More Week Two – King’s Canyon, Uluru and the Kata Tjutas – Outback

After the first 20-minute climb, (see previous post), the King’s Canyon hike was fairly straightforward.

That little bridge we have to cross . . . no worries!

Neil on that little bridge we have to cross . . . no worries!

Oh, there was a swaying little bridge walk over a very deep part of the canyon, but it looked sturdy to me, and after all, these places have to have liability insurance, right?

The 6+ kilometer hike ambled a bit up and down, round the curves and up and down again, but negotiating it only took patience, and not much in the way of superior hiking skills.  I had water, my walking stick, camera, and three companions.  The day was beautiful and the camera captured only a bit of the spectacular red surroundings.

King's Canyon walls

King’s Canyon walls

Some fooling around out on the overhangs, but you notice I didn’t walk out there!  The kids and Neil seemed to have less caution than I generally do in high places.  So I had an opportunity to snap a few of these crazy climbers!

We finished the hike by 11:00 a.m., returned to our ‘resort” and grabbed Kindles, towels and fresh water before we headed to the pool for a few hours of refreshing relaxation.  Tomorrow, we will head out to Uluru and the next part of our Outback adventure!

Neil . . . hanging out at King's Canyon

Neil . . . hanging out at King’s Canyon

Ashley and Justin out on a rock limb . . .

Ashley and Justin out on a rock limb . . .

Week Two– Palms, Camels, Wild Horses and A Long Dirt Road

On the way to King’s Canyon, we met a red dirt road that went forever.  With diversions such as Palm Valley, “just a bit off the main track”, it took us about 10 hours to go from Alice to King’s Canyon Resort, 50% owned by Aboriginal shareholders.  The Palm Valley side-trip was only 22 km.  How bad could it be?

But when our 4-wheel drive vehicle was challenged on a barely-a-road full of rocks, hardly a dirt path at all in some places, that 22 km. took forever.  Well, only much of the afternoon.  The twelve-mile equivalent times two for the round trip reqired about three hours of very careful navigation through the rocks, dips and mud holes.

The beginnings of Palm Valley

The beginnings of Palm Valley

Soft sand turns out to be as hazardous as deep snow, and though my 4WD skills are quite good, we spent a good hour before the first palm showed up in our line of vision.

Short story was that we arrived at the trail head mid-afternoon, when the temperature was about 40 degrees Centigrade . . . perhaps 104 degrees, and the short, fairly easy hike became a sunstroke threat for this woman.  Neil, Ashley and Justin completed the walk, while I retreated halfway through, found the car, and practically plunged my face into our water-soaked washcloths.

Once recovered, having collected my companions, we headed back up the rutted trail toward the “main road” if one can call it that.  The permit-required Mereenie Loop.  Fortunately there were no permit checkers on the way, but there were groups of camels on the sides of the road, along with the wild horses and foals running back and forth in front of our car, all headed to the potholes filled with rainwater from occasional showers as we moved down the Loop.  The photo at the header of this website was taken on this part of our journey.  It was actually quite exciting!  I hadn’t considered sharing an Australian road with camels . . .

As the sun hung lower in the sky, our collective nerves began to rattle a bit.  There was NOTHING out here . . . absolutely nothing.  No streetlights, no houses, huts, tents, no gas stations, no cars, nothing but us, and beyond us a continuous show of sheet lightening with surprise instant rain showers.  And when the dark came, we were plunged into the black, but for the now inadequate light from the front of our car.  “Trusting the process” took on a whole new meaning.  We were on the red moon, or Mars, and though we knew we couldn’t get lost, because there was no other road, King’s Canyon might as well have been weeks away.

By about 9:00 p.m., we arrived at our destination, checked in, got to our room in the darkness and took turns learning our way down the path to the communal bathrooms.  Getting ready for an early hike the next day was our first priority after we settled in, because the heat of today’s hike let us know we did not want to be away from heat shelter by noon.

