Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Two week trip to Australia

I recently visited my doctor for a checkup and to arrange for blood-work. He has been my doctor for over twenty years and its always a pleasure to see him. He expressed interest in visiting Australia in the near future. Time would be limited but he thought he could get away for two weeks, so I have put together a trip plan that might work and would give him a good idea of what Australia is like. I told him that I would prepare something for him and decided to do it as a blog since there might be others who would like to know how to do this as well.

First you will need a passport and you can get an electronic visa that costs AU $20.


The route is a loop in the south east. Yes, there is a lot more of Australia to see but remember Australia has the same area as the 48 contiguous USA states if you delete South Dakota. It's a big country of three million square miles.

If you have an extra week, go to the South Island of New Zealand on the way back to the USA.

In more detail, the route starts in Sydney and heads west in an anti-clockwise direction. It includes some of Australia's major cities, small towns and renowned beauty spots. As well as coastline, you will get a dose of 'outback' as you head west to Broken Hill and on to Adelaide.

Since I already have traveled most of this route, I will include some links to some of my blog entries that show what it looks like.


When I plan my trips I use a spread-sheet. It really helps get things organized. The yellow parts refer to plane travel and the remainder to car travel. In the right hand column are estimated driving times if you don't stop. The next column shows the minimum nights you should spend at each location. Feel free to stay longer if you have time.

Let's start with dates and when to go.

Unless you really like heat, I recommend going in April through October.The winter months of July and August are fine, often with beautiful blue skies. The heat in the Aussie Summer can be brutal. Avoid December and January because of school holidays when Australia basically shuts down. However, as in the USA, the winter days are shorter and depending where you are, it can get dark shortly after 5 pm.

If you are only going for two weeks you need to use your weekends intelligently. You will notice that I specify flying from PHL or BWI at about 6 pm Friday on a direct flight to the west coast, LAX or SFO. That way you can work most of the Friday and then go to airport arriving about 4 pm to check in for a direct flight to the west coast leaving about 6 pm. Get a direct flight, not one with stop-overs such as Chicago. The more stop-overs, the greater the chance of delay.

If you leave on Friday, you will arrive in Sydney early in the morning on Sunday since you cross the International Dateline.  Conversely, if you leave Sydney on Sunday, you will arrive back in the USA on Sunday, usually at a time of day before you leave Sydney. In any event, you are going to spend a night on the plane. Back when I was working, I used to leave on a Thursday night and come back on a Monday.

The flight across the Pacific is at least 14 hours, more if your plane flies direct from Dallas or Houston.  Having done the trip multiple times, here are some tips.


Do not bother getting a window seat to see the view of the ocean. A number of years ago a hostess gave us a tip to reserve aisle seats on either side of the center section towards the back of the plane. This is a layout of a 747 with seats ABC  DEFG  JKL. Here I have highlighted seat 44 G for myself. Marianne would reserve seat 44 D. Unless the plane is absolutely full, it is unlikely that seats 44 E and 44 F will be occupied since they are so undesirable.

Our technique works quite often and the extra room makes the trip more bearable. It really helps to get up every couple of hours and walk around. DVT is a real problem on these long flights as well as a sore backside. On my last flight across the Pacific, I managed to get four seats to myself and was able to lie down and sleep. Drink plenty of water.

Of course, if you have the money, go business or first class.


As one of our house exchangers used to say ' they charge like a wounded bull'. Sometimes Marianne and I have a wine conversation where we discuss what we would do with a half billion lotto winnings, and we would lash out with an upgrade over cattle class.

Given a choice I would pick Qantas, Virgin and Air New Zealand over United and Delta. The attendants on the southern airlines are usually much more efficient at getting stuff done and usually more friendly. As an example, when you take off from the west coast at 11 pm, your body thinks it is 2 am eastern time. You really want to sleep but you have to eat the big meal to get you though to breakfast. Qantas is really efficient at getting this done, whereas United can be painfully slow.

The food is usually edible, but years ago United used to come around with a snack box in the middle of the trip that contained a sandwich roll wrapped in glad wrap. Once you unwrapped it, the roll was wet and slimy. Oh joy!

