Thursday, August 30, 2012

Greymouth and Franz Josef (New Zealand)

About 4 hours southwest of Abel Tasman National Park lies Greymouth. A quick glance around reveals its claim as the biggest city on the west coast doesn't really mean much, but after days in the backcountry, we were pretty happy in any place with a real bed and hot showers. The old mining settlement on the Grey River is home to a few shops showcasing quality jade carving. The green stone is highly prized in Maori culture, and though occurring naturally in this region, trade and the working of it is tightly regulated in New Zealand.

One thing we've enjoyed here is the availability and variety of craft beers. Restaurants and pubs around New Zealand prominently display their allegiance to different breweries, and you can be sure going into one that the full range from that brewery will be on tap. Monteith's is one of the most popular, and Greymouth just the happens to be the home of the original brewery. At first, the 30 minute tour seems a little pricey at 20 NZ dollars (= 10 pounds or 15 €), but then you get a 12 oz. pour of a brand new beer, tickets for an additional 3 glasses on-site, and a coupon for a free pint off-site. The brewers are experimenting in 3500 liter batches, and as visitors to the brewery, we got to try the new india pale ale and a truly fantastic apricot hefeweizen. Their black beer and winter ale also were quite tasty, and Monteith's Original – the oldest recipe and still the biggest seller – gets a thumbs up from us, too. After all the free alcohol, it's a good thing the in-house cafe also serves hearty fare like a luxurious seafood chowder.

Three hours further south of Greymouth is glacier country. There are two to choose from – Franz Josef and Fox. We had booked many months in advance and were very eager to hop on a helicopter and be whisked up onto the blue ice. Unfortunately, just as we started to suit up, the heli-hike was cancelled due to low cloud cover and poor visibility. We were gutted! The consolation prize – a free walk to the face of Franz Josef glacier – was much less impressive so we washed away our tears with a visit to the hot pools in town. Later, we blew some of our substantial refund on a lovely dinner of New Zealand lamb shanks and stayed to cheer on the national rugby team in a 22-0 defeat of their rivals, the Australian Wallabies. The All Blacks team are the pride of New Zealand, capturing the most recent Rugby World Cup in 2011, and it was great to see their awesome skills and watch them perform the haka (a traditional Maori warrior challenge) on their home territory.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Abel Tasman National Park (New Zealand)

Abel Tasman National Park, smallish by this country's standards, is located on the north coast on the South Island. We were there to hike the Coast Track, which has been designated one of New Zealand's 8 Great Walks. The entire track can be done in 3 – 5 days for backcountry hikers. Water taxis at several points and a bus at one end make it very accessible, and therefore, also popular with day visitors. The well-maintained trail itself is not very strenuous or technical. Marshes lead upward to the native bush of scrub land and rainforest. Secluded waterfalls and majestic tree ferns delight the eyes and add more beauty to the landscape. Isolated, golden sand beaches meet turquoise waters and white granite outcroppings. In summer, we've heard it can feel like a traffic jam on the track, but in the winter, we practically had it all to ourselves. Seeing half a dozen other hikers on the trail one day felt busy, and another night we were alone in a hut that sleeps 32 people. The huts are reserved through the Department of Conservation (or DOC), and though pricier than we're used to in North Carolina, they all had thick mattresses, wood stoves, and the hallmark of civilization – flush toilets with seats and toilet paper!

The one factor that does make the Abel Tasman Coast Track challenging is the tides. There are several spots along the trail where you need to cross tidal streams or estuaries. This involves a lot of head-scratching as you compare tidal charts, sunrise and sunset times, the estimation of your own speed (laden with your pack), and how deep you're willing to wade in chilly, often fast-flowing waters. At one point, several groups of hikers were sitting around for over an hour on a sandfly-infested beach waiting to cross a 3 meter stream. Eventually, boots came off and everyone rolled up their pants in their impatience to keep going. Further complicating these issues, we found the DOC estimates for completing a trail section to be, shall we say, ambitious… to the point where we started referring to them as “in New Zealand time” (= it will take us 1.5 times longer).

