Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Pix from Camel Cup races

These photos of the recent Camel Cup races in Alice Springs come from our Aussie correspondents, Carol Hardy (left) and Narissa Andrew (right) with Shorty, the camel driver:

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Tell me where to go

Aug. 20 I'll begin my next trip: A 30-day cross-country driving odyssy from Miami to Seattle....and I'll be going it alone.

So tell me where to go! Whether you've got a fave BBQ joint, Aunt Martha's pie shop, a beloved natural park, an attraction you've always wanted to visit ... we want to know about it. You can leave your suggestions here; just click the "Comments'' link beneath this posting.

You can follow my trip here each day from Aug. 20 to Sept. 16. We'll be taking your advice along the way, so check in daily to tell me where to go!

Got a question?

Got a question about Australia? For the next week I'll try to answer whatever questions you post here...just click the "Comments'' link under this posting. If I don't know the answer, I'll check it out with the Australia tourism folks.

Lessons from Australia

Every trip brings lessons, some trivial, some profound.

In the weeks and months to come I'll be writing about Australia in depth in the pages of The Miami Herald; those stories will also appear online.

Meanwhile, a post-trip vocabulary lesson:

Swag: A giant waterproof coccoon covering a foam pad, two sleeping bags and a sleep sack. One sleeps in it under the open stars. In winter, it's best to bring a wooly beanie along.

Wooly beanie: A knit cap. Some are so colorful, inventive and bizaare that Alice Springs devotes and entire festival to displaying them.

Good on you: Atta-boy.

Brain fag: That state of mental malfunction that follows too much wine in the Barossa, too many beers and 24 hours of flying time.

G'day, mates!

The wacky Camel Cup

The Alice Springs Camel Cup is one of the highlights of the annual Outback social season. This is pretty much what it sounds like: A day of camel races. Unlike other races on the Outback camel-racing circuit (yes, there is one!), the Alice race is all about charity, with no prize money or betting.

The Camel Cup takes place each July on the third weekend. I couldn't be there, but fellow camel trekkers Carol Hardy and Narissa Andrew, two Aussie nurses, were on the scene and sent this report.


The first camel cup races was held in 1970 when a couple of mates raced their camels after a pub argument up the infamous Todd river. Like most rivers in central Australia, the Todd River is a dry river bed with the exception of flooding. Rumour has it, one of the riders rode a cow instead of a camel, and had its calf at the finish line; obviously he won!

Today the Camel Cup races attract competitors and spectators from around the globe. The annual event draws around 5,000 people a year and is expected to raise more than $30,000, which is put back into the local community. Unlike other camel races around the country, this one is purely fundraising -- which also makes it a completely fun day.

One of the most unexpected things at these races is that there was no bookie. In Australia, "A race with no betting" sounds like a "pub with no beer."

Having ridden camels and knowing how much they just do there own thing regardless what instructions you try and give them, we wondered how the riders who are not all that experienced in cameleering would go. While some did well, others entertained the crowd imensely.

The start of the first race was a hilarious sight. The camels all sit at the start line -- no easy achievement in itself. HOOSH!! (This basically means, "Down Camel!")

As the starting horn sounded, the camels were off in all directions; some sprinting to the finish line, some bucking in circles. Some took off in a 180 degree direction; a few lost their jockeys and some got half way and decided it was a nice day for a stroll although the rider made every effort too change the camel's mind. As you know, Jane, its not easy to get a camel to do what you want it to do.

Shorty [a retired military man we'd met previously at Camels Austral camel farm], was the camaleer king of the day, taking home the Imparja Cup sponsored by local media. He does take his racing very seriously! Neil Waters from Camels Australiaowned many camels the jokeys were riding for the day. Neil says its all about the personality of the camel, the winning is not so important.

Between races races there was a lot to amuse us: Mr. and Miss Camel Cup. Rickshaw rally, which is like a trot race with people, and even an event for the young, hobby horse (camel) races.

The Honeymoon Handycap was the day's highlight. It starts as a normal race with a male jocky (the groom) but stops half way round the track - HOOSH! - so the men can pick up their brides, then finish the race. A good laugh!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The long road home

Tomorrow, the long flight home begins before dawn. The trip will take about 28 hours, with layovers. But thanks to the wonders of the International Dateline, I'll be home the same day I leave.