The planes have decent entertainment systems and booze is free. You can ask for more but it's not advisable to drink too much. I also take a melatonin pill which helps me sleep. Try it in advance and not for the first time on the plane. The airlines used to hand out sleeping masks but not always these days so I bring my own. I also bring my own inner-ear-monitors and use them instead of the crappy headphones the airlines supply.

And yes, you will get there eventually.

Immigration is all electronic these days for Aussies and US passport holders. Slip your passport into the machine, get your photo taken to match against the passport, answer some immigration questions and generally you are through the process fairly quickly. US visitors will require an electronic visa which you can obtain here.

It usually takes quite some time for your bags to appear on the carousel, usually 30 minutes or more. A customs official will lead a small dog around to sniff your hand luggage for food, drugs or other forbidden items. Australia is surrounded by water so is free from many of the diseases common in other parts of the world. Penalties for attempting to bring in forbidden articles are severe. You can read the regulations here.

Virtually everybody has their luggage x-rayed on exit. The queue for 'nothing to declare' is very long so we take some innocuous article like Old Bay seasoning and declare it and join a much shorter queue. Years ago when my mother was alive, I would bring a box of sugar free chocolates and declare them. Worked every time.

Once you are finished with customs you pass out into the general arrival area of the airport. There are ATMs available and you can use your bank card to get money. You will notice the notes are coloured plastic of different sizes.

You can take a taxi to wherever you are staying and taxi drivers take credit cards. It is usual for the alpha male to sit up front with the driver. Uber is also available. Commuter trains arrive at a station below the terminal but be prepared to pay an extra $13.80 rip-off fee each on top of the cost of the trip itself. The cheapest way to get to and from the airport is the 400 bus but it probably doesn't go where you need to go.

It is not advisable to immediately rent a car if you are new to driving on the other side of the road. Wait a few days until you are refreshed.

Sydney

Hopefully you will arrive and the weather will be beautiful and you will see that special Australian light that is so much clearer and brighter than the east coast murk in the USA.

Sydney is one the most expensive cities in the world, both for accommodation and food. These days we usually prefer to use Airbnb over hotels. If you know people who live there, try to get invited to stay. Become a sponger. We are members of Homelink and usually do a house exchange.

The best part of Sydney are the ferries and the walks beside the Harbour and the ocean walks. Here are some examples.






The restaurant food in Sydney is typically very good. Ingredients are fresh and there is a huge Asian influence on the style of cooking. Both Sydney and Melbourne coffee drinkers are snobs about the quality of their coffee. Occasionally there are articles in the newspapers about how to survive in the US on miserable coffee.

You will probably feel fine during your first day in Sydney. However about 7 pm you need to be in the vicinity of your bed for the night. I generally wake up about 3 am the next morning feeling hungry. I try to have some food ready and something to read on hand.

And of course, let your loved ones at home know that you have arrived safely. Keep updating them with what a wonderful time you are having.

Renting the car

To do this trip you will need to drive a car on the other side of the road. It's scary the first time you do it but just follow the traffic and you will get used to it. In general, just remember that the driver is in the middle of the road. Once you are on the correct side and rolling along you will find it easy.

The most important rule is to think before you turn on the engine. Work out how you are going to get to the road and which side you are going to aim for. Be very wary when you leave gas stations or parks where you have seen some natural wonder that has overwhelmed your senses.

After more than 30 years driving in the USA, I still think before I turn on the engine and drive off.

It used to be free to do a one-way rental in Australia, but no longer. This journey does a loop that will end up at Sydney Airport.

Use one of the major companies such as Hertz, Avis or Budget. They have representatives all over Australia so if anything goes wrong, you have a better chance of getting it fixed. I have found it useful to become a member of each company. I get a cheaper rate or special deal and I don't have to line up at the counter in the terminal. I just go to the area where the cars are located.

Get a GPS package for your cell phone. I use Sygic or just Google Maps. Android Auto may link up with your car's display screen which is very handy. Sydney streets are a rabbit warren. Use the motor ways to get out of Sydney since the ordinary streets will be jammed with traffic. I also bring my own holder for the cell phone. Get a gallon or two of water and keep in the car for emergencies. You will be on well traveled roads, but it pays to take no chances in the outback.

