hanging with dracula in transylvania

We’re in, we replied. My oldest son and his partner had invited us to join them for a Halloween dinner and party at “Dracula’s Castle”.

Indeed, there is a castle in Transylvania that is widely promoted as the “home” of Bram Stroker’s fictional Count Dracula. Legend suggests that Vlad the Impaler, a possible model for Dracula himself, once stayed here, although most likely as a prisoner and not an honoured guest.

Bran Castle, completed in 1388, is perched on a rocky hillside with a commanding view of the narrow valley below, and the rural landscape all around. It served various political and military roles over the centuries, but much of the time it was a toll booth of sorts, collecting a tax on goods and livestock being moved along the valley.

The castle fell into disrepair in the early 1900s, and when Transylvania joined Romania at the end of the First World War, Bran city council gave it to Princess Maria of Romania — here, you fix it up! Which she did through the 1920s, turning it into a splendid summer residence. In 1938 it was inherited by Princess Ileana, but ten years later when the communists took Romania, the royal family was forced to flee.

Eventually the abandoned castle was repaired and run as a museum. And then, following the fall of the dictatorship, a long legal battle resulted in the royal family finally regaining ownership. Along the way, someone realized promoting the admittedly tenuous connections between Bran castle, Vlad, and Dracula would draw tourists to this otherwise sleepy little valley.

In fact, the whole town of Bran gets in on the act over the Halloween weekend — centred around an eclectic outdoor market with all manner of Halloween and especially Dracula-themed crafts and mass produced trinkets. The stores, restaurants, and bars in Bran are decked out with bats and pumpkins, and we accidentally wandered into (and immediately out of) a huge Chucky Cheese-style family-funhouse Halloween party.

And then there is the castle overlooking Bran, complete with steep narrow stairwells, dimly-lit rooms, and for the Halloween party, stocked with creepy decorations and creepy actors playing all sorts of creepy characters.

The gourmet dinner we signed up for featured a lot of dark red vegetables, sauces, and desserts, and a very bloody steak. Okay, we get it!

The after party was lively and loud with every simple and elaborate costume imaginable, with an emphasis on creepy!

The next day we were having lunch a few kilometres down the road and we mentioned we had attended the Halloween party at Dracula’s Castle. Our server blamed “the west” for all this Dracula nonsense that was corrupting their children and displacing traditional Romanian values. Oh, right, like the family values held by the powerful and murderous Vlad the Impaler. Or the fact that the story of Dracula draws heavily from local beliefs about ghosts and evil spirits that were still held close here in the first half of the 20th century!

Bran Castle

Inside Bran Castle

Deadly knives on display

Ready for Halloween dinner!

First course included blood sausage and red currant sauce

After party!

More after party!

remains of the roman empire

Back in high school we briefly studied the Roman Empire. Having to draw and describe some of the battle gear is all I recall, otherwise the idea of empire and what that might mean was utterly remote and abstract.

At it’s height some 1500-1900 years ago, the Roman Empire controlled a huge expanse of territory including a big chunk of Europe and part of what is now the Middle East and North Africa.

Ancient empires have come and gone, most without much to show for their occupation of foreign lands. Not so with the Romans, it seems everywhere they went, they brought technology with them. Just think aqueducts, public baths, temples, amphitheatres, roads, tile mosaics, statues, and memorials. Oh, and Roman numerals!

We have watched a play seated in a Roman amphitheatre in Malaga, Spain, walked along Hadrian’s wall in the north of England, and around the Roman baths that gave Bath its name in the south of England. We explored Diocletian’s walled palace and military outpost in Split, Croatia. And we walked through numerous ancient Roman ruins in Rome itself, and made our way to the well preserved Roman holiday-getaway, Pompeii.

To now find evidence of Roman occupation and technology during our visit to Sophia is an unexpected treat. Numerous Roman villas were discovered and documented during the Communist era. However, perhaps the most astounding find was just a few years ago when the city was digging up a square to extend the Metro subway line. It was a uniquely preserved section of the Roman highway known as “via militaris”. The stone road was built to connect Roman territories in the Middle East and North Africa with central Europe, and passed right through the then-named Serdica.

