Monday, April 28, 2008

Things of note my first day at the Prom

April 8th

Some things of note that happened today

I awoke from the best night's sleep I have yet had in the bush. I attribute this to A. not freezing - the temperature here next to the coast, (despite being father south) is a great deal warmer. B. No Alarm. With no urgent place to be or any reason to get an early start on the road, there was no need for a wake up call. My body woke comfortably with the light to a morning on the verge of crisp. It was perfect weather for my bivy sack. My muscles were pleasantly sore from a different kind of work, and I putzed around the camp delighting at this pace of life. The last time I camped here (over 4 years ago) it was in an early wet spring with no good food or flashlight. Then, my hiking partner and I hit the road early and had forgone the actually 3.7 km hike to the physical southern-most tip of the antipodean continent. This seemed just the occasion to see it. Hiking in the Prom is primarily a pleasant tunnel of bush interspersed with mighty views of deserted beaches and smooth granite islands. The southern most tip is much the same. Granite boulders, wave-hewn over years, sit like a giant's toys. Above the salt spray line is brilliant orange lichen that grows, and in some cases nearly encases, the boulders in a rustic version of "hunter orange." Among the rocks lays a lumber yard's worth of wood, each piece touched by human hand – a brutal testament to the destructive nature of Bass Strait. On the far end sits a tilted cross made of the same wood and lashed together with rope that had also washed ashore. I was moved my the shipwrecked detritus, but still found myself delighted to jump like a child from boulder to boulder.

My next stop of note was the Promontory Lighthouse. It has been in continuous operation since it was completed 1859. This is still a remote location, and it is hard to imagine it when the only communication was one galvanized telegraph wire (that was interrupted the first day when a tree fell across it). The lighthouse sits on a tiny peninsula on the same kind of orange-covered granite. On approach from the east, it reminds me of the town of Cinque Terra in Italy. It appears a town in miniature with roads and neatly hewn stone cottages that held, at one point, the families of the lighthouse keeper and his two assistants. For one short year this included 14 children, enough that the state of Victoria sent them their own school teacher. Over the years less and less people were needed to keep this sailor's joy alight. Today it is all automated. A stark contrast to the barely-weathered 140 year old lighthouse, still as solid as the day it was built. The existing houses are well-taken care of with neatly cut grass and flowers. A ranger still lives here. Duties for the light are far less, and the assistants' cottages are now a strange luxury to savvy campers willing to pay the 70$ AUD a night for the rather historical privilege of staying in one of the white-washed stone cottages. I feel that some day this will be me, but for now, I still must put 11 more kilometers on and leave this wind-swept spot for my campsite in Waterloo Bay. In the valleys, I walked though a wet forest with a soggy carpet of leaves, and on the ridges past scrubby, dry bushes and granite. Today’s journeys ended at the beach. None too soon as my feet were hot and hurting. It was delicious to feel the sand through my toes and downright blissful when rolled over by the cold, salty waves.

The campsite was overrun by younguns from the city. Not in the mood to deal with them, I moved past the camp to a lookout just above the beach. The waves crashed and kept me company. In the distance, a lighthouse flashed red. I see my breath but am not at all cold – no doubt the humidity. My dinner is good, and I have a cup of coffee to have with my tim tam cookies. I bite off each end of the chocolate-covered treats and suck the hot coffee through it before sucking the java logged treat into my mouth in what I find out later is a "tim-tam slammer." This made me smile, as did the starlight that rained above me through the branches.

To the Prom

April 7th

The best laid plans are sometimes best lain in. A 4:45 start crept thankfully to 6:15. Amelia put on coffee while we packed the car leaving for the Prom at a respectable 7:30ish. “Ish” was the world that day. We stopped just outside the Prom in the town of Foster and dug into some meat pies. Meat pies are, depending on your point of view, a good or a bad thing that we Americans did not inherit from our British heritage, and after watching Sweeny Todd this winter, I just do see them going off. However, for cheap, tasty and heart-clogging energy, a meat pie has no equal. Steak, bacon, and egg in a pie crust. It's called a "Ned Kelly" the famous armor-wearing bushranger (outlaw) of the these parts in the late nineteenth century. I also had a lamakin, another treat America should import. It's a square cake coved in a light layer of chocolate followed by a romp in shaved coconut. Forgive me, I digress into my hunger pants.

The Prom(ontory) is rather like a rough isosceles triangle attached to continental Australia by a slight isthmus. It would be, and from many sides appears like, you would imagine a picturesque, temperate, deserted island to look like. Among its square millage are mountains up to 1500ft, rolling hills, swamps, bays, bushland, temperate rain forest and miles and miles of white beach interrupted with shallow freshwater streams colored light brown from the Tea tree leaves that fall into them. It is a most Robinson Crusoesque experience to take your shoes off and hike barefoot through these beachy streams. Amelia was unfortunately sick and not up to the roughly 60 km of hiking over three days that was planned, and she stayed at the main campsites in Tidal River with its generous access to a range of day hikes and fine sandy beaches, one of which, Squeaky Beach, is named as such because your feet squeak on its evenly-shaped and sized grains of sand. The hike began on the beach next to this whose name escapes me. I quickly climbed the lower exposed granite bluffs of Mt. Oberon, the Proms' highest mountain. The climb increased steadily to a view of a rocky distant island reminiscent of Esperance. Two more sets of beaches and bluffs later, I passed some school children. I was somewhat put out that one of the little darlings had a radio, and, I felt for a second was missing the point. Then again, who was I to judge? It was nice to hear music when it comes my way. Would I have had a problem with it if he was making is own? Is bringing a radio different than bringing a book? Either way, I was not staying at their campground and moved on.

I scared two wallabies - shorter and stumpier cousins of kangaroos. They taste the same (not these particular two). The first jumped from the road and watched me with suspicious curiosity as I took pictures and tried to speak to in it what can be best described as an unintentional Mickey Mouse voice. I don't know why I and others feel the need to talk to animals in strange voices. The second wallaby crashed through the trees down a steep incline. I heard his gravity-enhanced scamper for nearly ten seconds.

I am at the Roaring Meg campsite. Just me and a couple from Melbourne who were very excited when I told them there was a loo on the other side of the campsite where we were staying. The Meg, roaring as it were, seemed to be an overstatement. However, the trees atop the ridges in this protected valley do whisper loudly as the wind blows by. In my valley for the night the air is calm. A possum comes to look at me reminding me to store my food properly. A mosquito lands on my shirt. I slap him and am surprised by the amazing amount of gore (probably mine) that stains my shirt. Bedtime.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

To Sale once again

April 6th

Ok, so I admit I might have woke up with a little headache, but I imagine I’m not the first person to wake up with a little head throb after a wedding at the Melbourne Club drinking some of the old vino de Latreille. Even then, I did wake up at a respectable 7:30 am to check email and do some blogging. Jonno’s wife, Suse, felt great. I like the fact that she is a morning person; it gives me hope that I’m not the only one. Jonno admitted that he was struggling and went through his usual routine of saying he was running late while still moving around in a most unhurried fashion. I have never met a person so relaxed while in a hurry. I’m sure the hangover helped.

At ten a.m., I made my way to the Southern Cross station with a hodgepodge of camping gear from my bike bags and Jonno’s closet. I was heading back to the Family Stone in Sale and eventualy to Wilson’s Promontory with Jonno’s sister, Amelia, the next day. I grabbed a large cuppa coffee and settled in for the two hour train ride wishing I had grabbed a copy of the Sunday Morning Herald, but settled for catching up in my journal. Amelia picked me up from the station in Taralgon (I never dreamed in my life that I would spend so much time in Taralgon), and we shopped for our camp food. On my last trip to the Promontory, my pack was raided by a wombat that left me half a block of cheese and half a jar of peanut butter as my sole sustenance for the next 24 hours. I now have a rather irrational hatred of these mostly benign, stumpy pig-dog creatures. An hour later, I sat once again in the sublimely relaxing atmosphere of the Stone's kitchen. There is something about their ready hospitality and kindness that makes me think of home.

