South Australia, April 1994

(mail sent on May 6, 1994, describing Malcolm's and my visit to Australia)

Australia was great! It's the first foreign country that I've gone to were I felt that being an American wasn't a disadvantage (they seem to like us even!)

We didn't do too much the first week other than attend the conference and eat (ICASSP was crazy, as always, and the restaurants in Adelaide were great - I had the best Indian food that I've ever had - yes, better than Sue's I'd even say much better).

The first day after the conference, Larry Heck (an old collegue and friend from SRI), Gaile Heck, Malcolm and I went to a tourist town south of Adelaide. The town itself wasn't too exciting but the petting zoo near there was great. We got to pet kangaroos, wallabees, koalas and emus. Well, that isn't completely true - you don't really pet emus, if you distract them enough with food, they'll let you touch their feathers. The emus were startling and a little scary when you first see them up close - I've never seen anything that looks so prehistoric. I first ran into one when it realized that I had a bag of food and it started trying to peck at it - not the most reassuring introduction to a very large, heavily clawed bird. The koalas were great. The park manager was feeding them and let us in. So we got to pet them and "feed them" (mostly by picking out some of the choicer pieces of gum leaves and bringing it to them while they seemed completely unaware of you). The fur on their chests is amazingly soft while the fur on their backs is a little wooly. Their noses are a little fuzzy to the touch.

The next day (Sunday), Malcolm and I started north for Flinders Range and Wilpena Pound. We stopped in a nice winery on the way up, so the trip up took 6 hours instead of 4 but we got there without a problem (paved roads all the way). Wilpena Pound is a circle of mountains that makes a nearly perfect enclosure - hence the name "pound" (that's what the enclosed fields are called for holding sheep or cattle). We went on a four-wheel drive tour of the area outside the pound on the first day and then hiked into the pound the second day and camped over night. The camping trip was great - we had the whole pound to ourselves it seemed (we were the only people in the only legal camping spot in the pound). We got to see wild kangaroos and emus on the way in to the pound, which was neat (I'm not sure why it feels so different to see them in the wild than in the zoo but it does). We spent the first day (Tues) hiking in and then up to a gorge that was cut by a river in the wet months. The next day we hiked up to the top of the highest mountain in the area, St Mary's Peak. I think it was only about 4000 ft but the view from the top was great. I have a sporadic fear of heights which kicked in near the top (we had to scramble around the end of a ledge that sloped off into nothing), so we went back a little ways and just sat for about a half hour and then finished the climb off after that (like I said, my fear tends to be sporadic). I think the hardest part of the trip was carrying 12 liters of water (there wasn't any running water in the pound and it was hot!) - but at least most of that was gone by the time we started up St Mary's.

We drove up to Arkaroola and the Gammon's Range on Wednesday afternoon. I was jittery most of the way up because it was about 200 km on gravel roads and, just before we started out, we saw a family that had ruined their oil pan and pump on the same road. We only saw two cars in the whole distance, which didn't help my nerves and when we got up to the Arkaroola, we saw three 4-wheel drive cars that had completely destroyed a tire by blowing out the whole side wall! Arkaroola was gorgeous - the mountains and the cliffs were amazing: unbelievably red and spectacular. We spent the morning on another 4-wheel drive tour through the mountains and then rented mountain bikes for the afternoon and went out the two of the local watering holes. The mountain bike trip was a little disappointing - my hands and wrists have never been abused that much before and we didn't take enough water (only 2 liters) so we were dusty and thirsty most of the time. In contrast the 4-wheel drive tour was much better than I'd ever expected - the views were great and the driver (who, it turned out, was also the managing director of Arkaroola and the son of the owner) was an encyclopia of information about the mountains, plants, animals and history of the area. He also gave us a personal tour through the observatory later that night! We had to leave the next day (unfortunately) but we spent the morning in a beautiful canyon in the area. Malcolm was exhausted and spent part of the time taking a nap on a large rock near the creek and I went rock scrambling up the gorge. I think I saw a rock wallabee part way up the canyon (it was either that or a kangaroo and kangaroos don't usually send alot of time in that type of area - they aren't good at going up and down rocks) - rock wallabees are very shy and was the only type of wallabee we didn't otherwise see in the wild. There were also a surprising number of crab shells around the edge of the water - apparently that creek doesn't dry up in the summer, so that fresh water crabs can survive and the local wildlife enjoy the shellfish!

