Grand Canyon, South Rim, Arizona

It’s the Grand Canyon, South Rim… it’s a classic! Rather than drive here, however, I took the train ride from Williams, AZ (on Route 66) where I was spending the night.

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To be honest, the three hours the Train service allowed me was ENOUGH, in large part because my pinky toe on my right foot was seriously unhappy with me (I had sprained it and rather than let it rest and keeping it elevated, I had been driving cross-country and doing a load of walking.) As such, rather than walk I first took the shuttle bus for invalids (organized by the train company) from the train to

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I LOVE the fact that an old-fashioned station wagon drove up just then, haven’t seen one of those since the 1970’s

El Tovar.. in order to get some lunch, and to see it because … HARVEY HOUSE!!!

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On the train I had asked the girl to suggest which of the restaurants had the best food, and she said the main restaurant at the El Tovar for sure… but I had done so much snacking on the way over that, while looking over their lunch menu, I found I wasn’t actually all that hungry, so I opted for the Onion Soup

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It was VERY good (definitely a cut above the average), and every person I spoke to at the surrounding tables was also extremely happy with their food. Let’s face it, you don’t expect food at restaurants like this actually be good, especially when the food prices are relatively reasonable. (You’re paying for the location, ambiance and view).IMG_0588

That said, the room is also quite spectacular…. both its interior and decorations,

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And of course if you’re very lucky (I wasn’t) you’ll be placed next to a widow with an amazing view.

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The bottom right image was from my table… I was WAY in the back but that said, ….Heh, my table was RIGHT next to the electric plug and my iPhone’s battery was down to 20% after the train ride.

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A bar, that also has a wonderful view

I wandered around the building a bit afterwards, cause it was gorgeous (and a Hardy House that had been kept authentic over time)… ‘

IMG_0597Directly adjacent to the El Tovar is Hopi House, which is also a historic landmark, that is used as store for mostly high-end Native American goods. It was designed by Mary Colter, the same woman who designed almost all of the Harvey Houses. IMG_0598IMG_8096IMG_0601After checking it out, I went to look at the rim…. pictures don’t do it justice, there’s something unreal about it.IMG_8107.jpgThat said, I was in AWE of how clear the view was. I kept saying to people, “do you realize that a few years ago you wouldn’t have seen this? That there was a horrible haze mucking it up? That its only because of the Clean air act, and the recent closing of some near by coal-burning power stations that you can see this so clearly” Apparently nobody did… Not only that but some Trump supporters actually started yelling at me (I’m shitting you not.)IMG_0602IMG_8114.jpg

IMG_8119.jpgMy weather karma is continuing— like I said it was supposed to be raining today…

IMG_8129IMG_0606IMG_0605IMG_8216At the other end of the part of the southern rim that I had walked along, is the Bright Angel Lodge which was also designed by Mary Colter, and this one has a very famous fireplace (that the one behind me in the images below)…. which again has amazing views at its restaurant… only the girl on the train told me the food isn’t quite as good.

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Adjacent to it is an ice-cream place that also serves sandwiches, and pretzels and snacks (all the food you’d eat while standing outside)… although while I was there mostly all people were buying was the ice cream.

IMG_0604 As they warned us on the train, there’s a HUGE fine, like $500 if they catch you feeding a squirrel… and that they will try to steal your food if you don’t watch out… what they neglected to mention is the little buggers bite, and will infect you with the plague!!!!

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After this I took an un-scenic shortcut back to the train station, because it was about time to go back to Williams, and if you miss the train you’re kind of screwed.

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Grand Canyon Railway experience; Williams, Arizona

The Grand Canyon Railway experience is essentially a two-hour train ride from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon… if you return the same day (another two hours) you will have gotten to stay there for about three hours (so a taste). OR — if you are the hiking type, you can opt to stay at a hotel at the Canyon and return a different day.  The “experience” includes a cute little show before the ride, and then some entertainment while on the train, and concludes with a “faux” train robbery on the way back. All in all, when you add up the prices, IF you’re doing route 66 and just want to pop over to the Grand Canyon, to see it… this actually works out to be a pretty good deal money wise.

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The CHEAPEST ticket, which is what I got, was $62.86. This was for the Pullman car, their most historic car (No air-conditioning) and did not include the park entrance fee (as I have been buying the National Park’s yearly pass since I first started traveling… I have yet to not get my money’s worth — when you buy the ticket you tell you have it, when you pick up the tickets you show them the pass and they write down its ID number to submit to the park officials). IF you consider the cost of gas (maybe 3 hours there and back — the train does it slower), wear and tear on your car, finding parking, etc etc…. and the fact that the train includes live entertainment … I think it’s worth it to do it once.

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A lot of the people who do this opted to stay at their hotel as well, but this is not necessary and not what I did. (There is a Harvey House at that location, but its not where you’ll be staying… and you don’t have to stay at the hotel to see it. Essentially, its been replaced by a fairly generic building that looks like pretty much every other 3 star hotel along our highways)… I stayed at the Howard Johnson located about 2 blocks north, for substantially less money. (That said the hotel is OK, but the owners … an Indian couple… just don’t get it. The rooms are clean and comfortable, the WiFi was BLAZING fast… but the security is suspiciously lax. IF You go to this hotel make sure you check in early enough that you can change rooms if you need to. The hotel has no elevators, and they won’t help you with your bags if you have mobility issues like I do. The room I ultimately got did NOT have a chain on the door, or any sort of way for me to keep hotel staff out while I was sleeping. By the time I realized this — after dinner — it was too late to change rooms. The next day the woman who works for them — MUCH better at customer service than they are — and I looked for a suitable room, and we had to go through THREE before we found one with a working chain.)