The beginning of our "little day hike" . . . King's Canyon.

The beginning of our “little day hike” . . . King’s Canyon.

The next morning, we were out by 7:00 a.m., headed toward King’s Canyon for our hike.  The drive to the trailhead was only about a ten-minute one, and we parked in a large lot, along with the other cars and tour busses.

A fairly easy hike, said the book, but for the first 20 minute climb.  Again, I asked myself, “How bad could that be?”

November 2-9, 2012, Week Two continued – The Red Centre – We WANTED to buy the permit, truly . . .

Red hot takes on a new meaning!

Red hot takes on a new meaning!

Well, are any of you wondering about the camel photo at the top of this website?  Yes, that was a photo I took this week, the week in which we felt like we were in the Twilight Zone on Mars (the red planet, yes?).  More about that in my next post.

Our first and last nights in the Outback were spent at Toddy’s Backpacker Lodge in Alice Springs, separate rooms the first night, sharing a room the rest of our time in the Outback, cooking in the hostel kitchens of our various lodging locations.  Good training for the Camino next year . . . and excellent relief for our wallets, with outrageous restaurant costs all through Australia.  This is NOT what we remembered from eight years ago on Oz’s east coast.  But we weren’t on the east coast yet.  We were in the middle of the desert, surrounded by heat and red dust.

We awoke on Day Two, excited to head for King’s Canyon.  Since I’m the 4WD driver in most situations, I took the wheel.  Remember, our driving time in Oz was focused and on the lookout to make sure the driver, sitting in the passenger seat, turned left onto the left side of the road, and turned right onto the . . . left side of the road.  We also got to laugh at whoever was in the “driver’s seat” every time he or she used the windshield wiper rather than the turn signal, also situated on the wrong side of the steering wheel.  It was a twisted brain exercise each day, re-learning to turn ourselves backwards and inside out.  Anything to get to the reverse orientation.  And the passengers cheered and counted all the right and wrong actions of the driver as we made our way down the dirt road.

So . . . I drove.  We were to go by way of the Mereenie Loop Road to King’s Canyon, but needed a permit to drive on the Aboriginal property. My instructions were to drive to Hermannsburg to a gas station there, buy a permit, and be on my way with my three red-dirt companions.

Anxiously on the lookout for Hermannsburg, we saw it rolling up into our line of sight like a strange tumbleweed . . . in the middle of absolutely nowhere, there was the “gas station”.  Hmmm . . . dust, old cars, lots of Outback mutts gathering around and a battered building with a caged front door..  I got out of the car, and walked into the “store”, greeted by a goofy white guy, perhaps in his mid-twenties.  When I asked to buy a permit for the Mereenie Loop Road, the guy guffawed, stopped, put his hand to his mouth, guffawed again, and told me he was “real sorry” but they were out of permits.  Yep, he had just started working there a week ago, and he had run out of permits about three days into his new stint. (Chortle, chortle, sideways look, silly grin . . . )

“But hey, if they stop you”, he advised, “just tell them you WANTED to buy a permit, but we just (guffaw, guffaw) ran OUT!”

I’m not sure what he was smoking, but I would like to have tried some of it.

Week Two – The Outback, Northern Territories – November 2-9, 2012

The heat is not at all my favorite thing, a fact to which those who know me even slightly can attest.  However, when I had set my sights on seeing the 2012 total solar eclipse from nearly the only land location from which it would be visible, I also knew that going to Australia for a few days or a week would be foolish.  Any destination that takes nearly twenty-four hours from portal to portal deserves at least three weeks or more.

So it was with relish that I planned our trip to Oz.  One week in Western Australia at Neil’s request because the Margaret River Valley is known for . . . what else?  Wine!  A week in the Outback, so I could visit Uluru, the sacred red rock of the Aboriginal people.  A third week at the Great Barrier Reef, scene of the total solar eclipse if we planned it right (and of course we did), and a five-day wrap-up in Sydney before heading back to Colorado.

