Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Australia Trip, Part 4

After waking up early--too early, still--C and I ventured out for some breakfast. Queen Victoria Market was still too overwhelming, so we ended up at Le Croissant Des Halles, where I had some juice and a roll with bacon. Maybe egg. If it was a bacon buttie, I ordered it, because I've always wanted to order a bacon buttie and snicker a little.

After breakfast, we still had something like two hours before our tour, one designed as an afternoon/evening, rather than early morning and on. I was pretty nervous. It turns out that adhering to timing is something I worry about during travel. I'm afraid of missing my transportation or forgetting reservations entirely! In the meantime, we wandered around the few blocks right near the hotel. I discovered that the ATMs in the post offices--closed, that day--would actually give me money. We wandered into a grocery chain that K had told us not to, and of course, K was right. We looked at apartment listings in the window of a real estate office, and I contemplated moving to Melbourne. As it turns out, I mostly want to visit plants and animals, walk around, and sleep on vacations, but I loved Melbourne, to the point of doing some hard thinking about emigration. Eventually, we went back to our apartment and stopped at a bank of computers, where C bought a little time, and I frantically rushed through some e-mail.

Around 11:15, we wandered downstairs and out to the front of the hotel next door where we were to meet our tour with Go West Tours (of Australia, versus any similar-sounding companies from elsewhere). We'd just about given up when they showed up close to noon. It turned out that Jack (I think) was just ending his training week, accompanied by Katie, a fantastic senior tour guide. Now, the tours we had were usually a small van/bus with one row of single seats and one row of doubles, holding about 20 people. On most tours, we stopped three or four times to pick up families and people who'd all been at the same hotel, but poor Jack--I think that we made nine or ten stops at least to pick up single travelers. Katie and Jack were the very best tour guides we had the whole time, and shared a lot of the things that other tour guides would say, wrongly--and Katie and Jack were right.

Before I go on, let me tell you something else about small tours. This tour was full of very well-behaved people or, at least, people who all have to a mutual understanding. But here are my tips, based on some other tours. First, be on time to your tour. Don't make the operator wander around inside the lobby looking for you. Second, get on the bus with your group and stay with your group. By this I mean that I don't care where you sit, but sit together, and take either the first open seats, or move all the way to the back, so that the open seats are all together in a block, because inevitably, the last group to board with be parents with a bunch of small children, and we'll have to take a year sorting it out. If there are two of you, don't sit one person in the single seat and one person in the adjacent double. What is wrong with you. And once you've chosen a seat, you should keep it unless there's a compelling reason to change; sometimes, it's okay to leave things on the bus, and no one likes to get back on and find out that not only do they have to figure out where their stuff is, and under whom it is, but they have to find a new place to sit. Personally, I preferred to sit near the front to be able to see and hear better, but I had nice times in other parts of the buses, too. Except that time that kid from Canada kicked my seat for an hour (though, nothing really bothered me for more than a minute or three the whole trip).

One other tip, drawn from recent U.S. National Parks visits: If there is a walking path around attractions, don't stand on one side of the path and have your group try to line up on the other side with the attraction in the background, and get mad that people want to walk by, including people who don't speak your language and understand your anger and woe. Instead, stay on the same side of the path as your photo subject, and take a picture from that angle so you can get the person and thing without blocking, oh, 3,000 people who need to keep moving lest they be trampled. Or I will come after you.

I'd been up for driving out to Phillip Island, but C didn't like that idea, and booked us for the Penguin Parade Day Tour. (We'd probably have been fine with a GPS to get us out of the city; most of the roads were divided, or pleasantly rural and not busy.) As much as I love(d) Melbourne, it was nice to be out in the green countryside. And to be on the way to penguins!

Our first stop was the town of Koo Wee Rup. We were given about twenty minutes to go to a pie shop and get groceries for lunch. It was a very, very good thing that we did, though we didn't know it at the time. First, C and I hustled over to the IGA.

This will sound very rude, but all I could think at the time was I came halfway around the world to go to IGA. (IGA, in the US, is always that little supermarket in towns that would not otherwise have a supermarket.) I remember looking for a particular kind of lemon fizzy candy, and I think we grabbed some water, Coke and Pringles, which I'm only a little ashamed to say was our go-to "no time to think about it, just get something that's portable and you know how you'll feel after you eat it" combination. Then, we got meat pies from--and I'm not sure, even on street view--either Kooweerup Bakery or Wattle Cafe and Milk Bar. At the time, I felt a little bit weird chowing down when others weren't, but it turned out that we didn't get much of a chance to eat again until the next day. But more on that later.