We did see a wide array of New Zealand fauna as well. Coastal birds like oyster catchers, cormorants, and ducks made regular appearances in Abel Tasman. Our favorite little birdies though were the fantails, which flit around picking up insects in the soil disturbed by our passage and flashing their white fan-like tails. The waters around Abel Tasman are part of the Tonga Island Marine Reserve so we got to check out some seals and blue penguins from our water taxi on the way back. The 3.5 days we spent in Abel Tasman National Park was a real change from the rest of our trip, and we really enjoyed this gorgeous corner of the country!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Wellington, Nelson, and Motueka (New Zealand)

If Rich thought Auckland felt like a proper city, Wellington is where all the cool kids must hang out. We didn't get to spend much time there, but the center seemed to have a lot of cool restaurants and bars filled with the artsy fartsy and hipster crowds. There's a film school, and it's the base of the New Zealand film industry. You can visit the Weta Workshop, too, responsible for much of the special effects and costumes in Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and other films.

Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, has to be the best free museum ever! Although, like everywhere downtown, you do have to pay for parking. The exhibits are well-organized, creatively presented, and highly interactive. With New Zealand's location in the Ring of Fire, the awesome power of nature features prominently, including experiencing a mock earthquake inside a house. There are exhibits highlighting the flora and fauna with an outdoor native bush area and a scary, preserved colossal squid  (that's the real name). You can learn more about Maori and New Zealand history and culture even stepping inside a whare, or a traditional Maori meeting house.

We had a smooth crossing on the ferry from the North Island to the South Island. Later we heard horror stories detailing rougher ones with 3 meter swells, and the boat running out of the entire supply of seasickness bags. Passing the misty, forested outcroppings of desolate smaller islands in the Marlborough Sounds reminded us of the approach to Vancouver Island in Canada.

After picking up our South Island car, we headed straight for Nelson in the dark, finding it to be quite a charming town by daylight. The little shops all seemed to be staffed by friendly people, and we got to catch up with another friend in a nice pub that inexplicably was playing an old North Carolina favorite tune “Wagon Wheel.”

The road out of Nelson towards Motueka is quite picturesque as, in addition to the ubiquitous sheep on the hill, it is also wine country. Pinot Noir grows particularly well in the Upper Moutere region, but the wineries also produce Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurtraminer, and Riesling from grapes sourced locally or elsewhere in New Zealand. Wine tastings were very reasonable, ranging from free to 4 tastes for 2 New Zealand dollars (= 1 pound or 1.50 €). Such generosity tends to lubricate the wallet, and we picked up a nice reserve Pinot Noir from the Woollaston vineyards for later and had a nice lunch from the wood-fired oven at Kahurangi Estates. Other stops along the wine route also included a glassblower's gallery, a fruit stall selling bags of kiwifruit (kiwis are only the people or the flightless bird in New Zealand), and a woodturner's studio with a gnarled, cross-eyed old man with the air of a chatty grandad.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Waitomo and New Plymouth (New Zealand)

Two hours west of Rotorua is the village of Waitomo, famous for its limestone caves and glowworms! These bioluminescent beauties are the larval stage of a fungus gnat. They produce a mucous-y silk that hangs down in strands to catch their prey of small flying insects, which are attracted to the lights in the dark. You can view the caves on a relaxed walk-and-boat ride or you can go what I'm calling the EXXXTREME ENTOMOLOGY way. Donning thick wetsuits, neoprene socks, and very fetching white boots, we headed into the caves armed with headlamps and inner tubes! We had to do a practice jump beforehand – backwards off a platform into the freezing waters 3 meters below and landing on our inner tubes. An Irish couple didn't fare well in the practice run (Rich said you could've mistook the guy's cold shock for a heart attack), and they backed out completely once they saw the rushing waters in the first cave. Heavy rains in the area meant the water levels underground were very high. One section called “the limbo” was really more of a duck and dive job since there was less than 6 inches of head space between the water level and the rock above. Caving with the inner tube was actually a little cumbersome because if you weren't actually on it, the fast currents will drag it – and you – even more. The currents did make for some fun tubing, especially through the narrow passes where we joined up in a chain and turned off our headlamps to enjoy the starry sky-like glow of the worms. The ambiance was made complete by our group's rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in the echo-y caverns. We all managed the jumps and slides fine, and the guides challenged us to a game of “Find the Exit” by going dark and following only the trail of the glowworms above, floating solo until we all eventually emerged into the sunlit rainforest. Awesome!

