Monday, June 27, 2011

Australia's Red Center: Uluru

Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park
(My journal entry from our visit in April 1999)
Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock
    We have just returned from our Easter vacation trip with a week’s worth of clothes covered in fine red dust acquired in Australia’s “Red Center” where we visited Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock), in Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park, and Alice Springs, the largest town in the heart of Australia’s enormous desert interior and the center of life in the outback.  In the desert, daytime temperatures can easily rise to 110 degrees or more and in winter it goes below freezing at night, but we were lucky to have beautiful weather in the seventies.  In the morning, though, it was so cold that I had to put on my thermal underwear!
A Desert Oasis
Thorny Devil Lizard
    As in most deserts, one would think that nothing could live in such a harsh environment, but we saw  a surprising variety of plant and animal life, especially near sources of water.  Actually, the land around Uluru was green and flowering due to rains several weeks ago.  This trip was also our first real exposure to Aboriginal life and we learned how people have lived and survived in this region for 70,000 years.  About half of the land in the Northern Territory belongs to the Aboriginal Land Trust, the equivalent of America’s Indian Reservations, and most of Australia’s Aborigines live in this region.     
Uluru as a Tourist Destination
Spinifex, typical grass of the Australian desert
    We flew to Uluru on Thursday, arriving about noon at our hotel in the resort village of Yulara.  Until the 1970's the only way to visit Uluru (then called Ayers Rock) was to drive there and camp or stay at a small motel, both located right at the base of the rock. (You may have seen a movie called Cry in the Dark starring Meryl Streep.  It was based on the true story of a couple camping at the rock whose baby was supposedly stolen by a dingo.)  As Uluru became an increasingly popular tourist destination (currently 400,000 people visit each year)  it was decided to move all the accommodation facilities outside the park boundary and Yulara was built.  About the same time the government was under increasing pressure from the Aborigines, who regard Uluru as a sacred site, to return the national park to them.  The Hand Back, as it is called, finally happened in 1985 with the agreement that tourists would continue to be allowed to visit.
Sand dune with Uluru in the distance
    We didn't climb Uluru.  The Aborigines don't like having people climb it although they don't stop them. The Aborigines call the people who climb the rock Mingi, which means "ants" and that's exactly what they look like when you see them from a distance.  The more eco-minded tour companies discourage climbing Uluru.  Not only is it disrespectful for the Aborigines who consider the rock sacred but it is wearing down the rock.  In any case, Art doesn't like high places so he was easily convinced that we didn't want to climb.   We decided that we'd much more enjoy a walk around the base of the rock. 
Sunrise Walk Around the Rock
View of Uluru from walk around the base of the rock
    The next morning we got up at 5:30 to meet our tour guide for a sunrise breakfast walk around the base of the rock, a distance of about ten kilometers. This was a small group eco-tour and this time we were nearly alone to enjoy the lighting of the rock at dawn. At the same time we had the double pleasure of seeing the moon set behind the rock. 
    In the course of the walk we were introduced to desert plants, saw lots of birds (including our first sighting of zebra finches in the wild) and heard some of the aboriginal stories associated with the Rock.  We had chances to try “bush tucker” (native edible foods) including a tiny red fruit called the bush plum and the so-called bush banana, which is banana shaped but more like eating the inside of a milkweed pod.
Kata Tjuta
    Our outing the next day was a hike and sunset barbecue at Kata Tjuta, an equally impressive but less well known rocky outcrop nearby.  The Aboriginal name, Kata Tjuta, means stone heads and they do look like giant heads piled on the horizon. As we returned after dark, we saw an owl and a dingo in the headlights of the bus.  Overhead, the sky was brilliant with the moon and Southern constellations.
    On Sunday morning, after five days in the park, we flew from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs, a distance of about 300 miles.