They also found the foundations for stores that faced this road, another road in behind, more building foundations, and the city gate itself. At another site nearby they found an amphitheatre and more building remains.

Visiting ancient sites brings history alive, and sure beats sitting at a desk copying pictures out of an encyclopedia!

how did it come to this?

The man was about 20 years old and he was violently banging a heavy, two-foot-long machete on the roof of our taxi… just above Don’s head! The man was yelling something that I didn’t understand. I thought this is it! We are going to die!

How did it come to this?

It was early 2011 and we had been in Ghana for about three weeks, seeing the sights and meeting our in-laws in Zabzugu, in the north. During our final night in Accra, the hostel manager overheard us talking about heading next for Cairo. He told us that according to news reports, incredible violence had erupted in Egypt.

The next morning we left our luggage at the hostel and headed to the airport to change our travel plans. Egypt Air personnel told us that all was fine and to go get our luggage, they would be flying out in two hours. We dashed back to our hostel, grabbed our bags, but still ended up waiting five hours for take off.

Getting off the plane in Cairo, we noticed no other passengers were disembarking. That was strange to us but perhaps not remarkable, we knew the flight was continuing on to the Middle East.

What was remarkable, and utterly surprising, was that once we passed through immigration, we faced an airport full of people. Some sitting in chairs, many camped on the floor, luggage and stuff everywhere. Wall-to-wall.

Don called our hotel to see if the driver was here somewhere in the crowded airport and we were told the driver was on his way.

The driver soon arrived and spotted us. A young woman asked if it was okay to join us as she needed a ride to her hotel. As it turned out she was a journalist from Lebanon and she filled us in on what had been happening in Cairo over the previous 48 hours. On this late-night ride into the city, we were stopped every few hundred metres by either the army or rows of armed civilians at roadblocks, the police had gone into hiding. We noticed that sometimes we were waved through — the journalist explained that when they saw women in the car, they signaled to the driver not to stop.

Our journalist friend was excited for us… we were here at the best time to see the revolution! The Arab Spring had reached Egypt and the people would be happy to have us here as witnesses. She helped me feel brave, not scared.

As we neared our hotel, even in the dark we could see the fire still smouldering in the National Party headquarters building, scattered burnt and blackened police vehicles along the side of the road, and a water-soaked and virtually deserted Tahrir Square. I was quite in awe, as I had never seen anything like this. By the way, the drive that should have taken 20 minutes, took us 90.

When we checked into our hotel, on the seventh floor of an old office building, the other guests couldn’t believe people were arriving just as they were desperately trying to find a way out of the country.

In search of the Canadian embassy

The next morning was sunny, warmish and calm. The government had cut off the Internet and cel services, and we could not look-up or contact the Canadian embassy, so we decided to head for an area where a city map showed a concentration of embassies, in hopes of finding a Canadian flag. We walked through Tahrir Square — there were tanks and soldiers everywhere just watching as people started to gather. An English-speaking soldier kindly gave us directions to the Canadian embassy. At the embassy they advised us not to leave the city (we had planned a side-trip to Luxor) because the trains might not keep running. Sure enough, the trains in Egypt soon came to a grinding halt.

We walked over to see the Nile River, it was the only thing to do. There were no other tourists about; every restaurant, bar, shop, and tourist attraction was closed. The streets were quiet, eerily so. Along the river all the tourist boats were tied up and looking abandoned.

A taxi pulled over and the English-speaking driver stopped to chat with us. His name was Hesham and for three days he did his best to get us to into now-closed attractions, inside the city and beyond. He took us to the Coptic Church in the side of a mountain. It was really cool… and we were the only people there. He took us to the famous necropolis, resting place for 500,000 dead and home to thousands of people living in abandoned tombs. He drove us to ancient pyramids outside Cairo because the ones at Giza were closed (by the way, our blog title photo is as close as we got to them).

Hesham was really kind and we met his wife and had lunch with them in their apartment. Hesham even found us the only cash-giving atm in our part of Cairo. The banks were closed, shops were barricaded, and the streets were empty.