We drove back down from Arkaroola to Clare that afternoon (about 6 hours at 80 - 110 kph) and stayed in a working sheep ranch, Bungaree Station. We had a large "cabin" to ourselves (4 bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen) - it used to be used as the single men's quarters for the ranch. In the morning, we got to walk around the ranch a little and see the shearing shed and the blacksmith shop - and the sheep! It was a great place - but we didn't have alot of extra time to explore, since we had to catch a flight that night and we still wanted to pick up a case of wine on our way down to Adelaide.

We got the wine, and dropped it off at the Hyatt (with some other luggage that we'd left behind) and caught a flight to Kangaroo Island, which is a little bit south of Adelaide. At Kangaroo Island, we spent two days with a local tour guide and one day by ourselves. Anna, the tour guide, knew all the best places to see wild life - koalas, kangaroos, wallabees and penguins (!). It was surprising but most of the best spots were on private land, near the sheep ranches. Apparently, the local ranchers had decided to leave a significant amount of nature bushland around their fields - none of the native animals are preditory towards sheep and the trees and bushes provide a good wind break and coverage for the sheep. I think both Malcolm and I enjoyed the penguins the most - by this time, we'd seen alot of kangaroos and wallabees in the wild, to the point of being jaded. The penguins made nests in the rocks near the town that we started out in. We went to see them at night on the second evening. You'd never think that something so small (14" tall) and formal looking could make such loud and raucous noises. The penguins were also either being quite aggressive or quite affectionate - I think it was the second. Pairs of them would keep pushing up against each other, flapping their wings and make loud, almost snoring sounds.

The places that we stayed while we were on Kangaroo Island were a study in contrasts. The first two nights we stayed with a very successful, very modern couple who had a house looking out over the straight between Kangaroo Island and Adelaide. The house was one that I would love to live in - all glass with a little bit of natural rock in some of the walls, cathedral ceilings with an interesting intersection of ridgelines in the center, an open floor plan so that the kitchen, dining room and living room were well defined but all flowed together. The second place that we stayed was another working sheep ranch. The owners were much closer to what others had described as the "typical" Australian - a little suspicious and reticent when you first met them, but quite friendly after a while. They were also the people that were hardest to understand - they set their teeth closed and barely moved their lips when they spoke - natural ventriliquests. The last place we stayed was the type of motel that you find on the highway in the midwest - cinderblock walls, orange-brown shag carpet, a couple of double beds, television, and not much else (at least the US doesn't have a corner in the the bad taste department).

We went back to Adelaide early on Wednesday instead of late (like we'd originally planned). Part of the reason was that we were both exhausted and didn't want to deal with driving on unsealed roads anymore (we'd already had a flat on Kangaroo Island at the far end of the island from all the towns), part of it was that we wanted to see an echidna and hadn't managed to on the island. It was both amusing and frustrating - everyone that we spoke to said that they were all over ("we saw two yesterday", "ten in the last week") but we hadn't seen any. In contrast, we saw a platapus in the wild (only the back, since it was in the water at the time, but still!) while people that had been there for forty years hadn't and Anna, who'd been running a tour operation on the island for a while and who'd grown up there, had only seen one!

Anyway, we spent the last day in the Adelaide zoo and saw our echidna. We even tried to take a picture of it - but it probably won't turn out (it was in the nocturnal house, so the exposure time was long and the echidna didn't hold still - drat!). We also bought another case of wine. The wine wound up being a bit of a pain on the trip back (we had to recheck our bags in Melbourne as well as carry them through customs in L.A.) but it will be a great souvenir... and we'll know it's time to go back to Australia when we run out!!

your wordy friend,