Some of the motor ways (freeways) in Sydney and Melbourne have tolls. Rental car companies now cater for this but beware. Some companies try to charge you a fixed amount for every day you rent the car, even though you probably will only go through a couple of toll booths.

Do not speed, even by a few miles per hour. Police use hidden radar cameras and there is little leeway. You will find the traffic just rolls along at the speed limit which makes for very smooth driving. You may be pulled over at any time of day for a Random Breath Test. Australia uses the metric system these days so distances are measured in kilometers.

Go around the rental car and take photos at every angle both prior to and after renting the car. My credit card covers the CDW. Check whether your's does as well. By the way, check if you need health insurance in Australia. Regular Medicare does not provide coverage.

Take a break every two hours. Fortunately most towns in rural areas are about an hour apart. So stop after two hours, get some petrol and have an ice-cream. Or go to a bakery and get something to eat. After lunch, have a quick nap. I find it helpful to use a sleep-mask. Many road accidents in Australia result from somebody falling asleep so if you feel at all drowsy, pull over and rest.

Stop for the night before the sun goes down. Kangaroos and emus tend to inhabit the roads after dark and you will see lots of dead kangaroos beside the roads. Even in day-light hours, you need to be constantly aware. Once you see an emu, you will understand why you don't want it coming through your windscreen / windshield. You may also come across wombats, koalas or goats crossing the road.

Telstra has the best cell phone coverage, particularly in rural areas. Get the young person who sells you the SIM card to install it for you. It's your chance to play the old duffer. I do it very well.

What to see and do.

There is a lot to see and do in Oz. There is also a lot of information, photos and information in my blog. Spend some time going through the entries. I can't tell you everything but here are some you might find interesting.





Barossa Valley - wine area near Adelaide




Botanic Gardens in Melbourne


Accommodation and food

Book your accommodation for the night in advance. Sometimes a whole town can sell out because of some local event and there is nothing available for another 50 miles.

Increasingly we have been using AirBNB instead of motels. It's often cheaper and usually you get a very friendly reception.

Food in country Australia can be disappointing compared to the capitol cities. Pubs or clubs are  usually reasonable but just ask your host for a recommendation.

Bakeries are your best bet for lunch. Avoid drinking alcohol at pubs if you are driving. Random breath tests are common and can occur at any time of day.

Dangers

You probably won't come across the deadly snakes and spiders. They will sense you coming and will disappear. Just don't do anything stupid like touching them if you see them.

Ocean surf can be strong compared to the east coast of the US. Bathe between the flags and beware of rips. In northern parts of Australia there are jelly fish in the ocean that can kill you from the shock of the pain. And of course there can be sharks.

Never go close to crocodile infested water in the northern parts of Oz. Remember the scene in Crocodile Dundee.

Leaving Australia

This trip has you staying the night in the Kiama area before you fly out of Sydney. Accommodation in Kiama is cheaper than near Sydney Airport and a walk to the blow-hole will be refreshing. It's easy enough to drive to the airport and takes about 2 hours. In rush hour, it could take longer. Try to catch a plane that leaves after noon allowing for time to fill up the tank, hand the car back and get to the check-in line with two hours to spare.

Immigration will check your passport electronically before you go through all the x-ray stuff. They want to know who has overstayed their welcome.

There usually will be another carry-on check before you are allowed to board your flight back to the USA. Mostly the flights leave on time but make sure your connection time in LAX / SFO / HOU / DFW to the east coast allows for some delay. US immigration is electronic just as in Australia.

You may experience severe jetlag for several days when you get home. I find that melatonin helps.

If you have further questions, send an email to my gmail.com account which is rperry13













Friday, January 12, 2018

The eigth anniversary of my retirement

When I was picking a date to retire, I noticed that January 11 seemed like a convenient day. It also happened to be my mother's birthday and I thought she would be amused by my choice of date. Today would have been her 100th birthday.


This is the earliest photo I have of her. Her older sister is behind her on the horse. Her mother died before I was born.


My older sister Anne, my father and mother. The photo was taken in 1973 at my younger sister's wedding. Tonight we will have a bottle of champers in her honour but my mother would not have been too impressed because she did not drink alcohol. However, my father would have joined in and had a glass. We were a very happy family.

