The Ghan: The Train through Australia’s Center

A number of iconic trains make every Must Do train journey: the Trans-Siberia, the Canadian Mountaineer, the Orient Express, the Tibetan railway, the Darjeerling Himalayan Express and, in Australia, the Ghan. As a hopeless train romantic, I have done most of them, although embarrassingly not the Canadian Mountaineer, and less embarrassing, the Ghan. I was about to remedy the latter omission.

As always, some history to start. First, the name. In the mid- 1800’s, European settlers in Australia decided it would make good sense to import camels to the continent to assist in building a railroad from Adelaide in the south, north to Alice Springs in the outback, a giant red, sandy desert that dominates central Australia. Thus, camels migrated to Australia along with their handlers, mostly Indians. But Europeans being Europeans, mixed up India with Afghanistan, called them Ghans and the name stuck. The railway was started in 1878, but didn’t reach Alice Springs until 1929. There is another equally unflattering story about the name The Ghan. The steam engine running to Alice during the early years was notoriously unreliable, earning it the nickname “The Afghan Express” as an insult to the Afghans who helped run it. Whatever the true origin of the name, everyone knows the train as The Ghan. As an aside, the camels were let loose after their work was done, and Australia boasts some wild camel herds that are highly prized in the Middle East.

Back to the Ghan. Finally, in 2004, the line was built from Alice Springs to Darwin, at the northern tip of the continent, a total of 2976 kilometres and a 2 night, 3 day trip (51 hours in total), give or take a few hours, from north to south.

I arrived at the Darwin train station courtesy of the free shuttle from my hotel on the Darwin Esplanade, along with a bus load of other passengers. We soon learned there would be 190 passengers aboard the 39 cars this trip, making the train just under a kilometre long. Live entertainment by a guitar playing singer greeted us at the station, but I was far more interested in ensuring I got a picture of me with the Ghan, as an announcer had advised the station would be the best opportunity for photos.

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Me, the Ghan and other passengers with the same idea

The Ghan has three classes of service: premium, gold and gold single. The big differences between premium and gold seemed to be a smaller wine selection in gold and less walking for premium passengers as the premium cars were in the middle of the train. They also had private mini buses to carry them to the station and excursions. Other than that, I didn’t see much between the two classes.

I did appreciate the gold single. It is a dedicated car at the front of the train containing 20 cabins built especially for one. Each cabinette contains a comfortable chair, footrest, table, sink, cupboards for storage and USB charging ports. At night, the staff combine the chair and footrest into a single bed. Sharing the singles cars are two surprisingly roomy shower cabins and four bathrooms. Three cars down is the lounge car for the forward section, where a good selection of Australian wines, beers and liquors were generously poured throughout the days and nights, along with offerings of munchies and fruit.

We were asked to select our meal times and wait (with a drink) in the lounge car to be escorted to our table by the hostess. Couples were seated together; all others were seated at the nearest empty chair at the tables for four, leading to a pleasant rotation of meal partners and an opportunity to meet many of the other passengers. I unofficially guessed about 2/3rds of the passengers were Australian, quite a few Brits, some Germans and a smattering of others, including me and a younger American. Most were retired although there were a couple of kids on board. Everyone shared a love of train travel and a desire to see Australia’s outback.

Meals featured locally sourced food, designed to showcase Australian culinary accomplishments. My first lunch’s main course was braised buffalo, which I did not realize had any connection to Australia. I later learned it was most likely water buffalo,  introduced to Australia in the 1800’s to provide meat to remote northern territories. This plan was later abandoned, resulting in thousands of feral buffalo roaming around. The water buffalo are not related to North American buffalo/bison, but their meat was similar – like beef but lean. Subsequent meals included crocodile cakes (yummy) and Kangaroo medallions (tasty but tough). My new found favourite was coconut ice cream, served as a dessert with all the lunches and dinners, along with scoops of chocolate and wattle seed (an unique seed to Australia ground into flour by the Aboriginies) ice cream.