After our second day with Hesham, we went back to Tahrir Square. It was full of students with placards. A few of them came over to find out why we were there. They were all quite nice. They thought we might be journalists…we said no… just tourists. A secret service man came over to us and told me it wasn’t safe for us to be there. I asked him who should I be afraid of? Him?

The next day, February 1, 2011, we joined the march of a million. When we arrived at Tahrir Square, we were patted down to make sure we had no weapons. Female students patted me down, and male students patted Don. They appeared to be really well organized, and they were giving out water, dates, etc. There were also collecting and taking bags of garbage out of the square. I was quite impressed with this.

It was getting really crowded and a man on the wall above me told me not to worry, they would take care of me. I wasn’t afraid, but was concerned Don and I would get separated. We decided that should we get separated we would meet under the clock tower across the way.

We joined a line of people snaking through the huge crowd. Don was in front of me and there was a man behind me. I couldn’t see him, but definitely felt his penis being pushed into my lower back. I told Don I would jump in front of him as soon as possible because the guy was not stopping what he was doing. I found my opportunity and got in front of Don. Needless to say, the guy did not push his penis into Don’s back. Other than that incident it seemed to be a very peaceful protest. I am glad we went and witnessed it.

Mobs attack peaceful protesters

The next day after spending much of it with Hesham, he had to drop us off on the bridge as there were mobs of people taking over the end near Tahrir Square. The feeling on the bridge was polar opposite of the jubilation of the march the day before. These people were Mubarak’s and they were pissed off. The government had turned the cel phone networks back on, Mubarak rallied his supporters and there were busloads of Mubarak’s people coming over the bridge to taunt the protesters in the square.

As we were walking across the bridge, through the gathering mob, Don stopped to take a picture of graffiti that declared “Mubarak equals sadness”. Angry people surrounded him and started yelling and trying to grab his camera. I said nothing but grabbed Don’s arm and we walked away as fast as we could… people still yelling at us. A soldier obviously witnessed this and had a look in Don’s backpack before allowing us on our way.

When we were off the bridge and a few minutes from home, we saw a group of several dozen men wielding machetes, clubs, and sticks, running past us towards the square. They looked as angry as the people on the bridge.

Safely inside our hotel we watched BBC and Al Jazeera to see what was happening. We heard gunshots from the square in real time and then we heard the same pattern of shots on TV six seconds later. Many protesters were killed or badly wounded that night. The military had stepped aside while Mubarak’s thugs did their damage.

Time to get out of Cairo

This was not good, and in the morning we thought we better organize to leave Cairo as soon as possible, but the cel service was not reliable. The last of the other guests left before breakfast. We headed back to the Canadian embassy.

The atmosphere outside was very different. Protesters were regrouping behind makeshift barriers, and the army was still in the area, but the roadblocks we encountered around every corner were civilian and aggressive. One group told us to go around the block, and that’s where a very tall young man with a metal rod was standing guard and wouldn’t let us pass. He wanted to take us to his leader and of course we said no. He was very threatening and when we said “you wouldn’t hit a woman”, he started yelling and many other young men started running towards us.

Fortunately, Don had spotted a military jeep crossing a street about a block behind us, and this time he grabbed my arm, pulled me, and started yelling to attract the attention of the soldiers. Thankfully, it worked!

One of them spoke English and he called his supervisor to describe our situation. We were taken into the security zone around the Interior Ministry. The supervisor took our passports and started questioning us. Fortunately this was on the street and not in an interrogation room.

Another one of those dark-clothed secret service men came over to where we were being questioned. He said that he had seen us on Saturday coming out of the American University in a limo. I laughed at him and said we were Canadian, not American… sometimes saying weird things works…

Anyway, the supervisor gave us back our passports and even granted my request to have someone walk with us so we could pass through the military checkpoints on the way to the embassy.

When we did arrive at the Canadian Embassy, it was full of people. We took our number and I sat down next to an Egyptian man who told me his children were half Canadian. He was trying to get them out of Egypt. He was extremely upset. He told me that he had been with the protesters for about five days, but when Mubarak said he would step down, the man went home. His best friend had been one of the people killed the night before in Tahrir Square. He thought if he had stayed and fought maybe his friend would not have been killed. His grief was palpable. I listened, but didn’t say too much. I didn’t really know what to say.