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So… I checked the weather report for the next day at the Grand Canyon the night I arrived, and it said rain… eek… then checked again the day of, this time specifying the South Rim (which is where the train goes) and it said no rain… phew!! NOTE: It’s important to remember the Grand Canyon is a VERY big place, so when checking the weather, be specific for which part.

With the Train Ride, come a whole package of entertainments. The first happens BEFORE the ride and is cute… I THINK the whole point of it is actually a ploy to make sure customers are on site and ready to go a good 45 minutes before the train leaves… but still…it adds to the ‘ambiance’

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Looking around at the audience, I at first thought there may be one person in this whole crowd under the age of 40, But then I took that back … I just spotted a baby. That said, it was late September and most kids were in school, so the crowd consisted mostly of retirees who prefer to come to places like this when they are LESS crowded. It’s a cute show, funny even, more than a few good laughs. You can tell the actors have done this may be 1000 times but they’re not phoning it in

After seeing the show myself, and many days later… I watched this video and I guess the attitude of the organizers is, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” because in spite of the fact that I saw the show almost six years after this YouTube video was posted — this is almost word for word the same show I saw, just with different actors.

The actors do a bit of improve around what the audience does or does not do, and the audience member roped into the skit, but otherwise, I saw the exact same show. (They even found a guy wearing shorts who had a bag… albeit this bag was backpack)

IMG_3008And after the show, that’s when you’re led by the actors to the train, and you line up by the car you’re assigned to…IMG_7977.jpg

And this is where things got wonky. So the deal is this…. APPARENTLY if you sign up for the Pullman (which is the most affordable ticket) they tell you to show up at 8:30 like everybody else, for what you think will be a 9:15 departure…  but you won’t actually Leave until 10:00. IF they get a lot of people showing up, they’re going to break it up into two trains (according to the manager this is on behest of the park which doesn’t want a boat load of people showing up at once. He said they could easily put everyone on one train). Everybody who bought a ticket on the expensive cars — the ones with the observation bubbles on top of the train for better viewing…. and the MOST expensive cars which are old-fashioned luxury (but with air-conditioning), have a buffet and dedicated performers who are there just for you  — THOSE trains… they’ll leave on time … Those of us with tickets that have air-conditioning but no bubble up top, or those like me who purchased a Pullman car with no air-con…. they’ll leave you standing around and waiting for the second train (and there was NOTHING on my tickets denoting that).

GRRRRRR……

You do however get the same amount of time at the park because your return train also leaves later. That said, once we were on the train, it was actually very pleasant… first a guy comes on, and makes sure you understand all the thing you need to know

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Then we were introduced to our carriage’s aid, the girl in the blue and white outfit, and the photographer (the guy in the red shirt with the massive camera, whose job it is to wander between carriages taking photos on first leg of the trip, and then he tries to sell you your photos on our return one).

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While the downsides of being in the cheap Pullman car is that it goes last (leaving the station) and has no air-conditioning, the upsides are that one, it’s always placed directly adjacent to the dining car (they told me this when I was booking the trip)

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Although this also means everyone in the cars behind us has to pass through us to get to said dining car… for their drinks, snacks and ice-cream

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The other benefit… and this is the more important one I think… is that sitting in an old-fashioned Pullman with no aircon traveling through almost wild country it’s really easy to almost feel like you’ve drifted back in time to when train, horse or foot were your only options for getting out west … a mental fantasy that the more modern trains don’t really support.

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On the way to the Canyon we were serenaded by this young musician, who wasn’t bad

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And then on the way back (when we were all really pooped) we were played at by this guy

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Who was trying just a bit too hard to get us to be clapping our hand and tapping our feet, when all we really wanted to do was rest…

Towards the end of the ride to the Canyon we passed an area that had clearly had a forest fire, which made me wonder how it’d happened and if it were the fault of the train, or the people on it.

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And then right as we were approaching the park, our carriage’s aide (the gal in the blue and white outfit) began to tell us things like, that the red ponderosa pines that grown in the park have a scent. If you smell vanilla, than the tree is a female but if you smell butterscotch, the tree is male. (I never managed to get close enough to one to test it) That, and there’s a $500 fine for feeding the animals … even if it’s a squirrel who stole it from you .. and that we should all beware because they WILL steal your food if you let them.

And then we got to the park….

IMG_3023(I’m talking about the Park in a separate blog post, click here to see it)

And THIS is what you get to avoid by taking the train

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That said, the ride back was also very pretty,

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and the rain that the first weather report I had looked at promised, could be seen approaching us in the distance

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But it included rainbows, which made me happy….

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(and in fact greeted us as with a very light rain just as we arrived back in Williams, which got more intense later in the evening).

 

Towards the very end of the ride, we had a last bit of excitement…  there’s a train heist… it’s actually kind of cute

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(My video this time… Note how the train obligingly stops for the 2 riders )

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But somehow, even though there were TWO riders attacking the train, and TWO gunmen stealing from us… somehow one of them managed to be in two places at the same time (note: two horses carrying two gunmen, two gunmen stealing from us… yet one left over to take care of the horses… this happened how?)

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And then you’re ever so politely robbed. (They threaten to take your stuff, but never do.) We were instructed (by our conductor lady in the blue outfit) that if we wanted to we were supposed to take any money we wanted them to actually rob, and fold it and hold it out for them to take, which a few of the customers did… tips in other-words.