  [We were so inspired by this visit to Uluru that we returned three years later to take more photos and to research my book Uluru: Australia’s Aboriginal Heart (Clarion, 2003.)]
Accommodations at Yulara:  On this trip we stayed at the Desert Gardens Hotel.  On our subsequent trip, when we researched my book, we stayed at the Emu Walk Apartments.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Patagonian Penguins

Visiting a Penguin Colony in Southern Chile (December 1996)

The Otway Sound in southern Chile is the summer home of thousands of Magellanic penguins. These "warm weather" penguins are recognized by white rings around the face and chest.
    Penguins were everywhere.  Some rested on the beach, cleaning themselves after a day at sea.  Others marched like teams of tuxedoed soldiers across the short grass.  Parent penguins and their chicks peeked out of their underground burrows. We were in southern Chile visiting a nesting colony of Magellanic penguins at the edge of the Otway Sound (Seno Otway) on the Magellan Strait.  Each spring more than 1000 of these plump seabirds come ashore to this windswept plain to mate, lay eggs, and bring up their young.  Although we were bundled in warm coats to protect us from the chilly wind, the penguins seemed to be enjoying the long hours of summer sunshine.

On the Beach

     As we watched the penguins waddle across the grass they reminded us of comical waiters. Unruffled by the constant winds that sweep across the southern tip of South America, penguins are well equipped to withstand the harsh weather of this region. Luckily for us, the weather on the day we visited was mild and sunny.  Because we were so far south and it was near the summer solstice, the sun remained high into the sky until well into the evening.

 Don't Touch the Penguins!
Magellanic penguins stand about two feet tall and weigh about seven pounds. They live along the coasts of Chile, Argentina and the Falkland Islands.  They are named after the explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, who saw them on his historic trip around the world between 1519 and 1522.
Obeying the sign that warned us not to touch the penguins, we followed the winding path through the colony. A fence separated us from the nesting area.  The birds paid little attention to us and went about their business cleaning their nests, tending their chicks, or making their way to and from the water.

The Southern Hemisphere spring begins in September and that is when the penguins begin to arrive at their nesting colonies.  Waddling up the shore on sturdy webbed feet the penguins search for good nest sites.  Digging in the soft ground, they make a nesting burrow. Once a penguin pair has mated they stay together for their whole lives.   Older pairs usually return to the same nest hole that they used the year before. 

Penguin Chicks

Penguins preen their feathers to keep them clean and waterproof.  The fluffy chick on the right will get its adult feathers in a few weeks.
Six weeks after eggs have been laid, they are ready to hatch.  The newly hatched chicks weigh about three ounces and look something like furry gray tennis balls.  Like all baby birds, penguin chicks are always hungry.  For the rest of the summer, their parents take turns going to sea to catch fish to feed them.  When the adult bird returns to the burrow, it coughs up partly digested food and feeds the chicks.

Young penguins come out of the burrow for the first time when they are about six weeks old.  As we walked through the colony we could see some of the young birds peering cautiously out of their nest holes.  Others stood by the entrance with their parents.  By the time young penguins are eight weeks old they are completely covered with smooth, oily feathers.  Then they are ready to join their parents in the water.

Penguin parents watch over their chicks closely.  They have to protect them from foxes, large seabirds and other animals that might harm them.  We saw a Patagonian fox, or zorro, bound across the shore with a conger eel in its mouth.

A Memorable Visit
We visited the penguin colony in December when it was bustling with activity.  But by March all the penguins would go back to sea for the winter.  Then all would be quiet on the shores of  Otway Sound until the next nesting season.  We were lucky to visit during the few months that the penguins spend on land. 

Getting there: We flew from Santiago, Chile, to Punta Arenas, Chile’s most southern port city.  We were on our way to Torres del Paine National Park.  After renting a car (actually a small Toyota truck) at the airport, we stopped at the penguin colony on our way from the airport to Punta Arenas where we spent our first night before heading north.  A sign on the highway marked the dirt road that led to the penguin colony.