While I was talking with the man, Don had been on the phone trying to reach KLM and lo and behold he got through… everything must work better in embassies! They booked us on a flight the next day (a day earlier than our planned departure).

With great relief, we left the embassy and decided to take one last look at the Nile. We sat for a while and then thought it best to take a taxi home to avoid repeating our scary morning experience.

We walked to a nearby high-end hotel and discussed the fee with a few taxi drivers parked out front. We agreed to an amount and got in the taxi. We told the driver to go to the ancient market closest to our place so we could hopefully buy a souvenir.

All was good… we were driving on the highway… then suddenly our driver took a turn onto a rough side road. We were immediately stopped and quickly surrounded by a large group of angry men and boys. The driver was dragged out of his seat and he disappeared into the crowd. A man about 20 years old was violently slamming a large machete on the roof of the taxi… right above Don’s head. I thought this is it! We are going to die!

There was a small boy about the age of seven on my side of the vehicle, looking in my window. I showed him my passport (keeping it very close to my body), pointed to the “Canada” on it and mouthed to him that we are tourists. Don did the same thing from his side of the vehicle.

I have no idea how long we were there… it seemed ages… then just as suddenly, our driver was pushed back in the taxi and we drove off. Though I was extremely thankful we were alive, I was really pissed off at him and yelled “Why did you do that? We were fine on the highway. What is wrong with you?” I was still stressed when we got to the market… found the back door locked and demanded he let me out. He did, probably not wanting this very stressed woman yelling at him more, but he wanted more money from Don… needless to say, we did not pay him extra…

One more encounter with thugs

After we bought a small souvenir, we headed home, only needing to walk about a kilometre to our hotel and thought that would be easy. Not… we were stopped once more by angry young men. This time though, Don yelled at them and made quite a scene… a few older men came running to help us… they had probably seen us walking in the neighbourhood and didn’t think we were a threat.

It seemed to us the older people had much more sense and understanding than the angry, young men.

The next day we got a ride with Hesham to the airport… a quick 20-minute ride this time. We think good thoughts for Hesham, with the politics and the tourism industry suffering it would be hard for him and his family. We hope he is well.

I did not relax on the plane until the wheels had left the ground. As it turned out, our flight was the last to leave Cairo before a 24-hour curfew was imposed. We were very lucky indeed!

National Party Headquarters

Burned out National Party headquarters near Tahrir Square.

Dreaded prisoner transport near Tahrir Square.

Water everywhere, Tahrir Square.

Inside the underground Coptic church.

Qasr Qaroun, outside Cairo.

This ancient market would normally be full of buyers and sellers.

Pyramid outside Cairo.

Pyramid outside Cairo.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, near Tahrir Square.

A quiet moment: mint tea at a small cafe within the City of the Dead.

possibly the cleanest city on earth

Fear not dear readers, we did not drop off the ends of the earth near the end of our year away — we just got really busy adjusting back to life in Vancouver. Catching up with family and friends, setting up our apartment, and getting back to work and local volunteering.

In our last post we described our time in Vietnam and Laos. We mentioned that Vietnam is one of the most polluted and dirty countries we have ever visited. We did not realize that Hanoi is among the world’s most air polluted cities in the world. Smoke and other toxins everywhere from farmer’s burning their fields, huge manufacturing zones, coal-power, and no controls on vehicle emissions. Horns blasting everywhere and at all times of the day and night. Add to that men urinating in the streets and venders heaping trash along the broken sidewalks, and you are left with a general impression that no one cares about any aspect of the environment.

The contrast with our final destination before heading home was remarkable. The streets of Tokyo are utterly clean, well maintained, and strikingly quiet. We even wandered into back alleys to try and find the seedy underbelly. Clean and quiet. No littering anywhere, even though there are outdoor food and beverage vending machines throughout residential neighbourhoods. Signs remind locals and alert visitors that smoking is not allowed on the sidewalks. On the trains, signs encourage riders to not talk on their cel phones and to put them on vibrate. The trains themselves run very quietly, unlike Skytrain in Vancouver, which squeals and clacks along like an old amusement park ride.