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And then a little later (after the thieves have had time to get all the way to the back of the train, where apparently the guy who plays the sheriff was waiting to arrest them (it’s a shame that only THAT car gets to see the arrest) he waltzes them back through the train to the front, and we all get to laugh about how law and order triumphs.

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Before I got someone to take our photo, the guy with the long white hair, who plays the sheriff, turns out he’s actually Dutch, has spent some time living in Japan, and speaks 9 languages at least a enough to get by… I didn’t get around to finding out how it ended up here doing this.

One thing to beware of… on the train, while you’re close to town WiFi is pretty decent, and from time to time it’ll pop back up…. but at the park and for most of the ride you can forget about connectivity. As such, save your battery and just put you phone on airplane mode to save the battery. This is especially true at the Park… Even though there is signal, you just can’t connect to it because TOO many people are also trying.

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Burnt Earth: Amboy Crater in Amboy California & Pisgah Crater in Newberry Springs, CA

When you drive through this part of the country, be it on Route 66 or even on 40, you can’t help but notice the sudden appearance of pitch black rocks everywhere that look like giant bits of coal, or chunks of burnt wood.

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IMG_7960.JPGThe first time I drove through here it was with a friend from university who has been a geology major, and he explained to me how these rocks were the result of lava rivers… but ones that exist well below the ground, but close enough to the surface that the heat from them had in fact burnt the ground above it. So it’s not lava but actually burn rocks (or at least I think that’s what he said… this was like 20 years ago)

IMG_7961.JPGYou can see how the ground looks sort of burnt and cracked, like really badly burned wood, or food. Well within in this general area are TWO craters that rise well above the ground, and are actually evidence of Volcanic activity, i.e., those underground rivers of lava actually making it to the surface and trying to create mini volcanos —- or at least that’s how I sort of understand it… I’m no geologist.

Driving east on route 66 the first of these that you will pass is the Pisgah Crater

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The other crater is the Amboy Crater… not much farther east (maybe another half hour…)

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I didn’t have time nor did I feel comfortable approaching these craters alone. I would LOVE at some point in the future to go there… but I would want to do either with a guide, or at the very least a friend. Being stuck out in the middle of no-where, in the heat of the desert…  all alone… did not appeal to me (should the car get stuck, or blow a tire or something)

Bonneville Salt Flats; Wendover, Utah

The world-famous Bonneville Salt Flats is located just west of the Tree of Utah as you travel west on I-80. It is one of the few places on the planet so flat and large that you can see the curve of the planet, and so deadly that not even the simplest life forms of our planet can sustain themselves there.

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The  Bonneville Salt Flats is another place I’ve driven past on numerous occasions, but never bothered to take the time to stop and see until this visit. I discovered there are two ways to see the place… the first is the a rest stop on the north side of Interstate-80

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The second option is to enter into the park itself to where the the measured mile is located, which is where the cars race. To get there, you go to the next exit west of the rest stop. There you will find a Sinclair Truck stop, that sells a collection of Bonneville Speedway t-shirts, along with the normal truck stop selection of goods

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and that, besides the obligatory gas, has something highly unusual for a truck stop…. a cafe that serves Indian food!!!

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I was so amazed when I spotted this, that I stopped to order some lunch. I ordered Sag Paneer, one of my very favorite foods, Tandoori chicken, and garlic Nan… the waiter told me that the wait for the chicken was going to about half an hour… so I told him I’d be back… and headed out to see the speedway

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This picture was actually taken on the way BACK to the truckstop

From the truck stop you drive down Leppy Pass Road, taking the curve in the bend onto the Bonneville Speedway Road (a two lane black top road along side which you’ll find a lot of people parked in campers)

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As was this one… (note the mountains)

For some reason the map won’t embed the map, so follow this link to show the spot of the final location: https://goo.gl/maps/qSFXak8XWEP2

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IMG_4628.jpgWhen I got there I was told that there was actually a race going on, and it would cost $20 to go out on to the salt flats… I told her I actually had to get back to the gas station because I had ordered lunch… and could I just take photos for now of the entrance way, and then come back after I had eaten (at which point I would pay to enter the area). She said yes, and directed me where to park.IMG_2372IMG_4629

After these photos I headed back to the cafe and had my lunch…. I also ordered a sweet lassi to drink with it.

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All of it was very tasty, but unfortunately the cook had undercooked the chicken thighs (my favorite part of the chicken too)… so he took it back in to have it cooked some more, and the chef for some reason opted to deep-fry it, meaning I still couldn’t eat it (not allowed deep-fried food).

And that’s when I suddenly had an urge to go to the bathroom (as in I really needed to poop all of a sudden). While there, for some reason…  I had the very bad luck of getting seriously sick. I was sitting on the toilet, pooping, and that black veil dropped in front of my eyes warning me that I was about to pass out. I put my head between my knees, started shaking and sweating really badly (as in heavy drops of sweat were falling off my forehead onto my glasses)… while sitting in what I knew was a cool room. I tried to stand up a few times and almost passed out each time, forcing me to sit again, and put my head right back between my knees… I tried pulling my pants up, but didn’t have the strength to do it. I was forced to ask a complete stranger to help me get my pants up. She, however, didn’t speak english; so, I asked her to please get someone who could — she spoke enough to understand that. It took her a while but she brought a guy from the shop, who translated to her what I wanted, while asking me if he should call 911, but warning me that the hospital was very far away and it could take them 20 minutes to get there. I told him not to. She helped me, and then I staggered over to the sinks and held on to them, still shaking horribly. She opened the faucets and started splashing my head with cool water, which actually helped.