New Plymouth, another 2.5 hours southwest of Waitomo, is usually not a place for tourists. A good-sized town, or “city” by New Zealand standards, it is mostly known as the home of the oil and gas industry. We were there, however, to visit friends. Oddly enough, one of Rich's friends from college  (a Brit) and one of my friends from grad school (an American) both just happened to have moved to this exact corner of New Zealand this year. We had a stroll along the waterfront (where volunteers were scanning the coast for missing and presumed drowned climbers) and peeked into the local museum. We tried several times to get a shot of the nearby mountain Taranaki (so perfectly cone-shaped, it's sometimes a movie double for Mt. Fuji) though the persistent rain and clouds were conspiring against us. But mostly in New Plymouth, we enjoyed the simple pleasures of life: an excellent tea and scones in a cafe, the ancient art of prowling for secondhand CD's in a record shop, and drinking good beers (Rich's friend unveiled a particularly fine stout he homebrewed).

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Rotorua (New Zealand)

A flight attendant recommended waiting until daylight to drive the 2.5 hours southeast from Auckland to Rotorua in order to appreciate the scenery. We had to admit it was a pretty good rendition of idyllic pastoral beauty. Rich thought it looked like England, but stretched on the z-axis. Blue skies – check. Rolling mossy green hills – check. Fluffy sheep and placid cows dotting said hills – check. As one person put it to us before, it's almost too perfect to be real. All it needed was a Christmas nativity or a model train set in order to convince us otherwise. No wonder director Peter Jackson decided to use one spot in the area for Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings films. To cap it all off, we saw 4 rainbows in one day!

Rotorua is the one of the North Island's biggest tourist destinations. It is one of the world's most concentrated and accessible geothermal sites, and we checked them out a couple of ways. Wai-o-tapu is a park of multi-colored geothermal pools and geysers. The pools, rocks, and even plants are covered with layers of strange residues, e.g. reds for iron oxide, yellows or greens for sulfurs, etc. While most of these areas are too hot to even walk on (use the platforms for safety), there are other pools which you can sink right into at the spa in town. The rotten egg smell seems to pervade all of Rotorua, but somehow you manage to forget this and all your other cares in the steaming mineral baths overlooking the serene lake and surrounding hillsides.

Rotorua and the lake are important places for the indigenous Maori people. You can visit Maori village sites to learn more about the culture. Although most Maoris live integrated into modern life, the presentation showcased such important aspects like traditional greetings, songs, warrior canoes, and weapons training. Although obviously directed towards tourism, it doesn't feel forced or inauthentic. It's clear that the people are eager to share and preserve their culture. Visitors most look forward to the hangi, the traditional special meal buried and cooked over coals for hours. The lamb and chicken were very tender, the potatoes and kumara (a type of sweet potato) were wonderfully smoky, and the inclusion of stuffing showed the influence of British settlers. Yum!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Auckland (New Zealand)

The curse of the discount airlines struck down our plans to reunite in Auckland for a day of sightseeing. With Julie stuck in Sydney for an extra 24 hours, I was forced to go it alone. Unfortunately, being accustomed to being under her boot, I was unable to fully let my hair down and spent most of the day walking around aimlessly.