That night Prue made roast of lamb, a meat we both share a great affinity for. Frank whipped up a chili relish with fresh veggies from the garden. This mixed in completely different, yet complementary, ways with both the lamb and the pumpkin (what Aussies call butternut squash). The lamb fell easily off the bone and tasted of salty rosemary. In the not so distant field outside their house, cows rustled and mooed. Dessert was pineapple and watermelon diced and topped with ice cream. I was out before my head hit the pillow in the Harry Potter bed beneath the stairs. I dreamt, but nothing important, and my slumber remained unperturbed.

Kookaburra at the wedding

April 5th

A kookaburra wedding crasher.

Could a bride look lovelier?

Could a groom look more comely?

I like to think every bride and groom does but then again I am a rank sentimentalist with a streak of the hopeless romantic. The venue was the "Melbourne Club" (no qualification required) at which Lat's father is one of roughly 1,000 invitation only members. The sumptuous marble, tile and mahogany (even in the head) was made second rate only by the 113 year old English Live Oak whose branches stretched in regal manner above the courtyard and below the shadows the sky scrapers in this exclusive downtown setting. Lord knows the cost of a square foot; however, I have a hunch that this venerable Victorian building is in absolutely no danger of ever being bought. It was an intimate setting below the oak. A few lines of chairs faced the old trunk for family as the rest of the friends stood closely by. I could not have been happier to say yes to Lat’s and Elka’s wedding only six days before.

I love a wedding. I think love and the optimism of a wedding are well worth celebrating and thus I am only slightly ashamed that even in my most callused moments I get teary. When/ if I ever get married I reckon I’ll leak like a first semester cordon bleu student cutting onions.

The ceremony was non-denominational with a "celebrant" instead of a priest. She was kind faced and wore her hair in such a way that reminded me of a Victorian schoolmistress minus the implied emotional abuse. The readings made by several friends were worth sharing. I have transcribed them below.

In order to complete the setting of a perfect Australian wedding a professional kookaburra was hired to sit at the wrought iron bench next to the wedding party, interrupting only at the most opportune moments. The cerimony was short and sweet and the chairs were moved making way for the reception to commence immediately amoung the columns and oak tree.

Peter Latreille in his deep booming voice (that judging by Lat’s similar deep booming voice is genetic) told Elks father, in a voice heard round the coutyard "we did it" and there was a gerneral shaking of hands and clapping of backs. In the resplendant dining room with its two story ceiling the meal was served. Christopher Watkins "Watty" was master of ceremonies and with the professorial voice of a Phd in history, conducted the evning of speaches and toasts. Lat's and Elka danced into the room, absolutly radiant, a most becoming center of attention. The food was excellent, complementing the oppulence of the dinning room. I enjoyed a cigar and some man time in the coutyard befor heading back in to enjoy some of Peter's home made muscat from the seemingly inexaustable Latreille cellar. The band began to play "Proud Mary" and it seemed an appropriate note to start my dancing for the evening. Lats and Elka had left the building, and it was clear our lease on the Melbourne Club was running out and it was time to find a late night venue. This was the Champagne room a block away. They were checking Ids at the door, they just ask us if we were from the Melbourne Club and let us in. Oh, what a night.

Some readings from the wedding:

By Michael Leunig

A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle
A man needs a sushi when a woman is an icicle
A man needs a car to zip across town
To order a tuna and gobble it down.
The tuna needs cars to be partially banned
And bicycles reintroduced to the land;
To pedal for miles in the rain for a sushi;
Better to stay at home with noodles for dinner;
The man and the tuna would both be a winner
The world needs to get it self out of a pickle
A woman needs a man like a fish needs bicycle.

This is pretty unothodox for a reading but one has to understand that Elka is clearly an independent woman, althought they do share the same profession (architects). Lat’s is also a cycle phile and is the owner of eight or nine bikes, much to Elka's increasing chagrin, but I think she still loves him.

How to Get There
By Michael Leunig

Go to the end of the path until you get to the gate.
Go through the gate and head straight out
Towards the horizon
Keep going towards the horizon
Sit down and have a rest every now and again
But keep on going.
Just keep with it.
Keep on going as far as you can
That's how you get there.

I don't really feel like I have to explain why I like this.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

April 4th, I accept Canberra

April 4th Afternoon, I accept Canberra as my final destination.

Sometimes you have to look at a situation, accept the facts and go with plan B. My bike was grievously broken. This was not a part that could easily be replaced nor fixed. I ride a very large frame and the chance that one would be easily available in Canberra were slim to nil, besides, I have no desire to make a $1000 to $2000 purchase under duress. It just wasn’t worth the cost. Either way I had a wedding to go to and needed a place to keep my bike while I went to Melbourne the next week to: A. Go to Lat’s wedding. B. Hike Wilson’s Promontory and C. Go to Jonnos 30th birthday party. The hostel I planned to stay at had no place to secure my bike and thus I called up Frank Stone to call in a favor for me through the IFR (international fraternity of rowers) Fortunately a background in this sport breeds uncommon camaraderie among aficionados and I suspected that Frank might know a coach in Canberra who might be willing to let me put my broken bike and bags in one of the boat sheds. He did. His name was Ross Ford, and in typical aussie/rower fashion was more than willing to help, picking me up, taking me to the sheds and then offering me a ticket with him to the Rugby Union game that night.

April 4th Evening, Rugby Union. Canberra Brumbys vs. The Waikato Chiefs (NZ)

I will qualify this by saying that it would be hard to classify me as a sports fan. Despite growing up in the states I have absolutely no affinity to baseball, basketball, or football (however, I am a fair weather fan of the Sea Hawks) For the most part I find them pretty dull and hard to watch. Rugby is a different story. It doesn’t stop. These large and largely unpadded men beat the tar out of each other and keep the ball in play in a poetic madness that kept my eyes focused on the field. "Footie" is the generic term given to Australian Rules Football, Rugby League and Rugby Union. These games would best be described to Americans as various mixes of soccer, football and hockey, and in my humble opinion are more fun to watch as the ball, like the hockey puck, is almost always in play and stoppages are kept to a minimum. The footie I was watching that night was Union, this differentiated from League in number of players (15 to 13) and is considered the most pure form of the game, as league developed roughly 100 years ago as the working mans professional game. These days all the players of both codes are professional, the only differences being the number of players and variations in the rules. Ross provided running commentary filling me in on the particulars and the specific skills, and towards the end of the game I could began to see the art within it. It was a little disappointing as Rose’s team; the Brumby's were being run all over the field by the crisp plays of the Chiefs. For someone use to the hard hits and pads of American Football it is incredible to see men o similar size and strength take the same effort out of each other with out the protection of pads. Perhaps most satisfying was the Brumby's final effort for one last goal despite being several goals behind. In many sports a complete rout will result in a visible lack of effort in the waning seconds of the game. No so for the Bumby's who battled the final minute of play on the goal line finally scoring one more. It felt good to see the physical manifestation of pride out on the pitch. A great end to what really could have been a most depressing day. But for now I have a plain to catch and a wedding to go to.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Rough Day to Canberra

