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After the exceedingly hot temps last Sunday (that we cyclists could have done without, thank you), it has turned chilly again. Today, the estimate is from 10 to 18 Celsius, or between 50 and 64 F. I have no idea what it was last night when I hopped the tram down to Federation Square, but it was damn cold. I expected to see a crowd in the thousands for a free Arts Festival event . Instead, maybe a hundred shivering souls showed up.

The event was called “Sphere of Influence.” The pictures convey the aesthetic of the globe, but they don’t really capture the accompanying sounds, all of which were live and quite bizarre, even scary at times. Or the text and images flashed on the huge video display overhead. The artist’s name is Jon Rose. The overriding message seemed to be “there is no free lunch.”

Melbourne loves festivals, even more than Montreal. The Fringe Festival just ended. The Melbourne International Arts Festival is in full swing. Merce Cunningham is here with his dance company. Laurie Anderson performed a specially commissioned work called “Homeland.” Peter Brook is directing an Athol Fugard play.

Attracted to familiar names, I bought tickets to a Canadian production of a play by John Mighton called “Half Life” and a new work by the Japanese Butoh group, Sankai Juku. I had never seen a Mighton play before, but had always liked the production company, Necessary Angel. I had vague, but favorable memories of a performance of Sankai Juku years ago in Los Angeles, probably soon after the company was founded 32 years ago.

The play was well written and very well executed, but its exploration of old age seemed self indulgent and pedestrian. Unfortunately, my wife was heading off the continent the night of Sankai Juku. I talked my teenage daughter into going, thinking the costumes would enchant her.

The dance was called Kagemi, beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors. It was slow and abstract. Compelling if you love the marvelous invention of choreography and the talent of the dancers. But there was no intermission. No chance for my daughter to escape.

Last night’s performance was done for free in Federation Square. No one was trapped. Some people strolled through the performance space apparently oblivious to the art in progress. Some drifted off into the night. I was enchanted with the idea of the fabric globe but the execution of the piece seemed repetitive and less than inspired.

I was home in time to catch the new series on The Australian Broadcasting Corporation called “Not Quite Art.” The host is charming and very enthusiastic about all those activities that fall outside the scope of galleries and museums. Last night’s show was about graffiti, which attracts Japanese tourists to Melbourne in droves.

I haven’t given up. Call me a fool for art. There is the circus and La Clique, in the Famous Speigeltent. Stay tuned.

It doesn’t seem like much on paper. Sixty-six miles. You cover that in an hour on the highway at cruising speed. I have been doing my preparation, getting out on the bike every other day for the last couple of weeks and clocking from 30 to 50 kms on the bike path. Yesterday, however, it was a different story.

The event is called “Around the Bay in a Day.” It began 14 years ago with about 2500 riders. Yesterday there were some 14,000 cyclists. It is a fund raising event for a charitable group called “The Smith Family,” which raised nearly half a million dollars last year for disadvantaged children. I don’t know how much they raised yesterday but there were a lot of corporate teams in evidence.

I wasn’t up to 250 kms, or even 210, but I didn’t think 100 would be so hard. The official start for the 250 loop was 5:30 AM. Those of us who elected to ride the shorter distance were supposed to be down in front of the Arts Centre by 5 AM to load our bikes on tractor trailers and hop the busses that would take us to Sorrento. That meant riding downtown since no public transport starts at that hour. I was up at 4 for the ride downtown on mostly deserted streets.

I’m not exactly a night owl, so it was the first time I witnessed daybreak in Melbourne. There was a beautiful light reflected by the Yarra when I came across the bridge. Hundreds of other riders were busy removing their pedals and turning their handlebars, preparing their bikes for for the trucks. I chanced upon another rider from Essendon, a ride marshall. We exchanged greetings, then I never saw him again.

Sorrento is very close to the narrow straits between Point Nepean and Point Lonsdale called the Symonds Channel, otherwise known as The Rip. A huge amount of water wants to go from Bass Strait to Port Phillip Bay and back every day. There are about a hundred shipwrecks in that body of water. For the around the bay riders, this would prove to be a frustrating bottleneck, as the ferries could simply not keep up with the numbers of riders.

A prime minister by the name of Harold Holt kept a summer home in the town of Portsea. He had been prime minister for two years when he went for a swim one December day in 1967 at Cheviot Beach. According to friends, he swam straight out a couple hundred feet, then disappeared. His body was never found. The beach is now closed to the public but there is a swimming pool in Melbourne named after him. No one ever accused Aussies of not having a sense of humor.

We began our ride around 8 AM. Not long after the start we were seeing streams of riders coming our way, heading for the ferry crossing. They seemed to be riding fast, high on testosterone and their light carbon-frame bikes.

It was tricky riding along with so many cyclists, hard to find the right pace and not feel bunched up. I saw two casualties on my ride back, one shortly after the start. Contending with cars, trucks and the sea of cyclists surrounding you was not an easy task. I wanted to keep my pace in the 25 km range, but it didn’t happen. With stops, it took me six hours to reach Alexandra Gardens. My actual cycling time was five.