An hour after lunch, we arrived at our first excursion, Katherine Gorge or, as it is now called after reverting to its aboriginal name, Nitmiluk Gorge. Majestic sandstone cliffs carved out by the Katherine River provide spectacular vistas. Mother Nature was being  unco-operative; the helicopter and art viewing tours were cancelled due to rainstorms in the vicinity, but the cruise down two of the gorges was proceeding. It was in the low 40s as we set out on the water, making it unlikely to see crocodiles who usually surface only to warm themselves on cooler days. I wasn’t at all bothered – seeing 3 meter long crocodiles a few feet away is not one of my favourite experiences. What I much prefer, and what we did see, were giant walls of sienna, yellows, oranges and brown sandstone with shrubs and trees sprouting all over:

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One of the Nitmiluk Gorges

Three hours later our bus returned us to the train for drinks, dinner, more drinks and finally, sleep. Our beds had been made up when we were in the dining car. A chocolate lay on each pillow. The beds were firm, the rolling of the train soothing but alas, the occasional squeaking of the brakes and the rattling of the imperfectly fitted door to my cabin prevented a deep sleep. About 3:00AM, I jiggled the door, put a facecloth into the door jamb and fell fast asleep.

We stopped the next day at 10:00AM, in Alice Springs. If you picture Australia as a circle, Alice Springs would be dead center, and it is the center of the outback. With a population of about 25,000, it is the only town of any size between Darwin and Adelaide. It is the home base for the Royal Flying Doctors Service which has provided medical attention in the outback since 1928, and School of the Air, which educates children living in remote regions first by radio but now via internet. It is also home to a joint US/Australian military base run by the CIA with advance radar capabilities, tracking satellites etc. over China, Russia and the Middle East. Alice Springs is the Alice in A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, a novel focusing on the efforts of a post WWII woman to create a town like Alice Springs in the outback.

One of our excursion options was to the tourist sites in Alice Springs- the Royal Flying Doctors service museum, the Radio of the Air museum and the Telegraph museum – but as there was no stop at the somewhat secret US military base and as I had spent time in Alice 25 years before, I passed on the city tour and instead opted for a visit to the Desert Park. Normally, a hike through the desert at Simpson’s Gap is also offered, but with temperatures expected over 45, cooler heads decided hiking a bunch of near seniors in the desert sun for a few hours was probably not a good idea, so it was cancelled.

With ample warnings about the heat and heat stroke prevention, water bottles offered at every entrance and exit, we set out for the Desert Park, part living museum, part educational facility showcasing the fauna and wildlife of the desert. Normally the rangers take guests on walkabouts, pointing out the plants and animals that thrive in the desert, but with the thermometer already reading 44, we were gently walked straight to the amphitheatre for the bird show.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at a bird show. I’ve been to breakfasts with birds, where well-trained parrots share your food, but this was different. A ranger came out and explained that all the birds which would be performing were local – falcons, magpies, owls, eagles, kites, black parrots – and they would be flying above our heads at speeds of up to 100 kilometres an hour. Out of nowhere flew a kite and landed on the outstretched arm of the ranger. She proceeded to throw food in the air, and the kite flew and caught it. A barnyard owl rose out of a hollow trunk, seemingly on cue, and flew silently overhead. We learned later that the owl is kept in a cage (just for a few minutes) in the hollow, with a door that releases when the ranger gives the signal. For 15 minutes, various birds entertained us with their flying and hunting prowess. Only the falcon was out of sorts -it was molting and couldn’t fly. I was amazed to watch these birds – I had been unaware that birds of all sorts could be trained (all food motivated the ranger said).

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The barnyard owl performing

We returned to the air conditioned comfort of The Ghan for lunch and drinks and watching the desert landscape roll by, including the dried out bed of the Todd River.

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Our final stop was late that evening, at Manguri. It is, literally, a train stop. Picnic tables lit by candles had been set up right outside the train and waiters strolled about offering Bailey’s and gourmet chocolates, which melted very quickly. It was still 36 degrees. The real star (sorry about the pun) were the stars, with the Milky Way visible along with other southern sky constellations that I cannot name. It is a beautiful sight, but quite impossible to photograph using an I-phone.

I slept much better the second night. After enjoying a hot shower and a leisurely brunch, the train pulled up in the Adelaide station 10 minutes behind schedule at 12:40. It had been a fabulous train ride, meeting all my expectations and providing fabulous views of the scenic outback.

Note: Booking is easily done on the internet through greatsouthernrail.com.au. A single cabin in the low season, all-inclusive including food, drinks, excursions and transfers, cost Australian $1750.