April 4th
A Rough Day

I was acutely aware that my sleeping set up was not up to the task this morning. I awoke colder than in the bush camps in the mountains despite being 1000 meters closer to sea level. I would find out later that this is typical of Canberra. Fortunately I still had the plastic bags and threw on my homeless man mittens for the 40km into Australia’s capitol city. On my way I passed a dead deer. One of the many animals the Europeans brought with them that were suited well for this environment. Its head was freshly caved in and was perhaps the most gruesome roadkill to date. Canberra is a sleepy town of 300,000 and is a planned city. It having the virtue of being neither Sydney nor Melbourne as it was these cities that have always competed with each other. Thus Canberra was chosen as a compromise and this sleepy hilly farmland became the decision making center for the continent. I stopped at a chic outdoor shopping mall for breakfast. More meat pies, read the paper and was quite pleased with the time that I made it to the city. Only one week before at this time I had been in Omeo and had put a lot of ups and downs in-between. I was now assured of making it to my flight to Melbourne and hence Lat’s wedding.
These happy thoughts and the last 3 k to the city center were all the filled my mind as I stepped back on the bike. Pressing my full weight into the pedal I heard the satisfying click of the cleat and a sickening bend as the pedal crank curved most unnaturally. I looked down and was stunned, shocked. And not a little bit suprised that my bike frame was cracked. Not a micro crack in the weld but a fill on 10 cm crack that curved all around the crank and into the meat of the aluminum frame. In a daze I gently peddled/ pushed my bike to the CBD. I was too aghast to be angry. It being early enough to call the states and really needing some moral support I did what I believe a lot of people, especially momma boys like myself might do. I called mom.
Unfortunately, my brother had not gotten into his first choice for University and was pretty crushed and thus had a monopoly on Mom’s sympathy. She wished she could help, really did, but today was not it. So I talked to my brother who had sat in silence for the past three hours after the news. I told him about the bike and then just started laughing. 299km from my destination with a broken bike. My mirthless laughter seemed to get him going and he replied that it was clearly a dark day for the Hanssen-wood clan. It was quite clear we were going to have to rethink our efforts.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Cold, Wet Nose Means a Healthy Dog

April 3rd

My nose has been cold for the entire day. I left Jindabyne late, around 9:30 but with a rare and fine breakfast of eggs. As of late, I have not cooked brekki for myself, and in my worn down state I figured I should be at least well-fueled. Yesterday’s forecast was correct, and as I rounded Lake Jindabyne, I could see the Snowy Mountains with a dusting of its namesake. The taller peaks were still crowned with clouds, and I could only assume more snow. I had an epiphany today. I have been riding with the misconception that it’s still the summer in Australia. In fact, it is more like there late fall. This explains the cold nose and red swollen fingers as I write in my bush camp just inside the ACT (Australian Capitol Territory). 40 km from the capitol of Australia - Canberra - my destination. Omeo to Mt. Hotham, and then on to Kosciuszko and Canberra in one week was not bad, especially budgeting 2 days for the bucks party. I was quite miserable today. It was manageable for the first half of the day, but the wind that brought the storm in yesterday (and, as I later found out, uprooted trees, knocked down walls and killed a woman) was still blowing in the clear sun. It was blowing hard enough that it seemed to suck the air from my mouth.

Today I sat at a rest area resting, reading a book and eating some cold lunch. I could not get away from the wind. It howled and made me cold despite the sun. A woman in a yellow car offered me a ride to Canberra, and I said “no, thanks” (rather weakly). I was not thinking that clearly, and the way I said it (despite my attraction to the offer), seemed to offend. I was sad. I really could have used that ride, and my bike seemed to agree. The front tire picked up two goat-heads (first of the trip) just as I was rolling off the grass at the rest area. It seemed to be saying, "Mate, I need a rest, too."

Ah well, we suffered through it, and my whole body hurt. It was mostly downhill on the way to Canberra, but the wind would not let me enjoy it. I was even peddling hard downhill to keep up time. I was so annoyed, and it was not until the last few km that I bothered to notice the beauty of the knobby foothills of the mountains. Now I do, and the birds make their last calls. My bush camp has the remains of a roo it in. It is not the first time I’m glad I’m not in croc country.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I climb Kosciuszko

April 2nd

I woke up early for a meat pie and carrot cake fuel-up at the local bakery. I took the bridge past the ski lifts and began a walk up varying degrees of forest to the top of the treeless alpine of Australia. Those words, “treeless alpine,” paired to me seemed like the words “jumbo shrimp” – simply a conflict in terms. But it’s a fact, and without the gum trees, this landscape has remarkable similarity to craggy Scotland with bastions of granite atop every protrusion but the one I seek - Kosciuszko - named after the Polish freedom-fighting general because it reminded the Pole who named it of the general’s grave in Krakow.

Small delicate plants and the remnants of spectacular glacier surround me as I walk the 20-year-old rusty grating that serves as a protective track to this fragile alpine environment. The wind is fierce, my eyes water and my face hurts bad enough to wrap my bandana around it. I am on top of the continent, and there has been nothing since the ocean to slow this wind down. The winds have reached at least 70 kph pushing my considerable bulk around.

I summit, and while it may be the shortest of the continents, it still feels spectacular to stand at its highest point. There is a short, shallow lake on the way up, and the gusts blaze waves across its surface sending spray into the air. I stand up there for a few minutes and then head back down. I was happy with my decision to climb early. The wind pushed me uncomfortably down the track. When I reached the bottom, I stared into many determined, but unhappy faces planning on making the climb. I grab some hot cocoa at the highest restaurant in Australia – the only one of the seven highest continental summits to have one. The staff tells me a storm is coming and there are winds over 120 kph in Melbourne. Snow is coming, too, and I need to blaze down the trail to escape it. I was quite tired and nearly delirious when I rolled into Jindabyne.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

At the ski bar at Thredbo village

April 1st

Today I climbed from bush camp still with mountain cold about 5 km outside of Khancoban. My last night ended with a climb and the day with more of the same. I can’t lie, today intimidated the hell out of me. Yesterday I had passed through Corryong right into the heart of Man from Snowy River country. My altitude there was roughly 300 meters, and I knew that I would be climbing a least 1280 meters more to Dead Horse Gap. Five km past Khancoban, I was in the middle of climbing my second ridge and had enough downhill in between that I had a feeling that despite my efforts I was no where closer (height wise) to my final goal of the day. I didn’t know how many ridges lay in between and with 75 km to ride, there were a lot of unknowns. I really had no idea how much of an ascent I was really in for.

My first climb brought me to the Murray 1 dam and its power station. This is part of a huge system of dams and power stations that provides 70% of the power needed for the greater southeast part of the country (the most populated). The tropical dull green of the gum trees and the power house complex and concrete make it look like a set from a James Bond movie. In the early light, it looks like a lair that the most nefarious of Drs. Evil could hide. I regretted not being able to stick around till nine when the visitor center opened up, but I could not justify the wait. I pushed along up the hills praying I would not turn a corner and start coasting downhill again and thus loose all the sweat equity I had put into this set of mountains. It was a ripper of a decent for seven km and roughly a third of the way into my day’s ride. It seemed as good a place as any for break. It was a gentle gold and green valley with a cold rippling stream running through it. My body shifted form hot to cold as I moved in and out of the shade. I lingered and finished H.G. Wells’ "The Island of Dr. Moreau." From that point on, it was hard not to put human attributes to any animal I saw.

I continued to the cattle station of Tom Groggin - home of the Man from Snowy River. The hills were quick and undulating, and the mass of valley was wide enough that one view could not soak it all in. After this, the pain set in, and my bike went slowly up and along the mountain. Small lizards barely an inch long scurried from there invisible spots on the road to avoid getting crushed. I learned the meaning of sweating bullets. I struggled, pulling my handlebars involuntary from side to side swaying like I was punch drunk. I climbed like a man possessed and prayed for no more down-hills. An old bastard passed me downhill in his truck and yelled at me to peddle harder. I wanted to strangle him with my bike chain. Then came another descent and another uphill. Fortunately, a stream lay in between them, and I tapped out for a late lunch. Rested one hour and got some dodgy intelligence from a man who had no idea what I was asking for when I asked him what the road was like up ahead. Turns out it was just one last uphill to Dead Horse Gap and then a last 7 km to Thredbo. I saw my challenge from a distance and felt like yelling. So, I did – He-Man style.