Despite the prediction of a mild day, it was one of the hottest rides in the event’s history. It got up to 33 Celsius, or 91.5 F. There was a wind coming at us from the North that seemed to pick up strength the further we rode. The one long hill we had to surmount was not steep, but it was very, very long. When I hit the downhill, however, I was grateful not to have done the ride in the other direction.

I rode back through the city on my last legs, collected my lunch and sprawled out with the thousands of other riders. Thank God for trains, I thought. I won’t have to ride home. I seemed to be surrounded by youngsters, but the mean age of the long distance riders was forty. Dorothy Quinlivan was 75 years old. She set off from Melbourne at 4 AM for her very first ride of 210 kms around the bay. Good on ya, Dorothy. In another thirteen years I just might be in shape to join you.

Well, the election has finally been announced. Prime Minister Howard drew the first blood by announcing a massive tax cut. Sound familiar? Current government policies are so reflective of the Bush administration that listening to political cant here is almost like being in the U.S. On the other hand, I see reflections of my other country, too — Canada.

This is a resource based economy. It is doing very well, thank you. As Tim Colebatch of “The Age” pointed out in a recent editorial, it is all because of China. These are boom times for economies the world over. Australia is doing particularly well because of China’s demand for iron ore and coal. China is building a city of a million inhabitants every month. The woods of Tasmania are being raped so the Japanese can make more paper.

Canada is booming because its extensive deposits of minerals and the extraction of oil sands out in Alberta. They will make holes in the landscape visible from the moon. All to fuel the automobiles of its voracious next door neighbor as well new ones being built in China.

Both countries are living in the short term, ignoring their future citizens in favor of voters who live right now. Their political salesmen (bolstered by economists) seem to believe that economies can thrive with or without an environment. That intelligent people can actually buy into this notion utterly baffles me.

There are alarming projections for global warming in Australia. In just sixty years it could be five degrees hotter and 40 to 80 per cent drier than it is now. The Great Barrier Reef will be dead. A desalinization plant is in the works for Melbourne and the pundits on talk radio are testing the waters on nuclear power plants.

Like Canadians, Australians still earn most of their money hewing wood, drawing water, and attracting tourists. It is starting to dawn on people that even tourism may be in jeopardy here. Some tourists are starting to think twice about dumping carbon into the atmosphere simply to satisfy their curiosity.

The most obvious options for escaping the resource rut seem to have been deliberately neglected.  “Crystalline silicon on glass” was an Australian invention, but Australia (the land of inexhaustible sunshine) lacked the determination and political will to commercialize its invention. In 2004, CSG Solar purchased the rights.  The company is thriving in Germany, leaving Australia where it seems to want to be, in the backwater of the environmental marketplace.

It is time for a change. Countries such as this one can no longer afford to use up what is left of the planet’s resources to make ends meet, doing nothing to stop the acceleration of global warming. We can’t make the same costly mistakes, over and over until our only home rolls over one last time and says, “I give.”

The world can’t afford it.

At least once a week, usually more often, I drop in at the local supermarket to stock up. I may make the trip on foot, with a two-wheeled cart limiting my load. On more ambitious days, I’ll hook up the bike trailer I purchased specifically for the purpose. It will hold a week’s provisions, but the route to the store is tricky unless I ride on the sidewalk.

I would have to guess from the reaction that I may have the first bike trailer that has ever been seen at the supermarket. Almost everyone else arrives by car. Our Subaru can carry enough foodstuffs for a small army, but green guilt interferes, so I’m usually on foot.

There are two stores that are pretty accessible from here– Safeway and Coles. I go to Coles. Not only is it closer to where I live, it is larger and has more variety. In addition, the building houses a Chemist, a greengrocer, a fishmonger, coffee merchant, butcher, specialty foods shop, Italian kiosk, etc. Not to mention a “bottle” shop.

Coles has been in the news a lot lately since it has been “in play.” That seems to have finally been settled with the purchase of the company by a corporate entity called Wesfarmers. Safeway is owned by Woolworths (no relation to the US retailer). There is a discount war going on now between the two supermarket giants.

I have no idea what that will mean to the price of milk at the checkout counter, but I suspect that in the long run, prices will go up. There are all those shareholders to satisfy and the drought shows no sign of ending anytime soon. It is easy to justify higher prices when farmers are going under due to lack of rain.

When the first fleet landed on these shores, they brought their provisions with them. It was a good thing. The aboriginals had managed to sustain a substantial population on marginal land, but few of the new settlers showed any inclination to learn from them, or to eat what they ate.

For years, Australian “cuisine” meant nothing more than a slightly modified English cuisine, and we all know how dismal that was. During a year I spent in London, I remember staring in astonishment at a jar of peas that had been boiled to such an extent that the peas were absolutely translucent. All the chlorophyll had settled at the bottom of the jar.

I once watched in horror as a British workman slathered mayonnaise on two pieces of thick white bread to make himself a sandwich filled with nothing but greasy french fries. He was mainlining cholesterol.