Our "real" first stop was at Panny's Amazing World of Chocolate. I can kind of take or leave chocolate--I either want all of it, or none of it. That day, I was wanting none of it, but I picked up some mint, ginger, and honeycomb chocolates, which I wanted very much later in the trip! C. picked up some sort of assortment that melted into a big and, I think, luscious gob.

Here are some shoes made of chocolate.

Our next stop was at The Koala Conservation Centre. It turns out that Katie helps do a census of koalas, and told us a lot about them, from the misconception that they're getting high on eucalyptus--nope, just very picky about eating the leaves, and not getting enough energy from them to be super-active--to the preponderance of chlamydia in the koala population that's one of the many risks the animals are facing. 

There's a small interpretive center, but the main attraction for me was a series of trails and boardwalks, where you could get up close to view the koalas without being able to touch them. Here are the rules: no spanking, shouting, or shaking.

I could have stayed here all day just to check them out! That plastic you see in the background is something that's hard to climb over, and sets out ground territory so koalas can switch trees. Here are some koalas. Did you know they have two thumbs?

And an awesome bird. I'm not sure what it is.

I could have hung out here all day, but tours are tours (and oddly enough, you know, some people want to do this thing, others that). We headed on out into the countryside, and it was a beautiful day.

Then, we made a stop at a small winery. Phillip Island Winery, where I learned that roses planted around vineyards are the early warning system for grape problems, and where we tried a variety of wines and cheeses. I really liked the first one, a rosé. We also heard about screw-top wine, explained as fitting better with the Australian lifestyle than corks (and of course, corks can get icky).

I'm all for getting to the wine without need for a corkscrew. Nicely aglow, we headed out to a park, The Esplanade area, on the north side of the island. It was a very quick stop. I didn't take any pictures. It was suggested that we grab dinner, but I didn't see how we could accomplish that in the 15 or 20 minutes we had (walk uphill included), and we were headed out to see penguins soon after. Or we did some bit around the sea, and a stop at a visitor center, and then the park; I can't remember. But here are some pictures from the island.

I think that's a little penguin in a little penguin den. Most live in a no-photographs area. More on that later.

Some of this is the Nobbies. I'd have to look up things to tell you more.

At last, at last, we headed to the Penguin Parade area. I grabbed a guidebook with pictures at one stop because you're not to take pictures in the viewing area. (You can get an idea by going to Google Images, though, and searching for penguin parade.) And I didn't, even when I saw a rogue penguin out in the parking lot later.

This is not the penguin in the parking lot.

Signs directed us into the building, which was busy with exhibits and shopping.

Penguins: This way to eating and gifts! Or is it penguins, get eaten and turn into presents ahead?

C was very generous and got us the fanciest of fancy things, only available by advance arrangement. It turns out that I would probably have liked the mediumest of fancy things, because we were turned over to a ranger. I had on my jacket and my credentials around my neck, my purse slung around one way (exacerbating a medical issue, all on its own), and then added a set of binoculars and a radio-hearing thing, plus my glasses--it was pretty heavy and overwhelming, and then we went out onto the crowded boardwalk and beach just at twilight, when I find it very, very hard to see. So I might have just liked to sit in the sand, or on the off-to-the-side platform, to watch.

We picked our way down into the cool, wet sand--and I swear I didn't step on too many people on the way--and waited for sunset. As the sun goes down, rafts--gatherings--of penguins start to form in the waves, dark blotches. They clump up and then ride the waves in, thousands of them, spilling onto the beach on their tummies, and then walk, slide, wander up to their dens in the hills, passing over sensors that track and weigh them. They're wary of shorebirds, but they mostly ignore the people. They waddle back into the dark to mate (noisily!) and feed their chicks, some huge and pushy. And there are some penguins, females, going back the other way, down to the beach--I've forgotten the details, but I think to get minerals, to make stronger shells for eggs.

We got up to do some other boardwalk activities, tricky in the crowd (and while it would have been easier for me to see and follow C, I think he was afraid I would somehow get lost), and went up to the visitor center just in time to grab our included drinks and hop on the bus. Really, though, the parks on the island could be an all-day trip; you can find out about farming and working dogs and sheep shearing and whips in the day, visit the koalas in the afternoon, and see the penguins at night!

Also, there are some fantastic-looking tours in the area around Melbourne. If I'd had more time, I'd've liked to explore the beaches and the Great Ocean Road, the 12 Apostles, and so on, and the mountains, maybe on the Puffing Billy Railway. Of course, I wanted to tour the country by car, and if we'd had a couple of months...

We headed back to Melbourne, arriving very late, and getting caught in a traffic jam. I am not sure what that was about, but things were busy at 1 a.m. We were nearly the last to get dropped off--I think with all the pickups and dropoffs, there was a question of running out of fuel, too--so we stumbled home, hungry, but too tired to do anything but fall into bed.

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