Thursday, September 07, 2006

7 - September 2006

This morning we met our tour guide at a scary early 4:30 AM for a sunrise hot-air balloon ride over the outback--we'd heard it was the best way to take it all in. We set out by bus and were quickly off paved road and onto dirt road; soon we were off road entirely as we bounced around the bush for the perfect set-off point. The pilot told us a bit about what to expect from the experience, and then he went to comfirm flight conditions with the other pilot (there were two busloads of eager ballooners). After much deliberation, waiting, and consulting with the local airport, our guides determined that the wind was 7 knots and climbing--too windy and too unpredictable for a safe flight. We were all crushed (though Mike and I weren't completely surprised; a tablemate from last-night's dinner had had her balloon ride cancelled yesterday morning for the same reason, so we were at least prepared for possible disappointment). Another couple on our bus had tried yesterday and today, and they plan to wake before dawn yet once more to try again tomorrow under the three-time's-a-charm adage (known as "three times lucky" in Australia); we wish we could have tried again, too, but we were leaving town.

Our pilot, originally from Norway, did regale us with some information about the history of ballooning as well as true tales of his own ballooning exploits, including getting stranded in the middle of a snowy forest in Germany and successfully ballooning over the Swiss Alps.

The silver lining to the cancellation was that even the return bus ride from the site was incredible--there were no streetlights in the bush, of course, so the only light was from the bus headlights, the moon, and the sun. On one side of the bus, the moon was setting; on the other, the sun was rising. The outback horizon was in perfect silhouette, and skies were a vibrant orange, pink, and blue all around.

Another plus was that we were able to stay warm and catch a little more shut-eye back at the hotel before check-out. And while the hotel breakfast wasn't exactly champagne "brekky" in the bush with our balloon mates as planned, it was still quite delicious.

The flight to Ayers Rock Airport (it's still called that, though the rock itself is now known as Uluru, it's original Aboriginal name) was uneventful but for some salt flats that added a wee bit of landscape interest (bummer we never spotted the Australian-American "spy station" we'd heard about at dinner last night)--but it was quite thrilling to see the massive Uluru from the air and land so close to it.

Tonight was our much anticipated Sounds of Silence dinner. With a busload of tourists from all around the world (it's great fun to listen to all the languages!), we bobbled along on a dirt road until we parked at our remote site. We enjoyed cocktails and canapes on a dune overlooking both Uluru and Kata Tjuta (another rock formation almost more beautiful) as the sun set on one side of us and the full moon rose on the other. The light and views changed by the minute--it was breathtaking all night long.

Then we were escorted to our white-linen dinner lit only by fire- candle-, and moonlight. We were seated at a table with several Australians from Sydney as well as a couple from Los Angeles celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary (the husband, oddly enough, lived in Novato in the '60s!). They all gave us tips for things to see and do as we continue our travels, and all were warm and funny (even funnier as they downed more of the limitless alcohol!).

We dined on crocodile (rather tough and somewhat flavorless), kangaroo (delicious--I hated to like it as much as I did), barramundi (great), and other, less adventurous and more familiar foods, all elegantly prepared and quite good. A didgeridoo player strolled among the tables to entertain us. After dinner, we were treated to a moderated stargazing session with some great celestial tales (the clouds obscured many a star, but it was still really informative and beautiful). Then we enjoyed port, coffee, tea, and an array of desserts as the evening wore down. It truly was a magical night.

More on how to speak Australian:
--"cry/start to cry" = "pop a tear"
--"throw a tantrum/fit" = "throw a tanty"
--"feeling hungry/craving a snack" = "feeling peckish"
--"ride a plane" = "take a ride on the big bird"
--"Rice Krispies" = "Rice Bubbles" (Don't worry: they still snap, crackle, and pop!)

--Down Under (under the equator, that is) there is no north star--nor is there any poll star for reference (they have to draw vectors from the Southern Cross to determine due south).

--Bananas are in high demand after Hurricane Larry all but wiped out the crop in March; check out these prices!

(We also saw a hand-written sign in a Launceston shop window that read "no bananas kept on the premises overnight." So savor those affordable and fresh bananas, folks!)

--Smoking seems to be more prevalent in Australia than in America--and it ain't the tourists who are lighting up! We're told they are cracking down, though, and that most hotels will be entirely non-smoking soon.


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