Week 38: Frontier Spirit and Wide Open Skies: Our Australia

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Sunrise, May 18, over southeastern Australia

We arrived in Melbourne Australia on an early morning flight from Aukland in time to see a lovely sunrise.  Monday morning at 8:30 AM at the Melbourne airport – all was chaos with tour groups from China arriving, business men and women on a flight in from Sydney, and all the regular mayhem associated with airports.  It took us awhile to find a way to cross the busy airport roadway and get to our rental car agency.  Once we did, we were treated like gold by the Avis representative – she an expat from Chicago.  It took us awhile to get our bearings, I think we circled the airport a few times before heading out in the right direction, but then off we went!

One of the most striking things we realized in our 6 day 2000 km drive through the south–eastern tip of Australia was that despite our days and days of traveling, we had only sampled a tiny bit of the country. Everything is super-sized in Australia: the land (one olive grove we visited had 1.3 million trees on 2600 hectares), the ambitions (the hope that enough oil could be produced for export to meet the needs of the 3 billion Chinese market), and the resourcefulness of the Australian people.

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Kangaroo in an olive grove

Much of the land we travelled through was agricultural and cultivated with fruit, nut, cotton, and grains. In this harvest season, side of the road farm stands sold oranges and squash and persimmons and eggplants. At $3.00 for 5 kilos, most of it was almost given away. This is a land where cattle graze on the plains and sometimes on the roadway – and one is expected to make way for the stray beef cow on the highway. Still, in the spaces between the vast farms and small towns one finds even vaster wilderness areas. Kangaroos are wild and everywhere – and these soft-hearted creatures seem to be universally loved. Everyone had a kangaroo tale. One saw a kangaroo hop effortlessly over a 3 meter (~9 foot) high fence. Another advised us to stop if we saw a kangaroo dead by the side of the road (a sadly too frequent occurrence) so that we could check its pouch for joeys that will stay with a dead mother unless another kangaroo happens to stop by and adopt it. She herself had rescued and raised several ‘roo babies that way. Once they were grown up and able to care for themselves, she released them to join the 100 or so other kangaroos that lounged happily underneath the trees in her olive grove.

Resourcefulness is a necessary talent when your nearest neighbor can be many miles away. A family of six that we visited on 600 hectares of land off a dirt road that was off another dirt road had all the children involved in the farming of the 80 hectares of olives – and the kids had been driving tractors since they could reach the pedals. One son’s hobby was hang gliding. Once he had finished his chores, Mom would use her truck to launch him up to catch the thermals and he would glide from place to face over the farm for 3 – 4 hours after which he’d land, call Mom to give her his GPS coordinates, and she would drive out to pick him up wherever he might be – sometimes as much as an hours drive away.   Towns come few and far between and in some places, the nearest place to get food or gas can be 60 km distant.   Around mid-day on one of our traveling days, we aimed for the town of Underbool. Our GPS assured us we could find some lunch there. One tiny general store had an open sign, so we pulled in across the street (no such thing as a parking space) and eagerly looked forward to local home cooked food. We discovered that most of the prepared food had already been sold – but we were welcome to pick up a loaf of bread, some peanut butter, and jelly and make our own sandwiches. Tough love.

Water is a big issue and water rights are sold and re-sold as prices rise and fall. The Murray River provides much of the water for a large swath of the agricultural parts of New South Wales (no groundwater here), and its rise and fall throughout the growing season was a huge concern for the farmers who depended upon it to irrigate their crops. On another farm ground water had been found – and a bore hole dug – at 120 m deep – after a “diviner” had been hired and had traversed the 100 hectare farm for half a day until his “divining stick” started spinning round and round in his hands. There they dug and there the beautiful water was delivered onto them.

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Gerri Nelligan and Pat in Adelaide

Big hearts are another characteristic of Australia. Gerri Nelligan is a writer for the Australia and New Zealand Olive Group who had invited us to come to Australia back in December last year. After helping us to set up our trip, we realized that we would be visiting 10 groves and 2 labs in 2 countries, but that she was not on our itinerary. We discovered that she lived in Adelaide, a mere 250 km from one of the groves we would visit. We offered to drive into the city to see her and she offered to prepare for us a meal. Everything was home made – from her bread to the olives she had pickled to the salad from her garden and the divine olive oil quince crumble for dessert– that mid-week when we knew she was busy with deadlines and appointments both that day and the next. We were so grateful to her and to all the work she put into both this dinner and to making our trip happen.  At another moment, when visiting one lab, we waited patiently in a conference room while the scientist we hoped to visit finished up some urgent work. While we waited, we were served coffee – the traditional Long Jack is the local version of filter coffee, and we were reverently each given one piece of a Cadbury Chocolate that was filled with Vegemite, a strange condiment made from fermented brewer’s yeast with spices and vegetables added that is ubiquitous in Australia and we never figured out its appeal. We were told that this version of filled Cadbury chocolate was made especially for Australia and that we wouldn’t find it anywhere else.  Can’t say I’m too disappointed.

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Kristie and Rich outside Kristie’s Veterinary Clinic

We were so lucky to be able to catch up with our grown up neighbor, Kristie Mientka, now a vet practicing in Sydney Australia.  We were so proud to see how she is thriving with her job, teaching spin classes, and working at an elephant rescue center when she can in Thailand.  She took us in to meet her boss, the vet who owns the clinic and who clearly was very fond of Kristie.  In an amazing small-world coincidence – she recently visited Bali where she met a Balinese man who had lived in Amherst for awhile and may have gone to high school with her Dad.  She and her boyfriend Sam will be in Sydney for a few more years, but we all hope she will be back stateside before too long.  We left her with some olive oil to share with Sam.

While we visited and loved Melbourne (a cross between Boston and San Francisco), Adelaide (like New Orleans), Wagga Wagga (a bit like Oberlin, Ohio), and the capital city Canberra (WA DC with hills), Sydney is the crown jewel of Australia’s cities. Sydney is Sydney and we could not come up with any other city we have been to that it is like.  Of course the iconic Opera House and Bridge dominate the downtown waterscape,

but we also had fun visiting Taronga Zoo as you can see from the images below.

Sydney also has an adorable amusement park, beautiful Royal Botanical Garden, the Sydney Tower, The Rocks – the old city, China Town, downtown, and gorgeous beaches and bays serviced by ferries from the central harbor “Circular Quais.”  We were lucky to have our stay overlap with the absolutely magnificent “Vivid” display. Vivid is a light show that uses the Opera House and many of the classic downtown building and the bridge abutments as a backdrop for a visual extravaganza of lights and images.

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On our last night, to say good-bye to the city, we ate at the Shangri-La Hotel’s Altitude Restaurant overlooking the harbor whose young chef, Nathan Griffin , hopes to have his food represent “Modern Australia on a Plate.”  We sampled a Vivid Degustation special food and wine pairing inspired by the Vivid Light Display spread out 36 floors below us at the harbor.

Here is a link to Rich’s photos:  https://www.dropbox.com/sc/204fyew6puti7xm/AACsv8LOv-J3L4IbzVyhxKvTa

and a link to our Olive Newsletter about the journey here:

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