Monday, April 21, 2008

On to Khancoban

March 31st

Road maps just don’t tell you the ups and downs and what you will really see. Today was a treat. It was one of the physically hardest, yet beautiful days as I headed over ridges and valleys filled with cattle and gum trees to the land of The Man From Snowy River. It is filled with many ups and downs, verdant with life and secrets. I saw a bison, an American bison sitting in a paddock, and I slammed on the brakes. All I could think to myself was "jumping jumbuck, that’s a bison." Well actually, I didn’t say that. I felt like a bison was so damn strange in this land that it needed an exclamation of some sort, and a jumbuck is a large, untamed sheep. So I spent about 15 km rolling this stupid phrase around in my head, and now you have to suffer through it. I slept 5 km past Khancoban, well into the mountains. I had a 200 meter climb over 70 km to go. Tomorrow will be a slog. Found a great bush camp well above the road and looking out over a valley. I’m making good time. This trip looks possible. I am powered by meat pies, and my mantra is “H.T.F.U.” To find out more about this mantra, click on the hyperlink.

Back on the Road.

March 30

Lats, Benny, Rowie, and I were the last to leave. It had snowed that night, but the roads were fortunately clear. Lats approached me just as we were clearing out. He asked me to come to his wedding. I could not have been more honored. The only question was this. The wedding was 6 days away in Melbourne, and I had my ride to think about. I had already got a ticket to leave Canberra on the 8th to go back for Jonno’s birthday party and to hike Wilson’s prom. Along the way, I had planned on climbing Kosciuszko, Australia’s tallest mountain. There were a fair bit of hills in between where I needed to be. But hell, it was a challenge, and I was totally in. We ate bacon and grits and coffee at the scene of last night’s crime, now back as a coffee shop and restaurant. As we left Lats’ picture was on the General’s Facebook page.

It was cold and windy. The lads were jealous of the ride I was on, but not this part. They left. I went back in to ask for a newspaper and some plastic bags. I stuffed my jacket with the paper and put the bags over my hands, and into the clouds I went. It was steep, cold and felt like winter. I felt hardcore, and imagined I looked crazy to the cars heading up ahead of me. The descent took me from alpine to forests. Nothing but up and down from here to Canberra. No flats. Found a lovely country road that night. No lines, just creeks and cows. I rolled off the road after nightfall and made my bed.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Night of the Buck

March 29th

Up late. Slept late. Imagine that. Cooked up eggs while people still struggled out of bed. Made McMuffins. Drank lots of coffee. Around noon as Lats recovered, he was put in a rowing unisuit and ski goggles, and physical challenges were handed out amongst the lads as we sat around the fire. Jonno juggled. I handed out leg lifts. Earl gave him dips. Josh held logs and then the picture frame came out. It’s just an empty frame that, well... frames pictures. Once Lats was suitably worked, we moseyed out to the ski town and grey skies. We picked up some spuds at The General to add some carbs to our meat-fest that night. The General sits a km down from the main ski village. It’s the worker’s bar. It’s got flavor. During the day, it’s a restaurant, coffee shop, general store, post office, has a wireless café, and manages to be comfortable in all of these. We would find its moonlight personality later that night.

Walked back to the warmth of the chalet. Cooking began and meat fest part deaux, this time with potatoes on the open fire and even some greens (not a lot). We sat together at a long table and lit candles for earth hour. I found out then from Lats and Peter (his dad) that his mom is very superstitious and would always set a 14th spot if only 13 came. I was the 14th. Lats and Peter figured it was a good omen. We drank wine and port that had been aged over 35 years right from the bowels of the Latreille cellar. Dessert was cheese and pistachios.

It was just about the time for sleep or action when, as you must on a night celebrating the Buck, we chose action and headed to the General. It was snowing, and I was cold in my light clothes. A large group of local girls had heard a rumor that Bucks might appear that night and decided to make a showing. Lats was required to wear his unisuit, and the staff insisted they take a picture of him in front of the store in an old time strong man pose. It took a bit of time to achieve the right balance of boys to girls to good times, but eventually the night just stepped it up a notch. The frame came out. I felt accepted by the Aussie tribe.

Friday, April 18, 2008

1st Evening at the chalet

March 28th

It was clear from the unloading of Jonno’s car that we were meant to eat well this Buck’s weekend. It amounted to 2 sides of beef, aged, and what seemed like nearly 20 lbs. of lamb freshly butchered in the abattoir. The crew arrived in waves. We sat down to await the arrival of the man of the hour. Lats didn’t know I was coming, and we were discussing the best way to surprise him when the back of the chair broke taking me to the ground, and we had our plan. We would prop up the chair. Hide me behind the couch. Lats would arrive. We would tell him to take a rest, hand him a beer and sit him down. When he fell, Watty would stand up, point at him and say "ha, ha, ha, Lats, you’re a dickhead, but for a second opinion ..." and I would hop out behind the couch and, of course, agree.

Lats arrived, and energetic lad that he is, would not sit down and quickly became suspicious. So I sat behind the couch and drank my beer. Finally I hear Watty, over everyone, say, "get this man a beer ... but for a second opinion ..." And I appeared. Not quite the chummy male good-natured maliciousness we had hoped for. But he was happy to see me. Wine was poured, and we set ourselves to the first night’s meat fest – lamb and beef and little else, perfectly aged or perfectly fresh. You just don’t get meat like this from the grocer.

That night we gave Lats his "Vancouver" test, as he and his bride-to-be will be moving to Vancouver in six weeks. A sample of some questions are below.

What is a “Vancouver Cougar?”

A. Predatory older woman who’s prey is younger men
B. Bourbon and coke
C. a wild animal

Wolverines were responsible for how many amputations in British Columbia last year?

What animal did the most recent serial killer feed his victims too?

What is the most populated state in Canada?

These are just a few of the questions. I would put the other ones up, but they are either too vulgar or too boring. Lats failed miserably, and thereby jeopardized his visa.

The answers are below


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pre-Bucking it

March 28th

So the problem I have hanging out with the locals is that they usually tend to overestimate the roads ahead, especially if they don’t bike. That being said, it’s usually wise to listen to them, and that being said, listening to them tends to lean towards feeling intimidated of the road ahead. Don’t get me wrong. The 58 km to Mt. Hotham had some good ups and downs with a final tally of 3000 ft difference in height between Omeo and Mt. Hotham. Not easy, but not the impossibility I had contemplated as I approached the climb this morning. There is that mountain chill to the air that completely challenges my conception of this continent, especially in summer. Of the 6 permanently inhabited continents, Australia has the smallest set of mountains. Their smaller kiwi cousins have more mountains and world-renowned snow, yet despite their relatively short height, Oz is no doubt alpine country. Not a pine tree in sight. The cover is gum trees. Still the turns, valleys and gullies remind me of the big mountains in Europe and North America.

Australia is huge. I had, and to some extent still have, this misconception that the whole continent is one big desert edged with killer beaches. Yes, the deserts are huge, and the beaches are amazing, but between Victoria and NSW there are considerable hills. It’s midsummer, and like any high country, it’s in a permanent state of brisk, especially in the shade.

Dinner Plain is the 21-year-old spa village below Hotham, and I stopped for a quick look and got stuck into some resort-priced gnocci, cappuccino and the best damn muffins I’ve had outside my mom’s kitchen. Good enough that I had two. I may have mentioned this before, but without their Italian immigrants, Aussie food (bush tucker excepted as my experience with it is limited) would be dreadfully English and boring.