When I started to feel a bit better I staggered over to the restaurant, paid my bill (poor guy must have thought I’d run out on it), sat at a table and put my head down on it and just stayed like that for about 20 minutes…. then with baby steps I got back to the car… guzzeled water I had there and waited for my head to clear so I could drive the almost 2 hour drive… I was actually pretty proud of myself all things considered

As such, I was only really able to glance at the salt flats before forced by illness to head directly towards my next hotel where I could rest … because to quote The Bard, “discretion is the better part of valor” —Henry IV, Part I, and while I am aware he meant it as a joke, I prefer its idiomatic usage, because it has a great deal of truth to it.

Halls Gap & Grampians National Park, Victoria, Australia

If you’re traveling around the state of Victoria in Australia, and want to visit Grampians National Park, which lies about three hours northwest of Melbourne, or a full five and a half hours drive south-east of Adelaide, take my suggestion and seriously consider a stop in the small town of Halls Gap. Based on my own perusal of google maps, of all the various ways into the park (which is a fairly large 646 square miles), Halls Gap is the only one ‘organized’ to support tourists’ needs. It is located on the side of Grampians that is closest to Melbourne, and its the only place where I know of where you’ll find a specially trained and staffed “Information Office” who are ready to provide you with suggestions of what to do while there; and it’s also where you can pick up things like hiking or driving maps, or arrange for various tours of either the parks or of one of the nearby vineyards, book a golf time, book lodging for the night, etc. (If it’s anything like the information offices alongside Roosevelt National Park in the states, their computer’s are organized to tell you which hotels still have availability for that night — but don’t hold me to that as we weren’t looking for lodging.)

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Our first stop was at the information center for maps, and then we went to the nearby Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural center & Bush Tucker Cafe, for a bite to eat (I strongly suggest checking out the Cafe as it specializes in the unique foods and flavors that the native Aboriginals and original European settlers to the Bush would have experienced.. but, that said, the cultural center was kind of a major let down and only suggested if you have time.)

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After that we drove into the park itself….. Because this visit was on February 10th, only about two weeks after I fell down and went boom on Jan 25th, giving myself the worst concussion of my life, our visit was limited to easily accessable by car locations… so no hiking for me, not even a little bit. Just sitting in the car, being driven around and seeing new things was exhausting for my brain at that point. Getting out of the car to experience the lookouts was about all I could manage.

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Our first stop was at Boroka Lookout

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The first time I tried to take a picture of the friends that I was visiting the park with they had their faces completely in the shade, making taking a photo of them almost impossible. The picture of me (above) was me trying to show them an awareness of light what was necessary in order for them to be well-lit in this harsh/high-contrast light situation (things photographers know); that said, the woman on the left is the friend who I was staying with (who serendipitously for me was a former registered nurse, so she perfectly understood my limitations at that point).

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Before this photo I had them do a little dance (“go left, no, not that far, yah stay there”) in order to make sure they were well-lit

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Our next stop was at Reeds Lookout and balconies …. apparently from the car park & lookout there’s an easy walk to the balconies, but like I said, I was not physically able at that point to do even that. That said I found a REALLY well done video on YouTube that someone made of the walk and the views I would have seen had I done it:

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That said, we met up with a fairly large group of bikers, while at the lookout
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After this we headed to Bunjil Rock Shelter, one of the many Aboriginal religious sites scattered throughout Australia, and then home.

 

 

Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural center & Bush Tucker Cafe: Halls Gap, Victoria, Australia

Brambuk National Park & cultural centre is about a 3 to 4 hour drive away from Melbourne, and a 5 hour drive away from Adelaide, so if you haven’t made the effort to road trip between the two (or live in the area), odds are you’ll miss this National Park. Along with the natural wonders of the place, and a host of optional activities (which I will discuss elsewhere), there is a must see but ultimately highly disappointing Aboriginal cultural center, a really wonderful little cafe with very unusual foods, and of course a pretty good gift shop.

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From my first days of planning my trip to Ballarat, my friend who was hosting me had been describing this place to me, and it was one of the things I insisted we had to do, in SPITE of the fact that I was pretty much laid up because of the sever concussion I had suffered not two weeks before.

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TThe cafe and gift shop building

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They have a large selection of gelato available in flavors native to Australia fruits and spices… Golden Wattle seed, Quandong fruit, Strawberry Gum,  Desert lime, Macadamia nut (which is actually native to Australia, not Hawaii), Riberry and Davidson Plum

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As part of my experiencing Australian pies, I ordered a “Skippy” pie (you have to love the perversity of Aussie humor — check the link), which I shared with my friends (one of whom at 99% of the chips… I only ate two)

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we passed on the Lemon Myrtle scones and instead opted for the Wattleseed Damper w/Quandong & Peach Jam and Wattleseed cream (because I had no idea what a Damper was). After checking out their menu, we decided to go for the Bush Food Platter

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which had a little bit of everything (Kangaroo, Emu sausages, Crocodile, Wild Duck (Australia has a few different breeds, they never told us which one we were eating), 2 Bush Food Chutney’s (again we never found out which flavors) & a Garden Salad w/Bush Tomato & Balsamic Dressing) which is intended for two people, so we shared it between us. DEFINITELY worth trying, if only for all the new flavors. (see below for what some of these things look like)

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some of the spices and seeds mentioned above

While waiting for our food we raided the gift shop, which had a very good selection of items (many of which were made by Aboriginals with the proceeds going to them).

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At first I thought left versus right-handed boomerangs was a joke on the tourists, but no, apparently they need to be designed differently. That said, I was tempted to buy this map of Australia (below) showing all the native tribal lands… but didn’t.