 

Cycling done right: Perth

Perth lies inland from the Indian Ocean, 22 kilometres upstream on the Swan River and about 3400 kilometres from the nearest city of any size- Melbourne – which is why it is known as the world’s most isolated city. It is clean and modern, blessed with a Mediterranean climate, abundant agricultural land nearby and rich, grape growing soil. It and the surrounding towns sport a population of 2,000,000. Culturally, it boasts art museums, libraries, sporting facilities galore and a vibrant Aboriginal community. The wide, gentle flowing Swan River divides the city in half, providing ample opportunity for all manner of water sports: kayaking, sailing, jet skiing, paddle boarding etc. along with pretty bridges and a ferry service traversing the river every 30 minutes, taking 7 minutes from dock to dock.

I spent my first day getting oriented and seeing the sights. Compared to the European cities I had just visited filled with centuries old palaces and architectural styles from Gothic to Art Deco, Rococo to Renaissance, Perth was a tad one dimensional. A few mid-19th century churches, a couple of colonial facades, a few buildings that would not look out of place in the American west, but mostly just modern skyscrapers sporting familiar names like KPMG and PWC and Rio Tinto. The downtown area was fairly contained, just a half dozen blocks in any direction and the typical Australian pedestrian walkway with global stores: Zara, Gucci, Uniqlo. A convention centre, a few malls, the central transportation terminal, restaurants offering food from Thai (really big in Australia) to ribs to mango juicers. Nothing spectacular or mind blowing, but everything I could want,

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Perth Central Business District from South Perth

Whatever cultural or historical shortcomings Perth has, it more than makes up for them in outdoor activity opportunities. Anything to do with water sports is possible, although surfing and paragliding were better done on the Indian Ocean. For me, an avid cyclist, I was anxious to get out on a bike and peddle away. This is not as easy as it sounds as Perth lacks a bike share program. It has a bike rental company, conveniently located on a bike path, inconveniently located a taxi ride or 3.2 kilometre walk from the center of town. Fortunately, my hotel had a couple of bikes for rent, so on I hopped.

My first ride was a “getting to know the rules of biking” in a strange city. Unlike in Mexico City, I didn’t have to write a test, but also unlike Mexico City, the biking is the same as the driving, on the wrong side of the path/road. So my first few turns were tentative, reminding myself to look both ways and stay to the left. Likely in the expectation that non-Australians and non-Brits would use the paths, they were generally marked with arrows reminding me which side of the path to stay on.

And what glorious paths! Not the share the paths with pedestrians or little lines on the side of road, but totally segregated paths in a sienna colour lining both sides of the river. Signs reminded pedestrians that they had separate paths and when cyclists and pedestrians did have a single path, there were both asked to share the paths.

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I quickly developed a daily routine, cycling across the river to South Perth, then taking the path along the Swan River for about 10 kilometres to the Garrett Street bridge, returning to North Perth all on segregated paths except for a few blocks right in the Central Business District. Stunning views of downtown Perth lined the paths, as did small ponds home to familiar and exotic birds: pelicans, cormorants, ducks, lorikeets, cockatoos and black swans.

When watching birds became tedious, the waterfront provided art works, cultural objects and just plain fanciful objects on which the eyes could feast:

My favourite aspect of the cycle paths, although these were not limited to cyclists, were the ever present drinking fountains located every few hundred metres, most of them equipped with 3 faucets – one for adults, one for children and one for dogs.

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Anxious to beat the heat one morning, I left at 7:00AM for Freemantle, 22kilometres down the river on the Indian Ocean. I had seen a cyclopath, as they are called here, along the river I hoped would take me all the way to the ocean, but after 10 kilometres, the path left the river and meandered through a residential district, filled with multi-million dollar homes all straining for a water view. The cycling was easy – smooth path, gentle climbs – and the cars never turned right (or more likely left) in front of the bike, forcing me to slam on the brakes. Eventually the path ended and I turned onto the misnamed Stirling Highway, which is not a highway but a major thoroughfare. No bike path was evident, but then I caught sight of another wonderful aspect of Australian cycling – a sign on the sidewalk telling cyclists to share it with pedestrians. How different from Toronto, where the signs threaten cyclists with fines for being on the sidewalk.