Time to start packing....

Tastes of Adelaide

Even Australians diss Adelaide, but in fact this little city of about 1 million boasts a chic food-and-wine scene.

The center of it all: The century-plus old Adelaide Central Market, where 1.4 million come each month to buy organic foods, fresh produce, specialty sauces, seafood, dozens of types of coffees and teas, juicy meats...About 90 percent of it comes from farms within 100 miles, says Mark Gleeson, who offers a terrific market tour.

Word to the wise: Don't plan a big dinner after the tour. You'll be full.

Scenes from the market:

More scenes from Kangaroo Island

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Scenes from Kangaroo Island

Kangaroo Island sits just south of Australia ... a 20-minute flight from Adelaide. With a population of about 4,500 (700,000-plus sheep), the 90-mile-by-35-mile island is best known for farming and its wildlife.

I'm touring with Exceptional Kangaroo Island Tours, which is proving to be pretty, well, exceptional. Great guide (Neville), who doubles in life as an organic farmer and guide. Among his tidbits: female kangaroos mate immediately after the five-day old joey is born and moves to his mum's pouch; that new fertilization can be held in abeyance indefinitely until food and other conditions will support another pregnancy.

Our tour today took us to Seal Bay (a misnomer) to see sea lions, Remarkable Rocks and Chase Flinders National Park (to see seals.) Tonight I'm at KI Wilderness Resort, where wallabys come right up to you to be fed, and possums (much cuter than the U.S. variety) noodle around looking for scraps.

Some scenes:


SCENES FROM KI: Top, a fur seal at Flinders Chase National Park. Above, from top: sea lions on the beach at Seal Bay; a KI mailbox; Remarkable Rocks look remarkably like a Henry Moore sculpture.

In the Middle East

Until a few days ago, the current Middle East crisis was an unknown. In the Outback, television was a rarity; the only one I saw was tuned to sports. The last newspaper I saw was filled with details of the wedding of South Australia’s premier (that would be the governor) to a woman named Sasha. (Never did catch his name.)

It’s an eerie thing to learn that while your head was turned, the world has fallen into disarray. News broadcasts here are filled with stories of Australians being evacuated from Lebanon on buses, airplanes…however they can get out. My friend who lives in Tel Aviv; is she OK? An acquaintance from Lebanon; how is her family? What echo will bounce from this crisis to affect us all in the weeks, months, decade to come?

One of the gifts of travel is learning how connected we all are, one person to the next, one nation to the next. The woman in the Barossa Valley worries about the effect her long work hours are having on her children; the host at the eco-resort on Kangaroo Island is worried about the health of his business. In some countries, the people I meet wonder about the very basics of survival; others are concerned with equal opportunities for minorities.

Often, wherever I am, the subject turns to politics. Few people seem all that thrilled with the actions of their particular governments. You have to wonder what the people of Israel, Lebanon and Palestine are thinking now.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Off to see the koalas and 'roos

Tomorrow I'm off to Kangaroo Island for a few days to see koalas, kangaroos and other wildlife. E-mail access may be limited, so I'll check back in in a day or so!

New World, old wine

Australia's wines are classified as "New World'' -- even though some of the vines have been here more than 150 years.

Today I tasted Old Para Liqueur Vintage Tawny, a fortified wine that has aged 100 years in the barrel. It's made by Seppelt, this region's oldest vineyard. The oldest of the vintages was first put in the cask in 1878. Price per 375 ml: $525 Australian...about $395 U.S. The taste: Very smooth, and pretty well priceless.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A great read ...

If you haven't checked out reader JL Lewis' remembrances of his trip to Australia, it's a charming read. Click on "comments'' under the posting headlines, "A blustery day, and wine.''

Feel free to post your own memories as well....

Carl Hiaasen in Adelaide

I missed the start of this evening’s showing of Ten Canoes, so I stopped in at a local bookstore. On the shelf: Several novels by Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen. This is no surprise: The South Floridian authors whose books I see most often in foreign bookstores are Hiaasen, humorist Dave Barry and cookbook author Steven Raichlen. Of those, Hiaasen’s are the books I see most.

Imagine what foreigners think of South Florida after reading his novels. Of course, they probably think South Florida’s mayhem is just Hiaasen-esque fiction.

