What I did on my summer vacation
(in December)

Will he stay or will he go?

Midnight December 10, and I'm packing halfheartedly. Last weekend I finally accepted that whatever safe place I'd put my passport was so safe that I wasn't going to find it before my plane left for Australia.

Monday morning I filed for an expedited replacement, overnighting the form (and $100) to Seattle. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday give the State Department their 36 hours. So now, in the middle of the night on Thursday, my new passport should be winging its way overnight to Boulder.

Unfortunately there is no sign of it in the USPS's web tracking system, so I go to bed not knowing if tomorrow will be spent on a plane to Australia or working on my final project for my Science Writing class.

It turns out to be both. At 8 a.m. the phone rings and it's the worlds most helpful postal employee. She has my passport and the flight doesn't leave till 1 p.m. Plenty of time.

So this is what it feels like to be a journalist?

It's 6 a.m. and I sip espresso in a Melbourne cafe. I did the first draft of my story on the plane, and now I'm doing the final edit. Jet lagged in a foreign country at the start of a new adventure, AP style by my side, I'm struck that this is what I always dreamed being a reporter would be like. I'm nearly overcome by a powerful urge to buy a fedora, but instead just e-mail my story back to the states.

Vehicle madness

The woman behind the counter looks skeptically at Jenny and I's pile of gear as she hands me the keys to the smallest car I've ever seen.

My driving is suspect at the best of times, but in a foreign country, driving on the left for the first time, and with a non-driver navigating its a miracle we survive the egress from Melbourne.

Things I now know about driving in Australia:

Things I still haven't figured out: By the end of the two weeks it's only about 1 of 3 times I hit the windshield wipers instead of the directionals, and I occasionally remember where the rearview mirror is.

The Pile

Four hours and 100 "Watch for Kangaroo" signs later we pull into The Pines campground at Mt Arapiles, our home for the next 10 days. On first glance the rock is disappointing, a chossy pile of rubble rising out of a dead flat plain. The climbing is good though. The rock is hard sticky quartzose sandstone. Slabs, vertical faces, big roofs, cracks, slopers and crimpers, it reminds me a bit of the Gunks, except more diverse and with kangaroos hopping along the base of the crag.

Our mountain of gear contains neither a tent or a stove, so our days start with us rising from bivy sacks and begging coffee from a kind neighbor. After breakfast we do a few routes until the sun chases us into Natimuk(5 min) for a siesta and ice cream (daytime highs were close to 40C while we were there). In the evenings we usually do a few more routes before driving into Horsham(15 min) for dinner at the Baghdad Cafe, a funky little gourmet place we both loved.

An idyllic existence

This was my first extended stint of free climbing since breaking my ankle, and I rediscovered my love for the sport. There are a few tense moments, but mostly we cruised one three star route after another. When we leave Arapiles I feel completely revitalized. I'd almost forgotten how totally centering climbing is for me. I feel like I am back in control of my life for the first time in a long, long time.

The climbing

Most of the climbing we did was traditionally protected crack and vertical face. We probably clipped less than 10 bolts the entire time we were there. That's good, because in Australia you don't just clip the bolts, you first fiddle a little keyhole hanger over a stud with a nut. Then you clip in a quickdraw and hope the whole mess doesn't come undone as you climb by. Only recently and on the harder routes have Australians started to use fixed hangers.

The Australian ratings incorporate endurance, technical difficulty, and sparseness of protection into a single number on an open ended scale. The technical climbing starts around 10 and today the top of the scale is around 32. Grades 17-18 are 5.9ish, 20 is supposed to be mid to low 5.10, and 22 gets you to 5.11a.

I found the ratings pretty inconsistent though and under grade 15 they seemed completely random. While having one number sounds like a nice simple idea, in practice it's bad. A climb labeled 20 can be a few difficult moves, sustained climbing at grade 18, or an unprotectable grade 16. We got fully stuffed a few times picking climbs by numbers.