The decision to walk rather than drive got some strange looks from the hostel staff, but I'm glad I did. The half hour walk to the city centre was a nice one with good views of Auckland and the iconic sky tower all the way in. I also stopped in at a Asian-run Italian coffee shop that baked pastry shipped frozen from France. To my surprise, it was the best coffee I've had so far this trip. They also recommended I go to the port to check out the seafood market (see Julie's previous post regarding Asians and seafood). Although it was nice to see, it made me appreciate how lucky we are in Barcelona to have bigger seafood markets in every barrio!

My only other adventure was going to the Auckland Art Gallery. The new gallery (completed in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup) showcases the best of Kiwi contemporary art. A big surprise came while I was puzzling over the toilet seat glued to the ceiling next to a row of framed O's. A tall, well dressed, and very excited man (who later turned out to be the museum's curator) came running through the exhibits telling people to get upstairs as quickly as possible. An award winning performance artist was coming on a surprise visit and about to do an impromptu show! I sauntered upstairs trying to pretend I was too cool be be excited about such things. Only when I got there did I read that this artist tries to “explore the relationship between artist and audience.” I think it's clear to everyone what that means. Yes, we would be called upon to “do stuff.” I hid quietly in the corner and prayed that she didn't pick me for some kind of embarrassing act, and prayed harder that the person next to me wasn't some kind of secret performer that was about to jump up and cause the crowd to look in my general direction. Fortunately, I was let off the hook, free to ponder the artist-audience relationship that arises from shoulder wrestling to the strains of an upside-down string quartet. Hmmmmm.

All in all, I had an interesting day in Auckland by myself. I was glad to pick Julie up later that evening, though, so we could continue our adventures together.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sydney, Part II (Australia)

Sydney's Fish Market is the second largest in the world behind Tokyo's. As a seafood lover and hobby cook, I couldn't resist the Behind the Scenes tour, despite the 6:45 am start time. The demographics of the tour group were particularly amusing – a bunch of Asians and a couple of Frenchmen. But really, who else would be eager to get up so early to look at fresh caught fish? Fisherman in Australia are now required to land 100% of their catch so the Fish Market Seafood School and other outreach programs have been working to educate Sydneysiders (as the locals are known) and visitors on how to prepare and appreciate all the riches of the sea. The seafood is sorted, weighed, graded, and crated on the floor, and various suppliers and buyers can wander through examining the lots before the auction begins at 5:30 am. The auction itself is complicated, and the big screens, stadium seating, and panel of buttons at each place look more akin to an off-track betting operation. Most lots are sold in reverse auction (or “Dutch” auction since it was popularized for selling tulips), where the price starts high and winds down on the screen until someone presses “stop” and wins. Other lots start high, wind down, and then confusingly go up again as interested buyers outbid each other. Weaving through the stacks of crates, the tour guide picked up interesting specimens, explaining how they are caught and giving tips on buying and preparing them. In the sashimi pavillion, we saw the big fish that would be auctioned as single lots: gorgeous sushi-grade tuna, swordfish, and even a couple of mako sharks!

Though the city is known for its life on the waterfront, Sydney's greenspaces are nothing to be sneezed at either. Hyde Park, named for the one in London, is centrally located and home to the Anzac Memorial. At various times, but most significantly in World War I, Australia and New Zealand troops (or “Anzacs”) fought for the British crown... often it seemed with devastating consequences under their British commanding officers. The Royal Botanic Gardens and the adjacent Domain also had their origins in colonial times but now are big, beautiful parks with prime locations in downtown Sydney. Many of the Brit expats (a.k.a. “Poms” in Aussie-speak) were so homesick that the section that grows plants native to their “green and pleasant land” was and continues to be one of the most popular in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sydney (Australia)

Rich pushed on with work so I headed down to New South Wales to play. Sydney is Australia's most famous city though it isn't the capital (purpose-built Canberra is). Conceptually, I knew it was a harbor town though I was still unprepared to find it riddled with wharfs, harbors, and quays.