From the air, we could see absolutely no sign of civilization.

Week Two began with a flight from Perth to Alice Springs, in the dead center of the Outback.  Once we had been whisked away from the e civilization that was Perth and its surrounds, I began to see the complete desolation that is the landscape of the middle of this continent.

I used my iPhone to shoot photos out the airplane window.  First completely abandoned red dirt, seen through a screen of puffy clouds.

The “folded over” mountains from our plane.

Then the “folded over mountains” as Neil called them, a sort of long ridge with vertical creases, such as one would make in a long loaf of bread.

The long and zigzagged road . . . the only one visible from the air.

At one point, halfway through my flight, I spotted a thin red line zigging one way and then zagging another, perhaps the only road for a thousand miles.  Or perhaps not a road at all.  If that’s not it, there IS no “it” through this section of Oz.

Finally we arrived at the Alice Springs airport, and after about 45 minutes at the Hertz counter and numerous errors kindly and frantically corrected by the only employee in the booth, the four of us lugged our bags and backpacks to a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, a honking big 4WD vehicle suitable for our Outback explorations during this next week.

Our Toyota “Camel” for travel during Week Two

This was the first rental car for which we were given a 100 km. daily limit for our travel.  We thought it a bit strange, but as they say in Australia, “No worries!”   After all, we wouldn’t drive more than 700 kilometres in a week, would we?

To be continued . . .

Week One – Busselton, Western Australia – October 26 – November 2, 2012

Wine tasting . . . that is what brings us to this little town, not a bustling one, despite its name.  But Busselton, nearly four hours south of Perth, “in the West”, as they say, is the gateway to the wineries of the Margaret River Valley.  It’s also a perfect spot from which to launch oneself onto the rocky coastline of the southwestern part of this continent.

Busselton Grand Mercure Resort

One of the best parts for us is that we managed to snag a three-bedroom time share condo right on the Busselton beach . . . the only cost was the $150 Interval International exchange fee.  Now THAT speaks to some strange convergence of planets, grapes, sand, and our best intentions for our Eclipse 2012 trip.  More on that plan later.

Morning Beach Walks

So launch ourselves we did, indeed.  Each morning we walked on the beach. Nearly each day we lined up three wineries to visit, interspersing our tasting with a picnic at the nearest set of coastal rocks, or a burger in Margaret River itself, or a paired food and wine tasting at one of the fancier wineries (Leeuwin Vineyards for that one).

Leeuwin Tastings

Traveling with Ashley and Justin was a real lesson in meal efficiency, and we enjoyed most of our dinners at our condo, grilling steaks one night, stuffing ourselves with Justin’s tacos another, pasta on two different evenings, and always, always . . . some of the wine we had purchased after our daily tastings.

Wine tasting in Nannup at a food festival . . .

Not that we were only enologically focused . . . we did visit one brewery, where I, the non-beer drinker, began my soon-to-be-habit of ordering hard cider (YUM!).  We also set out one day to see only galleries . . . no wineries.  However, when we got to the Happ’s Pottery Gallery, we discovered that a tiny tasting room was tucked away across the entry from the artwork, and there we had some of the tastiest varieties of the week!

Happy campers are we . . . always a great beach with crashing waves against the surrounding rocks, always a beautiful sunset dipping below the blue waters, always a great glass of wine awaiting us, and always a decent bed to crash into when the day is done.

Sunset at Busselton Beach

So goes Week One in Australia 2012 . . .

Australia – October 24-November 20, 2012

Over the western seas to Oz

We begin our trip on United Airlines, in First Class to San Francisco and Business Class to Sydney.  We are delighted with our seats, the ones that turn into beds for the travel over the water.  I’d go in Economy and just suck it up, but Neil, my tall person, the last best one, really needs the room for those long legs of his, and I had 300,000 United Miles just begging to be used, so with his coach ticket and upgrade and my mileage bonuses, we snagged a much more comfortable situation, so as we embarked, we settled into the front section for the flight . . . Kindles, knitting, my Bucky neck pillow and the softest eye mask I’ve ever found – one I carry with me on all long trips.