Speaking of trains, we’ve never seen so many trains in one city. They are run by numerous competing companies so you sometimes pay two or three separate fares to get from one place to another. Likely the locals eventually figure out how to get around without paying as much as we were loading into ticket machines!

We took it easy in Tokyo. there are dozens of museums, art galleries, and historic sites, but we selected just a couple to visit, along with the central train station. The massive walls and gates around the Imperial Palace grounds are impressive, and although it was not the best time of year to visit the gardens, there are some interesting ruins, a few ancient buildings you can visit. You don’t get very close to the Imperial Palace itself.

And dear readers, you just know we checked out the craft beer scene in Tokyo! It seems undeveloped for a city this size, nothing was described as a tasting room but lots of places calling themselves beer halls. The few places that actively promoted craft beer were numerous train trips apart. Our favourite was WIZ, which offered us a wide selection of craft beers from around the world. Next up was a small hole in the wall called Titans Craft Beer Taproom. They had a smaller selection but they rotate the taps, perhaps they only get a keg of each beer at a time.

After lifting a final IPA and saying goodbye, we packed our bags for the last time, boarded a fast train to the airport, and closed the chapter on 51 weeks of life on the road (vida en el camino!). We hope you have enjoyed our posts as we wandered through 21 countries on four continents!

One of the towers along the walls of the Imperial Palace, surrounded by a wide moat.

Massive doors into the walled grounds of the Imperial Palace.

Quiet outside, but inside the stores, every display features loud audio urging you to buy, buy buy!

Cleanest back alleys we’ve ever seen!

Even the construction sites are neat and tidy!

a challenging region to enjoy

Note to self: next time we’re travel planning, in addition to checking TripAdvisor forums and the Canadian government travel advice and advisory website, look up the Air Quality Index (AQI).

It was shocking to land in Hanoi and discover the smog level is so continuously thick that we would rarely see the buildings downtown, just across the river. On the Sunday we were there, the AQI peaked at 365, categorized as “hazardous to everyone” with a caution to avoid physical exertion outdoors. To put that in perspective, the AQI was 26 on that day in Vancouver. It turns out Hanoi is one of the most heavily air-polluted cities in the world, with only a handful of “good” recorded days in 2017. Cough cough!

We have mixed feelings about our experience in Vietnam and Laos. Both are Communist countries with no freedom of expression and many other oppressive laws and practices. A few days after we left Ho Chi Minh City (which locals we talked to still call Saigon), more than 100 people were arrested for protesting government plans to offer foreign investors 99-year leases in special economic zones. However, both economies are already heavily shaped by massive direct investment from Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, although the protesters were particularly concerned about growing Chinese involvement in their economy. The state-run media in Vietnam report that private enterprises now employ more people than the state, and both Vietnam and Laos are in the processing of privatizing public institutions and services.

The Vietnam War looms large over both countries. You can’t visit any museums or historic sites in Vietnam without facing intense propaganda about US aggression and destruction, American soldiers described as “devils who kill women and children”, and graphic descriptions of the ongoing impact of Agent Orange. In Laos, unexploded bombs, including small cluster bombs that look like toys, continue to main and kill civilians. We visited the Mines Advisory Group information centre in Vientiane to learn more about work to clear mines and bombs from fields and communities.

The taxi drivers of Vietnam are the worst we’ve met in the world in terms of rudeness, deceptive practices, even refusing to take us across the Red River in Hanoi. We were staying just across the river from the old quarter; for some reason taxi drivers were reluctant to cross the river and pedestrians are not allowed on the two nearby bridges. We found Vietnam to be the least safe place to walk anyway, drivers pay no attention to pedestrians or traffic signals, and motorcyclists use the sidewalks to pass or go against traffic. No one slows down or stops, they just blare their horns and roar by.

There is trash everywhere. Storekeepers and street venders simply dump their trash in the street, empty lots are used as garbage dumps, streams and rivers are basically open sewers. We saw more rats running around and more men urinating in the streets in Vietnam than anywhere else we’ve ever visited.

