ADAM'S SIXTH CONTINENT, AUSTRALIA


It's another Adam eclipse adventure.

After spending my first three and a half decades in the United States and southern Canada, I finally got to Europe in 1991 October. A student's wedding in India brought me to Asia. My first total solar eclipse 1998 February 26, near Aruba brought me to South America. I saw my second eclipse, 1999 August 11, in Szeged, Hungary, a new part of Europe for me, but not a new continent. My third eclipse, 2001 June 21, brought me to Africa, my fifth continent (in case you lost count). This was my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere, so U.S. Navy shipmen might consider me a Shellback, no longer a Polywog, but without the initiation. That leaves two continents, Australia and Antarctica.

Here is an eclipse, 2002 December 4, whose path runs through Africa in late Spring, through the Indian Ocean, and up the southern coast of Australia in early Summer. (The Australians start their seasons on the first of the month, so the first day of Summer is December 1.) December is the beginning of the rainy season in southern Africa, and the beginning of the malaria season as well. I have had my shots and more shots, and I have taken the anti-malaria drug Larium without incident, but that does not mean I want to tempt fate, at least not gratuitously. Africa also has a 70 percent likelihood of being cloudy on an early December morning.

So that leaves Australia with a prospect of better weather in the evening. The total eclipse would be only half a minute (compared to a minute and a half in Africa). Further inland offered better weather prospects at the price of a shorter eclipse closer to sunset. I poked around on the Internet and found an English company called Explorers with a reasonably short tour for a reasonable price (£1299 including air travel to and from London). Most of the package promoters are trying to sell me more than I want to buy for more than I want to pay. I was able to buy their ground-only version (£426), to find my own air travel to Adelaide and back from Melbourne ($1800), and to meet them in Adelaide. It's a long trip from Atlanta (ATL) to Adelaide (ADL) and I did not want to make it eight hours longer by going to London first. (Both Atlanta and London are 16000 Km (10000 miles) from Adelaide.)

If you are planning a trip and you want things to go just plain right, then Explorers are the people to go with. There was a seamlessness about the trip, and I was close enough to Wendy Page to overhear conversations that things were not always going according to their original plans. But somehow, our experience went right. Other tour members were repeat customers of Explorers and they were not shy about telling me why. All the various coaches (buses) and trains were planned out. And when events did not go according to plan, a new plan appeared and things still went smoothly. (All this planning was done from ten thousand miles away, too.) We arrived at three separate lodgings on the tour and each time all our rooms were assigned and planned out. When space was shared, they were careful to match smokers with smokers and non-smokers with non-smokers. The big things were done right and little things were done right.

2002 November 28, Thursday, American Thanksgiving. My Atlanta-to-Adelaide (ATL-ADL) journey began Thursday afternoon, so my American-Thanksgiving dinner was whatever Delta and QANTAS (Queensland And Northern Territories Air System) were serving, coach/tourist class airline food. My trip from Atlanta was a four-and-a-half hour flight to Los Angeles, a fourteen hour flight to Sydney, and a two hour hop (delayed an hour) to Adelaide, where I arrived Saturday afternoon. The approach to the airport (ADL) goes right over the center of the town. From the air I saw the bright purple of the jacaranda trees.

Adelaide was originally built as a square mile grid and that grid is now packed with shops, hotels, restaurants, and businesses. Part of Rundle Street has been turned into a pedestrians-only shopping mall. The original square mile is surrounded on all four sides with expansive, lush, green parkland dominated on the north side by the River Torrens. My original plan was to run around the four-mile perimeter on Sunday morning and then to run pedestrian paths on weekdays. Even Sunday morning at 6:00 there was enough traffic that I decided to stick to the river path for all my running in Adelaide.

Australia has 18 million people, about the same population as the Netherlands, with a land area of 7.7 million km², about the same as the contiguous United States. While it has a very low average population density, its cities are busy, bustling, crowded places, just like cities in America and Europe. The suburban sprawl is decidedly American in character, a gradual reduction in housing density interspersed with strip-malls, lumberyards, and other space-intensive businesses. My English and Dutch companions on the trip commented how the town outskirts looked like the United States and unlike their home countries.