After a fabulous filet mignon dinner, we each took an Ambien and settled into a very long sleep.  Waking up two days later by the calendar is always disconcerting when I travel in this direction, but it is what it is.  And time goes so swiftly in any case . . .

The flight approach to Sydney

In Sydney, we grabbed our flight to Perth, picked up our rental car, and drove to the International terminal to meet my daughter Ashley and her husband Justin, who will join us for the entire month of the trip.  They’ve been traveling the lower part of the world for the past year and are arriving from Bali, where they’ve spent the last month.  We haven’t seen them since my mother’s funeral in Chicago in early June, so we can’t wait!  I only wish my other two children, Tanner and Morgan, could accompany us as well, but that was impossible for them.  Another year . . .

Five Days In Florence – Part Due

Throughout our time in Florence, we have the pleasure of walking a half block from our hotel right into the Piazza della Republicca, one of the main squares in Florence, for almost everything we want to do while we’re here.  The Duomo is past the Piazza, and on our day at the Uffizi, we go through this square first.  It is our gateway to the western half of Florence.  As we wander to the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio, the Piazza della Signoria offers its sculpture and history to us as well.

Lovers affix a lock to the Ponte Vecchio, promising one another that their hearts will be “locked” together forever . . . a naive but sweet ritual.

And as it happens, our visit this year coincides with a small Tuscan festival, situated right on the piazza itself.  (See photo from previous post.)  Celebrating the upcoming grape harvest, a series of lovely white tents line one side of the piazza, coincidentally in perfect view from my hotel window.  Inside these tents, area vendors offer tastings of wine, cheese, honey and other products associated with the good life in Tuscany.

As I begin to browse the offerings inside each vendor’s space, I am drawn to a table with not only several types of wines, but two stacks of books, each a bit more square than a deck of cards, and a bit fatter.  These chunky books are filled with resources, one volume for Tuscany, the other for Florence specifically.

I talk with the woman who compiled the books and wrote up the information in each . . . Veronica Ficarelli.  To my surprise (and this is one of the delights of my traveling experiences), Veronica and I quickly prove to be quite simpatico, and I see her nearly every day of our stay.

Needless to say, I promptly buy her books, but each day at an appointed time, we meet at the group of tents, exchange e-mails, and plant the seeds of a friendship I hope will flourish in between my trips back to Italy.

Veronica Ficarelli – It’s always a lovely thing to find a new friend in a favorite country!!

Anne and I purchase our wine glass at the festival, which we carry around with us, visiting one wine table and then another,

getting tiny tastes of the various products of the vineyards in the countryside.  Before or after our walks we taste and talk . . . a favorite daily ritual.

Our group develops a co-mingling independence, going off in small clumps to this restaurant, that museum, the other gallery.  We meet for breakfast in the dining room of our hotel, check in about the day’s activities, planned and spontaneous, and move out to greet the day.  Four of us visit perhaps fifteen little restaurants one evening, searching for one that serves steak tartare, finally settling for beef carpaccio instead.

Five or six of us meet up mid-day for an espresso or a cappuccino and something sweet, before or after a visit to my favorite button shop, a writing store one of us spotted during the previous few hours, a dress in the window of a tiny shop down a side street lined with cobblestones.

We can always create our adventures by simply strolling down an unfamiliar lane, turning left instead of right at an already familiar corner.

Porcillino – The Brass Pig – A Market Mascot

And then there are the scheduled activities.  Next post . . .

 9/14 – 6.77 miles registered on my pedometer

Five Days In Florence

I have never been able to explain why this city comforts me, welcomes me.  Why not Rome, one of the greatest cities in the world, according to some?  Why not Venice, my mother’s favorite?  And of course there is always Paris . . . with an atmosphere all its own . . . .  Somehow, if I were to live in a city out of our country, it would have to be Florence, my first choice.