It's now two years since my triple bypass and I still appear to be doing well. I continue to do the three mile walk around the community and my doctor reckons I am looking good. Marianne wonders whether my travel planning has become an obsession and she could be right. I believe I have been given a great gift of extra years and I plan to use them. This list is what I have done since the surgery.


Next month, I will head off again by myself to do these tours:
and then I will take a train to Tangier, cross the Strait of Gibraltar, bus to Malaga where I will do the Caminito del Rey walk and then fly back from Madrid.

In May, Marianne and I will travel by boat down the Norwegian coast and then spend a week or so in Poland where some of her ancestors came from. 

So each year on this date I go for a walk down to the community jetties and take some photos. Prior to doing this blog, I look at the blogs for this date from prior years and it's interesting to see what has changed or not changed over the years.


The lease on our Mini will be up at the end of April shortly before we head off to Oz. It has been a great car and we have thoroughly enjoyed it. By the way, I have never opened the hood (bonnet).


After the new septic system was installed last year, this area was a sea of mud. I planted grass and it came up so now we can walk around without sinking down to our ankles.

We were commenting at breakfast how after 31 years, we still enjoy looking out of the windows.


It has been a fun house to live in.


After all the super-cold weather, the bay is still mostly frozen. That dredge has been there for several months now.


The community's long jetty.


The short jetty where boats are launched.


Ducks enjoying the icy water.


One of my former co-workers lives in the community and we sometimes go for a walk to the light-house on Wednesdays. Yesterday the temperatures were finally above freezing so we headed off. Here is the ice on the Chesapeake Bay which had frozen over.


The light-house.


Your hero. Yes, it was cold enough to need the beanie.


We joined the community college about the same time and both rose through the ranks to be on President's Staff. We sat in so many meetings together which we can now laugh about. As we headed off, Chris remarked that 'today is All College Day' and we both groaned and were relieved that we did not have to attend, yet alone plan the event. Retirement is wonderful.



Monday, January 8, 2018

Trail Creek in Athens GA

Each Christmas, we get together with my younger sister and brother-in-law and it's always a lovely time with plenty of good food and wine as well as numerous insults passed back and forth. Mostly we just sit around for a few days and talk, but we try to get some exercise and so Clare and Ric took us to the new Trail Creek in Athens GA.


This image from Google Maps is out-of-date but you might notice a brown creek which the path roughly follows.




The remains of a an old railway trestle bridge. It will eventually be restored and become part of the path.




Even though it is old and abandoned, the timber still appears to be in good shape.


The path is suitable for bikes as well as walking.



Signs along the way have photos of what Athens used to be like years ago. I was surprised to find that there was a tram system. You can read about this streetcar system here.





The USA used to have a very extensive train system with lines going everywhere. Most of them have been torn up years ago.


The old Athens station.


This bridge now forms part of the path. The superstructure is new, but the pylons used to support the former railway line.



Train crossing the bridge with the wood supports.

Transport
Not always the safest.


The creek.


Interesting seat.





It's amazing in the USA how each and every place seemed to make something that was  or still is famous. Athens used to be surrounded by cotton fields but they are long gone.


There were cotton mills of course and they have gone as well.


This used to be the Athens Armory and produced guns for the Confederates in the Civil War. Remember this area was part of the Deep South. It's now used by the University of Georgia Facilities Dept.


Crossing the North Oconee River that flows through Athens.


Notice the blue sign to the mid left.


What it reads.


R.E.M fans might be interested in this undistinguished building. It's Weaver D's restaurant that had a motto of 'Automatic for the People'. You can read the story here.

To be honest, I find their music very bland and wimpish. Oh well, we all have our preferences.


Interesting student housing.


More new student housing. Apparently the University makes a lot of money and the buildings are relatively close to campus.


The mascot for the University of Georgia is a bulldog.



This is called the 'Murmers' bridge after another R.E.M album.



Looking down to the River.


The track continues along the former railway line and comes to the remains of the old trestle. It is going to be fixed up and the trail continued as a loop. It will a great exercise facility for everybody.