I wandered around Adelaide, visited the zoo, heard some folk music at a place called the Gov, visited Rundle mall, saw a tourist-demonstration of some aboriginal dancing, and got to know my way around the town. One of the strange quirks about Adelaide and Melbourne is that they have audible and visible pedestrian signals. In addition to the red stop and white walk lights, the intersections have large pedestrian buttons with speakers that click for stop and make funny chirps when it is okay to cross. I saw few people jaywalking in either city. Obeying the crosswalk signals may slow movement on foot, but it must make driving a lot easier and less confrontational.

Adelaide has an astonishing mix of ethnic foods. One interesting point is that the Chinese food is prepared by people from China who have not been to Chinatown in New York or San Francisco. The food was distinctly and wonderfully Chinese and just as obviously was not American-Chinese.

I signed up for an all-day tour where the morning was visiting the sights of Adelaide including some very nice houses and a tea shop with delicious biscuits. The afternoon was spent at Cleland Park near Mt. Lofty. Cleland Park is not exactly a zoo, but it isn't a wild game preserve, either. It reminds me of Fossil Rim near Fort Worth, Texas, where they have exotic animals who are used to people. The gift shop sells animal food along with souvenirs and guests wander around the part amid the animals. I got to see, up close and personal, emus, kangaroos, pelicans, and other tourists. (The pelicans can fly, too. Contrast that with our own big bird, the flying whale.) There were green-billed birds that made an oinking sound (at least I'm pretty sure the sound came from these birds), there were frogs that made a sound like the pluck of a loose rubber band, and there were penguins.

There are small dogs called dingos and I have no idea when a dog is a dingo or when kangaroos are really wallabees. (Maybe it's the same distinction as a pig and a hog. Farmers seem to know when to call it a pig and when to call it a hog, but they look the same to the untrained observer.)

But no visit to Australia would be complete without experiencing the king of cute, the cuddliest critter of them all, the koala bear. At about 10 Kg, a koala bear is the weight of two household cats. The koala bears at Cleland Park were managed by a caring staff who knew when they had enough human company.

Australia starts its seasons on the first of the month, so December 1-7 is the first week of their summer. Summer or not, the nights were cool, 12°C. (55°F.). The mornings were warm enough for just cap, singlet, shorts, and shoes, but the first ten minutes were still chilly. While their longest day of the year is December 21, the solstice, the earliest dawn is around December 7 (because of the earth's elliptical orbit), perfect for a morning runner who prefers not to run in the dark. I ran along the River Torrens each morning I was in Adelaide. My morning river runs were rich in the sights and sounds of birds, and the occasional frog. There were black swans and red-headed birds.

On December 3, Tuesday morning, we left in luxurious coaches (which we call buses in the United States). These were comfortable enough to make a five hour drive into the Outback very pleasant.

We got to Woomera base, which is a small and isolated military community out in the Outback. The place was home to many Americans about fifty years ago and the Eldo hotel has many nostalgic touches. Because there have been many American visitors, the rooms are equipped with both Australian and American switches and outlets. Unlike our switches here in the United States, Australian switches go down for ON and up for OFF.

Coming to Woomera the night before was another touch of super-organization (or should I write organisation) typical of Explorers. The eclipse was in the late afternoon, 19:45 (a quarter to eight), but having the extra night gave us a relaxed experience rather than a big rush. Our rooms were ready when we arrived and those of us who shared suites were well matched by smoking preference. The folks at the base were clearly happy to see us, which tells me that the Explorers staff made sure they knew how many of us would be staying and what our needs would be. Meals were well-thought-out buffet spreads at the Eldo Hotel and we got a wonderful lecture from Dr. John Mason the night before the eclipse.

The folks at BAE Systems at Woomera base really rolled out the red carpet for their visitors. We had access to lovely Outback vistas, an interesting museum with some old audio gear, fascinating displays, fun shops, a post office, and, of course, the Internet. The people there gave us a warm welcome and made me want to come back there.

While the astronomy buffs went out to a late-night star party, I went to sleep and got up early enough to use my binoculars to see some stars and nebulae on my own. I also saw a wonderfully bright meteor streak across the sky. I got out my camera and took pictures of the Outback sunrise, one, two, three, four, five, six. My morning run was pleasantly cool with very few cars, twice around the base for a total of about 11 Km where I saw an emu and two kangaroos.