Adelaide in the rain

Australia, you come to understand, is all about water.

A crossroads springs up because the water is only 65 meters below the surface here. A town flourishes because a larger source of underground water is discovered (by a dowser, none the less.) Most major cities are under water restrictions, and every lodging informs you about its source of water … a polite way of reminding you that water is a precious thing here.

So it’s understandable that everyone in the vast state of South Australia is pretty well thrilled that it’s been raining for the past two days. As a visitor, you have to honor their excitement…even though you’re soaking wet.

And you have to head indoors. I did so this afternoon in the company of Rosie Potter, an expert in Aboriginal art. She shares her expertise with clients of Tourabout Adelaide, a local guiding company.

Aboriginal culture is complex and, like many traditions, in danger of disappearing. The commercial viability of Aboriginal art – some paintings now sell at prices of $10,000 and above – has made painting a touchstone activity that gives clan elders an opportunity to pass on stories and learning to a younger generation less enthralled with old ways.

Our wanderings through Adelaide took us from the Tandanya cultural center, currently hosting an exhibition pegged to the Australian-hit film Ten Canoes, to the free Art Gallery of South Australia, the free South Australian Museum (dedicated to natural and human history) and the Flinders University City Gallery, also free.

All are interesting, but if you want to learn about traditional Aboriginal life, law and values, the South Australian Museum is the place to go. Two floors are dedicated to Aboriginal traditions, and here you can see tools like spear throwers and shields, learn how clansmen used natural poisons in fishing and hunting, and even seen historic films about funeral rites and about food-gathering. This last bit is unique because the politically correct practice these days is to remove all photographs and video images of people now dead. Many Aboriginal people believe that if people in the living world are still viewing their image after their death, their souls will be unsettled.

The museum harks from more than a century past, and it is considered by Aboriginal peoples as a safe haven for artifacts and practices. And while one wants to respect traditional beliefs, I have to be glad that the museum’s video and photo archives remain on view for visitors like me. I can only hope that the dead rest in peace, anyway.


Update: Turns out that the museum doesn't use photos of the recently deceased, and uses photos and videos only with the permission of relatives.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Great wines, great food

Like any good wine region, Barossa boasts several first rate restaurants, among them Vintners, Appellations and barr-Vinum. But some of the finest cuisine in the region is available only to guests at the Abbotsford House, a cozy country inn big on simple luxuries. Julian Maul runs the eight-room hotel and farm; wife Jane is the cook.

Each night the menu is different, depending on the local produce and what Jane feels like cooking. Our menu: apple and pinot noir soup, followed by a moist chicken breast, stuffing with chicken livers and bacon, carmelized parsnips, roast potatoes, creamed corn and broccoli. For dessert: a stellar poached pear pie, akin to a soufflé with a pear standing up in the center. And plenty of local wines, of course.

It's the best meal I've had in Australia...and that's saying something.


Abbotsford: Country luxury, warm hosts, fabulous cuisine.

Miami meets the Barossa Valley

It’s a dreary day in the Barossa Valley, the wine region just north of Adelaide best known for its Shiraz. I scarcely notice.

I’m seated at the farm table of Dennis and Christine Canute with their son Christian, who has been described as one of Barossa’s “young Turks’’ proving himself as one of its top winemakers. Today he turns 30.

We are tasting nine of the wines his family makes: six for the family label, Rusden, and two for Betts & Scholl, a collaboration between Aspen sommelier Richard Betts and Miami art collectors Debra and Dennis Scholl.

The wines are so staggeringly excellent that they have won raves from Robert Parker and Wine Spectator. Betts & Scholl … a Grenache … is served at Thomas Keller’s vaunted French Laundry in Napa, deservedly regarded as one of America’s best restaurants. Rusden is served by such stellar chefs at Alain Ducasse, Mark Miller of Coyote CafĂ© and Sydney’s Tetsuya and Neil Perry.

Canute’s family block of 40 acres is comprised of old-growth vines. These are tough times in the Australian wine industry, and big household names are pushing out many of the old-growth farmers that once sold them their yields. Betts & Scholl…now going into its third release … has helped to save four old-growth vineyards, Canute says.

