Monday, July 14, 2008

Down Under

In 1979, the movie The China Syndrome made popular the (unscientific and impossible) notion that it is possible to reach “the other side” (china) of the world through the earth crust and core (in the event of a nuclear meltdown). Actually, if you look at a globe model, you know you would more likely to get to Australia than China when you dig a hole through earth!

We just returned from an exciting 2 weeks vacation in down under, that is, Australia. It is the only country in the world that occupies a whole continent, albeit the smallest and flattest one. Size wise, it is almost as big as United States but has only a little over 20 millions populations like Taiwan, with most of its residents concentrated in a few coastal cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide. It is a young country by most measures; it did not become independent from the United Kingdom until 1901. In some senses, one may consider Australia a 100 years younger brother of U.S., not to mention the 2nd wave of settlement with British convicts was a direct result of American independence from UK.

Majority of the land of Australia (commonly referred to as Outback) are very dry and receive little rainfalls that proved to be quite challenging for animals and vegetations alike. Many of us would recall the popular 1986 adventure comedy movies Crocodile Dundee by Paul Hogan. Behind the adventurous Outback scenes though, there were and still are blood and tears of struggling Indigenous People of Australia (often referred to as “black people”) who have been living there since about 50,000 years ago but got caught up in waves of settlement and colonization (began in 1788) in the last 200 years. Today there are about 2.5% or 500,000 Australians consider themselves descendants (part or full blood) of original inhabitants. Considering there were about that as many or more full blood aboriginal people before the first settlement in 1788, one can infer their decimation due to massacres, diseases, discrimination, and various hardships, not dissimilar to those in many other parts of the world. Their social, economical, and political problems also sounded all too familiar with under-represented and disadvantaged minorities in rest of the world. It was not until 1962, they were granted unqualified rights to vote in federal elections and not until 1970's practice of forced removal of children from their family (so called Stolen Generations) by government agencies and church missions (under the name of “protection”) was finally completely stopped.

One can get a “5-star comfort” glimpse of the aboriginal land by visiting the spectacular Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory that is 3 hours flight away from Sydney. Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock by its colonial name (you can guess: it was named by the explorers after then “governor” Sir Henry Ayers!), is a 1,100 feet high immense, lone standing, bare sandstone formation and sacred to the aboriginal people in the area. The best way to appreciate it is to take a walk around its 6 miles long base. In several caves at its base, you can see some old paintings of the aboriginals in symbols of lizards, emus, water holes, etc. that have been adopted in most art works and souvenirs found in galleries and shops all over the country. You can learn about the aboriginal teachings passed down orally through so called Dreamtime stories and legends of good and evil characters that are imprints on natural rock formations. I liked in particular the Kuniya walk and story about a Kuniya Woman Python (see photo to the right) struck down a Liru poisonous snake avenging her nephew’s death. One should also see Uluru at different times of the day, in particular its firing red in the sunrise and sunset.

Australia is also blessed with awesome natural beauties of sea. The largest coral reef system of the world – the 1,200 miles long Great Barrier Reef is one of the top natural wonders by practically any list. Many of the reefs and islands are reachable by boat in an hour or so from its northeastern coastal towns. Walter Disney-Pixar’s 2003 hit movie Finding Nemo turns out to be the biggest advertisement for the Reefs. Pictures of Nemo is everywhere in Cairns and is constantly mentioned by every water activity guide. The best way to see the reef is of course by going into the water. One can join any of the dive/snorkel tours operated by a few companies in Cairns (and other port cities). In a calm and sunny day, you can easily get 10-15 meter visibility in water and swim along dozens of different types of colorful fishes and seeing all kinds of corals in a literally an unbounded tropical “fish tank”. It is a wonderful experience hard to beat at other places.

The most populated city of Australia is Sydney with over 4 millions of population. It is a beautiful city with diverse culture and residents. The most impressive building and master piece in architecture is no doubt the Sydney Opera House that is right in the Sydney harbor, surrounded by water on three sides. It was designed by a then-young Danish architect Jørn Utzon who won the open competition launched in 1955. The story goes as Utzon’s submission had only sketches of his concepts and was rejected initially. It took Eero Saarinen (the famous Finnish architect who designed the St. Luis Gateway Arch and among other corporation buildings, the beautiful Holmdel Bell Labs building where I spent 28 years of my life) who served on the selection committee, to rescue the rejected proposal; the rest is history.

The exterior “shells” (literally) was so unique and original as the first attempt of complex geometry in modern building designs that practical way of engineering and construction it, based on so-called “Utzon’s Sphere”, was not proposed and validated till 4 years into the project after many failed attempts. Although many of us have seen photos of the Opera House before, one can only appreciate the real beauty and awe of it by seeing it with one’s own eyes from different angles, distance and time. For example, do you know its roofs are covered with over 1 million pieces of glossy white and matte cream tiles (see photo to the right)? I counted that during our stay in Sydney, I had admired it from inside and out in countless ways – in air at a distance (in flights in/out of Sydney), high above ground at a distance (from the Harbor Bridge to the west), at ground level in all 360 degrees from close up to afar by land and water around it, and lastly, during the day and evening lightings! It is truly a master piece and deserving finalist for the new 7 wonders of the world; there is simply nothing like it.