After a few hours, I got my first glimpse of the Indian Ocean, at Mossman Bay:

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The Indian Ocean at Mossman Bay

Views of Freemantle were less impressive; it was a major container and cruise ship port. I walked and cycled around its downtown , but found little that interested me. Another pedestrian street with lots of coffee shops, take-out sushi stores, an abundance of backpacker’s hostels and a giant customs house. It was barely 10:00AM but the temperature was already over 30 and I didn’t have the energy for a 2 hour bike ride back, so I took the easy way out and went to the train station to see if I could take the light rail train to Perth. As in all the transit stations in Australia, I was greeted by an employee wearing a yellow vest:

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“Yes, can I take the bike to Perth on the train?”

“Sure, just buy yourself a ticket. Do you know how to use the machine?

“No, what do I do?”

“Let me help.”

Which he did, showing me, then doing everything except paying. No guessing about how many zones I was going or whether to pay cash or charge card or which platform the train was leaving from. A live human telling me everything I needed to know. Another thing Toronto would do well to adopt. I walked the bike on to the train-no stairs or  escalators and a bike gate to avoid narrow turnstiles. After a 15 minute ride, I was back in Perth.

I spent 13 days in Perth, mostly going for bike rides and walking around. It’s a beautiful city, but not exactly what I would describe as exciting. It was a great place to visit, probably a wonderful place to live and raise a family, but having seen the sights, not one I would likely return to on vacation.

Next stop: one of the best beaches in the world – Broome.

 

 

 

 

Pretty in Pink: Lake Hillier

In Ireland, I took advantage of its plethora of English language bookshops and purchased a magazine titled 100 Places to See or something along those lines, to give me new ideas about where to travel but really to count the number of places I had already seen. I leafed though the magazine slowly, on my flight to Iceland, during an insomniac episode in Paris, trying to stay awake in Taiwan but it was in Melbourne that I finally reached the last dozen recommendations in Australia and the South Pacific. Smugly, I noted I had visited Uluru, Borobudur in Indonesia, New Zealand’s South Island, but not yet Tahiti. It was the second last entry that caught my eye – a pink lake called Lake Hillier – in Western Australia where I was heading to next.

I had booked 10 nights in Perth, the capital of Western Australia, but left 5 nights open, perhaps to visit Geraldton or Monkey Mia hundreds of kilometres north on the Coral Coast of the Indian Ocean. Public transport there seemed uninviting, involving overnight bus rides and being dropped off on the highway in the middle of nowhere in 40 degree heat, hoping that a shuttle bus might appear from 60 kilometres away. Renting a car was briefly considered, but as I was still looking the wrong way every time I crossed a street, this option might prove dangerous. My search for how to spend 5 days continued.

On a whim, I dropped into the Western Australia Tourist Office/travel agency to ask whether it was feasible to go to Lake Hillier. The receptionist hadn’t heard of it, but another more experienced agent advised, yes, it was possible, but as the lake is on an uninhabited island, the only way to get there was to travel to the nearby town of Esperance and take a scenic flight to the island. Esperance was 700 kilometres away. A regional airline flew there a few times a day, but as embracing the concept of slow travel meant I was in no hurry, I opted for the 10 hour bus ride there and a return two days later consisting of 5 hours in a bus followed by 7 hours in a train. At least I would see the countryside.

So my quest to see a pink lake began. The bus ride was comfortable enough; it was only half full, the seats had USB plug-ins and we stopped at roadhouses (not rest stops but they are the same thing) every couple of hours for “comfort stops” but, said the bus driver “if you must smoke, do it at least 6 metres from the bus.” I had thought we would be travelling through the outback most of the way, so I was surprised to see that we passed through agricultural lands for the first half of the ride. The landscape eventually turned desertlike and I stared out the window, hoping to catch sight of a kangaroo or two. No such luck; they usually sleep during the day and are most visible at dusk or dawn.