“Grenache is very much in the background here,’’ he said. “To find someone as passionate about Grenache as Richard and Dennis is a real find.’’

Rusden’s own Black Guts Shiraz is a killer, but even more impressive is the Cabernet – a stepchild in the Barossa. We’ve just tasted Rusden's 2004 Cabernet, and I'm salivating. “You should taste the 2002. You’d fall of your chair.’’


30th birthday: Christian Canute.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A blustery day, and wine

The wind is still blowing so hard I can hardly stand up, and as I head south the rain begins, a drizzle giving way to a mean pelt. This clearly calls for a few stops in the Clare Valley.

As Sonoma is to Napa, Clare is the less known sibling of Australia’s nearby and famed Barossa. But it’s wines … especially its Rieslings and Shirazes … are quite something.

The wine-tasting experience is easy and intimate, without any fees. One place a woman greets you in a wood-furnished tasting room before a fire, the next offers tastings in the former mud room of a farmhouse. Deb, of Elvira Olive Oils, serves up her oils and her homemade jams in a small room just off her carport. Her ketchup … seasoned with anis… is unbeatable.

Best red of the afternoon: Knappstein’s 2003 Shiraz, with a smart peppery finish, about $17. Best white: Kirrihilli’s 2006 Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc, fruity with an oak finish, about $13.

Prairie Hotel

The wind is ripping in a full-force gale…unusual even for this part of the Outback…and all the more reason to crowd inside the bar at the Prairie Hotel.

"This is Jane. This is Heather," says Grant, the bartender, ensuring that guests break the ice. Maggie, the day bartender, has done the same thing, and by now pretty much everyone in the bar is feeling fine.

Tiggie, Heather’s husband of 50 years, immediately picks up on the fact that we’re Yanks .. how did you end up here? .. and starts razzing us about George W. “I feel badly for the American people,’’ he says. “They’re nice people…’’ the implication somewhere in the next sip of beer or two that Americans deserve better.

The bar is crowded with visitors like Tiggie and Heather and locals, too. (The guy at the end of the bar in the cowboy hat is owner Jane Fargher son, just in from mustering cattle.) “This place is party central,’’ says someone…though after a few beers, who can tell just whom. “Wait until later; sometimes there’s a floor show.’’

This is Outback hip, a total so fun and funky that it has made it into Herb Ympa’s Hip Hotels series. Movie stars have stayed here and raved about its food, and having partken of The Feral Feast (‘smoked roo, emu pate, camel sausage, ‘roo filet, emu patties and quongdong pie, $40 for three courses) I can say the raves are well deserved.

Jimmy Hoffa's grave

I know where they buried Jimmy Hoffa: In the Brachina Gorge of the Flinders Range of Australia. Here’s his grave:

Outback wildlife

I’ve driven thousands of miles in the Outback, but I’ve seen only a few wild animals. Live ones, anyway. There’s been plenty of roadkill: an easy dozen kangaroos, a feral camel, even a cow that clearly lost its bearings. The only live creatures have been the glorious birds: brilliant green parrots with yellow-banded necks, a pair of white cockatoos with salmon bellies, and flocks of pale gray galahs with brilliant fuchsia undersides.

Today all that changes.

I’m hiking through Wilpena Pound … a remarkable 100-square-mile natural bowl surrounded by mountains in a geological upthrust … when I catch sight of
an emu with a gaggle of eight chicks. Edwina, I call her, sharing the sighting with the desk person at the Wilpena Pound information desk. Edwin, she tells me. “Once she’s laid the eggs, she’s out of there. The male looks after them.’’ Strike one for nature’s form of labor division.

Now I’m on a dirt track, driving through Brachina Gorge. A “corridor in time’’ it’s called, because the rock formation along this 19 kilometer stretch were carved over a period of 100-plus million years.

Stop. ‘Roo out the right window. I stop, gape, try to catch a photo. Move on.

A few kilometers later, ‘roo out the left side. He watches, then hops off into the field, an improbable combination of a rabbit on two pogo sticks with a thick tail dragging behind. It looks so cartoonish, you can almost hear “Boing! Boing!” as it hops away.

It’s a blustery, gray winter day here, and spotting the ‘roos amid the brush takes sharp eyes. But every now and then I see one or two, sometimes three: Frozen, waiting for the car to pass.