Tents are set up for a four-day celebration of the coming grape harvest . . . Tuscan wines, cheeses, honeys, oils, etc. are available for tasting throughout the long weekend!

There is something magical about Florence, something intimate and soft, as well as historical and cultural.  There are two piazzas in close proximity to our hotel, the Albergo Pendini.  One is directly below my bedroom window, the Piazza della Repubblica.

The other is perhaps six blocks away, an easy walk, the Piazza della Signoria . . . the one with the Fake David.  That’s how we always identify it, but it is much more than that.  Bernini statures, the Palazzo Vecchio, the entrance to the Ufizzi, the cobblestone street that leads directly to the Ponte Vecchio.

An exquisite dome . . . Firenze

And the magnificent Duomo is only a few blocks from our hotel.  I only have to walk for perhaps three minutes, turn left, and in another two or three blocks, there is the breath-taking view of it.

We are spending more time here than I have ever stayed in one visit.  Five nights, thus nearly five full days this time.  And it makes no sense to give a blow-by-blow description of everything we will do in this five days.  We began the way I always do . . . a visit to the Piazzale Michelangelo, as you read in the last post.  That was Wednesday afternoon and evening.

Thursday morning, we meet Elena, a lovely young woman who is my walking guide when I come with a group.  She gives us a bit of history as we walk through the sections of the city near the Duomo, near the Arno, near the fancy shopping street, and her lilting English makes me smile.  She knows that we will end near the Antinori Cantinetta for lunch, so she plans her route accordingly.

The lunch is magnificent as usual, in the small and intimate restaurant owned by the largest wine-producing family in all of Italy.  Service is impeccable, the prices match the quality of food and wine, and everyone is satiated.  The San Lorenzo market is nearby and some of my travelers head there to look for a wide array of gifts displayed at colorful booths before they head back to our hotel again.  The Pendini is in close proximity to nearly everything we want to do in this favorite city.  Fifteen minutes of walking will get you anywhere you want to go within the old walls.

Magnificent, no matter how many times I see this statue! Absolutely breathtaking . . .

On this trip my women will visit the Medici Chapel to see ancient mosaic ceilings and floors, sculptures of Michelangelo in the Medici, the piazzas, and of course at the Accademia, where the real David stands in all his glory, at the end of a hallway lined by The Prisoners, also Michelangelo created.  Though photos are not allowed anymore, someone snuck one in quickly!

The Uffizi is full of early art, for those who have never been there, and for those whose eyes are able to take in an enormous number of paintings and sculptures by the masters . . . Caraveggio, Boticelli, da Vinci, Giotto, Titian, and of course, at least one piece by Michelangelo.

But I, like the Doobie Brothers, I am taking it to the streets.  Wandering through the winding roads is my favorite pastime, stopping when I see an inviting café (a bar, they call it in Italy) where I can have a cappuccino and something sweet, just for a moment, trying out my meager Italian as I order what I’d like.  Stopping at a market, buying a basket of strawberries, bright red in their freshness, and asking, “Quanto costa?”, then giving the vendor two Euro or three, eating the fruit along my journey.

More on bella Firenze soon.

9/13 – 6.65 miles logged on my pedometer

Coming to Florence . . . a most delightful experience

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Campo . . . One could spend an entire day (or week) just in this square.

This morning in Siena we were on our own, free to wander the streets, sit at a café in the Campo, shop in the many storefronts and market stands in and out of the twisty, turning cobblestone streets.  Anne and I wandered in and out of shops with purses, bumping into Amy and Laurie here and there.