It was a surprising short 14 km before the spill-out parking lots for skiing appeared. The University Ski club was closed, and I had a few hours to kill in the strong but not hot alpine sun. Fixed tubes, changed break pads and sewed up my bike gloves that are now in a pretty sorry state of affairs. I hope they make it to Sydney. Being up here makes me miss skiing and the snow. Each ski resort is some predictable combination of the same things – an architectural nod in some way to Swiss Alps with some local touches. In this case a lot of corrugated iron. Hotham has two watering holes. One is closed. I sit at “The General," named after General Store – that founding father who started so many retail outlets all over the world. I’m no clairvoyant, but I expect to spend a fair amount of time here over the next two days. I’m drinking water in preparation, and hell, that 3000 feet took it out of me.

I love the high country. Nothing beats high, clean mountain air.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I tool around Omeo

March 27th

Waking up in my comfy bed at the Hilltop Hotel, I hemmed and hawed over what I should do. I was a day’s ride from Hotham - smaller and more expensive than Omeo, and it was getting too cold for my meager bivy and light-weight sleeping bag. Sharon cooked me a damn good brekkie – two eggs on toast, two slices of salty bacon plus all the cold cereal I could eat. I finished and joined Sharon and Tom for a cigarette. I didn’t smoke, but enjoyed their company. We threw the ball to an eager "Dude". Dude nearly got shot for being to afraid of sheep and cattle and thus not worth his weight in food. I reckon he earns his keep here at the pub by being so damn sweet.

I walked around and around the town trying the bakery, trying the coffee at the local coffee shop which makes a killer burger, the kind of lean fresh ground beef that makes it live up to the name of burger. I had a beer at the 5th Golden Age Hotel. Since the 1850s, the building has burned that many times, and in its most recent incarnation, it exists as a 1939 art deco style building. Strangely at home, yet completely out of place in this town. The Hilltop is half as expensive as the Golden Age and the breakfast is free. It sits on the hill (obviously) on the other side of town with a high view of the mountains. It’s a bit gritty, but still kind - I like that.

Tom took me around in his car this arvo. We rode down the valley. Spaces and distance become real when hills and mountains fill them. Golden hills and gum green mountains fill our vision, and Tom tells me the best thing his "parents did for me was have me in Australia." Tom has been many things in his life. In the past 24 hours, he has worked his recycling yard, built part of a deck, and worked behind the bar. In his youth, he traveled and ended up in Basque country and endeared himself to their locals by diffusing a hot situation in a local pub when a piss-filled Aussie refused to pay for his meal after his advances on the publican’s daughter were rebuffed.

The Basques had just locked the door when Tom walked between the warring parties and insisted he would pay for the man’s meal and collect his money from him the next day. They initially balked, but Tom insisted - diffusing a situation in which no one would win. They took good care of him after that. They gave him work, and he surfed Basque country. Tom is kind. He gave me a line of credit and showed me around his home. He even shouted me some drinks – he said because he had been taken care of when he traveled. Tom is 58. 34 years ago he traveled and hopes to go again. I am sure I’m not the first traveler to encounter his kindness. Still, two continents and 34 years and a kindness remembered inspired kindness towards me. I am humbled.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Hilltop Hotel

March 26th.

I submerged my head. It had been ages since I last took a proper bath, especially one that could fit my reasonably large 6'5" frame. The water was too hot, just the way it should be. I changed positions, either scooting forward to submerge myself to the neck and thus exposing my knees, or submerging my knees at the cost of exposing my chest. The high and much cooler mountain air was now humid in the small, shared bathroom on the second floor of the Hilltop Hotel in Omeo. Seems like a lot of mountain towns are four-letter words. Maybe that’s just me. The blood pounded in my ears as my body temperature rose with the hot water. Omeo in its lawless gold rush days 150 years ago had been referred to as "the mud, the blood and the beer." Granted, my mate at the end of the barstool was a few beers down when he told me that earlier in the night as happenstance put me at the Hilltop. I had not planned to stay at the Hilltop Hotel. I had not planned to run out of cash in the high country of Victoria, either. Who was to know that the only ATM for 50 km in either direction and available after 7 p.m. would not have money it?

I had not panned to stay at the Hilltop Hotel, but that last 27 km through Cassillis hadn’t been the icing on a cake, but rather the unforgiving stretch in what was already a long, hard day of climbing - especially the unforgiving Kilometers 17 and 18 from the turnoff in Swifts Creek. The country was high and getting higher as I plowed through Long Gully. Distance seemed variable as I climbed through a valley into the mountains. Each gully, stream, and ridge created troughs on the hillside that draw your eyes towards the center in vertigo. My eyes wanted to pop out of my head. This was the hardest physical riding of the trip. Unencumbered by bags, I may have enjoyed it. I wasn’t either – unencumbered nor enjoying it. Joy, however, was reaching the crest. It seemed I was in another world on a high plateau with mountains stretching off into the distance – a thousand feet closer to the dark and ominous clouds appearing behind the now visible peaks.

I had planned to stay in the bush, but my legs jellied and were asking for some love. It was a request I could have ignored if the freezing rain had not started to fall quickly, chilling me in my perspiring state. Dry-shirt, jacket, hat and a mostly downhill run still did not keep me from the cold as I rolled into Omeo. I had no cash and knew an ATM would be hard to find in a small mountain town late in the evening, and thus I daydreamed I would find a publican with a kind heart willing to take my passport as collateral until whatever store that had an ATM opened in the morning.

The publican’s name was Tom - 58, glasses, flannel shirt and a trim frame from a lifetime of outside physical labor. He worked the pub part-time for Sharon and Pat - 18 months the owners of this old pub. It had a white edifice with bars on the window and a solid steel bar to keep the rowdy drunks out when it’s time to be out. Sharon tells me of the locals that come in and relate to her of "the time they paid for a window when they 'put so-and-so's head through it.'"

On that windy Wednesday night that I arrived, there was no sign of the roughness. Just a cheerful "we’ll take care of you; she’ll be right" attitude that got me an open line of credit at the hotel. This coincided with a "mate your f***ing crazy; there’s two inches of snow at Mt. Hotham (my destination that week)," from the locals.

There was no doubt I’d get to Hotham, but they were not convinced I would do it on my bike. This remains to be seen. Either way, rides were offered all around. My mate at the end of the bar sat and shot the breeze. Mostly he spoke, and I listened and heartily agreed. I put a lamb shank on the tab. It was only 2 bucks more than the chicken parma. The meat fell off the bone, and I guiltlessly ate some of the fat.

He asked me to join him outside as he "hadda fag." Dude, the Kelpie dog, was outside plowing trough a mountain of scraps from the kitchen. His girth revealed that he ate from the top paddock. He brought me a broken and slobbery tennis ball, and my friend rolled his eyes.
"Don’t start that shit," he said.

Despite this, he was a good, if inebriated, bloke with a touch of the curmudgeon to him. I threw the ball anyway, and Dude, "Cool Dude" by Sharon’s reckoning, ran into the wall of steel kegs in the back and returned it, dropping it gently on the turned-over styrofoam eskie next to me.

We go back inside and converse with Sharon and Tom. I switch from beer (four pots = 2 pints) for candy. I eat three. Tom goes to bed saying he would meet me next morning for “brekkie” and get my passport out of the safe. My mate gets a six-pack of VB (Victoria Bitter) and heads back to his place to sit in his spa and have a rare "lie in." Sharon and I talk a bit more. Two months after coming to the Hilltop, the bush fires came, and firefighters from all the old colonies (Canada, NZ and USA) came to Omeo. It was 130 breakfasts a day and 200 meals a night. Sharon got 4 hours of sleep a night and lost 50 lbs. She pours a glass of Kahlua splashed with mild and four ice cubes. I help her put up the stools and note with amusement that the felt of the pool table is decorated in bikini-clad woman. I am informed there are more risqué ones. I see cigarette burns in the felt. Sharon locks up the joint, placing the large steel bar on the door. We are now safe from errant drunks and Mongol hordes alike.