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Desert landscape between Perth and Esperance

We arrived in Esperance a full 40 minutes early and I made my way to the hotel, before walking down the Esplanade adjoining the seaside. It’s a typical little beach town with motels and holiday houses lining the shore, fish & chip shops galore and ice cream parlours offering the best ice cream in Australia, everything one would want in a beach town except a beach. The waves lapped right up to the stone walls and grassy parks, with little sand in sight. A pier, broken in parts and showing signs of rot, reached into the ocean. A sturdier container port with hundreds of containers stood on the other side, marring pretty pictures to the left, but the sunrise was magnificent:

The next morning, a $47 cab ride dropped me at the inexplicably distant Esperance Airport, nearly 25 kilometres from town. The taxi driver, a long time resident, had no idea why the airport was built so far away from the town – the land was quite flat and no topographical explanation was apparent. I decided the land must have been owned by the mayor of Esperance who wanted to make a few bucks, but I had no basis for speculating thus.

Waiting at the airport was Will, the counter agent (the regular one was sick that day), flight attendant and pilot. There I met my co-passengers: Francine was a psychologist from New South Wales on a road trip across the Great Australian Bight as the south coast is called, and a young couple from Switzerland.

Will walked us out to the tarmac and gave us the safety briefing: “No toilets, no drink service, seat belts must be worn at all times as must a pouch carrying life vests. Headphones were also to be worn always and talking was encouraged, except during taxi, take-off and landing.” No one had any questions, so after the obligatory photograph (Will was also the official photographer), we climbed aboard, strapped ourselves in and before my well-developed fear of flying set in, were airborne. Thankfully, except for some minor turbulence from the thermal winds where the land met the sea, it was a smooth flight and I quickly put my fears aside.

We flew first over the completely misleadingly named Pink Lake, which as one can see from the photos, is a lake but hardly pink. In fact, it has not been pink for over 10 years. Now bear with me, there really is a pink lake coming up, it is just not called the Pink Lake.

Middle Island, some 80 nautical miles away (or 85 normal miles) was our destination. At 6.5 kilometres long, it is the largest island in the Recherche Archipelago and currently uninhabited except by a few rats and wallabies. It wasn’t always so – the American and Australia’s only pirate, Black Jack Anderson, escaped the gallows and made Middle Island his base in the 1820’s and 1830’s, attacking passing ships, selling seal skins and keeping an harem of Aboriginal ladies as sex slaves. He is thought to have died and been buried on the island.

Our 40 minute flight flew over some of the most spectacular blue waters lapping up against the whitest sand beaches in Australia. What Esperance lacks in beaches is made up for along the coastline. Silky, pristine sand greeted by rolling waves beloved by sun seekers, surfers and whales alike tucked into horseshoe shaped bays lined the coast.

Then Middle Island came into view and we could see Lake Hillier. Not a pale, greyish tinged red or sienna pink but full on, bubble-gum pink. It can only be described as Pepto Bismol pink. I will let the pictures do the talking:

Will provided commentary about the lake. Its name derives in memory of a sailor aboard The Investigator, a ship which visited the island in 1802 and 1803 whose captain first recorded the existence of the pink lake. The pink  is natural, caused by a bacteria – the scientific name is Dunaliella Salina according to Wikopedia- which interacts with the extreme saltiness of the lake to emit a red dye and give the lake its colour. The lake is the second most salty lake on earth, after the Dead Sea. As a result, it doesn’t support any fish life or much of anything else. Drinking the water is not dangerous, but given the high salt content, not pleasant. It is, however, expensive. A fine of $10,000 is imposed for going into the water and a further $10,000 for taking water out of the lake.

It is possible to visit Middle Island by boat, but it is a 5 hour ride from Esperance, each way. A scenic helicopter service had operated a tour there a few years ago, but after it stranded a group of Chinese tourists on the island following mechanical and financial issues, that was the end of that.

After a few loops and turns over the lake, we started back towards Esperance. One last surprise awaited – a green lake called Woody Lake – to complete the rainbow of colours.

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Woody Lake

I often wonder why I enjoy travelling so much. The trip to Esperance and the flight to Middle Island encapsulates it. My time on this planet is limited and I want to see as much of it as possible. Lake Hillier, for me, was one of those miraculous beauties that allowed me to marvel at all the wonderful, diverse sights made by Mother Nature. It makes me feel lucky to be alive and to be able to enjoy these amazing locales.

