I was elated to arrive in Brisbane – not only to be out of Rocky (Rockhampton), but also to see my St. Louis friend, Annie.
Annie has lived in Brisbane for about 6 years. She was a hostess with the most-est, greeting me at baggage claim at the Brisbane airport, as I hauled my 80-gallon backpack off the luggage carousel and onto my perennially sore shoulders. She and her husband James greeted me with big smiles and hugs.
We chit-chatted all the way back to their apartment in the neighborhood of Yeerongpilly (great name, right?). When we arrived at their place, I got set up in the guest room, which has a crib in it. Come July, the guest room will become a nursery.
In the crib was perhaps one of the greatest indicators that this will be an Australian baby – there was a giant, stuffed shark in the crib, waiting for a baby to play with it.
Annie loves sharks.
I don’t, but I appreciate her affinity for an animal that often gets so little love.
The next day, Annie got tickets for us to go to the Australia Zoo.
Annie is one of those people who is really easy to be around; the kind of person who doesn’t require the thought I sometimes have with people of:
Oh God, I have to actually put energy into this.
She’s a low-key, fun-loving gal. On our ride out to the zoo, we talked about how there’s often an innate bond Midwesterners have with one another, and how people from the Midwest just kind of “get it.”
(We didn’t elaborate on the “it;” but if you’re reading this, and you’re from the Midwest, you will know what I mean.)
The zoo was incredible.
It was, hands-down, the best zoo I’ve ever been to. In its present form, it was the brainchild of legendary Steve Irwin, the croc hunter. (It housed animals prior to his involvement, but Steve and Terry Irwin shaped it into what it is today.)
I have always liked Steve Irwin.
I remember him popping up in American media and shows from time to time when I was growing up. I think what I like best about him is how he was the ultimate obsessive. He was incredibly passionate about his interests – animals, crocodiles, wildlife, preservation – and, in the mark of a truly effective obsessive, he got other people into them, too.
I once read an article in which the writer visited the home of an expert on moss. The world’s preeminent moss expert, or something. And I believe writer noted how there’s something so pure and endearing about someone who is so into something and so excited about it.
Moss, crocs, whatever…obsessives themselves are pretty fascinating. For this reason, and others, I think Steve was a pretty fascinating guy. My friend, Carolyn, is a zookeeper, and her passion for animals reminds me of Steve’s.
(I realize I’m speaking like I knew the guy. I obviously didn’t, but he’s one of those public figures who you just feel like you kind of know – or, knew – given, not only his ubiquity, but also how he just seemed like a nice, easy-going, fun-loving, down-to-earth guy; in other words, like a quintessential Australian.)
I’m a fan of celebrity news. I don’t call it a “guilty pleasure” because I find that moniker being assigned to harmless habits (i.e. donut-eating, celebrity news, reality TV, et al) self-shaming, and frankly, dumb. Why be “guilty” about something that makes you happy and isn’t hurting anyone?
Anyways, the latest celebrity news, as relayed to me by Annie and James, is that Terry Irwin, Steve’s widow, is actually dating none other than Russell Crowe!! Isn’t that nuts? I know, I thought so too.
Remember when Crowe was dating Meg Ryan? They never seemed like a great match to me. But, you never know.
As the saying goes: the heart wants what the heart wants.
At the Australia Zoo, there are tons of pictures and renderings of the Irwin family. There’s a giant billboard of the son right when you enter the parking lot. Huge pictures of Steve in various places. A bronze statue of the entire family. They’re everywhere.
The most notable one, though, is a giant poster of Steve jumping into the air and kicking up his legs.
“Oh, I want a picture of me with this Steve!” I said to Annie, handing her my phone.
At first, I just smiled and lifted my arms.
“No, you’ve gotta jump like Steve!” said Annie.
I obliged, but my first jump was quite weak. More like a skip than a full-on jump. “No, you’ve gotta kick your legs up higher!” said Annie.
So, I did it once more and kicked them up real high, and on the way down, I landed in an odd way on my left foot and…
I broke my toe.