Circular Quay (pronounced “key”) is the main dock for the green and yellow public ferry system as well as home to the famed Sydney Opera House.  Jørn Utzon, the Danish architect who submitted the winning design, fell out of favor with the city when the build took 10 more years and 14x the amount of money that he estimated. He died, never seeing the completion of this Australian icon.  Opposite the Sydney Opera House are The Rocks district (the first settlement in Sydney and now home to artsy cafes and boutique shops) and the impressive Harbour Bridge.

The 18th Biennale, an international art festival that happens every two years, provided a good opportunity to get on the water. There was a free ferry to Cockatoo Island, the site of a former shipyard run on convict labor, where the industrial buildings of the museum were transformed into a contemporary art walk. With an Alcatraz kinda feel – and maybe I've watched too many movies - some of the impromptu galleries were a little eerie... like an abandoned warehouse that would be the perfect location for the someone to be tied up in a chair and tortured by the bad guys. More exhibitions were free (!) to the public at the excellent Art Gallery of New South Wales as well as the Australia Museum of Contemporary Art for the Biennale festivities.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cairns, Port Douglas, and the Great Barrier Reef (Australia)

Domestic flights in Australia are reasonable with the discount airlines. We hopped on a plane rather than embarking on what would be the 20+ hour road trip northwest from Brisbane to Cairns, even though they're both in the state of Queensland. There isn't a whole lot to do in Cairns city. It has a weird Midwest-suburbia-combination-beach-town vibe (shopping mall sprawl and bars advertising fruity cocktail specials)... which is all the more strange because there is no actual beach! Instead, Cairns has a man-made shallow lagoon for mostly kiddies and a boardwalk called "The Esplanade" from which you can gaze upon the natural mud flats.

With travel agencies and information centers on every corner, one quickly realizes that Cairns is merely a base for the 600+ tours of the region. You can visit rainforests or vineyards, hot air balloon or sky dive, go caving or whitewater rafting, and the list goes on and on. But these are all secondary pursuits. Cairns's claim to fame is as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. 

Our first trip to the reef went directly out from the port in Cairns. Michaelmas Cay (about 30 km east) has only a tiny segment of beach for visitors since the rest is off-limits as a migratory bird sanctuary. It was nice for easing back into snorkeling since the water was quite calm though chilly. We were glad for the wetsuits and the hot tea after! Hastings Reef was farther out, and the waves were stronger. The site was larger and deeper. Beautiful parrotfish, butterflyfish, anemonefish (a.k.a. Nemo and cousins),  and countless others swam all around us in the gorgeous corals. On the way back to port, we even caught a glimpse of the spray from some humpback whales as they were migrating to their breeding grounds!

For our second trip, we decided to go with a boat out of Port Douglas, which meant getting up before dawn to catch the transfer to the town 70 km north. We were hoping that getting away from the Cairns-based hoards would mean more pristine reef, and the gamble paid off. During our first mooring in the middle of Opal Reef, Rich and I both had trouble believing we weren't swimming in an aquarium. The corals were so brilliantly colored, and the fish were so abundant in number and variety, that I kept expecting to turn and see a treasure chest opening with bubbles floating out! The other sites at Long Bommie (a bommie is the high point of a reef) and Tongue Reef were also very good. We could have gone with the bunch that the marine biologist was leading to Turtle Bay, but our choice to go off independently had its own reward. We didn't even notice that a turtle was so close until it zipped by right in front of us!