The afternoon of eclipse day, 2002 December 4, we were driven out to the eclipse site on the base. On the way there, we saw a gamma ray telescope and an old rocket launch site. We were lined up so we all could have a "front row" view of the eclipse. (An eclipse so close to sunset is low in the sky and people not lined up this way might accidentally block each other's views.) There had been some gloomy weather forecasts, but the weather was sparkling clear with a wind strong enough to blow tripods down. We did not appreciate the virtue of having wind until we were outside the next day and realized that the flies in the Outback would have been far more annoying than the wind. (We ended up hanging plastic bags full of rocks to hold our cameras steady.) You may have thought Australians were just being friendly, raising and waving their hands at you. They were being friendly, but they were mostly swatting at the flies.

There is a lot to say about seeing a total solar eclipse which I'll say in another place. The partial eclipse phase began right on time at 18:45 (a quarter to seven) and the excitement grew for the next hour. The sun became a crescent, too bright to look at directly without a filter, but able to project crescent shapes on a white wall or a willing human subject. The moment arrived with a brilliant flash, the crowd held its breath, the total eclipse came, and the corona was visible for twenty-six seconds. The outer corona formed a nearly perfect ring around the inner corona. I saw no solar flares on the disk of the sun, but the diamond ring was the most beautiful I have seen.

We were then treated to a crescent sunset and I took pictures one, two, three.

Others claimed to see solar flares (promenances), green flashes on one or both of the setting "horns" of cresent sun, and the Loch Ness monster. I saw no red spots on the sun's surface. (Also, I did not see any in the good full-circle eclipse pictures. My own point-and-shoot picture zoomed in has a red inner ring, probably from optical effects of the lens, and no visible solar flares.) As for the Loch Ness monster, we all saw it from the coach window the next day on the way back to Adelaide amid the salt lakes in the desert. With no wind to blow them away, the flies made being outside unpleasant.

Maybe it was the eclipse excitement and maybe it was just getting a good night's sleep enough nights in a row, but my December 5, Thursday morning, run in Woomera and my December 6, Friday morning, run in Adelaide felt better and were about two minutes a mile faster than the previous four days. I timed Thursday's run to see the Outback sunrise as I came over the crest of a hill. Unlike the day before, the eastern sky was cloudy and the sun appeared only briefly between the ground and the clouds. I was very glad it was this day and not the day before that had clouds in the sky. Our day was spent going back to Adelaide in coaches and I enjoyed a spectacular Thai meal at a restaurant called Star of Siam. (Interesting that they would refer to Thailand by the old name. I remember a generation that strongly avoided the name "Siam" and only used the word "Siamese" for cats.)

Friday was an eleven hour train ride from Adelaide to Melbourne on a train called the Overland. It was a relaxing day and the food was a little better than airline food. I should point out that the hotel stays in Adelaide and Melbourne, as well as the train ride, were superbly organized by Explorers. I expected huge lines as a hundred guests or riders showed up, but everything was taken care of, as if our arrival was expected. Both hotels had a hundred envelopes with our names on them and our room keys inside them.

Melbourne is a big city, several million people, with a big city feel. There were a lot more Asians than Adelaide and I heard a mix of English and Manderin on the streets. My morning runs along the River Yarra were peaceful enough. There was a steady stream of rowers in the water and a few preparing to row. There was also a steady stream of enthusiastic coaches bicycling with electric megaphones giving helpful advice to the people rowing on the boats. My Melbourne morning runs were peaceful river experiences, but Melbourne's River Yarra was decidedly more "urban" than the Adelaide parkland of the River Torrens.

Melbourne's streets had pleasant big city experiences, such as sculpture and street performers. I visited the Melbourne zoo where I saw a platypus, kangaroos, emus, echidnas, wombats, a tiger up close (sponsored by Esso, of course), Indian elephants, lions, peacocks, many beautiful birds, and a lot of other animals. I finished my Melbourne stay with a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert.

The next morning, I left for Melbourne Airport (MEL) for my long trip back to Atlanta.

This would not be an Adam essay if I did not present some opinion on Australia. Of all the other countries I have visited, only Canada is as much like the United States as Australia. These are two countries that have such a wonderful expanse of land area, far more, even, than we have here. There was a friendliness and an efficiency that I associate with an earlier time here in the U.S. Some of that is the planning expertise of my tour guides, but, even with perfect planning, it takes a certain kind of people-efficiency to make it happen, to make things go right. Having the light switches go the other way, having the sun in the northern sky, having people driving on the other side, and having the Christmas holiday in the summertime are differences that made the trip interesting. (And if the water swirls the other way in the drain, then I did not notice it.) But I felt it would only take me a month or two to get used to living in the places I visited on the big island, nation, and continent of Australia.

    

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