In the days that followed, the toe turned various shades of purple and blue, and became big and bulbous. (I’d wanted to include a picture of it in this update, but I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm for my minor injuries).
Annie is not to blame here, though. I should’ve jumped better, and I should’ve not worn sandals (given all the walking we were gonna do that day).
Here is the final, Instagram-worthy pic:
Annnnd, here I am when I went down. Laughing through the pain. (Incidentally, that’s also the title of my latest pop single, dropping on My Space next week. I’ll be doing signings at Borders and Radio Shack this summer. Please stop by and say hi!!)
This was the 3rd time in my life I’ve broken this toe (big one, left foot).
1st time: dropped a stack of plates on it in our kitchen when I was about 10.
2nd time: tripped on a patch of sidewalk in Chicago while walking to Second City.
3rd time: imitating Steve Irwin in Australia.
If nothing else, at least the stories of “how I broke it” are getting progressively cooler.
At the zoo, I got to feed a kangaroo!
They were so sweet and approachable. They’re definitely my favorite animal I’ve encountered in Australia (though, they do not have steep competition, with the other contenders being mainly lizards, snakes, and bugs).
Here I am feeding a kangaroo. (Please excuse the unwashed hair– a hallmark look of this travel period.)
And here’s me and Annie feeding them together:
It got me thinking about kangaroos, seeing them in their natural habitat, and how it makes pretty much zero sense for there to be a kangaroo living in the Hundred Acre Woods in the Winnie the Pooh stories, if we’re going purely based on geographical location (rural England).
While we were at the zoo, the weather got ominous and gloomy.
It became dark and gray and looked like a twister was a’ comin’. Thankfully, come it did not. But there was, however, one very eerie moment when we were feeding the kangaroos… Perhaps they sensed the weather – that’s the theory Annie and I settled on anyways – or perhaps they sensed something else, because all the kangaroos, a huge group of about 20 of them, stopped what they were doing, lifted their heads, their ears were up and alert, and they all stood perfectly still for probably a good 30 seconds.
I was like: Oh Dear God – is this about to turn into an M. Night Shyamalan movie?
Must’ve been the storm, though (or a storm-preceded alien invasion); on the drive home, we were pelted with bullets of rain.
We made it safely back to Yeerongpilly, dried off, and hit the town for dinner and live music.
The majority of my time in Oz has been spent with fellow travelers, rather than native Aussies. Spending time with James and Annie was a lesson in Australian culture, especially talking to James.
James grew up out in the bush. He attended school via what is called “Radio School,” where you tune into a certain radio station and have to listen to a remotely-based teacher for hours and learn school lessons that way. Radio School is common for Aussie kids who, like James, grow up many miles away from a nearby school. At age 12, he was sent to boarding school, which is also common for kids who grow up in the bush.
I’m pretty sure that if Annie and I had been expected to rely on our self-discipline alone to progress through our childhood schooling, we’d have been toast.
The next day, Annie and I went to the Gallery of Modern Art, followed by coffee in the State Library. I felt very cultured.
At the museum, we hopped on the free walking being offered.
Our guide was a native of Brisbane, and in addition to working at the museum, he also does performance art. What I most noticed about the guide, however, was how he said the word “ostensibly” three times in a span of twenty minutes.
It stuck out because it’s more of a $10 word – the kind you don’t really throw around all the time, and with such bold frequency. The only possible explanation for his excess was that he recently learned the word and wanted to test drive it.
It reminded me of when I first learned the word “luddite.”
Our tour group spent about 10 minutes at this interesting blue-painted-plywood piece, which was meant to be the ocean. Before I learned that, I thought it was supposed to be sharks of varying sizes. The guide talked about conceptual art (the blue shark/ocean thing was a conceptual art piece). He spoke of how, with that type of art, it – whatever the work of art is – is subject to the person’s imagination. So, whatever the artist is trying to render, it doesn’t totally matter because it’s so subjective.
That got me thinking about intention versus reception – and how vastly different the two can be (though oceans and sharks aren’t too far off from one another). I think one of the best examples of how great the discrepancy can be between intention and reception is the first 3 Star Wars films.