Penguins at the Zoo: You don’t have to travel to South America to see a breeding colony of Magellanic penguins.  Instead, go to the San Francisco Zoo.  Every spring, you can see penguin parents and their fluffy chicks standing outside their nest holes.  I wrote about these penguins in my book Penguin (Morrow Junior Books, 1988), illustrated with photos by Richard Hewett.  It is out of print but you may be able to find it in the library.  It inspired my visit to the colony at Seno Otway when I went to Patagonia with my family several years later.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Oakland Rose Garden: A Hidden Gem

While Oakland, California, may not be on the top of your list as a tourist destination, it has become a second home for me.  On each visit, I discover something new. I had passed the sign that said “Rose Garden” many times on my way to the hardware store, but never stopped.  Finally, on a recent May weekend, I made a point to park and take a stroll and see what was beyond the sign. I found hundreds of flower beds, filled with rose bushes bursting with blooms.
Tucked into a wooded glen in a residential neighborhood of Oakland, California, the Morcom Rose Garden is a refreshing retreat.  Built in the 1930's, it features formal gardens, a pool and fountain, winding paths, and a walkway honoring the Mother of the Year.  (The ceremony is held each year on Mother’s Day and honors a woman who has contributed to the community.) As I wandered among the flowers, I felt like I had traveled back in time, when life moved at a slower pace.  Indeed, the garden appears used mainly by local residents.  I saw people walking dogs and babies, sitting on benches drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, or just strolling along the flower beds.  It was calm and peaceful, hidden from the noise of the surrounding city.  The garden is also a haven for wildlife, especially wild turkeys who wander freely along the paths and appear to have the right of way!
The garden is maintained by the Friends of the Morcom Rose Garden.  At their website you can see an amazing slide show of hundreds of gorgeous roses, with names to match.
Where is it?  The Morcom Rose Garden is located on Jean Street, one block off of Grand Avenue in Oakland, CA.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Abu Dhabi

Entrance to Palace Museum, Al Ain, Ancestral Home of the Ruling Family of Abu Dhabi

Camels and Skyscrapers
As the plane descended, I looked down onto the aquamarine waters of the Arabian Sea and desert along the shore.  Then, as we circled toward the airport, buildings, roads, and neatly planted date orchards came into view.  At one point we appeared to fly over a camel market. Soon the roads and buildings became more and more dense and we passed over housing developments and shopping malls.  In the distance, I could see skyscrapers.  We were getting ready to land in the United Arab Emirates, a country that in just fifty years has transformed itself from a tiny desert outpost to a land of gleaming modern metropolises.

I had never been to the Middle East before, and the plane trip, from LAX to Dubai, was the longest I had ever experienced (16 hours).  When we landed, we were half-way around the world.  The twelve hour time difference meant that I didn’t even have to change my watch!  We were met by a representative from the conference my husband was attending, escorted through the super-sized terminal and then driven to Abu Dhabi, the other major city in the U.A.E. (In the UAE, it is preferable to be driven than to drive yourself.)

View from our room of the entrance to the Emirates Palace Hotel, with the Etihad Towers, a new hotel and business complex under construction in the background

The Most Expensive Hotel in the World
In Abu Dhabi, the conference was held at the luxurious Emirates Palace Hotel, by far, the most lavish hotel I have ever seen.  It made me feel as if I had landed in a chapter of the Arabian Nights by mistake.  (Luckily for us, our rooms were paid for as part of the conference.)  Featuring gold covered ceilings, multiple five star restaurants, high-end shops, a private beach, two giant swimming pools, and more, it was so big, that one day after lunch I got lost on the way back to our room.  For photos and more details about the over the top luxury at the Emirates Palace, read this article in the  Sydney Morning Herald
Camels on the beach in front of the Emirates Palace Hotel

But I didn’t really want to feel as if I’d flown half way around the world to spend a week in a fancy, land-bound cruise ship.  I wanted to see what the U.A.E. was like outside the hotel.  In preparation for the trip, I had read Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World’s Richest City by Jo Tatchell, who had lived in Abu Dhabi as a child, when it was still largely undeveloped.  It helped me to get a sense of where the UAE had come from and where it is today. I highly recommend it.