Then came the immigration boom after the war. Suddenly, Australians woke up to good coffee (thanks to the Italians). Then came ethnic restaurants. Waves of Greeks, Chinese, Indians, Germans, and Vietnamese triggered a sea change in cooking.

If you are partial to “ethnic” food, you will drool in an Australian supermarket. There are shelves devoted to all the Asian cuisines and European specialties, as well as local “tucker” like lamingtons, tim tams, pavlova, emu and kangaroo. Aside from wine, the biggest success as an export seems to be the lowly macadamia nut.

Peanut butter is not popular but huge boxes of breakfast cereals tower over one entire aisle. Popcorn is only available in small packets; bulghur wheat impossible to find. Silverbeet(which I call Swiss chard) is astonishingly popular. Likewise pumpkin, which appears to apply to almost any squash, and “rocket” salad, which I would call Arugula.

The seafood selection is limited. Flathead, salmon and a fish called the blue grenadier are popular. Judging from the amount of space given over to meat, seafood devotes would seem to be few and far between, but I’ve been told that locals buy their fish from fish vendors.

And then, there is the amazing attraction to Vegemite. How does one explain the appeal of a concoction dreamed up to use leftover yeast from the beer making process. Australia’s favourite breakfast spread (now owned by Kraft, an American company) has been dropped from the menu in Victoria’s prisons. Last year, around Christmas time, several prisoners extracted the yeast to ferment fruit stolen from the kitchen. They were found severely drunk. “The issue…is not about banning Vegemite. It’s about basic safety.”

I’m sure Kraft is screaming bloody murder. Just think of the lost opportunity for prison movie product placement, “star prisoner” endorsements. Ban Vegemite? What’s next?

While the police in our (last) home town of Gainesville, Florida were busy electrifying a protester , we were blissfully snorkeling over the Great Barrier Reef. For those of you not up on your Australian geography, the city of Cairns is the international gateway to Queensland, home to many significant natural attractions. Its airport sucks in hordes of tourists from Japan, Europe and the U.S., and packs them into huge hotels and boats.

We rented a small car and fled north, to the chic, relatively quiet little town of Port Douglas. The rainy season is a month or two off and the lethal, stinging jellyfish are still out to sea, waiting for their cue to come toward shore and scare the living daylights out of swimmers. As if the huge, saltwater crocodiles weren’t cranky enough to do the job.

We chose a relatively small, snorkelers-only boat to visit the reef. A limit of thirty passengers meant we were unlikely to get left behind and we were virtually guaranteed individual attention. A chance conversation with our friendly marine biologist unearthed the unlikely news that he would soon be heading for Florida for a year, accompanying his spouse, a nursing student. He reassured us that we were in good hands.

WavelengthThe trip out on the Coral Sea was an all day event, starting with a briefing on equipment and safety, followed by an hour of powerful motoring. Port Douglas is the closest town to the reef, but it is still thirty miles off shore. There are 2900 separate fringing reefs that make up the World Heritage area. We visited three sites.

Fortunately, the weather was fine. Unfortunately, the brand new underwater housing I had purchased for the trip did not allow me to actually see what I was shooting. I aimed, shot and hoped for the best. Pixels are cheap. It didn’t occur to me that I might actually snap the shutter 150 times and then spend hours on the computer trying to turn fairly drab results into sparkling, colorful photos.

The reef stretches for about 2300 kilometers, supporting the most diverse ecosystem in the world. All thanks to a tiny critter called the polyp. Its proclivity for warm, clear water and the sturdy support of Australia’s large continental shelf make these ideal waters.

Despite its poor soil base, the rainforest covers about 1200 square kilometers. Its plant diversity is unrivaled in Australia. Some species date back 110 million years, when the continent was much more humid than it is now. There are trees that may be unchanged from the time of Gondwana.

While the trees, ferns, vines and other greenery is stunning, the animal life inhabiting this world is difficult to spot. A private zoo in Port Douglas makes all but the shyest creatures accessible. We arrived in time to see a stork making lunch out of another bird’s chick, so the visit was not entirely without distress, but it was fascinating.

Cassowaries are among the few diurnal creatures in the rainforest. They are huge, scary- looking birds. The males raise the young. Since they have the talons, size and sometimes the inclination to rip your entrails wide open, visitors are encouraged to keep their distance. They are a key species to the rainforest, the only animals capable of eating large fruit, such as cassowary plums, and dispersing the seeds with a nice pile of fertilizer.cassowary sign

After our trip to the reef, we headed north again, up into the Daintree area of the rainforest. We settled in at our lovely B&B within walking distance of Cow Bay beach. There are no hydroelectric lines north of Daintree river. Every home and business has to have a generator or solar power. Needless to say, we turned in early, grateful for the sunlight that fed the batteries that powered our reading lamps.

We took advantage of our carefree days of relaxation and exploration to go swimming, walking, bicycling, hiking, snorkeling, horseback riding, and kayaking. It seemed like each beach was more inviting than the next; each boardwalk through the rainforest beckoned with an air of mystery. It was our first major expedition out of Melbourne, an enchanting visit to the land at the top of the continent down under.

Flickr Photos


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October 2007

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October 2007
October 2007