The hotel and the characters that come with it hint of a time not so long ago - the mud, the blood and the beer. The doors are old and thick, and the hallways are narrow. It’s a mountain, high country feeling – the Wild West. The hot bath in the hotel and the fact that I am the only guest completes this image. The towel is red, and neatly folded on the lavender doona. It’s crisp from being line-dried, and it scratches my back with great satisfaction. I hadn’t planned on staying at the Hilltop Hotel - but I’m glad I did.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I enter the foothills to a strange encounter.

March 25th.

Amelia made me pancakes to start my journey. Real pancakes. Not crepes. Not savory skinny cakes. Real thick pancakes. Dan was amazed that I kept eating them. She just kept bringing them out, so I ate 14. After that, it was 100 km of flat road to the foothills past the town of Stratford upon Avon - the name of the town I lived in when in England growing up - the original, and birthplace of the bard, Bill Shakespeare. I stopped in Bairnsdale after two flats. This was the town that connected the beaches to the mountains.

I went into a used book store where a lovely lady sold me three books for a $1. She noted my bike gear and asked about my trip. Her pleasant friendliness contrasted with the creepiness of a Hobbit of a man with formal shirtsleeves, shirt buttoned up to the neck, too tight beige corduroys and muddy socks pulled up and over the edges of his pants. I don’t like to judge, and he approached me and asked briefly about my bike. I am happy to talk about what I’m doing, but he had a strange note of over-kindness to his voice. My warning bells went off when he implied that the lovely lady with the bargain books was intrusive and nosy by asking about my bike trip. I laughed and said “no, I didn’t think so.” He then proceeded to ask me if I was a Christian. I smiled and vaguely replied that I came from a Judeo-Christian background. He then asked me if I was married, and when I laughed and said “no,” he asked, “why not?”

Now this little Hobbitey man was looking a little bit more Gollumish to me and was starting to piss me off. I replied, with as much kindness as I could muster, that I wasn’t ready. I don’t think this got through to him. He then invited me to come stay at his place. I said that I was quite happy staying in the bush. I was thinking that if I went with him that I might get offered the old “koolaide.” He then asked for my address, and inside my head I made the game day decision to be nice while lying to him, and I wrote down a fake name and address. He proceeded to tell me that President Bush was part of a conspiracy to kill all "real" Christians, whatever that means (probably not me), and in his attempts to save me, he (despite my protests that I didn’t need another book to carry) tried to hand me a book. I was now pissed off at myself that I had not told this guy to bugger off and had instead lied to him. He insisted I take his book, "Mark of the Beast," and when handing it to me, scratched his head and said, "there’s usually a suggested donation of $14.95." I handed it back to him firmly, but he refused.

Later, I tried to read part of the book anyway, but it seemed full of unsubstantiated fear, and was hard to read. I can’t seem to bring myself to throw away any book, but I did not want to be encumbered by a tome of fear and guilt, so I left it in a public bathroom for some other poor, unsuspecting soul. It was a strange situation, and I could have handled it better. I spent the last part of my ride angry at this little man, but more so at myself and my handling of it. Live and learn.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Easter with friends.

March 23rd

Today was Easter. For Steve Plunkett, it meant it was time for Steve’s Easter meat-fest. He has a great old house just outside of Traralgon. It is actually newer than it looks. He and his wife, Merl, remodeled it in the "federation" style. Federation being roughly one hundred years ago and the name of the era when Australia became a nation, and not a English colony. Steve has a pool, a fat pony in a paddock out back, three excitable dogs, a claw foot tub, and crown molding. I am insanely jealous. There were heaps of family, and the house buzzed of the fixing of food and excessive relaxation. After much motivation, Steve got Guns, and his brother, Tom, and I to jump in the pool which, despite the warm day, just seemed like a lot of effort; but once in, it was the right kind of refreshing. The dogs and the kids and the man children (Guns, myself and Tom) played while the adults had wine and ate. Exhausted with the effort, it was time for cake, and as it was also Merl’s mother’s birthday, we had two. I regretted leaving so soon, but it was time to head on the road and got back to my bike in Sale.

March 24th

I realized today that Mt. Hotham and the bucks party were five days away, and I could afford to lounge one more day at the Stone’s. I relaxed and caught up on considerable emails. Dan, Amelia and I dined on the back deck and watched the thunderclouds in the mountains. I thought ominously about what this meant for me as I knew those very mountains were my next few days’ destination. I really was in no mood for constant rain. We took in a movie that night – “Run Fatboy, Run.” It was ok, but I just like the act of going to the movies.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Uncompromising Hospitality

March 21st

Nothing particularly exceptional happened today. I woke up pleased with my night’s performance and lounged a bit before helping Frank cut the lawn. Threw on the hat, glasses and earplugs and fired up the lawnmower. It had a strong motor on it, and I felt like I more guided it as it ate up the grass rather than pushed it around. It was hot, and the grass smelled rightly fresh. Prue served up some lunch. Chicken and salad followed by some good bottles Frank had got last night as a coaching present. Sitting outside in the shade of the gazebo with the wine and freshly barbequed chicken smelling the orange and lemon scent of the gum trees made me want to mow nearly and acre of lawn every day if this was what was waiting at the end of the mowing rainbow. The afternoon moseyed on by, and soon it was time to head back to Traralgon and Guns’ place where I was tricked into watching “Saw 4.” It was as good as you might imagine. Fortunately, I managed a nightmare-free sleep.

March 22nd

Woke up late once again, but not unhappy for doing so. On my travel schedule I find it hard to sleep late and take any chance of it I may. It was another loungey, lazy day until 4:30 when Guns and I got nostalgic for our days at the gym at Melbourne University as occasional lifting partners. This of course prompted a move of the home gym out into the back yard into the afternoon sun where we proceeded to pump iron.

I find lifting hunks of metal to be one of the most stupidly satisfying and cathartic activities that humanity in all its wisdom has ever contrived. With his broad shoulders and midsection, Guns resembled a beer keg. We chatted with the usual bravado and self-deprecation that accompanies any male endeavor. That evening we headed to town to have a drink with Guns’ dad, Steve Plunkett, and his friends, and we ended up with dinner. This was an understatement as plate after plate of food that was ordered kept getting handed down to me – meant, no doubt, to counter any possible loss of weight that could have happened on the bike. Steak, prawns, lamb risotto and veggies. Quite the feast.

After thanking Steve for a lovely meal and assuring him I would be there for his Easter barbie tomorrow, Guns and I headed to the Cargo Lounge (same one from St. Patty’s Day) to meet Gun's cousin, Georgie, for a drink. Georgie is a lovely girl, small and petite, and like so many pint-sized people, more than willing to take the piss, especially if it’s her cousin. Guns flexed his guns a lot that night, and we drank really, really girly drinks like Cosmos and Irish margaritas. Someone asked me to sell them drugs on the way to the bathroom. Couldn't help the guy.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Do clothes make the man?

March 20th

It took all parties involved, myself, the family Stone, and all the resources of the Gippsland Grammar Rowing Club community to suitably attire me for the occasion. Fortunately, Dan, while somewhere between 7 and 10 inches shorter than me, has quite broad shoulders, and I could just fit into one of his dress shits with the sleeves rolled up and the neck open, thus forgoing the tie and going for the more casual look. I felt kinda like an Iranian businessman. The rest of the suit was provided by another GG rowing coach, and last but not least, the shoes were provided by Frank himself. It was, as they say, "no dramas" – a mantra much to my liking. It is an absurdly simple joy of mine to walk into a dressy occasion. It’s strange how a few bits of cloth can change personalities. School boys and girls I had seen on the campus and rowing club earlier that day were transformed that evening into young men and women. Their suits and dresses appearing, at least, to bring out something extra in them.