The big catch comes deep in the Gorge, when I see what I think just might be a rare yellow-footed rock wallaby.

It’s windy beyond words, but I get out of the car anyway. The wallaby watches but doesn’t move. I walk closer. He (she?) stands still. I get closer yet…close enough to see that it probably really is a yellow-footed wallaby, if the drawing on info brochure from Wilpena Pound is any guide at all.

He watches, poses, then hops off into the bush. I hop info my car, heading for the famous Prairie Hotel’s “feral feast.’’ It features camel, emu and kangaroo on the menu….even wallaby, but not the yellow-footed kind.

Scenes from the Outback

Scenes from the Outback: The long Explorers Highway; the giant red truck where I slept at The North Star Hotel (they have posh rooms inside the hotel, but who could resist the truck?)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Tell me about your own Aussie trip

Have you visited Australia? Share your stories by posting a comment on my blog.

How to do this? At the bottom of each posting you'll see a little item that indicates how many comments have been posted to the item. Just click on will give you the option to post your own thoughts.

The character(s) of The Outback

I’d expected The Outback to be full of crusty characters. Most of the people seem to be pretty standard-issue humans. But every now and then, you bump up against someone so thoroughly shaped by the remoteness of this place that you understand how the stereotype got its start.

The opal mining town of Coober Pedy is a likely spot for encountering individualists. Though opal mining apparently doesn’t hold the romantic strike-it-rich lure for the Gameboy generation, some of the older guys retain a rough-and-ready spirit. This is, after all, a place where most people live underground (defense against extreme temps both summer and winter) and there’s a golf course made entirely from desert sand.

Crocodile Harry is one of the old timers. About 3 km past a sign that says “Danger: Do not Enter’’ lies Harry’s “nest,’’ a testament to Harry’s raucous youth of croc hunting in the north of the country and later, woman hunting here near Coober Pedy. His lair was used for the movie Mad Max; it’s decidedly funky, and covered with “love notes’’ from women who have, shall we say visited, and left behind souvenirs in the form of undergarments. Today Harry is a dapper older gentleman in an ascot charging $2 per head for tourist drop-ins; a truely unique dirt roadside attraction.

Dave Westneat is another of the staunch sort. Twenty-eight years ago he stopped in Coober Pedy to visit a buddy; nearly three decades later he’s still digging in the mud in search of the elusive beauty of opals. I found Dave at Tom’s Working Mine Tour, where in between digs he explains the complex art-cum-obsession of opal mining. The guiding work is an antidote to what he calls miners’ AIDS: Acute Income Deficiency Syndrome.

Dave’s advice: “Never take up a mining pick. If you want opals, go to the shop and buy them. It’s a lot cheaper and you’ll get them a lot quicker.’’


Photo: A dirt "green" at the Coober Pedy golf course.

Scenes from Uluru (Ayers Rock)

Most popular times to visit Uluru: Sunrise (top) and sunset (above). You'll have plenty of company. PHOTOS BY JANE WOOLDRIDGE/THE MIAMI HERALD.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Visit to Uluru (Ayers Rock)

A generation ago, Australians learned about Ayers Rock, the massive sandstone monolith in the dessert that has become the symbol of their country. In the years since this land was returned to its original owners, the Anangu people, it has become known as Uluru.

For the Anangu, this is a sacred place. For tourists, its a magnate ... something to be viewed at sunrise and sunset, photographed, circumnavigated -- even climbed.

The Anangu request that people not climb it, but weather permitting, the walk is still open, and about 200,000 per year still make the vertical walk.

I passed. Seems like there's plenty else to do here without insulting the spiritual guardians of the place. Some top picks:

- Catch sunrise and sunset. The rock seems to glow from within. Colors change from beige to red to purple to brown.

- Take an aboriginal tour or art class. On my walk, we learned how to throw a spear to kill at kangaroo or emu. (This group would have starved; lousy aim.)

- Visit Kata Tjuta ... otherwise known as the Olgas. These sandstone formations aren't much known by Americans, but in some ways, they're more stellar than Uluru.

- Catch a free ranger talk. Looking through the Ayers Rock website, you'd think everything here costs a fortune. It almost does...but there are a few good freebies.