When George Lucas was filming the first one, A New Hope, he – along with the entire cast and crew – believed they were just making this weird little space movie that would appeal to a small slice of people (read: nerds), and soon after, fizzle out and disappear into the Hollywood ether.
As we all now know – oh, how wrong they were!
Here’s me and Annie goofing around at the art museum at this mirrored exhibit thing. Doesn’t it remind you of that scene from the movie Ghost when the dead guy jumps into Whoopi Goldberg’s body and talks to Odessa?
Yeah, I thought so, too.
Annie, James, and I hit the ground running and did a lot on my visit. We went to James’ cousin’s birthday party at a German beer hall, followed by a dance club. In true Aussie form, every person at the birthday dinner welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like I was one of their own.
We also saw a stand-up set at the Brisbane Comedy Festival, which was good and funny. My favorite bit that the comic did was her joking about different “shocking” scenarios she wants to play out in public, just for the reaction. One of them was putting on a wedding gown and wandering through a crowded park and yelling: “WHERE IS HE?!”
That one got a big laugh.
One thing that was interesting about that night at the show was how, at the start, the announcer made mention of “previous custodians of the land we’re on” (in more formal and eloquent language than that), as a reference to paying thanks to Aboriginals.
Annie and James said that that has become customary before any public event, as of the past few years. Our tour guide at the museum said the same spiel to our group of four, too.
The day I left, we went rock climbing in the morning.
Annie and James are both experienced climbers. They also have the best stories, too. They’re traveling, traipsing, globetrotting adventurers. Their stories often sound James Bond-ian in nature:
“When we were repelling down this waterfall in a canyon…”
“I was swimming with some whales, when I…”
“We heard the mating call of koalas one night when we were camping, and it sounded like a monster, or like a gorilla being strangled to death…”
“While we were scuba diving in Indonesia, a huge blast sounded and it was the fisherman using explosives…”
I loved hearing all their travel stories, and felt very inspired by them.
(Another thing – anytime Annie and James get lost on a hike, or something goes askew with a plan, it is all then dubbed “an adventure.” I think that’s a great outlook; it also means that every time I drove as a teenager I went on some really epically long “adventures.”)
I’d never been climbing before, so they showed me the ropes. (Pun intended.) Here I am, making sure my ropes are secure enough that I don’t plummet to my death:
I am quite afraid of heights (a trait I share with my dad and brother).
Even climbing up a 15-foot wall, despite being in a secure harness, I felt wobbly, nervous, and breathless. It was my first go at it, and I was feeling very shaky, and yelled down to Annie and James to tell them as much.
James shouted back, saying:
“Just trust the system! Unlike everything you’ve been told before!”
That advice was all I needed. I decided to just trust that it’d be okay. And you know what? He was right.
Thankfully, my arms and legs are both rather long, so this helped in making my way up the walls, and thus, increasing my confidence with each upward step.
It wasn’t until I got fitted for a backpacking backpack at the REI in St. Louis in 2016 that I ever paid much attention to my proportions – long legs, et al.
“Come along, my short-torso-ed friend!” the REI employee/hippie camper dude said to me.
I’d never in my life known! All these years…I’ve been living with an abnormally short, pea-sized torso!
Thanks for that, bud.
Now, my short torso-ed-ness has been in my head ever since. It’s like in the movie Mean Girls when they’re all critiquing themselves, and Lindsey Lohan’s character realizes how many things can be “wrong” with you.
Anyways, despite my nub of a torso, I made my way up the climbing walls – touching the very top of all but one that I attempted – like Spider Man scaling the skyscrapers in New York City.
When I took off the harness and guzzled some water, dripping sweat, Annie congratulated me for a job well done and said:
“You made it look easy!”
When we finished up, we got pies for lunch. (Aussie pies, not American pies – apple, pecan, etc.) Our lunch was made up of meat pies and Tim Tams – doesn’t get much more Aussie than that! Then, they drove me to the airport. Can you guess which one is the Australian? My money is on the person not wearing shoes.