Okay, so that’s a lot of bad news for countries that claim to offer visitors “Endless Charm” (Vietnam), or a “Simply Beautiful” experience (Laos). It wasn’t all bad! The beaches in Vietnam are wide and sandy, the ancient history is fascinating, and there is an emerging craft beer industry that attracted our keen attention, especially in Saigon. The Heart of Darkness tap room was just 300m from our hotel in Saigon — superb craft beer so dangerously close we dropped by three times over four nights — the Aussie manager confirmed that made us regulars!

The Reunification Palace in Saigon aka Independence Palace.

Inside the palace as it was during the 1960s.

Gruesome photos at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.

Once hidden entrance to one of the Cu Chi tunnels, just north of Saigon.

Our favourite craft beer taproom in Vietnam: Heart of Darkness.

Nha Trang — major beach resort town.

Royal Tomb for the last king of Vietnam.

Statues of mandarins at the Royal Tomb.

Part of the ancient Imperial Palace in Hue, Vietnam.

Arch within the grounds of the Imperial Palace.

The smog in Hanoi.

Massive Patuxai arch in Vientiane, Laos.

Deborah was interviewed by students asking about her experience of Laos — they seemed thrilled she was from Canada.

Quirky Belgium bar in Vientiane celebrates the life of Tintin.

Quirky park outside Vientiane features random statues of Buddha and various Hindu deities.

horses, carts, and sea turtles

Can you imagine staying on a small tropical island without the constant noise of cars, trucks or gas motorcycles? Well, we had that great experience on Gili Trawangan, a 3km by 2km island off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia.

We arrived with 30 other passengers on a high speed boat from Bali. They gave us motion sickness pills, which I took, but didn’t really need.

We jumped off the boat onto the beach and crew members dropped our luggage onto the sand beside us. Right away, men hollering “taksi taksi” were inviting us to board their horse-drawn carts. We were only about 6 blocks from our hotel, so we shook our heads and walked on.

The narrow streets were fascinating but we had to walk close to the walls and stores to avoid being run over by the horses and carts rushing by. Sometimes two passed from opposing directions. It was squishy, but we managed it.

Not only for transporting tourists, these carts are used by the locals for transporting everything… from large water bottles and cases of beer to bags of cement and loads of bricks. Everything is brought over by small boat and then moved around the island this way.

Another wonderful aspect of this small island is that you can go to the beach, walk into the water and snorkel over a coral reef. We saw numerous small, medium and large colourful fish as well as two very large green sea turtles!!!

The water temperature was perfect and clear. Not too hot, not too cold… just right! Snorkelling in these perfect conditions couldn’t have been better.

We spent seven days enjoying the water, walking around the entire island, trekking across the centre of the island on rough trails and feeling wonderful!

We weren’t offered motion sickness pills on our return high speed boat trip, but boy we should have been. We were concerned the fibre glass boat would break up as we banged into the ocean waves most of the way back to Bali. Needless to say, we were very happy to arrive in one piece!

Prior to heading for Gili T. we spent two weeks living on the second floor of a rustic AirBnB about 100 metres from the Seminyak Beach. Most days we simply soaked up the sun; the water was good for wading and the the waves were good for jumping. There was usually a light breeze helping us to feel not too hot.

We didn’t see any sharks nor the awful stinging jelly fish aka Medusa, which was a good thing.

We took two days off from the beach. We booked a driver and car to take us on a day trip into the highlands, dropping by Taman Ayun Temple (established in 1627 and still maintained by descendants of the local royal family), a view point overlooking a volcanic crater, the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, and the Elephant Cave Temple.

We had a great guide/driver who spoke excellent English, had very good knowledge of each of the sites we visited, and was very generous in answering our many questions about life in Bali. He noted that Bali is predominately Hindu while the vast majority of the population of Indonesia is Muslim.

Our second day away from the beach was we spent enjoying a three hour massage and spa package. It was totally glorious. A facial was included at the end and when we left, we not only felt years younger, but we looked it too!

Here’s to good health and happiness!

Deborah

Horse-drawn carts rule the narrow road on Gili Trawangan.

exploring the cities, the reef, and the red centre

It’s been a busy five weeks in Australia, and we only scratched the surface of what’s possible in this vast country. But we did take in several major cities, explored a coastline, snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, hiked the challenging Valley of the Winds trail through the spectacular rock formations at Kata Tjuta, and completed the 9.4 km base walk around the most famous red rock in the world: Uluru — aka Ayers Rock.