- The Sounds of Silence dinner isn't one of them, but it is a great gourmet evening in the desert, and while it's pricy (about $120 U.S. per person), it's worth it. Word to the wise: Book WAY in advance, and be sure you get a confirmation for your e-mail reservation. (Four e-mails over a two-week period, and I never did get a confirmation.)

- Barbecue at the Pioneer Outback Resort. This is a cool Aussie thing: You buy your meat -- kangaroo, emu, beef, chicken or fish -- and then cook it yourself on a huge public barbie. It's one of the most reasonable deals here...about half the price of the buffet breakfast.

The high cost of gas

Think $3 a gallon looks bad? Today, I paid $1.70 Australian PER LITRE. Price for filling up my rental car (a Peugot about the size of a Honda Accord): about $75 U.S.

Take a 'roo to work

Renting a car in Australia is pretty much like renting one anywhere. You plop down your credit card and license, decline the expensive additional insurance, and go on your way.

I picked mine up in Alice Springs. Before heading out to Uluru (that's Ayers Rock, in the old terminology), I stopped off at the kangaroo rescue center at Melanka's Backpackers.

For $5 (the money goes to kangaroo rescue efforts), you can go in and hold a joey whose mother has been killed. The couple who run it, Chris and Emma, explain that when a kangaroo is killed on the road (a common problem), often a joey is left alive inside the pouch. If the joey is left there alone, it will die of starvation. Their aim is to educate tour guides and travelers about this problem, to encourage them to bring joeys in to the closest refuge or even a roadhouse.

Th joeys then need 24/7 care ... which means that kangaroo care volunteers often have to take them to work. The 'roos need to be held in a bag ... even a pillowcase will do ... to replicate the experience they would have in the mom's pouch. Not until about six months do the joeys come out to hop about, and it's 11 months before they're ready to go back in the wild.

Visitors to the rescue center help out by holding the joeys for a few minutes. While you're rubbing their ears and getting a snuggle, you can look at photos of the 'roos in various cute poses. You see grimmer photos as well, of dead 'roos on the road. It's pretty heartbreaking, but at least you feel like you're doing something to help a little.

I held Briana, a hefty eight month old. Chris showed me a photo of her mom dead on the road, and told me how the dead 'roo had caused $2,500 damage to the motorcoach that hit her.

Seems that 'roos are unpredictable, like deer, and sometimes just bolt out in front of traffice.

Gruesome, and unnerving for someone about to drive the Outback. That extra insurance was starting to look like it might be worth the money. Next stop: a return visit to the car rental office.


Chris and his 'roo: Above, Briana, an eight-month-old joey, was rescued after her mother was killed by a car. Chris teaches travelers about kangaroo care in Alice Springs.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Camel trekking in Australia's Red Center

A brilliant green parrot zips through the crisp air, lighting in a eucalyptus tree. A kangaroo bounces up the nearby ridge, his fur tawny against Gatorade-colored sandstone. The sky shimmers with a cloudless watercolor blue. Beneath me: Chamois, my ride on a three-day camel trek in Australia’s Red Center.

Our crew: camel driver Neil Waters of Camels Australia in Stuarts Well, an hour south of the Outback commercial hub of Alice Springs. Along for the ride are a family of four, children ages 10 and 13; a mother-daughter team from Canada; two Australian nurses; and a string of 11 dromedaries.

This is no posh adventure trip: We’ll sleep beneath the stars in swags – camp beds of foam mattresses, topped by a pair of sleeping bags all wrapped in oil cloth. We have no tents; it’s not the Outback way.

Nobody seems to care.

“It’s such a privilege to ride through this country on these animals. It’s so beautiful,’’ says Marjorie, the mom from Calgary, Canada.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Welcome to the Outback

From 36,000 feet, the land is a mud-paint of grooves and scars all running in the same if some giant's hand has scraped along on it's way to some faraway place. The earth changes from dusty beige to a crimson so surreal it seems to glow, then swirls into dark and sinister footprints. Then it settles to beige again.

This is the land of Aboriginal Dreamtime, a complex mythology of creative ancestors and rituals and connection with the land. And once you have seen this eerie land from above,the geometric paintings of dots and swirls in the galleries begin to make perfect sense.