For natural beauty, the kilometer long Bondi Beach (an aboriginal word pronounced "bond-eye", meaning "the sound of waves breaking over rocks") and the cliff walk between Bondi and Coogee certainly top my list. Bondi beach lies 4 miles east of central Sydney and is easily reachable by bus in about 30 minutes. It is probably the most famous Australian sand beach and is well-known for surfing. The 5 Km walk along the paved cliff trail from Bondi Beach to Coogee in the south is breadth taking. It takes you through rock formations, beaches, small towns and parks, and you can take a bus back to Sydney easily. When you are there as tides come in, you can witness, yes, the sounds and tremendous splashes of waves breaking over rocks like the next photo shows.

The easiest way to learn and acquire fascinating closeup views of many unique and rare animals found in Australia continent is to pay a visit to the Sydney Taronga Zoo that overlooks the central Sydney from the hill on north across the harbor. Australia continent is like a isolated natural life science Lab and had chartered a distinct evolutionary path with its inhabitants since it was separated first from Africa continent 167 millions ago, then India 120 millions ago, and eventually Antarctica/South America 40-80 millions ago. Subsequently, creatures on these different land mass have evolved and adapted differently according to the habitats, climates, predator/prey as Darwin lucidly explained in his theory of evolution. In Australia, unlike the rest of the world, Marsupials like kangaroo - the mammals with slower metabolism and pouch for developing offsprings turns out to have fared much better and dominated the placental mammals such as mice, cats, tigers, etc that carry the youth in uterus to full term. Over 200 out of the about 300+ species of marsupials of the world are native to Australia (including the cute Koala) and can be seen in Australia today! So you can imagine how much fun and learning you can get from visiting the zoo.

What is perhaps most “strange” and least understood animals is a subclass of mammals known as monotreme that lay eggs. Guess what, the only surviving monotremes are indigenous to Australia and New Guinea and you can see them in Sydney that is what we did. They are the duck-billed Platypus 鴨嘴獸 and spiny Echidna 針鼢. Here is a photo of a platypus swimming in a tank of the Sydney Aquarium and a photo of two echidnas following each other in the Taronga zoo. Platypus looks so weird that no wonder the British scientists thought it was a hoax when they received the first pelt and sketch from Australia back in 1798. A 2008 May 8th Guardian article reported the result of a recent DNA study that found platypus to be a mix of mammal, bird and reptile with 10 sex chromosomes (contrast to 2 in human)!

Before I go, let me share with you below our itinerary and some of the highlights of our two weeks Australia fun journey. Palya (an Aboriginal Australian word for greetings and goodbyes that has no equivalent in English) and talk to you soon!

Sat., June 21, 2008: arrived in the evening at Sydney after a 14 hours non-stop flight from Los Angeles, CA. Checked into the Travelodge Wynyard Hotel that is located within walking distance to most major attractions and public transportations of Sydney.

Sun., June 22, 2008: In the morning, walked to the Rocks, the earliest settlement of Sydney, and visited the Sunday market. Walked to and toured the wonderful Sydney Harbor Bridge, Circular Quay (pronounced as “key”), Opera House, and the Botanical Garden.

Mon., June 23, 2008: took a ferry to the Taronga Zoo and toured the Sydney harbor

Tues., June 24, 2008: took a bus to Bondi Beach and did the Cliff walk

Weds., June 25, 2008: flew to Cairns (pronounced as “cans”), a port city to Great Barrier Reef. Joined the excellent and popular 2 hours evening Reef Teach talk to learn about fishes and corals of GBR.

Thurs., June 26, 2008: took a diving/snorkeling trip with Passions of Paradise to Michaelmas cay and Paradise reef

Fri., June 27, 2008: took a half day ATV tour at the Blazing Saddles Ranch northwest of Cairns

Sat., June 28, 2008: boat ride to Green Island and checked into the island resort. Dive and snorkel off/at the island in the afternoon

Sun., June 29, 2008: boat ride to Norman Reef for diving/snorkeling by Great Adventures’ Reef Prince

Mon., June 30, 2008: boat ride to Norman Reef again for the day and returned to Cairns late afternoon

Tues., July 1, 2008: took a morning flight to Uluru/Ayers Rock and checked into the Ayers Rock Resort. Took a Uluru Sunset tour. Went to observatory for a Night Sky talk in the evening. Note the sky does look different in Southern hemisphere. For example, one can not see North Star but fortunately there is the Southern Cross constellation that tells the Aussies where is the south; else they would have been hopelessly lost! For its importance, these 5 stars are on the fly of the Australia flag.

Weds., July 2, 2008: got up early for the Uluru Sunrise and walked around the base. In the afternoon, visited Kata Tjuta and stayed through Sunset. Kata Tjuta is located 20 miles east of Uluru and is an equally impressive formation consisted of 36 domes including 5 large ones (see the sunset photo of them to the right).

Thurs., July 3, 2008: strolled in the resorts to see exhibits of the visitor center and various shops. Took an early p.m. flight to Sydney. Had a diner feast at a Cantonese Seafood restaurant in Chinatown with fresh Abalone and Scallop. Yummy!

Fri., July 4, 2008: visited Australian Museum (of Natural History and Anthropology) off Hyde Park in the morning and then took a 20 minutes light rail train to the Airport.

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