I don’t eat before a presentation, but depending on the lead up time, I have a glass or two of red wine. Thank God I’m at an Aussie high school function that involves parents and condones the presence of a few drops. If they don’t have wine, I drink coffee. Unfortunately my presentation materials had not arrived from Seattle, and thus I was more than pleased with myself that I had built and, at least briefly, practiced another presentation. Still the voice and the timing were a bit rusty, and I felt the best antidote to this was to go with gusto. After all, I did know the story .... It’s nice to know I’ve still got it. The applause at least sounded genuine. I find a presentation exhilarating and exhausting and a pleasure that I have begun to cultivate. This one reminded me of that.

I sat back and enjoyed with interest the customs of an Aussie awards banquet. Songs, speeches. Dan stands out in my mind. The boys he coached were initially what he classified as difficult, but it was hard not to hear the warmth in his voice as he spoke of the charisma these five boys had and how, at the end, it was a privilege to have coached them.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The value of Adventure

March 20th

Several things happened today which I did not imagine could have happened on this trip. Frank took me to the local ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) affiliate to be interviewed. I had just found out about it last night, and it seemed as good an idea as any to shoot from the hip. What exactly we were going to discuss I was not sure, although I assumed it was something to do with biking or rowing. The man who interviewed me was jarred; he was no slouch having cycled from Europe to part of the Middle East before tapping out when the road got too hot – from bullets, I assume, not heat. Thus I was surprised when he implied I was crazy in, of course, a good-natured way. However, the question I enjoyed most was this:
“What is the responsibility of Adventuring?” I.e., what happens when someone has to risk themselves to rescue you?

One side of this can be boiled down to what is the intrinsic value of an adventure or.... is it worth the risk? I think it is. I believe that accepting and accomplishing a challenge is part of human nature. When we explore for the first time, for ourselves, or even re-explore, we learn. What is learned is different for each person. Anything worth doing involves a certain amount of risk, however you may define it. A life without risk is boring and far too easy. The responsibility of an adventure is to make those risks calculated risks. Being reckless, irresponsible, and uneducated is asking for trouble. That is the principle my mates and I in OAR Northwest followed as we approached it.

To adventure well, one needs to research first. Research, research, research – hunt down the people in the fields you need and those smarter than yourself. Go in humble with enormous respect for your environment and what you want to try and accomplish. Prepare. Have Plan A, have Plan B, and always be working on a Plan C. Despite all this, know that you will make mistakes and prepare to take a beating for it. But, even the best laid plans can and do end in tragedy. It’s easy to dismiss this and say, “well, they were unprepared.” Sometimes this is true, sometimes not. Sometimes your luck runs out. Sometimes it’s time for you to go. What it comes down to is that you can die anywhere and at any time. You don’t need an adventure for that. I think an adventure on any scale enriches our lives and reminds us that there is a huge world out there and that sometimes we can reach beyond what we thought we were capable of.

Last, but most certainly not least, is having just one more story to share amongst friends. That is never a bad thing.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Never abandon a fallen comrade.

March 19th

I spent the morning putting together a back-up presentation in case the one I had sent for from Seattle was a non-arrival. The highlight of my day was a row out of the G.G.B.C. It felt great to get oars in my hand once again and even better to ply them through the water. I always reckon the first row back is a honeymoon – the boat and the body seem to move surprisingly well. It’s got to be the lack of expectation. Despite being landlocked, Sale has a port. No doubt developed when the roads were not as good, and the most efficient transport of goods from the interior was a barge. It was at first refreshing, then laborious to pull the rowing muscles. The water was clean, but silted brown. Gum trees reached over the river, and it threatened rain, going as far to dust a few refreshing drops on me. Then the sun came out, and my bike-callused hands were hard in all the wrong spots. I was developing blisters despite what I thought was a light grip on the oar. Catch. Drive. Release. Nothing is more physically satisfying and flummoxing as plying yourself through the water.

I stepped it up for the last 500 meters. I figured correctly that Dan would be watching from shore, and I, of course, wanted to give a satisfactory accounting of myself. I did not want to him to think the only boat I could row was an ocean boat.

I was pleased with my performance until I looked around and saw a long branch grab my head and, in slow motion, pull my $200 pair of glasses from my head and drop them into the silty drink. I laughed, but not really with a lot of humor.

I looked at Dan. "That is a loyal piece of equipment. I can’t leave it behind enemy lines." He shrugged and made a dubious comment on just how clean he thought the water was. I would not be dissuaded and docked the boat and climbed into the water. I waded, hoping to keep my head above water. It came up to my neck. I felt, nervously, with my feet. Nothing. "In for a penny in for a pound," I thought as I submerged my head and shut my eyes to the cooties that were no doubt infesting me at this very moment. Nothing. I went back to the feet, not to give up so easily, pulling up stick after muddy stick until ... I did not believe it. Thank God for a slow current. Dan looked at me and my ascending and vocal happiness and shook his head. I took a shower.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Shave and haircut, two bits!

March 18th

I woke around 7:30. James had just come back slightly worse for wear after 5 hours of sleep to make the spin class with the cute girl. We shared a cuppa, and in the emerging heat of day, I rode to Sale. It was flat and uneventful. I was lost in no thoughts in particular and scolded myself for not looking around at the countryside as much. Sale's main street had lovely verandas, trees and the pleasant bustle of a country town midweek.

I got my ears lowered from a pretty girl with a strangely lopsided haircut. I am not sure if this is in fashion or not. Either way, it looked highly impractical and high maintenance in a way that contrasted with the country farm girl she claimed to be. Far be it from me to judge, as I have never worked a farm. She cut my hair slowly and carefully, which gave me the impression she was new to the barber business. But, as they say here, “No dramas.” Ears lowered and no split ends on my lustrous locks made me feel like a new man. (You bet your ass I just wrote that). I moseyed and relaxed around town for a bit before making my way to Frank and Prue Stone’s (Jonno’s parents) house around cocktail hour. I was here in Sale to make good to my promises to speak about the North Atlantic trip at Frank’s end-of-the-year rowing party at Gippsland Grammar School.

Frank and Prue are lucky enough to sit right above the flood plain that surrounds the river that runs through Sale. This means that, in a land of drought, they look over a green and verdant prairie in which cattle graze and moo freely. The gum trees smelled strong of citronella, and I was offered a bottle of beer and a pint of water. We sat on the deck and watched a neon pink sunset. Amelia (“Meals”) Stone is living at home. She is saving some money to go teach English in Vietnam. Dan Moore lives here, too. He is one of Frank’s "rent-a-roomers" that he gets one or two of each year from the old country. Usually they are young and in their gap year (between HS and UNI). Dan is 19 and carries himself much older. Frank is quite a chef, and we eat well – lots of meat. I sleep even better in the Harry Potter bed below the stairs.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Maybe he should have driven the lawyers out - oh, that's right, he did.

March 17th

I head to Traralgon today to meet James Plunkett or “Plunks,” or “Guns,” as we called him back at MUBC (Ahem, that would be my rowing days . . . harrrumph). Guns is funny. He does not look like a rower. He is built like linebacker with broad shoulders and huge arms... Guns. He is now a Lawyer in his home town of Traralgon, where as he says 90% of lawyers give the last 10% a bad name. A desk job has added some padding to his waistline, but he retains the boyish features and massive arms. In fact, if it wasn’t for these attributes, he might seem intimidating. He’s a master of self-deprecating humor and an aficionado of superman – a fact proven as he wore a Superman shirt out to dinner that night.