Unfortunately, the three paintings I've seen here in Alice Springs that have stolen my heart are each priced at more than $10,000 -- U.S. Even staying in my current backpacker hostel isn't going to make those price affordable.

Those of you who know me in one of my other lives -- the gourmet dining life, or the workaholic life -- are shaking your heads and wondering why on God's green earth I would stay in a tiny cell in a prefabricated dwelling with the loo 'round the courtyard. Life is full of experiences; this is just one more of them. Other splurges await.

Besides, hanging out in a backpacker hostel seems like the thing to do here in Alice Springs, the commercial hub of the Outback.

The Alice has a reputation for being a rough and tumble frontier town, and once it probably was. Now it's more like a West Kendall housing complex buttressed by a cozy pedestrian mall lined with cafes and Aborigonal art galleries. You could, for instance, get a pedicure, then stop at an chic eatery next door for kangaroo carpaccio and a camel sirloin steak. Or you could wander down the corner and take a yoga or pilates class.

But stop in at the Royal Flying Doctors Service office, and you get a picture of how truly isolated life can be just minutes outside town. A guide there talks about the medical kit found on most cattle the family can call the Flying Doctors and get diagnosed by phone, then go to the kit and pull out the proper prescriptions. For many, the only regular medical care is a monthly clinic held by flying doctors.

Or check out the Thorny Devils at the Reptile Center, camouflage lizards with spiked bodies. Here, you learn, snake venom can be slowed by wrapping the affected limb with an Ace bandage. But you better call the Flying Doctors for help; you can still die in hours.

This is info I hope I won't need anytime soon. Tomorrow I head out on a three-day camel no posts for a few days. It's cold in the dessert at night I'm told; I've got my wooly beanie ready. The weather slows the snakes, thank goodness.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Dinner at Rockpool

Travel is about splurge choices. You save one place -- say, a room with a shared bath -- to spend on something you personally find more meaningful. Say, dinner at Rockpool.

Sydney has become a foodie's town, but most of my meals have been the kind of overpriced, under-serviced tourist fare you can run into anywhere (including Miami Beach.) Loads of attitude, mediocre food, and a bill that isn't obscene but isn't worth it.

So it was time for a sampling from the culinary gods. One of them is Neil Perry.

His Rockpool serves ambitious multi-course meals. For $120 U.S., you get five courses ... your choice of five items in each course. Alternatively, you can opt for an 11-course tasting menu.

Eleven courses, even tiny ones, is more than I can manage, so I went the five-course route.

This is not a meal about sustenance, or even so much about tastes, though that is all part of it. This is an intellectual culinary exploration into texture, temperatures, superb ingredients, presentation.

My choices: A soft-cooked hens egg with crab, lobster and leek, dressed with warm vinegrette; roast pumpkin, spinach and ricotta agnalotti; seared scampi and tea smoked potato with cabbage and smoked bacon; roast pheasant with chesnut puree, bread sauce and brussels sprouts. (I passed on dessert.)

Verdict: Pre-meal canapes were light and exquisite. Dishes were almost perfect ... the roast pheasant was one slight touch undercooked for my taste. It's a worthy experience.

I'll write more about it later. Just now, I've got to dash off to breakfast. As if I needed to eat again this decade.

Today: Off to Alice Springs.

What you don't see

I usually don't tell people the horror stories, but here's a glimpse: Yesterday, shattered a brand new lens filter (thank goodness the lense is OK.) Found out my cell phone calls out but won't receive. And this morning, fried my THIRD computer in the last week. Which means that in between running around, I'm calling my office for advice. (Turns out a Phillips head screw driver will fix a lot of problems.)

Anyway, I figure bad things come in threes, so I should be golden. Just as long as I don't forget to take my room key with me when I dash across the hall to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It's a self-locking door.

Sydney in the rain

Sydney is all about the outdoors: climbing the Bridge, cruising the harbor, wandering the neighborhoods, hanging at cafes. So what do you do when it's pouring buckets?

You abandon your plans (shopping in Double Bay) and head indoors.

I opted for the Sydney Explorer, one of those hop-on hop-off buses. It's not the cheapest way to get around (about $30 US) but it's door-to-door serviced to attactions, indoor and outdoor.