Some notable ticks (length, grade):

Jenny bought me a T-shirt that listed "classic routes of Mt Arapiles" so we went on a campaign to do as many of those routes as possible. To climbers, "classic" often means "I had a life changing experience on this route and you should too". The shirt became the bane of my existence and resulted in some notable non-ticks:

Christmas

On Christmas Eve a heat wave chases us from Arapiles and we drive to Grampians Park. In blistering sun we hike down to a waterfall only to have it cloud up as soon as we get there. We swim under the waterfall anyway and it takes the entire hike back to the car before Jenny is warm again.

Christmas day we tick Debutante(115m 15) before a big storm rolls in. For Christmas dinner we grill veggie burgers on a coin-op barbie and sip champagne out of yogurt cups. At dark we drive the micro rental car up a deserted dirt road and crash in the front seats as we watch the lightning lash the hilltops. Not everyones idea of a perfect Christmas, but we nod off with smiles on our faces.

With no sign of the storm clearing the day after Christmas we decide to drive The Great Ocean Road (Australia's equivalent of California's Hwy 1). Lots of blurry pictures of Jenny and I pitched over at 45 degrees as the wind howls over the spectacular ocean scenery. These are the same winds that reeked havoc on the yachts in the Sydney to Hobart race.

December 28, Jenny and I part company in Melbourne. She returns to Hong Kong in search of a job, I am off to Cairns in search of more adventure. So far Jenny and I have traveled to five different countries together. Who knows where will be next?

Cairns

From Melbourne I fly to Cairns, a tropical beach town on the north coast. We'll skip right past my attempts to get friendly with the members of the Dutch bikini team who seem to have taken up residence at my hostel.

I'm in Cairns to scuba dive, but of course there is a problem. In the commotion with my passport I left my dive card sitting on my bedroom floor. Doh! It takes several trips to the public access internet place to straighten it all out. I email Robert my housemates phone number, he calls them up, goes over and gets my card, takes it to Kinko's and faxes it to Australia. The result in an incomprehensible smudge, but the dive folks seem content. On with the show!

I spend New Years Eve at the travelers bar in Cairns dancing to '80s euro-pop hits. Mercifully, the Dutch bikini team has other plans.

Welcome to 1999

Start the year off on a good note? I think not.

I'll be on the boat for 4 days, so I lock my stuff in the Hostel's storage closet. Actually the dive folks aren't picking me up till 3, so I lock everything except my laptop in the storage closet and go off to do some reading and writing.

When I show up at 3 my ride is promptly there. Unfortunately, the office staff for the hostel is not. There is no way to retrieve my dive gear. Rats! I set off for a 4 day dive trip with nothing but my laptop. In case you are curious, no, its not water proof.

At the dive shop I buy shorts, a shirt, some sunblock and a few paperbacks. Luckily they have all the dive gear I will need on the boat. My roommate wants to know when I'm going to unpack. "Ummm, I already did"

The murky deep

Dive #1, I hook up with an Aussie lunatic and before I have figured out all the metric conversions we are down at 72 meters. In case you don't know much about diving, there is a laundry list of reasons for not going anywhere near that deep. Among other things, it's close to the depth where oxygen becomes toxic.

We spend the rest of the day snorkling and I make my best sighting of the trip. A manta ray that is close to 2 meters wide. It is chillingly beautiful as it flutters along, just a few meters below me. It has the powerful grace of a dance, but something in its form just screams menace.

The diving is good, but not great. We see sharks, sea turtles, giant clams and plenty of big fish. While there are lots of interesting things to see, there aren't the huge schools of colorful fish that I saw diving in Cabo San Lucas.

The days pass easily on the boat though. We are 100 miles off shore in the Coral Sea, and our days have a simple pattern: wake, eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, sleep. The crew and other passengers are huge amount of fun and we are up to all hours trading stories. There is something profoundly relaxing about being at sea.

The toothy stars

The advertised highlight of the trip is the shark feed. Here is how it works: the divers (thats me) go down to the bottom and sit in a semicircle. On the boat a load of dead fish is threaded on a chain and tossed into the water so it sits 5 or 6 meters above us. The sharks go berserk.