Heritage Village
"Hinna" was and still is the most elegant traditional cosmetic used by women in the UAE.  The UAE motifs can be distinguished from decorations of other regions in the gulf.  The process includes drying the leaves, crushing and making the paste.  Special containers were used to keep the mixture.  (Exhibit in museum at Heritage Village)
Most of Abu Dhabi’s past has been bulldozed over.  However, one place you can get a sense of local history is at the Heritage Village where there are reconstructions of typical Bedouin tents and houses, live camels, and a small museum displaying traditional clothing, jewelry, household items, etc.

A Country of Superlatives
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi.  Can accommodate 22,000 worshipers.  It is the largest mosque in the world.
Financed by the oil industry, development in the U.A.E. has proceeded at a frenetic pace (the country feels like one huge building site.)  Everything is over the top.  The country boasts the tallest building, the largest mosque, the biggest shopping mall, the largest dancing fountains, the most expensive hotels.  A whole museum complex is being built that will include a satellite Louvre and Guggenheim plus two other museums.  (Models are displayed at the Emirates Palace Hotel.) 

Al Ain, the Garden City
Majlis, or meeting room, at the Palace Museum in Al Ain, where most decisions were made when the palace was the center of government.  Here was where the Sheikh received local and foreign dignitaries. 
The UAE is a federation of seven emirates, (each originally a tribal or family based unit) that banded together after oil was discovered in 1958.  Although they function as a political unit, they also retain some independence. On a MAP you can see that there are three major cities, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, both on the coast and Al Ain, which is inland and the ancestral home of the ruling family.  After five nights in Abu Dhabi, we spent two days with friends in Al Ain.
Al Ain is a desert oasis and promotes itself as a garden city.  Before the discovery of oil, fresh water was in short supply.  Now, oil powered electricity plants provide the energy for desalination, and water is pumped everywhere.  For a desert country, the landscape is surprisingly green.
The Palace Museum
Interior courtyard of Palace Museum, Al Ain.
My favorite part of the trip was visiting the Palace Museum and Jalil Fort in Al Ain.  Here one gets a glimpse of traditional life (bedrooms on the second floor taking advantage of cool breezes for natural air conditioning,  meeting areas for men, separate areas for women and children.)

Jalil Fort, Al Ain
Ramparts of Al Jalil Fort, Al Ain
A Trip to the Zoo  
Marabou stork (native to Africa) at the Wildlife Park, Al Ain
Whenever I travel, I always like to go to the zoo.  The zoo in Al Ain, recently remodeled, features the usual suspects (lions, tigers, giraffes, etc.) but also displays animals unique to the Arabian peninsula.  On the day we visited (in February), the weather was sunny and cool.  The animals were active and seemed to enjoy being out-of-doors. 

In food court of shopping mall, Al Ain.  Note that "Subway" is spelled backward in Arabic.
Shopping malls and supermarkets provide most of the same kinds of things you can buy in Europe or the United States.  We visited Carrefours, part of the French supermarket chain, and the associated mall, complete with an American style food court.

The Weather
Our trip, in February, was made during a time when the weather in the UAE is optimal–warm during the day and cool at night.  (I actually wished I had brought a warmer sweater for the evenings.) In summer, temperatures in the UAE apparently climb to 118 or more!  Before there was air conditioning, people went to Al Ain from Abu Dhabi and Dubai in summer to get away from the damp sea air.  It was better to be hot and dry than hot and humid.

Dubai skyline with Burj Khalifa (at 2,716.5 feet), the tallest building in the world.  The Burj was designed by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in Chicago.

Heading Home
Our last night was at the Premier Inn hotel near the airport in Dubai, chosen because of an early flight the next morning.  The week felt like a whirlwind and there are still plenty of things I’d like to do if I go back again.  I’d like to take a tour of the mosque (appropriate clothing is provided for women), go to one of the camel markets and/or camel races, do more birdwatching (actually, I saw quite a few birds on the hotel grounds), find out about local crafts, visit the falcon hospital, take a trip out into the desert.  Nevertheless, for a first visit I felt I saw a lot and got a glimpse of life in the UAE.  It is developing fast and, no doubt, will have even more to see in the future.
Road construction, Abu Dhabi.  Note aquamarine water of the Arabian Gulf.