The group plan was to meet at the hotel by 12:45, get our bags and walk two blocks to the bus station, where we would board the bus for Florence.  Plans went smoothly until I had everyone on the bus and realized I had left my carry bag/purse behind the desk at the hotel “for safekeeping” . . . so Mary and Sue assured me the group would find their way to the hotel in Florence (they all had their StreetWise Florence maps, indispensable for easy wandering), and I would take the next bus an hour later.

Three hours later, checked into our rooms at the lovely Hotel Pendini, we again gathered together and headed out in taxis to the Piazalle Michelangelo and the church of San Mineato, high on top of a hill overlooking all of Florence.  The views from up there are spectacular!

San Mineato not only has a beautiful church, but the grounds house a cemetery full of family crypts, sculptures, and decorated gravestones.  At 5:30, we quietly walked into the church, settling ourselves in the lower level so we could hear the monks chanting the Mass.  Two of the monks settled themselves on time, and then began to look at their watches and exchange mystified glances as the minutes clicked by.  By 5:45, one of them left by the side alter, and ultimately, the rest of the monks entered, followed by . . . surprise . . . (see Rome/Pantheon entry) another ancient priest who was apparently supposed to say the Mass.  His wavering voice began a thin, watery chant, and his shaking hand could barely turn the page of the Mass book at the pulpit.  Where DO ancient priests go when they no longer really belong in front of people?

By 6:30 we were on our way back down the hill, walking this time, following a path full of students, locals, and cats.  Eventually finding ourselves on the street in the Oltrarno district, we came upon a Capoeria session inside one of the doorways on our path.  Capoeria is a Brazilian martial art that combines dance and music with their “fight” motions.  Adults and children moved beautifully to the drum beats of several members of the group. A perfect example of “stumbling into magic” that comes with wandering the back streets in another country . . . I was able to video just a bit of it before one of the Capoeria members asked me to stop.  Unfortunately, I can’t seem to load it here, so I’ll have to get better instructions!

Walking across this bridge, you will find wall to wall jewelry stores . . . Ponte Vecchio means the “Old Bridge”, but often people call it the “Gold Bridge”.

We wound our way to the Arno River, and ultimately crossed at the Ponte Vecchio (more on that later).

Our evening ended with dinner at Il Porcospino, well taken care of by Franco and the rest of the staff.  I love beginning my time in Florence at this restaurant, where everyone is happy to see me and whomever I bring along for a great meal!

I walked 7.66  miles today.

Siena And An Important Commemoration . . .

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why is it that I can never type today’s date without feeling as though I shouldn’t be celebrating anything?  9/11 has become its own planet, wrapped in sorrow and disbelief, no matter that it has been eleven years since the twin towers collapsed, taking thousands of people with it.

Life DOES go on for all of us, but the solemnity of writing the date still envelopes me.

Today we leave Rome, headed for the train station.  We board a train to Florence and the Stazione Santa Maria Novella, where we meet Stefano and Fillipo, our private shuttle drivers, who will load our luggage into two shuttle vans.  Our Florence hotel, the Hotel Pendini, is centrally located, and we leave our luggage there, but for an overnight bag, before we head to Siena for one night.

Arriving in Siena, we check into the Hotel Chiusarelli, just a block from the Chiesa San Domenica, a beautiful, simple church whose claim to fame is that it houses St. Catherine of Siena’s head in a glass case on a side altar.  The Italian Catholics are big into collecting body parts of saints, and St. Catherine is the Protective Saint of Siena.

Our guide, Viviana, meets us at a café across from the hotel and we begin our tour of this stunning hill town.  The Duomo (I call it the Zebra Church) never fails to captivate me.  Viviana’s information is always fresh, her knowledge is impressive, and the history of this church, the town, the rivalry between Siena and Florence, and the magic of the Palio competition makes Siena a must-stop for my Italy Women adventures.

We complete a wonderful day with delicious dinner at Le Logge, just off the Campo, and we toast to the memories of all who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 with a moment of silence in the midst of the pleasures of travel.  We are the lucky ones.

My pedometer tells me I walked 5.47 miles today.