parts of the park have seen better days. There was an observation tower that dated back to the 1930s, but it was fenced off when we got there; as it turns out, it was demolished within a few months. A chairlift once took people up the side of mountain, but some technical difficulties in recent years (minor things, like the collapse of a support tower) led to its closure. Some of the vegetation on the hillside had been torched by a crazy brush fire a few years before, and some of the charred remains were still poking through the new growth.

But it’s still pleasant up there. To the south, you have a great view of rest of the peninsula, as it curves around toward The Rip. To the north, you can make out Melbourne through the haze, poking out of the horizon like some distant Oz. And there’s a nice place to eat up there, which I seem to recall as the Arthurs Hotel. You can enjoy a meal, stare out the window and get to know your Australian hosts a little better.

The Hees are excellent people, full of curiosity and generosity. Australians are famous for their love of traveling, but Alan and Di go above and beyond; we were lucky to catch them in the country when we visited. So they have stories upon stories of their adventures around the globe. It’s also interesting to hear their philosophy of travel. They like to visit places for long stretches and stay with friends when possible, for the chance to experience some of the ordinary aspects of life. They also like to drink, which is magical.

When we finished up our sandwiches and scones, we started to head toward the Hees’ suburban neighborhood, with one stop along the way. I wanted to see the beach boxes – tiny little buildings set back on the dunes along the peninsula, where people can stash their beach gear or other luxuries. Like all quaint traditions, they were totally co-opted by the man. Once the government started restricting the construction of new boxes, it became a status thing. Any time a box comes up for sale, there’s a bidding frenzy. People have been spending upwards of $250,000 for a structure the size of a garden shed, with no plumbing, and usually no electricity. And the land itself belongs to the government, so all you own is the shed. If Australia had a thriving hip hop scene, the Australian Jay-Z would buy one and stock it floor to ceiling with Cristal.

But damned if they ain’t cute! Some people put no effort into decorating their boxes, but lots of them are all gussied up like a Baltimore prostitute on prom night. When we hit the beach, there was no one there – it was too cold – but you can see how they add to the character of a beach day. It’s like a lady in a U.S. flag bikini. Everyone appreciates the extra color.

We made our way back north after that and stopped at a grocery store to pick up dinner supplies. It was our first look at an Australian supermarket, and I’m happy to report that it’s not that different from an American one. The only real difference is that some of the vegetables go by different names, and it’s much harder to find pretzels. In an American store, pretzels could almost merit their own aisle, as they are the foundation of the post-9 p.m. food pyramid. The Aussies have not developed our love of the world’s most perfect snack food.

In the few hours before dinner, Allyson relaxed while I spent half an hour trying to photograph the birds in Alan and Di’s backyard. They have bird feeders, just like my parents do in Pennsylvania. But where American birds are fat and lazy, Australian birds are exciting and fresh. The Melbourne equivalent of a pigeon has a faux-hawk.

I love taking pictures of birds, and I would offer the following advice to anyone trying to capture that perfect bird shot.

  • Get an expensive camera, preferably as a Christmas gift from your parents. I cannot stress this enough. You could take months of photography courses, study the work of the masters and carry a 50-pound rucksack with different lenses. This would allow you to talk about f-stops and white balance with bearded, hat-wearing people at flea markets. But you’re going to save a lot of time if you get a digital SLR with automatic settings that put you roughly on par with Ansel Adams, if Ansel Adams had a decent hangover.
  • Find a house with a birdfeeder, where the owners will let you drink beer while taking pictures from their living room. The problem with most wildlife is that it has no interest in accommodating your schedule. A birdfeeder brings the wildlife to you, so there’s a lot less waiting. If you have the time to sit very still in the woods for 35 minutes, then you can certainly go that route, but good luck explaining to your wife – who thinks every bird photo looks more or less the same – that the crimson rosella you were stalking turned its head at the last second, and so it will be just a few more minutes until you can stop standing in a mud pile and go get her some coffee.
  • In fact, try not to take your wife along at all. In the best case scenario, with the beer and the living room, she’s going to make fun of you photographing pigeons for 30 minutes. Worst case, she’s going to give you a very specific bird to photograph as she storms off in the direction of the nearest paved surface.
  • In fact, don’t get married in the first place. If you’re going to be serious about this bird photography hobby, having normal social interactions is really going to slow you down. It has to be all about you and the birds, and a wife is just going to sap your focus. Sure, you’re going to sleep alone every night for the rest of your life, but there will be a tremendous photo of crimson rosella hanging over your bed. On the rare occasions when you have guests – probably repairmen and cleaning women that you hire mostly so that you have some kind of human contact – they’ll look at the photo and say, “nice parrot.” And it will all be worth it.
  • Also, get your parents to lend you their zoom lens. It’s going to be a big help.

Dinner was lamb, with roasted vegetables; we also enjoyed a bottle of wine purchased from the Morning Star Estate and a few cans of Victoria Bitter, which is apparently the Australian equivalent of Budweiser.

In the blink of an eye, a few hours were gone. We told the Australians about our travels, and they clued us into some of the cultural and historical context we’d been missing out on. They told us about their trips to America, and we really had nothing worthwhile or profound to say about our country. But we did manage to have a few laughs at my dad’s expense before going to bed.

So our 10th day in Australia was something quite different from the earlier part of our trip, but just as enjoyable as everything that came before. On a relatively short trip overseas, there’s always the pressure to keep moving and see as many things as possible. But it’s also nice to slow things down for a day, enjoy some of the simpler pleasures of the place you’re visiting, and spend some time being sociable.

And when you’re doing that, try to be sociable with people who have a very nice home and are willing to drive you everywhere and cook you dinner. It really adds to the overall experience.


Go on to Day Eleven



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2014, Chris White