First on my agenda: A tour of the Sydney Opera House. Lest you be dismayed by the slow progress at the Miami Performing Arts Center, it's worth noting that the Sydney Opera House was finished 10 years late and $100 million over budget...and that was back in the 1960s. Inside and out, the place is spectacular.

Next, the Art Museum of New South Wales. One of the great things about Sydney's art museums is that most are free, and better yet, we're in the heat of the Sydney Biennale, a contemporary art fair spanning more than a dozen venues through Aug. 27. The theme is Zones of Contact, which covers representations from the highly personal (a collection of family album photos) to the geopolitcal (a world map made from stacks of fabric.) If that's all too esoteric, the museum's permanent collection includes Aboriginal art as well as Australian and European masters (Pissaro, Van Gogh, Gainsborough.)

Next on my tour: The Museum of Australia. This is a natural history and anthropology museum. Think the Smithsonian...only the skeletons are kangaroos and wombats, which is pretty cool. And the section on the history of indigeous peoples is enlightening, ranging from artwork to the history of racial inequities that occurred here.

By now the sun was out....hooray... and it was on to Loo, or Woolloomooloo, the Soho-like district where Russell Crowe keeps his $14 million (about $10 million US) apartment in an old wharf. One of the chief attractions here is Harry's Cafe de Wheels, a pie stand (that's beef and chicken pies) and hot doggery.

I resisted. I'm having dinner at Rockpool, the firmament of culinary diety Neil Perry. Wouldn't want to spoil my appetite.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Scenes from Sydney

Sydney in winter is a collicky child: All sunny smiles, then suddenly coughing and a slow, miserable sneeze. And then sunny again. PHOTOS BY JANE WOOLDRIDGE / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Sydney by Night

We landed late, thanks to the couple that apparently stayed in Vegas, though their luggage made it quite handily without them and onto our Sydney plane. It took over an hour for the crew to locate the independent-traveling bags and have it removed. Security, you know.

So it was close to 11 p.m. when I arrived at The Russell, my small 1887 hotel in The Rocks. Make that small, historic and dark; the lobby and entrance were completely unlit. A call on my cell, and I was in.

I'd chosen it for location...near the Harbour Bridge, Opera House and just a half-block from The Four Seasons, my lodging of choice when the budget is plump. This one is not.

The hotel itself is warm, cheery and inviting. It also features a few things that American hotels do not: Single rooms, and rooms with shared baths. (It does also have larger rooms with en-suite bath, but they're $50 more, and for that I can walk across the wall to use the loo.) My room is snug (say 8 x 10 feet) but clean, and features a bathrobe, iron, coffee, non-working fireplace and working phone. The price: just under $100 U.S.

The Four Seasons is pretty well dead at 11 p.m. on a Sunday, and I'm not sure how my hiking boots would go with their marble entrance. I head up the street and stumble quickly on a historic pub, The Orient Hotel, the kind of place where they serve lambs brains and rock oysters for lunch, and plenty of beer later. A live band is blasting out Wild Thing, and a crowd ranging from pert young things with bared decollete to a balding-middle aged geek with a passion for unconventional dancing are ripping up the floor.

I find myself chatting with a young woman from Dallas, on her last night in Australia after a month of software development in the Outback town of Alice Springs. Name's Vonda Robinson. It's her second work trip to Australia. "The people are really friendly,'' she says. "I like it alot.''

Sounds good to me.

The good news about frequent fliers

Every few years, the Dieties of the Skies smile on me, and because of my super-frequent flier status, I am blessed with AN UPGRADE. This is most welcome on long hauls such as, say, the 14.5 hour flight from LA to Sydney.

Let me start by saying that on my Miami-LA flight on American, my only food options were a pre-fab muffin ($2) or a turkey croissant ($5) which had run out long before the cart got to me. Oh Joy.

And then, the upgrade.

All business class has the advantage of extra leg-room and hot meal service, if you can call it that. (On American, you'll be better off with a take-long sandwich.) Qantas is a different, cheerier matter. The highlights: sesame-crusted seared tuna, a beef filet that actually tasted like beef, and toasted sandwiches made to order.

As for the seats: Not only do they go entirely flat for sleeping (that's found only in First on many airlines) but the seats do a little rotational massage thing, like the pedicure chairs in a nail salon. Makes the flight seems so much shorter!