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Once done at the first building you walk down a path to the cultural center

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The real disappointment of this visit was the thing that should have been the star, the cultural center. Even though pretty much all they have in there is photographs, we weren’t allowed to take any. There was a movie on Aboriginal culture but you had to pay to see it (and it wasn’t cheap, so we skipped it).

According to their website’s description, “The Brambuk Cultural Centre is the longest running cultural centre still operated by Aboriginal people. Come here to explore the culture, its traditions and various multi-award winning architectural establishments.” So, you’d think this would be a place where politically motivated local Aboriginals would choose to work in order to teach interested visitors about the grandeur of their own culture, and share their love of their own history.

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Note how faded and worn the sign is

But here’s the thing… the odds are when you get there, you won’t spot a single Aboriginal …  not even one with an ancestor four generations back so that all of the distinctive, but also  highly recessive, genetic traits have been bred out — lord knows we didn’t find any (and we asked).

[Rant: Firstly, let’s keep in mind that I have spent months of my life, studying, living and working on the Navajo reservation, and to this day still maintain some VERY close friendships with Native Americans I met during that period of my life who are to this day deeply involved with trying to improve things for their people. What I am not is a knee jerk liberal who attends protests and talks the talk, but has never spent more than a day or two being a tourist among said people, and has therefore never really walked the walk, let alone never spent any real-time talking to said people, whose rights they are so moved to protect; and hence doesn’t even really know who they are let alone understand their problems, and what these people might want for themselves vs., what you the privileged white person might want for them. That said, one of the things that kind of annoyed me while visiting was my observation that in the modern-day Australians (who by all appearances as white) seem to take extreme pride in any small amount of Aboriginal heritage they can claim. Keep in mind, in the case of Aboriginal Australians, that by the third generation, such heritage is difficult to identify visually, and unlike with African genes it can’t “pop up” unexpectedly — where two seemingly white parents can give birth to a dark-skinned child, the same way two brown-eyed parents can have a blue-eyed child. So for instance, I, while researching this piece, learned about a European/Anglo member of the Tasmanian government, by the name of Jacqui Lambie, who offended the Aboriginal community by claiming she was one and therefore could represent them, and then went so far as to get her DNA tested to try to prove it. While this on the surface might seem to be not unlike Americans who point to Native American roots that their ancestors would have tried to hide with embarrassment. The difference is that … where as in America that person might take pride in being “part” Cherokee, they rarely if ever have the audacity to claim the state owes them something for prejudice that they themselves never have had to face in their daily lives because of that genetic heritage. In Australia, however, they will; in the current age they will describe themselves as simply Aboriginal, not as ‘part’ Aboriginal, because it is now not only COOL to be Aboriginal, but again it comes with all sorts of benefits designed to provide a ‘leg up’ in a society that has heretofore condemned them. I was for instance more than a little ticked off to see Aboriginal art, which is sold as such rather than just as art, and it’s a big deal to be able to PROVE the authenticity of said art… only for the photo of the artist to be of someone with blond hair and blue eyes. Think Iggy Azalea, the Australian rapper who claims aboriginal heritage who couldn’t understand while Americans took issue to her calling herself, “black” and hence being an ‘authentic’ rapper…

In the US, the TRIBES would never allow such a thing, for the obvious reason that funding is finite and every kid who is part Native, but has suffered none of the deprivations of that ancestry, who takes that funding is in effect taking it out of the mouths of the folks who really need it. And now that the tribes themselves have found creative ways to pull themselves out of poverty, they are getting EVEN FIERCER about who does or does not get to call themselves “Native America” versus, being of Native American ancestry. It would be a bit like the Johnson’s (African American family, founders of Ebony and Jett magazine and first African American to make make the Forbes 400 list), who used to live near me — and walking distance from one of the very best high schools in the country — had mansion on Lake Michigan, with a swimming pool and tennis court, and had the Commodores (Lionel Richie‘s band before he went solo) play for their kids sweet 16 party taking advantage of preferred places and funding at Universities, intended to help cure socioeconomic disparities that exist in the African-American community]

According to the staff member we spoke to, while the Aboriginal community gets the final say on what happens there, and everything is done with difference to them… sadly, their interest sort of ends with that, and is mostly focused on the money generated by the place… although one of the staff members said if we signed up for the classes and performances that we had read about and wanted to see (which weren’t happening at that time, and hadn’t happened in a while, and he wasn’t sure when the next one might be), we MIGHT (but not would) see Aboriginals working those events.

What displays they had were placed kind of hap hazard, so that it didn’t tell any sort of meaningful story. Overall, it was kind of massive waste of time

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having trouble embeding the map (follow link to google maps):

 

Phillip Island, Victoria Australia: Fairy Penguin Parade

Both my travel buddy and the friend (the one who hosted me and showed me around while I stayed at her home in Ballarat) BOTH wanted to bring me to Phillip Island, to a section called Point Grant, but better known as The Nobbies in order to see the Penguin Parade. It’s about a day trip from Melbourne and is most definitely a must see on while on a trip to this part of Australia

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[NOTE: That said, I’m writing this blog post well AFTER my visit. In spite of the fact that I was in Phillip Island on Feb. 25, 2018 a whole month after my accident that had resulted in a sever concussion, I still wasn’t mentally able to keep up with my write ups … At the time an outing like this one left me exhausted and the next day was spent just resting. At the time, if you’d seen me, you’d realize very quickly that something was off… my speech was MUCH MUCH slower, so that I was searching for almost every word (which was very weird and a bit frightening)… as such I was still in a very passive space mentally, and as such I couldn’t write about it then, and I just haven’t gotten around to writing about it till now.  The accident made it impossible to focus my brain the way I needed to in order to blog, and as such I fell woefully behind on the posts the Australia trip … but as I’m currently holed up in the Chicago area (i.e., my home base) doing things like doctor’s visits — including some related to the post concussive syndrome which I am STILL suffering from (albeit very mildly at this point, thankfully) and the fact that I hit the ground so hard that I dislocated my jaw (requiring some expensive visits to my dentist who is trying to fix the damage) —  I am taking the opportunity of being back on my home turf to rectify that lapse.]

