Kookaburras, kangaroos and wineries
By our third week in the southeastern corner of Australia, I still hadn't seen a kookaburra.
Well, I was disappointed that I still hadn't seen one of these iconic symbols of the Australian countryside, or even heard its peculiar laugh. My wife, lucky soul, happened to be looking out a tour bus window and saw one on a fence post. I was looking out the far window, likely for a kookaburra, and missed it completely.
Now our daughter was in on the hunt. She's been living in Australia with her husband and child for nearly a year and hadn't seen one, either. We'd just got back from Melbourne and had a few days left before departure, so she suggested a day trip into the Barossa Valley.
We were staying with her in Glenelg, a beachfront suburb of Adelaide, and had been taking day and overnight trips out around the southeast. She thought we'd like to see the Barossa, famous for its vineyards.
As the guidebooks all promise, we took in Barossa Valley's stupendous views of large tracts of vineyards and came across various wineries such as Seppeltsfield and Jacob's Creek, known to oenologists around the world.
We stopped in the town of Tanunda for lunch at 1918, a place our daughter had found. I had a delightful dish of snapper on mash with herbs, accompanied by local olives and bread dipped in Parmesan cheese and olive oil.
We had a two-year-old girl along, so our sightseeing was rather dictated by her needs, but at one break in the woods south of Williamstown we did not see kookaburras.
Rather, we pulled the car hastily to the side of the road and got out to look at a pair of emus, all five feet of them, standing in a field. We'd seen them on our first day in Adelaide, at the Cleland Wildlife Park, but they were in an enclosure with kangaroos and wallabies. There was no fence around these, and the bird books say they run wild across most of Australia. You just have to spot them. Lucky us.
This was just the kind of high point with which visitors to Australia like us were learning to content ourselves. Having limited access to cash and time, we realized we'd have to pick one area of this vast country and concentrate on it.
Months before we flew, I had visions of ranging out from Adelaide to the Great Barrier Reef, Ayer's Rock, possibly Perth, and why not add a quick flight over to New Zealand? But a wise soul set me straight. She likened Australia - a continent, not just a big island - to Canada.
Our daughter planned a couple of trips, gave us room to plan a trip ourselves, and gave us lots of downtime at home in Glenelg to rest, relax and spend time with the granddaughter.
One trip she planned was to Kangaroo Island, off the south coast. The four of us got up early one Monday morning and drove an hour-and-a-half through the Adelaide Hills, wild kangaroos appearing ghostly in the early-morning mist, and later flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos squawking loudly overhead.
We got down to Port Jervis on the coast and took a 45-minute ferry ride to Penneshaw on the eastern end of the island. Our day's destination was the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat, handily located near the entrance to Flinders Chase National Park.
Once we left the trappings of town and small farms behind, we felt pretty much on our own, the countryside varying among dark corridors of gum trees, wide-open sheep and cattle pastures and a scrubland called mallee. There's very little signage to tell you where you are, or human habitation, so you trust the map and follow the road.
We took in Seal Bay Conservation Park with its endangered Australian sea lions lying about the beach or tossing in the waves, both the Remarkable Rocks - and they truly are - and the Admirals Arch, geological curiosities carved out of rock by the ocean and wind, and Marron's Cafe, a lovely spot down a red dirt road in the middle of the island.
Amid this bounty of landscape and wildlife, highlights included a daily pelican feeding at Kingscote sponsored by a local fellow who gave a talk about birds as he fed brown pelicans and silver gulls.
The night we stayed at the Wilderness Retreat my wife and I were having our supper and chatting with our server. Once she found we were from Canada she asked about the Northern Lights, which led me to ask about the Southern Cross.
Was it hard to see? Not at all, she said, and asked me to follow her out the door. We found a clearing in the trees away from the yard lights and she pointed skyward. There it is, she said, following a lineup from Alpha and Beta, easy as anything, and for the rest of the time we were in Australia I was able to show it to others. That experience made me feel as if I truly was on the other side of the world.
But Australia is not all bizarre and amazing animals.
From the semi-remote geological and biological paradise of Kangaroo Island we took another trip, this one by jet, to Melbourne, for a weekend visit. We were lucky enough to be right downtown in the stupendous Eureka Tower where our son-in-law's company rents a condo. From the 38th floor we could look out over the Melbourne skyline and down at the Yarra River, with the train station just beyond.
Melbourne city officials have their heads screwed on straight, at least from this tourist's point of view, as they offer free guided tram and bus tours around the city, accessible from numerous stops along the way. One morning we took the tram by Flinders Station to the Museum and Exhibition site. The museum is a great mix of shows that appeal to young and old, and our granddaughter was quite taken with hands-on displays and wacky mirrors.
In the afternoon, my wife and I got on the bus and were driven all over downtown Melbourne, a super way to get a feel for the city. We got off at the National Gallery of Victoria and toured exhibits of 17th-and 18th-century European paintings, including Rembrandt, Titian and Tintoretto, then later took in the 20th-century exhibit, including work by Picasso, Hockney, Ingres and Magritte.
Back in Adelaide, our daughter kept making sure we'd seen all we could see, locally. Many walks up and down the beach road looking out at the Gulf of St. Vincent and its dolphins had become a staple, but there had to be one last thing.
So, the day before we left she loaded us in the car and took a morning's drive to Port Adelaide.
Here we went to the South Australian Maritime Museum and went aboard a 19th-century wooden sailing ship located grandly in the middle of the first floor. There was also a fascinating display on immigrant ships, which easily relates to Canadians and their ancestors, plus a large exhibit on Antarctica explorations.
That night, back in Adelaide, with the bags all packed, I slipped out to the beach road to stand by the water and listen to the waves. Just as I'd located the Southern Cross, a white streak cut across my peripheral vision. It was a pelican, settling down in front of me for an evening's fishing, sadly not a kookaburra.