Back in Cairns, we splurged at one of the chic restaurants in order to taste some Australian wildlife. Rich finally got to try Moreton Bay Bugs, a prehistoric creature that looks just like a lobster tail with eyes. The verdict was disappointing: shrimp-like, but without any of the sweetness of a lobster or tiger prawn. I opted for what seemed like Australia on a platter: crocodile (slightly fishy chicken with a texture somewhere between breast and shrimp), kangaroo (really tender beef steak), emu (a little tough beef steak - but maybe it was overcooked since even medium rare is pushing it), and the popular Australian barramundi (nice, flaky white fish). I could imagine some of these could be strong and gamey, but this place did a fantastic job balancing the flavors and paring them nicely with a bed of potato/sweet potato mash and braised baby bok choi. I would definitely go back for seconds! 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Brisbane (Australia)

Our first impression of Queensland's capital and the third largest city in Australia was muddled in the jetlag of arrival. Saying goodbye to Rich's cousins and the outskirts, we headed back into the city proper to take in more. Most of the sights are easy walking. A stroll along the Brisbane River brings you past several museums and artsy cafes. We ducked into the Queensland Museum to learn a bit more of the state's history, including sheep ranches, sea cucumber fishing, and lots of mining. This could explain the sort of old Wild West vibe we've felt. I guess gold rushes will do that to a place. Further down river, the South Bank Parklands has pretty bits of rainforest, outdoor eateries, and the occasional monument from Brisbane's twin cities or various other cultural connections. But the real winner for greenspace has to be the City Botanic Gardens, where the huge fig, pine, and macadamia trees that shade lovely stretches of soft grass – real grass for our deprived Barcelona-selves! – made us wish we'd brought a picnic.

Heading up the pedestrian mall of Queen Street, we passed pubs and restaurants, clothing stores, souvenir shops, and money exchanges. It finally hit us that UGG boots are actually a product of Australia after passing countless outlets claiming to offer the best deal. We didn't buy any footwear, but we were quite happy to open our wallets for the farmer's market/food stalls at the end of the high street. Then again, we never could resist grilled sausages or kettle corn. It was a bargain compared to most of the meals we've had in this country, where even one takeout dish can set you back 16 Australian dollars (~ 17 USD or 14 €) - and that's without rice! 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Beerwah (Australia)

Steve Irwin fascinated millions as the Crocodile Hunter on his Animal Planet television show. While you may disagree with his methods, the Australia Zoo, which bears his name and likeness (and the likenesses of his entire family in a huge merchandising empire), in Beerwah is home to many of the continent's most intriguing creatures.

One advantage of visiting in the winter was that we and the other handful of tourists pretty much had the run of the zoo. The enclosures seemed reasonably sized and almost natural to our untrained eyes. The animals were very active. Echnidas (cute little porcupine things that catch insects with their long tongues) and cassowaries (prehistoric-looking giant flightless birds) were moving around so much that all our pictures were blurred.

Though the cost of admission was still dear, as the Aussies would say, zookeepers seemed to be around every corner with an animal you could meet. There were dingoes, baby alligators, and wombats (marsupials which look like rodents of unusual size... and adorableness). One exhibit was dedicated to native snakes with increasing levels of venom. Naturally, the focus of the stage show in the “Crocomuseum” was the saltwater crocodile. When the park staff in true Steve Irwin-style taunted Charlie the Crocodile, not comfortable with the ethics of such tactics, we were both secretly rooting for him to take a chunk out of one of them.

For us, the real highlight of the Australia Zoo were the koalas and kangaroos. So many koalas were in the trees that we half wondered if some of them were just planted teddy bears. After all, they sleep for 20 hours a day, digesting the toxic eucalyptus that is the mainstay of their diet, so it'd be hard to tell from the motionless balls of fur. Rich was lucky enough to catch one awake and snacking with a baby in its pouch! Being there on a school day was great, too, because the kangaroos were still hungry enough to eat from our hands. They weren't too grumpy so we could spend quite some time hanging out with them, and if the roos got tired, they could wander back into their own private rest areas.