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We kept seeing these birds in Point Grant as we were driving towards the boardwalk and the Nobbies Center. I think they’re some sort of goose, but honestly I have no idea. I just thought they were cool. First we went into the center for a snack (I was good, I had a bowl of fruit and and iced tea) … the view out of its windows is absolutely amazing… IMG_8524.jpg

“Hell of a view” — was my friend’s comment when we sat down to eat (he had fries) — and, “a House with this view would be a lot more than $600k” (All through our trip along the Great Ocean Road we had been checking out the prices of beachfront real estate and fantasizing about buying a home with ocean views) 

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These platforms exist for multiple reasons, they allow visitors to enjoy the natural wonders of the area, while preserving biosphere of the area….

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and it keeps the visitors from disturbing the nesting grounds of the penguins.

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If you look into the holes of the boxes below the boardwalk you’ll see penguin chicks
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Each of these boxes/burrows houses penguin chicks

This being the age of the internet and live feeds of animals nesting being all the rage, some of these boxes have cameras inside them that allow you to watch the chicks. That said, not all of the penguins opt to house their chicks in the provided boxes, but instead will set up nests under the boardwalk.

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Note the penguin chick hiding out under the walkwayIMG_8541

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Once it started to approach sunset, and the time for the Penguin Parade (~8:30 pm), we left the boardwalk and the Nobbies center and drove over to where the Penguine parade happens, a short distance away… with ample time to get a snack & decent parking, etc.

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After the parade, it is important to check under your car and drive VERY slowly, in order to avoid killing any penguins

once you enter the building they check your ticket, tell you where you need to go come show time, and then you’re free to just hang out in the facility, where you have two food options (a cafeteria type place, and then a fast food cart), a gift shop, which had all things penguin, as well some really nice made in Australia goods, like beautiful Marino Wool sweaters, and outback/bush hats made from kangaroo leather.

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Some of you may remember there was once a call to knitters world-wide to produce sweaters for birds, including penguins, who had been in oil spills, intended to 1) keep them warm (the oil in the feathers negates the insulating power of the feathers), and 2) to keep the birds from in trying to clean themselves of the poisonous oil, and hence end up swallowing it. The resulting onslaught of bird sweaters greatly out-stepped the need, so since they need funding at this point more than they needed the sweaters, someone had the bright idea to put them on cheap stuffed penguins and sell those at a fund-raising markup price…

There was also a whole educational section devoted to both what we would be seeing, in terms of the Penguin Parade and what it is that actually happening…  (this is a natural behavior, not one that humans have trained them to do for our entertainment)

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And then information about the birds themselves

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And information about the chicks in the burrows, including some windows into some burrows the staff have set up to lure penguins into (which may or may not have chicks in them when you visit — below are pictures I took looking down on live chicks in said burrows/boxes)

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The first thing you need to know about penguins is that they are very loyal animals, and always return to their family members.

As this video explains, while emperor penguins, the biggest of the species can only be found in Antarctica, Australia is home to the Fairy or little penguin, the smallest of the species

At the doorway the guests are broken into three group based on the tickets they bought. The cheap seats, the best seats above ground (and open to the elements… which is the tickets we opted for), and then just below those seats there’s a viewing area at ground level where you are nice and warm, can’t see as much, but you’re right level with the penguins as they pass and are viewing them through windows.

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No photos are allowed past this white line

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Being the smallest, Fairy penguins are very timid, they wait until it’s dark enough that their predators are going to sleep before leaving the protection of the water, and it’s very easy to scare them back into the water — which, if they do means their chicks go unfed. As such, because of all the stupid humans who came before us who insisted on using flash when taking photographs — which freaks out the poor penguins — even after being begged to not do so, photography is now banned at the event … and there’s more than a few staff member watching the guests like hawks to stop them should they bring out anything in the way of a camera. As such, I found videos (all produced professionally).

 

Since you can’t get an actual photo of yourself with the penguins, you can either download professionally taken pics of the penguins via their app, or for a fee you can buy a green-screened and Photoshoped image of yourself with the birds. (If you look closely at the sign above the heads of the photo booth’s staff members, you can even get one where you’re smaller than the penguins.)

