Feb 27: Brisbane
We drive to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary to hug some cute animals. It’s a wooded zoo along the banks of the Brisbane with a few birds and reptiles in cages but most of the inhabitants (koalas, kangaroos, wombats) in fenced pens, a few feet away. The koalas are comical, like furry Yodas who contemplatively munch leaves and climb sluggishly. Steph is able to hold one and there is bright joy on her face but the cuddly marsupial simply rolls his eyes and craps on her.
We walk around in a big open air pen where kangaroos lounge in the shade. They are strangely formed animals, a cross between a deer and an oversized rabbit, scratching their pouches, the males with enormous testicles, and these thick rat tails that drag in the dust.
We also watch a sheep herding demonstration, two agile little black and white border collies running circles around the terrified flock, the filthy sheep nearly trampling each other to evade the quick dogs half their size.
That evening we go out with the girls after a few rounds of drinks; loud music and crazy poses in the snapshot to get psyched up.
We ride the ferry downtown to a trendy esplanade, packed with twenty-somethings, the majority girls, in high heels, designer purses and dresses. There’s a line and a cover to get into the trendiest place. Di’s not into paying so we stop next door, a “fusion” Asian place called Jade Buddha with low lights and faux Zen decor, a patio overlooking the Brisbane River where clumps of wannabes sip overpriced and underpowered cocktails. Diane drapes her Rapunzel-length hair over strangers (insta-drag queen) and her sister takes photos, laughing. There are old people dancing out on the floor to generic house music, and a lurching old drunk businessman mistakes my pint for his, and the whole place has a distinct feel of “lame”.
We head back to the trendy place with the cover and Di and her sister strut their toned legs for the bouncer and we hike up the stairs to the balcony, free of charge. The place is even more pretentious than the last, dudes in suits and cheesy facial hair, and heaps of teenagers with rich daddies. We all shuffle over to the dance floor and shake our stuff to Lil Jon and Ludacris and American Top 40 circa 2006.
Off the ferry at Hawthorne Park, I have to pee terribly and wander over to a shadowed tree. The stream froths in the roots and a giant fruit bat swoops out from the branches, near silent and out over the river.
The stars overhead are foreign, but they are bright and fall in pattern and I can see even here a people could invent familiar constellations.
Feb 29: Gold Coast
The triathlon goes off without a hitch, all of us waking up at 5:00 AM to pile into Bart’s blue BMW SUV, gunning it down abandoned roads, urging him to lay off the gas in front of so many cops and roadblocks, him grinning and accelerating even more.
We all meet up in Transition, a fenced football field of racked bicycles, and work out the logistics of the race, a strange dance of tagging, switching over a velcro chip, and trotting to various entry and exit points.
Diane’s quite the swimmer and is one of the first in the teams division to jog up, barefoot, her long braid dripping. And then I’m off, trotting the bike to the asphalt, then into the saddle, trying to fit my wide running shoes on top of the tiny metal toe clips.
Overall, it’s a dull course, up and back a stretch of bay-side street, a palm-tree park to my right (families in fold-out chairs, prepping a lunch time barbie) and fast food joints to my left. Two laps at a consistent 30+ KM/h and I trot back to the rack to tag Steph. I feel bad for her. Heat isn’t her forte.
Half hour later we’re done, posing for photos with grimaced smiles in the 30+ C heat.
I feel the endorphin rush on the ride, coupled with a steady Zen breathing – the one redeeming quality to physical workouts. But I can’t see myself getting into this kind of thing seriously, all the money blown on a tri bike and nylon singlets only to hang out with numbered leathery meatheads. I’d rather be ascending an alpine peak, my gear on my back and not a road (or timing chip) within a dozen miles.
Back in Brisbane there’s a joint party for Steph and Diane’s birthday at New Farm Park, a shady lawn alongside the Brisbane River.
Out on the grass, the canopy of the gum trees wide like green mushrooms, we set out the spread on the picnic tables. Soon two dozen people have shown up. There’s a quadrant of frisbee out in the sun, clinking beers and hungry mouths picking through the spread of Capsaicin peppers, pickles, cheeses, and vegemite sandwiches.
I feel a bit claustrophobic at the height of the party and wander off to take photos of the late afternoon sun through the trees, a silhouette of downtown and the rumpled bark of an ancient fig tree.
The day wanes and all the colors seep down the spectrum, from a hot gold to magenta and violet and the lights of the ferry twinkle on the river. A lone fisherman down on the rocks cradles his pole, while overhead a thousand bats migrate across the river to their nightly hunting grounds.
On the ferry across the river I think about the narrative that I’ve been constructing, how all these sunny afternoons I’ve recorded create this picture of idyll and mindless indulgence, but it hides all those down moments in Diane’s two bedroom apartment, listening to the new Animal Collective and journaling, or tweaking photos for the blog, or doing dishes and showering. This is holiday, for sure, but its still real life.
And then this morning, waking early, without even a peep from the alarm clock, realizing the arbitrariness of time, how our bodies have their own clock and when we break away from the tyranny of the clock, we can sleep and rise cleaner, fuller, healthier. These days I’m consistently up at 7:00, lucid and to bed by 11:00. Ben Franklin would be proud.
Mar 2: Byron Bay
The day is overcast, but not a single gray sheet, more like gradients of rain potential. We park, urinate, walk the shops, scout the beach, eat a Thai lunch. The town has an alternative feel, as though a single health food / yoga studio infected the streets like a virus and branded even the scuba and skydiving places with hippie energy. All the incense and Far East motifs (sun dresses and prayer beads and wind chimes and Tibetan streamers) flow down and flutter in the breeze.