We also sampled many craft beers and dropped by many brewpubs along the way; our favourite was the 4 Pines brewery and restaurant in Manly, just outside Sydney— they also had the best ribs we’ve ever tasted.

Our favourite urban area was greater Melbourne — easy to get around on trams and buses, lots of interesting neighbourhoods and festivals, and free admission to major art galleries. We also had a friend in Melbourne (who we first met in the Amazon) and relatives in the suburbs, so that helped us feel welcome. From Melbourne we explored the Great Ocean Road; it reminded us of the Sea to Sky highway that connects Vancouver and Whistler. Even with mountains, seaside cliffs, lighthouses, and brewpubs, the highlight was seeing not one, not two, but three wild koalas along the way. Oh, and by the way, koalas are NOT bears, they are marsupials, something completely different.

In Sydney we walked around the iconic opera house, visited more free art galleries, but two highlights come to mind. Our AirBnB was about 2 km from the opera house, and on our way we were watching for a cafe to have a coffee and snack, and found ourselves facing Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, perhaps the most famous food truck in Aussieland. Their specialty is meat pies, and g’day are they delicious! Later we ended up at Fortune of War, which claims to be the oldest continuously running pub in Sydney, and mostly filled with locals which is usually a good sign.

We happened to be in Brisbane during the Commonwealth Games, talking place just down the coast. Officials had bizarrely recommended that residents stay home or leave the area during the games because it would be too congested — and only realized their mistake when games attendance was much lower than expected but then it was too late. The local media reported that the closing ceremonies took place in a nearly empty stadium. We took a very pleasant boat cruise upriver to visit a famous koala sanctuary, established in the 1930s in response to the possible extinction of koalas when they were wantonly killed by the thousands for their fur coats, much like the near extinction that faced the buffalo in Canada for the same reason.

Confession time. We knew about the big cities and the vast outback, but we had no idea a large portion of Queensland is tropical — hot and humid, and perfect for vast plantations of sugar cane, coffee, banana, citrus fruit of every description, and avocado. But this also means the water off the ‘far north’ coast of Australia is a steady 27-28 degrees C throughout the year. You don’t need a wetsuit to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, but you do need a ‘stinger’ suit, a tight-fitting Lycra suit that protects swimmers from a dangerous species of jellyfish who also like warm ocean water. We called them Smurf suits because they are head-to-toe blue. We had booked an overnight excursion to the Reef, which meant that after three sessions of snorkelling and a gourmet dinner on the first day, we awoke floating over the reef and ready for a 6:30 am snorkel and another after breakfast. And what fantastic snorkelling it was, probably the best we’ve ever enjoyed in terms of the diversity and colour of the coral and the fish.

In the first few days we were in Australia, the number one recommendation we heard repeatedly was to go see Uluru, and we finally gave in and booked our flight to the ‘red centre’ of the continent. We’re so glad we did.

At one time, people could camp or stay at motels within a few feet of Ayers Rock. But eventually, Indigenous protests and negotiations resulted in tourist facilities being moved away from the rock, title to the land returned to the traditional owners, agreements made around co-managing the national park that included the Uluru and Kata Tjuta rock formations, and new tourism facilities established at Yulara, just outside the park boundaries. The resort trains and hires local Indigenous people, who make up about 30% of the 1000 staff on site. There is of course much more to it than that, but it all seems to be working really well.

From the Ayers Rock Resort we caught the bus to hike Kata Tjuta one day, and to the walk around Uluru the next. Both days involved getting up by 5 am because the bus excursions included watching the sun rise on the rocks. We respected the wishes of the Anangu people who ask visitors not to climb the rock they hold sacred. Only a small percentage of visitors still climb Uluru, and in fact the jointly-managed national park has set a date in October 2019 when the steep path, known as the Mala Walk, will be closed to the public.

We had wonderful and varied experiences in Australia: the train system between the cities we visited was inexpensive and ran on time, the craft beer and local wines were excellent, the people were great, the art galleries were free, and the landscape was outstanding. Go to Australia, but not for less than a month!

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