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These are the women who made our photo for us

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Phillip Island, Victoria Australia: Koalas

Both my travel buddy AND the friend I stayed with in Ballarat… told me that they wanted to bring me to Phillip Island. It’s about a day trip from Melbourne and (as this desire on their part evidenced) is most definitely a must see on while in this part of Australia. While both of them wanted to bring me here to see the penguins (see my post), my travel buddy and I got there early enough, that we had time to kill, so that we decided to go to the Koala Conservation Centre

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[NOTE: That said, I’m writing this blog post well AFTER my visit. In spite of the fact that I was in Phillip Island on Feb. 25, 2018 a whole month after my accident that had resulted in a sever concussion, I still wasn’t mentally able to keep up with my write ups … At the time an outing like this one left me exhausted and the next day was spent just resting. At the time, if you’d seen me, you’d realize very quickly that something was off… my speech was MUCH MUCH slower, so that I was searching for almost every word (which was very weird and a bit frightening)… as such I was still in a very passive space mentally, and as such I couldn’t write about it then, and I just haven’t gotten around to writing about it till now.  The accident made it impossible to focus my brain the way I needed to in order to blog, and as such I fell woefully behind on the posts the Australia trip … but as I’m currently holed up in the Chicago area (i.e., my home base) doing things like doctor’s visits — including some related to the post concussive syndrome which I am STILL suffering from (albeit very mildly at this point, thankfully) and the fact that I hit the ground so hard that I dislocated my jaw (requiring some expensive visits to my dentist who is trying to fix the damage) —  I am taking the opportunity of being back on my home turf to rectify that lapse.]IMG_1754My travel partner (Mik) and I have ONE major disconnect in our our travel preferences, I try to avoid extreme heat at all costs while he LOVES it; and he considers temps that most people qualify as in the mild to comfortable ranges, freezing. Doing our long-planned day trip to this island, Australia’s weather took a dip from “Oh my G-d it’s hot” to 66 F (18.9 C) which he considered FREEZING and I consider about perfect for dressing spiffy (a t-shirt, a light leather blazer and jazzy hat). (If you note the pictures, he ends up NOT wearing his jacket even though he kvetched about the cold… Men!)

Anyway, we bought our tickets for the penguin march later that night (cause they sell out), and headed to the Koala Center

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When you first arrive at the center there’s a big educational section where you can read up on all sorts of things you didn’t know about Koalas, such as the fact that they are going extinct because of a fast-moving strain of Chlamydia which is causing infertility and blindness (since my visit, there’s actually been some progress with private funding in sequencing their DNA, which they hope will lead to a cure before one of the cutest animals on the planet goes extinct)IMG_1756

Once you’ve cleared the educational bit, you walk into a two bits of protected habitat, where the Koala’s are essentially caged-in (partially to keep them in but also to keep other Koala’s infected with Chlamydia out) into a sufficient amount of habitat to keep them happy — with supplemental foods dropped off in areas close to but just out of reach of the guests.

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Note that some branches are wrapped in plastic in order to discourage Koalas from going out onto the boardwalk

Then you walk up along elevated (but handicapped accessible) boardwalks that bring you up to the level of the branches where the Koala’s like to hang out. So you can get close, but not too close.

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It’s easy to spot where Koala’s are because of all the guests collecting there

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Me and Mik, and Koalas (there’s one in every picture)

Here’s a video I took of an active Koala (most of them tend to be sleeping, or just lazily hanging out.

 

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This old guy (the staff member told us it was an elderly male), in spite of the best attempts of the staff to keep it from happening, had somehow managed to get from the tree to the ledge of the visitors section of the boardwalk. The guy in the light shirt standing next to Mik was in fact a staff member, who was blocking visitors from getting too close. He told us they had placed a tree limb across from the boardwalk to a tree, and he was just standing there waiting for the Koala to get the hint and cross back to the tree, so that he could remove it.

Katoomba: Scenic World Blue Mountains attraction

Scenic World is a family owned business located at the edge of a plateau near the city of Katoomba, New South Wales Australia, at the opposite end of the Prince Henry Cliff Walk from the Three Sisters rock formation, which is a huge tourist draw. For a fee, they provide three attractions: the first is a cable car ride that goes across the ledges of the rock’s face, thereby offering views that are otherwise unobtainable, and then there are two different way to the rainforest at the base of the plateau (where there is an elevated walking path through it)  either a very steep cable railway ride or gentler cable car option.

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The first time I got there was on a weekend day, and the line for a one day passes for Scenic World was very long, while the line for the yearly pass was non existent; and, since a one day pass was $44, and one year passes were $99 — and I was going to be in town for a full week, I opted for the latter. That and, normally you need to get there “first thing” in the morning to make a first come first serve reservation to go on any of their rides, and I was warned that these sell out very early in the day during tourist season, i.e., exactly when I was there. As my readers probably already know about me…. I don’t do mornings! With the one year pass, however, no reservations were necessary and when you add it gives 15% off of any purchases at the stores or cafés ….  and with the yearly pass I would get 15% off of tickets for friend who came with me (and my travel buddy had already said he wanted to come here towards the end of our trip — when his girlfriend from was going to join us for a few days) which ultimately didn’t happen …. I felt the $99 ticket was the better option. As it stands, since my accident negatively impacted my visit, my plan is to go back to Australia later this year (within the one year window), and I’ll be able to use the ticket again then.

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Views from the balcony building, and the gift shops

That said, since I HAD a year-long pass, and the weekend crowds were making the lines for any of the rides SUPER long, I opted to do just walk around checking out the facility, and then come back on a week day.

[NOTE: That said, I’m writing this blog post well AFTER my visit. I was in the Blue Mountains about 5 months ago, on Jan 12th to 18th, 2018, and since my accident, which resulted in a sever concussion, happened only 8 days later I just haven’t gotten around to writing about it till now.  The accident made it impossible to focus my brain the way I needed to in order to blog, and as such I fell woefully behind on the posts the Australia trip … but as I’m currently holed up in the Chicago area (i.e., my home base) doing things like doctor’s visits — including some related to the post concussive syndrome which I am STILL suffering from (albeit very mildly at this point, thankfully) and the fact that I hit the ground so hard that I dislocated my jaw (requiring some expensive visits to my dentist who is trying to fix the damage) —  I am taking the opportunity of being back on my home turf to rectify that lapse.]

