Thursday, December 25, 2008

Who You Callin' a Wombat?

We've been in Tasmania now for about 10 days, and so far have pedalled about 250 miles. Compared to Victoria, Tasmania is much hillier, much more remote and much tougher. It's a beautiful state, wild and frontier-like, with great scenery and loads of isolation.


We spent Christmas Eve cycling in light rain and Christmas day on a fun mostly-downhill ride to Launceston, a beautiful city on the north end of the island. Boxing Day we checked into a nice hotel downtown to restock on civilization.

Tasmania is like a big zoo, and we keep discovering all sorts of weird animals. Our favorites are:

*Koala bears are about as cuddly and cute as you can imagine. They spend most of their time sleeping in treetops, where they occasionally wake up to eat some leaves. In windstorms they are sometimes tossed from their perches to the ground below, where they wake up, rub their eyes, and scramble back up. Despite their teddybear appearance, they have this frightful growl which sounds a bit like a monkey call.

*Nothing is more fun to watch than the wallaby. It's a thigh-high animal like a kangaroo that goes around eating grass, then hops off in big whopping jumps.

*The wombat


is a lumbering goof that grunts around looking for insects and snorts at night. Very cute.

*Think of the echidna


as a miniature porcupine, as wide as it is long, that ambles about sticking its pencil-shaped nose into the ground to find insects. When scared, the echidna does not run away but instead hunkers down and retracts its head under its back. Stand still for a while and the echidna will think you've gone, stick its head back out, and waddle around looking for more bugs.

*Most elusive is the Tasmanian devil, which is nocturnal and pretty hard to find. Sometimes we see it out of the corner of our headlamps while walking to our tent at night. They are the size of a small cat, with long tails, and are called devils because of their hissing scream and scary-looking growly face.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wining, Dining and Reading*

*but not in that order.


Despite the fact that Christmas is days away, Victoria and the Southern Ocean continue to throw their worst weather at us. We have rain fall on most days and often have strong winds. A good day would be a shower in the morning, then some clearning in the afternoon. Sun is rare. But the cool temperatures (it continues to stay mostly in the 60s) means we can keep a good pace on biking.

So far we have biked about 470 miles. In all we've climbed more than 20,000 total vertical feet and have ridden for 70 hours (though that's not how long we've actually pedaled ... I just count from when we get on in the morning to when we get off in the afternoon).


The middle of last week we started hearing about a mammoth storm headed our way. We pedaled hard for two days to get to Colac, a decent sized city half way between Warrnambool and Geelong. I figured if we had to hole up for a few days riding a storm out we ought to do it in a town that has all the services we would need. Well, it was not a great town by Victoria's high standards, but even worse was that the campground, despite a nice pitch of green lawn, had no kitchen and not even a shelter. This would not do. It was too late to do anything about it the day we checked in but the next morning, as clouds darkened, wind rose and humidity shot up, we boarded a train for Geelong. In just one hour on the train we covered a good two days of biking.

The storm was a whopper indeed. Much of Victoria got in 36 hours the rainfall they normally see in an entire month. For us it was two days of drinking coffee in a camp kitchen and occasionally making sure our tent was not leaking (it wasn't).

For fun, I went to the grocery store.

I've been in charge of cooking dinner, and what a joy it has been. In no place else on Earth do you have the access to amazing foods as you do in Australia. It's doubly good since all we can think about sometimes is food (to paraphrase a famous line, we have enormous appetites but budgets the size of pinpricks). Even in tiny town general stores you get to choose from superfresh produce, great meats and inventive prepared foods.

Not only is it good, but it is local. At home, local generally means the food comes from somewhere in your state. Here everything, practically, comes from the state we are in, and much of it comes from within 100 miles.

Here are some highlights:

--Gold skin potatoes: slightly tastier and creamier than home's Yukon gold, with a gorgeous golden skin.

--Timboon honey: it's rare in Australia to get regular generic clover honey. Most honey comes from small independent producers and is categorized by what was blooming when it was harvested. Timboon was a small honey seller in the town of Timboon; we got gum beech honey.

--Beef from Tasmania: cuts are different here, but the quality is high and the price is low ... much cheaper than chicken.

--Sundowner apples: light red skinned, very firm, very sweet.

--Kangaroo: Laura was aghast the first time I bought kangaroo. It comes as a marinated loin and is a bit cheaper than most beefs. It is also lean and, according to the label, more ecofriendly as kangaroos won't overeat their pastures and emit less greenhouse gas than cows and sheep. It's tasty, too.

--Anything made from milk: Victoria at times seems to be a state devoted to dairy cows, and the sight of content cows belly deep in green grass is quite common. Producers here know their dairy, and we have quite the time sampling luscious yogurts, fresh milk, delightful creams and more.

--Indian food: Australia is mostly white, but there is a significant minority population in the cities, and no matter where you are you can get great premade curries and naans, and even fresh Japanese noodles.