We lay out on the sand, a big half circle of beach closed up on the near end with a rocky jungle hill and a stolid white lighthouse. I body surf for an hour, the breakers waist high, the water clear enough to pick out the pounded shells and blue rimmed fish. I take a short walk down to the point where the surfers navigate jutting rocks on longboards, watch a dark skinned Maori with fancy footwork, long runs and pink bikini. Then I jog back to Steph.
She opts for the spa and I head off for the circuit trek of Cape Byron and Australia’s easternmost point.
It’s a paved path that winds through dense underbrush, clinging to the hillside. A short climb and the curve of the beach is now visible, the rows of waves coming in like wrinkles in a blue satin cloth.
I hike through some little surf hangouts, secluded spots with tanned backpacker chicks and deep water between boulders, two long-haired hippies body surfing in the nude. Then higher still, the stark cliffs of wet black stone, the turquoise water frothing and pounding, an interplay of color. On the hillside the lichen give way to hardy plants and sprouting grasses. The lighthouse is bold, white and constructed like a castle, and a great polished gold mirror rotates in the tower, like Sauron’s eye. But in comparison to the Pacific, it is a small thing.
Looking down the cliff side, the entire horizon feels shifted, like a bit of vertigo, as though an enormous glass of water has been tilted and is on the verge of rushing in and over the fragile green land, held back only by some unknowable malevolence. The clouds and distant rains move in patterns over the deep and the vast sea sets back wide white shimmers, revealing each dimpled crest in magnitude. I feel the immensity of this ocean. Straight out and across, nothing till South America.
Steph beams out of the spa, her freckles in full healthy reveal. I’m sweating and foot sore, having clomped back down the hill through the sandy jungle path, sidestepping red headed ground turkeys.
We drive back up to the lighthouse so she can see it. She points out leaping dolphins far below in the surf, now tinted the softest pink in the dusk. Then back to town for gelato cones. We stroll past a lonely acoustic guitar singer, folk songs and an open palm for all the bleeding heart backpackers.
After, it’s back to Brisbane with full stomachs, memory cards, and for the moment – hearts.
Mar 5: Sydney
An orange haze sits over Sydney through the airplane window, smudging all the buildings and roads and bridges like tilt-shift photography. The opera house is rendered a spiky hedgehog crouched alongside the black iron bridge.
Down on the streets, it has the feel of a European city – squares and fountains and ornate copper domes and dour statues of Queen Victoria nestled in with the new glass.
We’re staying at the Hilton, all marble doors and modern lighting, an abstract wire cyclone spiraling up to the ceiling of the lobby. The view from our room looks down on the old town hall, a bulbous copper dome, a gap of harbor through the buildings. We spend far too much time lounging in the room, spread out on the white bedspread, sunlight streaming in.
Eventually we ride the mass transit out to Bondi Beach. The sky is hazed and overcast, little snippets of baby blue out over the ocean. The beach is a perfect amphitheater of sand, the boardwalk done up in graffiti, grass covered hills, small shops, then rows of colorful apartments and condos populating the hill like spectators. The water has a pulsing shift, breaking with just enough crest for a handful of wetsuit clad long boarders to ride a few meters and cut some turns.
We shuffle down the hill, a few scattered drops landing on our shoulders and faces, the scent of pot rising from a cluster of picnickers up on the hill. We buy some fruit and a muffin and watch the skateboarders and some guy with wheels attached to the bottom of his shoes, carving zigzags down the boardwalk.
It’s Steph’s birthday and in the evening we have dinner by the quay, an upscale place called Wolfie’s Grill with an outdoor table and view of the harbor bridge and opera house, illuminated in ghostly white. I have kangaroo steak and crocodile and a perfect local brewed IPA called Three Sheets, and we strike up a conversation with another married couple (her 8 months preggo) on city living.
We marvel at an enormous luxury yacht, snap a few photos of the opera house. Then the battery goes dead and we decide to walk the kilometer back to the Hilton.
Walking along George St, a modern downtown stretch that would fit in any major city, I catch sights of those magic off hours in the early evening: a window cleaner harnessed to the glass facade of the Apple Store, all this glowing white and him a dark shadow; a flautist street musician taking a cigarette break between sessions, in front of a gourmet chocolate store, his case arranged neatly with bills and coins; an overweight security guard in a parking deck, leaning back reading a book called “The West” propped up on his gut.
Then back into the hotel, the lobby that had been packed with suits and security guards hours before, with the chanting protests outside (the Korean President in town for a visit) now empty, abandoned.
Back up to the room, Steph wants photographs of her makeup job, and we have to wait for the batteries to charge and the laptop gets a blue screen of death.
It feels like everything is transient, falling apart, that we’re beyond youth. Some things are too far gone for us and in the end, everything falls apart and dies.
The battery finally charges and I take a few under-exposed shots and Steph shyly looks away and then we pile into the snowy bed and spoon into sleep.
* * *
The next morning we check out of the Hilton and walk over to Darling Harbor, blue skies and sun over this touristy pier and plaza, centered on the Sydney Aquarium and flanked by eateries and trendy clubs.
We spend a few hours in the aquarium, faces pressed to the glass, all the native sea creatures staring back. The sharks and the saltwater crocodile have an angry glare, with tiny pinprick pupils. The shark’s muscular bodies propel them seamlessly around the perimeter, searching for openings.
I think about the intricate and complex colonies built up over thousands of years by coral, and how we too build nested and tiered infrastructures of steel and concrete.
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