Not just a few sharks, more like 20 or 30 sharks, and not all small sharks, they ranged in length from a meter to more like four meters. The sharks would swim up to the chain, bite off a hunk of fish and then swim right up into my face. They'd stare me down, waving their tasty treat in my general direction, then give a head fake and go whipping by. I nearly wet myself. Thankfully I have it all on video so there is no need to do it again.

Because men have the babies

Back on the boat, I take a fancy to one of the other divers. She is an ad executive in Australia to shoot a new series of commercials for Tampax. As we are chatting I notice a tattoo on her back and ask her, "Why a seahorse?" She replies "Because men have the babies!"

Stalking

It turns out that tampax-woman and I will both be in Cairns for a few more days and then we are both headed to Sydney, as we raise the sails to head for shore we make plans to hang out. On our first day on land, she confesses to having a crush on one of the dive instructors from her previous boat.

We 1-hour her photos and head to the dock where the crushee is preparing for the next trip. He is supremely uninterested in her photos and tampax-woman has a hard time accepting that this isn't going her way. We retire to a bar above the dock and drink down a chain of beers waiting for the moment where I get to photograph her looking on forlornly as the the boat with the crushee sails off into the sunset. Not satisfied with her effort, she pens a letter to him on the back of a photo and we slip it under the door of the dive shop.

I'm highly amused. It isn't often I get to see someone who isn't me act this looney. Of course, being amused doesn't do wonders for my karma and at the blackjack table I lose a $100 while tampax-woman rakes in $500.

Sydney

My flight to Sydney is uneventful but my walking tour reveals a wonderful city. It's friendly and clean, current and hip, ethnically diverse and an all-around nice place to be. Hmmm. Maybe a site for my newspaper internship?

There is one last dinner with tampax-woman, a cozy outdoor place with a harbor view, before she needs to start casting for her shoot. I'm on my own again and go on the tourist war path. The opera house, Sydney tower, the red-light district, Bondi beach, I tour them all.

My first gay date

I'm craving some good food before I return the culinary wasteland that is Colorado, so I spy out a trendy little Italian place. I order myself a nice bottle of wine and chow on penne with vegetables and a spicy tomato sauce. Yummy, yummy!

While I'm eating I notice a guy having dessert and reading a paper. We make eye contact and I wave him over to my table. He turns out to be an ex-pat pommie who has lived in Australia for 25 years. We have a great chat about different cultures. He hadn't had dinner, just pie and cappuccino so, I pick up his tab figuring I'm doing my part to encourage Aussies to befriend lonely tourists.

The guy wants to return the favor and offers to buy me a drink. He says he knows a great little place nearby and I have no other plans, so what the heck. As we are walking to the place I notice he has an annoying habit of grabbing my elbow as we cross streets. What's up with that I wonder? But hey, I'm in a foreign country so I play along.

The place of course turns out to be a full on flamer fest complete with transvestite cabaret singers.

Welcome to my life

I'm tempted to launch into the Homeric story of my love life, but refrain. If there is one thing I know well, it is disappointment and I'm not in the mood to spread it around. He buys me a drink and gives me his card, but I draw the line when he makes a transparent attempt at getting me drunk. And no, he did not get a good-night kiss.

The big engine that didn't

As instructed, I'm at the airport 2 hours before departure. Unfortunately, the plane is not. It seems a catering truck in Singapore smacked into one of the engines and the plane isn't doing so well. The flight is delayed 3 hours as we wait for a plane from London. Unfortunately this pushes us up tight against the Sydney airport curfew, and the usual boarding process is replaced with, "Everyone on the plane, quick!"

Airborne, the purser proudly announces that the flight crew got on the plane only 5 minutes before us, but still managed to get us off the ground. I decide it's a really good time for a nap.

Home sweet Boulder

Now I'm back and beginning my second semester. But of course, dreams of escalation are floating through my sun soaked mind. I'd love to do a year or two world wide trip. See it all, climb it all, do it all. Unfortunately most of my friends seem emotionally attached to their careers lately. Oh well, some day soon...

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