If you are thinking of going, the bus/train fare from Perth via TransWA cost AU$263 (all costs incurred in January, 2019). It takes about 10 hours on the bus or 13 hours by bus and train. The scenic flight by Goldfields (goldfieldsairservice.com) cost AU $370 for a two hour flight, minimum 2 persons. I stayed at the Best Western on the Esplanade costing Cdn $148 per night (booked on expedia.ca) in high season.

 

Wine Tasting Australian Style

I’ve enjoyed wine tasting tours in South Africa, Hungary and Canada, so I mistakenly thought I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up for the Out & About Wine tour of the Swan River wineries near Perth, Australia. Precisely at 9:45 AM on Saturday morning, I met the bus at the appointed place and hopped on with 20 others, including a 2 year old girl and a boy of about 6. I quickly befriended Mary and Henry, married Canadians from Edmonton who were celebrating her retirement as a pharmacist with a 6 week cruise of Australasia leaving the next day from nearby Freemantle.

Our guide/driver was Tony, originally from Cornwall but a longtime resident of Australia. In his prior life, he worked for Ansett Airline, but when it folded, he started fitting kitchens and bathrooms. Hours later, when I gently asked him if that line of work was so slow he needed a second job, he dodged the question and said something about liking to meet new people. Something was left unsaid; every person I ever met in construction had more than enough work, but I didn’t push him.

Tony explained that the wineries we would be visiting were those along the Swan River, some of the oldest in the country. Most of their vines had been brought over from South Africa in the last century. Grapes for both eating and making wine were grown, with lots of streetside stalls selling grapes. Then Tony asked where we would like to be dropped off at the end of the day – special requests were welcome including my hotel. Strange I thought; the bus tour doesn’t do morning pick-ups but does afternoon drop-offs?

A short 45 minutes later, the bus stopped at the first winery, Lancaster. Greeting us at the tasting table were 20 wine glasses, a plate of cheese varieties with biscuits and 9 bottles of wine. Our Lancaster host described each vintage – 3 whites, 3 reds and 3 dessert or late harvest wines – and began pouring a small amount in each glass. Naturally, I tried them all, enjoying their specialty, a Chenin Blanc the most, along with a cheddar cheese laced with peppers and chilies. Our host told us the late harvest wines were sweetest since they had been on the vines the longest and their sugar had been the most developed. The Canadian equivalent is the Ice Wine, left on the vines until after they freeze. Regardless of the title, I find the ice wines/late harvests too sweet.

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Me, wine and grapes at Lancaster

I was feeling pretty good as we returned to the bus, thanks to 9 tastings all before 11:00 AM. As we were promised a gourmet platter lunch, I had skipped breakfast and eaten nothing but the cheese which I am sure contributed to the good feelings.

In the 5 minute drive to our next winery, Tony advised that we would have a total of 46 wine tastings today, but if we tried hard, we could push it to 51. “46 is a lot of wine,” I thought, “especially on an empty stomach. Best to pass on some of the dessert wines and use some spittoons.”

Stopping at Sandalford winery, another hostess greeted us with a table filled with 20 glasses and 6 full bottles of wine; 3 dry and 3 sweet. The last bottle was a Sandalford Sandalera, similar to a Port, but couldn’t be called Port since it wasn’t from Portugal. Nonetheless, it was 16% alcohol (as opposed to the usual 11% for wine) so moderation was the key. The hostess told us a little about each wine, then showed us a mark on each of the glasses. “This,” she said, “is the maximum allowable wine by law in Australia in each glass for a tasting, so do not go over it.” With that, she left. By my calculations, 6 bottles of wine divided amongst 20 adults meant each of us would have about 1/3 of a bottle to drink, all before lunch. I looked around for spittoons to avoid swallowing the wine but didn’t see any. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen any at the other winery either. Apparently spitting out wine is not okay in Australia.

I sampled the Sandalera – it was very smooth- and a dry Rose before settling into a Sauvignon Blanc, careful not to pour over the magic line each time I refilled my glass. Standing around the table, the group got to know each other. Chris and his wife were a retired British couple from Nottingham visiting their daughters in Sydney and had stopped in Perth on their way back to England. A Polish fellow in construction with a name I couldn’t pronounce and can’t remember had been in Perth for 8 years. He had originally applied to come to Canada, but his application wasn’t approved before Australia welcomed him. He was traveling with his Scottish friend, a 6 year resident of Perth and his Indonesian girlfriend. A group of 10 consisted of an Australian couple and their kids and their friends from the UK. Lastly, a lady from Edinburgh who had lived in Perth for 6 years where she taught little kids and her friend, also from Edinburgh. Despite my inability to recall her name, she appointed herself the official photographer for the group and it is to her I owe my gratitude for the photos.