I had my first Australian beer the other day -- J. Boag and Sons Premium Lager, from Tasmania (good) -- but it's hard to spend money on beer where there is so much wine around. Victoria has more than 500 wineries spread across some 20 protected wine regions. Most of the places we've been have been cool weather wine growing regions and produce mostly delicate whites and thin reds, though I did taste a shiraz from Scotchman Hill which was excellent (and out of our budget at about $15US). Many of these areas also produce olive oils, which are deep colored and cold pressed. Unfortunately, Australia has the same problem the US does when it comes to wine selling: the big grocery stores tend to sell the same few dozen bottles, and the local wine, even if it is just miles away, is nearly impossible to find.

Here is a rundown of what we've had:

Cleanskin South East Australia 2008 Shiraz Cabernet, 14%, $4 (all prices in US) -- cleanskin is a name given to any bottle without a label, which is something you frequently see here. This, sold by Safeway, had no producer listed. Fine.

Warburn Estate Gossips Cab-Shiraz 2008 Thorbagong New South Wales, 13.5%, $3, pretty bad.

Angrove Family Winemakers Butterfly Ridge 2008 Cab-Shiraz Renmark S. Aus. 14%, $6.50, not bad.

Snow Road Victoria Cab-Merlot 2006 Sam Miranda King Valley Oxley Victoria, 14%, $6, beautiful.

Armindale Estate Wines St. Andrews Imperial Reserve 2006 Cab-Shiraz South East Aus. 13.5%, $4, nice.

The Australian Vineyard Co. 2007 Merlot cleanskin South East Aus. 13.5%, $4, soso.

Littore Family Jindalee Estate Circle Collection 2007 Geelong Victoria Cab Sauv. 14.5%, $5.40, nice.

Littore Family Wines Silvergun Cab-Merlot 2007 Moorabool Victoria 14.5% $3, passable


I can't remember what my last reading list update ended with, so I'm guessing here:

Henry James' Tropic of Cancer -- Extravagant and bitter.

George Orwell's 1984.

Marco Polo's The Travels (did not finish)

Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth -- great.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch -- good.

Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin -- why is this regarded as a 'classic'?

Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle -- magnificent.

We're back in Melbourne and off to Tasmania in the morning!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gee ... long

We've been plodding across western Victoria now for about 15 days. Our routine is pretty, well, routine. We wake up about 8 with birds chirping, make breakfast, which for Laura is cereal with milk and for me is toast with honey and peanut butter, drink a lot of coffee, pack up our tent and site, which can be a Herculean task, strap everything on our bikes (*) and start pedalling.

(*Our bikes are so heavy, and all of the weight is on the back wheels, that sometimes if we are not careful they rear up, the front tire sticking into the air, and nearly flip backwards. It looks like that trick horseriders do to make the horses rear up. Except it's not horses, it's our bikes.)


We pedal until about 11, when we stop for a while to eat a snack, then about noon start looking for somewhere to have lunch. Sometimes we get a nice little town park, with electric grills and tables and water. Sometimes we get a barrier alongside the highway.

We go until about 3, when we start looking for somewhere to camp. A lot of the time we don't have a lot of choice in where we camp, but if we do have a pick we look for somewhere with grass (not always a sure thing in drought-stricken Australia) and a camp kitchen. These can sometimes be rather luxurious, with widescreen TVs, comfy seats, big windows, and all sorts of kitchen amenities (the best is a pot that boils water almost instantly). Camp set, we go to the grocery store and then come back and make dinner. I ususally have a cup of coffee later and then we dig into dessert, whcih is among the highlights of our day. Currently, I am addicted to Tim Tams, a sort of dark chocolate coated cookie made in Australia. I could easily consume a whole box at night, but we try to limit ourselves to three each.


We landed at a notsogreat campsite last night, which would not be a problem except they are forecasting an inch of rain today. With no cover and 40km to the next town (3 hours ride minimum, at our snail pace) we decided to take the train to Geelong, the next big town. For us it would be a two day ride. Guess what -- the train gets us there in an hour!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Great Ocean Road

United used to be a decent airline, but as with just about everything else in the world, it's gone downhill in the past few years. We flew with United from Atlanta to Chicago to San Francisco to Sydney, but actually had to argue with the ticket agent for a half hour in Atlanta that the airline did indeed fly from San Francisco to Sydney.

Despite their best attempts to keep us stateside, we made it to Sydney after a total fo 20 hours in the air. We spent just a day in that fabulous city before heading to Melbourne, also a very nice place. In Melbourne we spent a busy day buying bicycles and tons of gear. Coupled with the gear we brought from home we were now ready to cycle the Australian states of Victoria and Tasmania.

(Coast near Lorne)


Australia is beautifully situated for biking; cities are laced with dedicated bike routes and you can even pedal along on the shoulder on major freeways.

(Coast near Aireys Inlet)


We spent a few days getting in to shape before hitting the Great Ocean Road, a 200-mile stretch of coves, cliffs, secret beaches, koala bears napping in trees and lush temperate rainforest. It's a spectacular area. We've also hit plenty of hills, bugs, cool temperatures and showery weather, but the scenery is making up for it.