My arms were bitterly sore the next day in Newcastle.
I arrived in Newcastle in the evening, and checked into my YHA hostel, a stone’s throw from the beach.
The woman at the front desk – when I asked her what was still open in the way of places to buy food – advised me to cut across a park late at night to get to the nearby convenience store.
Um, have you been eating paint chips? Why on earth would you advise a solo traveler – of any gender – to cut through a darkened park at night?
The woman at the hostel was kind and 90% helpful as she continued to point out little nearby Thai restaurants and cafes and pubs on the map. I ignored that asinine advice about walking through the park (the advice being asinine, not her), and walked the long way around, under well-lit street lamps, while mentally noting every identifying physical detail about each person I passed, should a police sketch be required in future.
As my brother has said to me, of many things:
“Expect the best, but plan for the worst.”
I was slated to go to a surfing class the next day, but early that morning, I got a message that the instructor called off sick, and that they were unable to find a replacement so the lesson was canceled. (I wondered if he was really sick, or if he had Monday-itus.)
It was for the best, probably, that it was cancelled. My arms were still very sore from rock climbing. So, with my new bundle of unexpected free time, I walked to the lighthouse in Newcastle.
I walked along the beaches.
I thought deep thoughts like:
What should I eat for dinner tonight?
The lighthouse trek made me think of Virginia Woolf, and her book To the Lighthouse. Which, of course, made me think of Nicole Kidman who played Woolf in The Hours. Whenever I think I Virginia Woolf, I think of Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose in that movie.
Canberra is the capital city of Australia, and it was designed by a Chicagoan.
In 1911, the Australian Government held a global competition for the design of Canberra. The winner of that competition was one Walter Burley Griffin, an American architect from Illinois.
I felt like it’d be a shame to go all around the country for as long as I did and not see the capital. So, I went to Canberra for a brief 20-hour stay, nearly half of which I slept, and the other half I spent hanging out with my friend Theresa and her friend Adrian, who generously hosted me for the night.
We got drinks and went dancing. We had the dance floor all to ourselves, which led to some very inspired and coordinated Dancing with the Stars-level routines. (Side note: Did you know that Steve Irwin’s daughter not only appeared on Dancing with the Stars but also won it one year? The talent in that family…)
Before the evening shenanigans, Adrian took Theresa and I to a cool lookout point to see the whole city. We took a selfie there. (Or, an “us”-ie.)
Theresa had been traveling around Australia too. (She and I met in college when we did a summer study abroad course in Paris together.) We both talked about the types of travelers we’ve met, and how we always meet lots of Germans everywhere we go. Adrian chimed in, agreeing, and said:
“You could go to the most remote part of the Amazon Jungle, and you know what you’d see there?”
“A pair of bloody Germans.”
One very important thing happened in Canberra; I was given a mission by Adrian to try to integrate an Aussie phrase into American lexicon. So, if you ever hear me say: “Pull your socks up, mate!” you’ll know I’m working on my mission.
“Pull your socks up, mate!” is a fantastic Aussie phrase which basically means: “Get your s**t together.”
Another thing Adrian said that stuck with me was when he spoke about Canberra (which is not only where he lives, but also his hometown). “It took me leaving for me to appreciate this place,” he said, as we looked out at the view of the city at dusk.
I flew to Sydney from Canberra, to catch my Quantas flight to Auckland.
I can’t mention New Zealand without making note of the recent horrific shooting that happened in Christchurch, which you’ve undoubtedly seen covered by the media in great detail. So, there’s no need for me to do that further here.
My mom emailed me after it happened, and her words sum up my feelings best:
“I am sickened by it.”
There are two main reasons I went to New Zealand – first, to visit my friend Erin, who lives there, and second, to go on the Hobbit Movie Tour.
Erin is an inspiring world traveler and globetrotter, and makes it all look easy, too – she tackles the world with gusto, and I love that about her. Erin has been living in Australia and New Zealand for over two years, and has countless adventures, and brought me along for the ride for one. We drove up to Northland together to go camping in her van. (“Freedom Camping,” as it’s called, which is when you have a car which is self-contained.)