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6 bottles, 20 glasses at Sandalford

During the 5 minute ride to our next stop (the wineries were basically beside each other), I checked the internet to see how much the standard pour was for a tasting. It was 30 ml., so some quick math indicated that if I drank the standard pour 46 times, I would drink 1,380 ml. As a wine bottle is 750 ml., I would stop just short of 2 bottles???? I really needed to slow down, especially since I had still only eaten cheese and a few crackers. Meanwhile, Tony regaled us with wine trivia. “Why are roses planted at the end of each row of vines?” he asked. When no one answered, he volunteered “no self-respecting insect would chose grape vines over roses.” Makes sense, I guess.

At Windy Creek winery, 5 whites, 5 reds and 5 fortified wines were on the counter awaiting us. I restrained myself, trying only the whites and one fortified wine. I still didn’t like the sweetness, but it went down much easier than the first few sweet wines. I was beginning to get really hungry. No lunch was in sight, but the winery made and sold fudge, so I bought a bag of chocolate fudge and ate some but it wasn’t too filling.

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Me, the Polish fellow and wine at Windy Creek

Another very quick bus ride past Australia’s largest women’s prison and more wine trivia from Tony. “How many grapes in an average glass of wine?” he asked. We all shouted out various numbers, but no one got the correct answer, which is 78 or about 1 bunch.

Our lunch was at Sittella winery, but before we could eat, we had to sample both a sparkling wine and the wines we would like to have with our lunch. I chose a white and joined the rest for a delicious lunch. The star was a Scotch egg, which I had never had before. I’m not sure what its relationship is to Australia, or wine tasting. The British lady next to me had made them and delighted in telling me (three times) the recipe. “Hard boil an egg, wrap it in minced sausage meat, roll it in breadcrumbs and deep fry it. Very simple.” “Maybe”, I thought, “but where back in Toronto does one buy minced sausage meat?”

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The Gourmet Lunch Platter at Sittella

On the way to the final winery, Tony’s banter turned away from wine trivia to jokes. “Why wasn’t Jesus Christ born in Ireland? Because the Lord couldn’t find 3 wise men or a virgin there.” Enough with the jokes.

I had ceased writing down the names of the wineries. I am sure whatever I tasted at #5 was delicious, but my memory fails me. I did remember to take a photo with our host:

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As if I hadn’t had enough to drink, Tony drove to a brewery for a glass of beer. As I had already drank my quota of a single beer per century at the Guinness factory in Dublin, I passed.

The coup de grace, so to speak, was the Chocolate Company. We indulged in white and dark chocolate and truffles before going to the tasting cabin and enjoying 4 liqueurs – one chocolate, one chocolate hazelnut, a mint chocolate and another that tasted good but my ability to remember anything was kaput by this time.

The ride back to Perth was much quieter. Most of us (save for the 2 and 6 year old) were napping. Tony had run out of jokes, but he did drop everyone off at their doorstep. We surmised this was probably because none of us would have been able to find our way to our hotels given the copious amounts of alcohol we had consumed, a final courtesy for which I was immensely grateful. Thus, my wine tour ended, quite inebriated, but very satisfied.

13 Reasons I love Australia

This is my third visit to Australia, excluding a short layover on an idiotic routing from New Zealand to Canada using Aeroplan points, but I keep coming back for a lot of reasons. After enjoying the fall in Europe, I landed here in December and instantly was reminded of all the wonderful things about Australia. They include:

  1. Mostly understandable English is spoken. I don’t need to ask for an English menu or consult Google translate on an hourly basis. Some words still befuddle; a subway doesn’t lead to the metro or even a fast food joint but a pedestrian underpass and a chop shop is a dollar store. The accent is easier to understand than Irish English and I don’t start every conversation with “parlez vous Anglais?”
  2. It doesn’t snow, freezing rain is just a bad memory and the average temperature is between 20 and 30 everyday. Granted, it is now suffering a bit of a heatwave, with temperatures hitting 39 in Melbourne, but it is a dry heat in the south and much more pleasant than 0.
  3. Sunrise is before 6AM and sunset after 9PM. It is the winter solstice back in Canada and the sun shines only between 11:00AM and 3:30PM in Iceland, not that the sun deigned to show its face once in the 4 days I was there, but it is gloriously sunny for a long time in Melbourne in December.
  4. History is brief. As a history buff, I was enthralled learning the long sinuous histories of the European cities and towns I visited, but here, history can be summed up as: the Aborigines inhabited Australia for at least 40,000 years before Captain James Cook claimed it for Britain in 1788. It became Europe’s favourite dumping ground for convicts and other undesirables until 1868. On January 1, 1901, Australia gained independence. It has suffered only a single invasion: during WWII, Japanese airplanes bombed Darwin, a small city in the north. Nothing else of much significance happened.
  5. Things make sense, with the exception of driving on the left side of the road. ATM’s dispense cash when a debit card is inserted (unlike in Latvia), the subway system accepts Canadian credit cards for payment (unlike France), foreigners can make train reservations over the internet (again unlike France) and toilets are clearly marked for males, females or unisex, in contrast to most of Europe where deciphering which toilet to use is often a challenge.
  6. The news relegates Donald Trump and Brexit to the bottom of the newscast, after the Indonesian tsunami, Chinese hacking and a structurally unsound apartment building in Sydney. The British royal family is (rightly, IMHO) not even mentioned.
  7. X-Mas is understated. Maybe it’s hard to get excited about X-Mas in 35 degree weather, but it is not the giant event it is back in Canada or even in Europe, except for the Boxing Day sales. The largest department store in Melbourne, David Jones, does a special window display every year, but in contrast to the Hudson Bay’s Christmas themed windows in Toronto, this year showcased Alice in Wonderland, with a dozen three dimensional windows featuring moving dioramas of the novel.

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    A tree decorated for Xmas in Melbourne
  8. Women wear leggings on the street. I am not a fashionista and rarely care about fashion do’s and don’ts, however my sole concession to European fashion sensibilities is not to wear leggings outside, not even to a yoga class. Any woman doing so is immediately branded a gauche North American and treated accordingly. But here, women have only 3 bottom options: shorts, sundresses and leggings, the latter perfectly acceptable to wear everywhere (except perhaps to weddings) and anytime.
  9. It’s multicultural. In 1994, when I first visited, multicultural meant a large Greek community in Darwin and Vietnamese boat people who came in the 1970’s. Australia has changed a lot, encouraging immigration especially from Asian countries. Nearly every cab driver I met beckoned from India, downtown Melbourne reminded me of Vancouver with at least half of the people Asian. Korean Barbecue restaurants dotted every block, and ramen noodle bars, Vietnamese street food, Thai, Sushi, Turkish kebob shops, Schnitzel fast food places were easy to find; everything, in fact, except French.
  10. Streets are what streets should be – no quaint cobblestone sidewalks waiting to trip me – and street names are familiar: King Street, Russell, Chapel, not a 4 quatre September or unpronounceable (by me) Khreschchatyk in sight. Roads are built, more or less, on a grid with a few curvy roads to accommodate a river. Street names generally stay the same for the entire length of the road. None of the “let’s change the name every couple of hundred meters to confuse the heck out of tourists and google maps” etymology which characterizes much of Europe.
  11. Being a newish country, there are very few 19th century quaint or character buildings with ceilings low enough that even I hit my head or bathrooms carved into weird spaces that generally require contortionist moves to use. Rooms are square or rectangle, buildings over 3 floors have elevators and the bathrooms are logical and convenient.
  12. Smoking is banned just about everywhere – parks, playgrounds, beaches, train platforms – and most significantly to me, restaurant patios. In Paris, it was impossible to sit on a patio without the ubiquitous smoke wafting towards me. Australia has some of the most restrictive smoking laws in the world. Smoking is permitted only on specially built patios which must be at least 4 meters away from everything.
  13. It’s cheaper than Iceland. Prices for hotels, restaurants, transit and groceries are comparable to, or slightly higher than, Canadian prices.