Rich was disappointed there weren't any duck-billed platypuses, but all in all, we had an excellent visit to the Australia Zoo!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Brisbane, Beenleigh, Mount Tambourine, Surfers Paradise, and Burleigh Heads (Australia)

When we were barely newlyweds, Rich got sent off to Australia for work for almost 2 months. I had wanted to go visit him, but that whole wedding-and-honeymoon business had already used up a lot of time and cash. When he told me he was going for work again – let alone during August a.k.a. the month that all of Spain takes its vacations – there was no way I was going to miss this second chance!

If you drew a line from Spain straight through the center of the Earth, you would end up in Australia. This explains both the shockingly high airfare to Brisbane and the fact that the flights, strangely enough, show you could go in either an easterly or westerly direction. We'd heard good things about Emirates... but let's face it, everybody in economy just wants to get off the plane after watching 5 films and eating 6 meals... even with regular hot towels and tea service.

Rich's cousin was kind enough to pick us up when we landed at 2 a.m. and generous enough to let us stay with her family at their place in Beenleigh, a suburb of Brisbane. Our introduction to the land of Oz (as the Aussies call it) came the next morning when we were drinking tea on the back porch and a wild cockatoo landed in the big palm nearby! It's winter here, but you wouldn't know it during the sunny days, whose warm temperatures equal those of an English summer. Brightly-colored lorikeets stopped by later, and ibis(es?) and bush turkeys are so common they're almost pests... especially if the bush turkey decides to build his nest – basically a huge compost pile – in your yard.

We went for a drive – left side of the road, folks! - up to Mount Tambourine. There were gorgeous views of the lowlands (lots of horse country), and we watched a para-sailer ride the thermals below. The wineries were closed when we got there, but we did have a lovely coffee with views of the Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise to the strains of terrible country music. After about the 10th kookaburra, we stopped taking so many pictures of the birds each time we saw one.

Surfers Paradise up close is a flashy, touristy cluster of high-rise hotels, casinos, and clubs. However, just a little further south, Burleigh Heads is a quieter beach town with a nice little National Park. We took a stroll through the eucalyptus forest, with a slightly faster pace in the rock fall danger zone! Whales are sometimes spotted off the coast here, but all we caught were surfers. Lunch was at a restaurant at a life savers (life guard) station. Rich's cousins are members, so we were privileged to partake of their excellent fried seafood and what was the best seafood chowder ever! We've been talking about it ever since.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 12-14 Kedougou, Tambacounda, Dakar, and Goree Island (Senegal)

I was very disappointed that I was too sick to do the final day of training in Dar Es Salaam. We left the training materials with KEOH, who will do the follow up with the women's groups. After wrap up sessions with KEOH and the USAID-Yaajeende office in Kedougou, we said our goodbyes and hit the road again. My volunteer coordinator and our driver kindly arranged to break up the long haul back to Dakar with an overnight stay in Tambacounda so as not to overtax my recovery. It ended up being a good idea for everyone involved since traffic into the capital added an extra 2 hours onto the 9 hour journey.

Dakar is big and sprawling with 2.5 million people calling it home. We passed open markets selling all manner of goods, and should you not want to bother getting out of the car, quick-footed salesmen dodge traffic to sell cashews, bags of water, and a yellowy green fruit (very tart, good when juiced and mixed with sugar, and popular with the monkeys in the bush) at your window. Our neighborhood was mostly other hotels and government and NGO buildings. Dinner was at a lovely seaside venue, where I had yummy shrimp beignets and juice from the fruit of the baobab tree (creamy, sort of pear-banana-custard apple flavor).

I had an extra day to see a bit before leaving Senegal. We headed out to Goree Island, a settlement just off the coast. For many years, it was a major trading stop. The colorful architecture and balconies are reminiscent of New Orleans. You can visit the House of Slaves, where many Africans taken during the slave trade passed through the Door of No Return on their way to the New World. For less grim thoughts, Goree seems to have become a popular beach for day trippers. There's also a good view if you climb to the top of the island and look out the old gun turrets that used to defend it. Learning a tiny bit more about Senegalese culture and history made for a nice way to finish up my assignment.