That night was St. Patty’s day. We hit the local hot spot - Cargo lounge - to find that on this glorious day for drinking dark beer, it was anything but. Our arrival now necessitated that the staff count the number of customers on two hands. Turns out they had their party on Friday night, and Traralgon was now party-pooped. However, the bartender, in heroic attempt to bring back the sprite of that snake-smiting saint (and no doubt to get rid of the cheap and crappy beer scwag that Guinness no doubt peppered the world with), gave us hats that looked like Frankenstein’s monster ... if Frankenstein’s monster had been a shamrock . . . and a pint of Guinness. It was, in a word, low key, and we sipped our beer in the waning heat of a late summer night, chatting of memories past and the past five years while wearing our Franken-shamy-pinty hats.

As I stated before, James is a lawyer, and while I date myself when I say this, he pulled a "Van Wilder" in College. I should explain first that "colleges" in Australia are, in the roughest American translation, a "fratority" (fraternity + sorority). Guns, using a mix of undergrad, grad school, tutoring and internships, managed to spend 4/5ths of a decade in this dream world that was Queens College at Melbourne University. After spending nearly a year at an office in Melbourne, he came to the realization that as "low lawyer on the legal brief" [I’m proud of that one], his career was better served if he traded country for city and went to work for Steve Plunkett - his dad. In their medium-sized country town it made the paper, and on their refrigerator is a clipping with an almost Jimmy-Stewartesque image of a proud father leaning over his sharply-dressed son with many leather-bound volumes of legal nandies and dandies behind them. I’m not sure what nandies and dandies are. It’s late.

Friday, April 4, 2008


March 17th

My destination today was yet another rowing friend named James Plunkett in the town of Traralgon. The flat country I had used to escape Melbourne was turning quite hilly, and by ten o’clock I was in the middle of spectacular hills that if stone fences were added to them would look like a dry Ireland. It was furiously hot, and I was melting into the pavement. This provided ample excuse to stop at Grand Ridge Brewery along the way. A completely serendipitous stop, but one absolutely necessary in the 37 degree going on 40 degree heat at 10:30 that morning.

Outside the brewery was a huge fake beer, that in the heat, was easy to imagine was a large beer swimming pool that I could dive into to cool off. I settled for a taste test. Hailing from Seattle, it’s hard not to want to try the local brews. Australia, for the most part, has a few big breweries that make, what I would consider, better beer than the Millers and Budweisers of the States. Even so, a mass-produced beer lacks the personality of something built locally out of the local produce. This was in all ways the local drop. Despite the proximity of the big city, this beer had only made a showing at the beer festivals in the city and outside of Victoria. The various shades of golden liquid were well-balanced and refreshing. Fortunately, I had done most of my climbing for the day by the time I got to Grand Ridge and had lovely downhill back roads to coast on while the day continued to heat. I made it to Traralgon around two.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Adventures with bovines, and the boy who cried "woof."

March 16th and 17th

That night I broke one of my rules. I never jump fences to find a spot to sleep. Only this time the pines looked so safe and inviting that when I walked around them I was crushed to see a fence that was built right up next to them. I was tired, and the thought of going back on the road was not particularly exciting. Just this once I told myself and jumped the fence. The pine had gone well over the fence and provided ample cover. 30 feet towards the paddock was another fence.

"Great" I thought, "a double fence to keep the cattle well away from me." And I proceeded to make my bed and dinner. In the middle of laying out my bed, a hum of a four-wheeler caught my attention. I froze and hid my lights. I was more than willing to admit wrong if found, but if they could not find me, then it probably wasn't worth standing up and confessing. I waited, convinced they had seen me and were about to call me out. I hoped they were unarmed and not that angry. I lucked out. The spotlight missed me, and they drove away.

At this point, I felt it imprudent to make dinner or spend some time reading with a light, and resigned myself to being hungry and bored before I went to sleep. I had just zipped my bivy and closed my eyes, when a soft but large footsteps hit the ground. No lights visible, but a large four legged outline. Shit, a cow. Clearly the double fence was to keep cows in it and not out of it. Hmmm. I rustled and the cow froze, then snorted, walked about 10 feet from me, absorbed the situation and started making baying noises that sounded suggestive and angry at the same time.

At roughly 200 lbs, I’m a large person, but this well-fed beast was at the very least 10 times my size. While I am quite aware that most cattle will run from a human if scared, I also know a motivated cow is quite capable of taking on an unarmed human. Not knowing what to do in this situation and not wanting to yell out “go away cow” or something human sounding of that nature in my precarious position, I decided to cry "woof” – and could have not sounded more human. It worked. My bovine buddy jumped and snorted cautiously off into the night. I slept terribly despite the bed of pine needles. This no doubt had to do with the fact that my bovine girlfriend came back to repeat the same drama twice more that night. This was the worst night’s sleep on the trip. On the bright side, I did not get trampled.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A tough time getting out of the city.

March 15th

Today was my last full day in Melbourne. Jonno and I drove to see the regatta that Lats was coaching for just outside of town. It was a low-key day. Jonno and I have decided that I will surprise Lats at his bucks party on the 28th of March up at Mt. Hotham. It sounds like a good time. Tonight we b-b-q'ed. Jonno and Suze invited more friends over and are already filling into their role as the Lord and Lady mayor of Kensington with the amount of entertaining they have accomplished in 9 days at their house. I fill up on half a farm of meat and am happy to ride the next day as I can feel the weight coming back on, eating as I have from the top paddock in this wonderful city. I will miss this city and my lovely host and hostess.

March 16th

As in most cases I procrastinate when I have to leave a place I like. After all, it doesn't really matter where I end up if I’m sleeping on the road. Thus I coasted through the city to meet Jonno for a breakfast of pancakes. I was excited to dine on pancakes, something I have not had nor found in Australia thus far. They were excellent, but they were not American pancakes. That I think is something I’ll just have to hold out for till I get back to North America. However, I did eat chili, hot chocolate, and my pancake (more of a crepe) was covered in honey and ice cream that was in no way bad at all. Jonno is quite a traveler himself and will be covering his seventh continent in the next year or so (Antarctica). He’s a travelling kindred sprit, and we exchanged stories and new ideas. I find that it is best to throw out as many travel ideas as possible because 99% of them will not work out, but without a steady flow of them you will never hit the right inspiration. We shall see what happens.

I left rather unenthused to bike through the suburbs and out into the country. Burb ridding is not exciting and is very stressful. Once out of the burbs and into the country, I found myself on country roads with city traffic. I was happy when I found my spot for the night

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Private stock.

March 14th evening

I walk through the streets of Melbourne to the corner of Queen’s Street and Colleens where Jonno will pick me up. On my way, I see faces from porcelain to pecan to ebony. Some speak no English, some with heavy accents, some with that unmistakable Aussie lilt, but something extra. The city buzzes with it. This is no outback.

Jonno and I are headed to a drinks party for Lats and Elka at Lats's parents place. Lats is getting married soon, and this party is for those who could not make it to the wedding. Lats's father is quite a wine connoisseur, and in an endeavor to pass this vinophilic love to his son (something not hard, I think) has asked all the guests to bring a good bottle of wine that the new couple can cellar. I have a case sent to them from Margaret River.

Walking in the door, it is clear they will have a good start to the cellar. As the night wears on, I end up in the cellar of the house. The cellar is roughly 20 years old, but the house was built right around the time Lincoln was inaugurated, and thus the arched brick supports that make the roof of the cellar are in sharp contrast to the poured cement. Huge barrels and hundreds of bottles of wines and ports and Muskats find their home in the cool beneath the house. All of us under 35 look impressed with envy at the lifetime that built this well-stocked establishment. Lats comes down, taking a break from hosting, and we open up a home-brewed 1998 (turn of the century!) stout. It cracks with a satisfying hiss, and the bottle seems to smoke with the change in air pressure. It has less head than a Guinness, but the it’s rich in flavor, almost coffee and chocolate, and it is hard to liken it to any beer I have ever had.