Like I said the one year pass included a 15% discount from the gift stores (where I didn’t find anything I actually wanted), and from the cafe (where I did). That said, there are two food options, and small one offering coffee shop type foods and outdoor seating, and the Tuckshop which offers more in the way of hot food options, and indoor seating.

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This is the outdoor seating for the coffee shop (looking towards the building) but in the other direction it has great views — see the pics of me against a railing (above)

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The second time I went the weather was a balmy 70 F …  Although it was supposed to hit 100 F a few days later. And, way fewer people where there than had been there the previous weekend, as I had hoped.

First, I had my morning coffee while enjoying the view, and then I went down into the rainforest via the train ride

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Note me up at the top of this photo

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This train is so incredibly steep that you’re knees end up pressing hard, up against the safety bars, and more than few people felt the need to hold on to the safety bars above…

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These views go whizzing by so fast, that you’re lucky if you manage to get the shot
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You can see finger smudges on the glass walls

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IMG_1490The train drops you down into a rainforest, complete with vines that Tarzan would have loved and prehistoric fern trees.

IMG_1509.JPGAccording to a complex display at the bottom and off to the side of the tracks, they were first put in place to bring down coal miners.

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It was so frigging cold the first time I took the train into the rain forest that I was uncomfortable so maybe 62 F (a good 10 degrees cooler than higher up). I wasn’t dressed for it and my teeth started to chatter, so I opted to go back up and come back again the next day when the forecast promised warmer weather, and intended to dress in layers just in case.

When I came back the 2nd time, it was warm enough that I had to take off my 2nd layer (WAY more pleasant than Sunday’s temps). I did a 45 minute walk through the rainforest…

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Just to give an idea of how elevated some of the pathway was, I’m on one elevated point looking down at another elevated point

IMG_1544Firstly I was really excited to see the sort of vines I imagine Tarzan swung on, my first time outside of a movie or TV programIMG_1543These sorts of palm trees I was pretty sure I HAD seen before, but in the prehistoric dinosaur Garden in Disneyworld’s Animal Kingdom. There’s a garden there (adjacent to the dinosaur ride) that most people walk right by that ONLY has living plants that we know existed during the time of the dinosaurs.

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Here I’m looking up at the massive rock feature directly adjacent to the start of the ride, giving you an idea of how far down I am

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Algae, Lichens and Mosses… can we all say biodiversity?

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Ultimately I completed every ride and in every direction

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This is rock formation I was looking at from the ground, to give the distance perspective 

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At one point with all the running around I somehow managed to lose my sunglasses (called sunnies in Aussie) but they were turned into lost and found (shock and awe!)

Sakura! Cherry blossum season in Tokyo

Bucket list item: See the Japanese cherry blossoms… in bloom in Japan….. CHECK!

While most Americans have heard this song at some point or another, celebrating the tree’s blossoms, if only while eating in Japanese resturants, they do so without appreciating the extent to which the blossoming of these trees is a central element of Japanese cultural identity. To quote this site, “the contemplation of cherry trees has long been perceived as a philosophical activity more than anything else. Based on the philosophy of mono no aware, appreciating the beauty of ephemeral things, hanami is an activity that encourages introspection.”

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This tree was adjacent to the train station near my Airbnb

As I’ve said previously, this has been one of my bucket list items for while. I had seen them multiple times in S. Korea while living and working there, but (I explained in detail in this previous blog post) the Korean cherry blossoms look entirely different than the iconic Japanese ones. I had finally managed to see the Japanese variety in 2017 when I caught them in full bloom in D.C., but in spite of the fact that I’ve cumulatively spent maybe eight months in Japan over the years, it was never during the appropriate time. FINALLY, this year I did it!

After seeing the first tree in full bloom near my Airbnb, I called a very old friend of the family, Yasuko (her husband and my father worked together, and the first time I stayed at their home I was in my 20’s) suggested we do something, and when she asked me what I wanted to do, I told her I wanted to see the cherry blossoms. First, she took me to this street, which she was supposed to be one of the best “non-park” viewing locations and considered good for night-time viewing.

 

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I kind of felt bad for the cars who made the mistake of trying to drive down this street as it was so clogged with people enjoying the cherry blossoms

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This is our family friend Mrs. Yanase, who was kind enough to show me this. Note how there are growths and flowers all along the length of the tree

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After this, Yasuko and I took the train to Rikugien Gardens, a park that she told me is normally never open at night…

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but for the Cherry Blossom season they have special illuminated evening showings. She was actually kind of excited because in all her years of living in Tokyo (most of her life) she had never gone to one of these special nighttime events at the park.

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When we arrived there was a very long line of people waiting to enter the park the snaked outside of the park and down the street (and police standing there with lit lanterns to make sure the cars saw them).

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This isn’t a bush, but rather a tree that is ginormous with massive branches extending out that are held up by poles. The crowd of people surrounding it was at least 10 people thick, and if you look towards the bottom of the tree you’ll see people’s darkened heads, which will give you a better sense of the perspective.

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The above are all pictures of people taking pictures of small branches of the same humongous tree shown above

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This is the same tree from a different angle (same tiny heads at the bottom), as we walked through the park there were tiny traditional Japanese tea houses (which Yasuko wanted to go to but they were closing just as we got there). Instead we found a less ritzy tea house selling the same foods, but with less pomp.

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After the park we walked to nearby train station, where there was also a of flowering trees in bloom

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I loved the way the light from the Denny’s sign made the pink blooms even pinker