I've been known to be dramatic and hyperbolic in my younger days. (Read: as recent as six months ago.)
Say, for instance, mourning the loss of a friendship if I don't get a reply to an email I sent them within 48 hours, thinking: Oh no. They're mad at me. What did I do wrong? I guess I'll never hear from them again...
And, of course, everything turns out to be fine, as it often does. My inclination to "catastrophize" (as the above habit is termed) has lessened considerably as a result of this trip. I think that’s a result of osmosis – Aussies are so laid-back, you know? I’m hoping some of their laid-back-ness has rubbed off on me a good bit.
I say all the above to say – I am NOT being dramatic or hyperbolic in saying: I have never felt worse in my life than I did driving through the Northland of New Zealand, with its serpentine-like, winding roads having their way with my weak stomach.
Erin's driving was not to blame, but rather, my constitution, which has never been well-suited for road travel.
Erin and I had a great time camping, hanging, chatting, and catching up. Here was the beautiful view from our camping spot:
We stopped at a bunch of beaches and in various small towns along the island. As was the case in Brisbane, it was so nice to see a friendly face in NZ.
Lord of the Rings is something I became a fan of simply because my older brother Kevin was into it and I looked up to him (and still do; figuratively, and literally – he is quite tall).
It’s the exact same way I came to be a fan of Star Wars.
Kevin likes this weird thing, so it must be good!, young Anne thought to herself.
Both Star Wars and LOTR began as feigned interests, but eventually became real ones. I’m by no means a superfan of LOTR, but being a big movie person, I was very excited to see the set for where they filmed the movies.
But, before I talk about the tour, I’ve got to discuss the stressful lead-up.
I wanted a refresher; I wanted to watch all of the movies before my set visit. However, trying to find a way to watch/rent/buy a copy of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was the equivalent level of difficultly and frustration of the China visa application process.
If you can think of a way for how to watch it, I guarantee you, I tried it.
Due to copyright and region restrictions, it was a beast of a task to find a method to obtain it/watch it, which was made all the more frustrating when thinking about the fact that I have all the DVDs at home in St Louis, where they’ve done no one any good for about 10 years.
My younger cousin Leo, who is my advisor on all things tech, will LOSE HIS MIND when he reads this….
I found Fellowship of the Ring on YouTube….in 66 parts. It had over 1 million views, so I figured it was good enough for the masses. I settled in, and watched the videos one by one, over the course of a few days, noting each time in my notebook where I left off.
Let’s see, last night I stopped at Video 7 – Gandalf’s Arrival….
While researching methods for watching the movie, I got sucked into reading reviews of the Lord of the Rings DVDs on Amazon. My favorite parts in the reviews are bolded and underlined.
(Boy, she REALLY has a LOT of time on her hands in Australia, you may be thinking. If you are thinking that, then you are CORRECT!)
The reviews, if you please:
…. I think that the ghost of Tolkien had to be looking over their shoulders and whispering. What is amazing to me is how many ways it could have failed…”
“This is one of those rare occasions when I'll say it's okay to watch the movie first. I mean, the book is much better, but the films are incredibly well done, too, and can be a good "gateway drug" for fantasy literature! The one thing I feel that the films do better than the books is the kick-butt women! Arwen and Eowyn are my favorite characters, and they really shine in the films!”
I” love this movie and looked forward to the 4 disc set. However, I DO NOT like the fact that the movie is split into two separate discs. Surely, the actual movie can fit on one disc - even with the bonus minutes. Other than that, I love it. The amount of extras is wonderful!”
“Although there are violent scenes, the editing is so skillful, that I never got to my usual "OK, I get the point. . . move on".
My thoughts exactly, AmazonUser325.
Moving on, and wrapping up….
I’ll give you the full run-down on Hobbiton and the rest of NZ in my next (and final!) Oz update, which will be delivered to you in annoyingly close proximity to this one!
Pull Your Socks Up, Mates,