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Bushwalking in the Blue Mountains

The Blundstones finally got broken in over two days of bushwalking in Blue Mountains National Park. I bought them before I left because I didn’t have hiking boots and I really wanted to find something that I could hike in but that I could also wear with jeans and not look like I should be in a MEC catalog. I’m not sure why all outdoor gear has to be so terribly unstylish. And my travel burden to bear is that I just can’t completely sacrifice style for practicality. That may be shallow. But I’m comfortable with that.

It was a 2-hour train ride from Sydney up to Katoomba, where I checked into the Blue Mountains YHA. Katoomba is an interesting little town with a kind of counter-culture, artsy vibe to it. The main street is lined with great cafes, some misplaced dreadlocks and I even saw some yarnbombing on a few streetpoles.

That first afternoon, I followed the Prince Henry Cliff Walk around to Echo Point and the Three Sisters rock formation, probably the most famous sight in the Blue Mountains. The commonly told legend is that three local sisters fell in love with three men from a neighbouring tribe, but they were forbidden to marry by tribal law. A battle ensued as the men tried to capture the three sisters and an elder turned them temporarily into stone to protect them from any harm. But the elder himself was killed in the fighting, and as no one else could turn them back, the sisters remained in their rock formation.

Below the Three Sisters, 911 steps took me down the Giant Stairway into the Jamison Valley and the Federal Pass track took me through endless eucalyptus gums, dense temperate rainforest and massive prehistoric ferns right out of Jurassic Park. The next day, I went the other way, past the Leura Cascades and Gordon Falls with stunning cliff top views all along the way.

After my hike, I hopped on the Blue Mountain Explorer Bus to head to Scenic World which is somewhat of a Blue Mountains theme park. I succumbed to the siren call because I really wanted to ride the Katoomba Scenic Railway. It’s the steepest incline railway in the world and it was originally built as part of the coal mining industry in the valley. We crammed in and plunged 415 m through a dark tunnel built into the cliff and it was totally worth the admission fees. At the bottom, there was a coal mine exhibition which reminded me of a Disney exhibit, complete with animatronic mannequins and weird audio recordings saying things like “Boy, it sure is cold down here!” on a repeated loop.

After exploring the boardwalk pathways in that part of the valley and seeing lyrebirds, cockatoos and parrots, those admission fees paid off again as I got to ride the Scenic Cableway up and out of the valley. Riding this very steep aerial cable car made me feel like my little tomboy self all over again and I was grinning for the rest of the day.

Here’s a slideshow with some more pictures from my two walks:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Bushwalking in the Blue Mountains“, posted with vodpod

Kangaroos and Koalas

I am somewhat known in my family (and by some of my friends) as a thorough travel planner. I love the research process and looking at guide books and websites and figuring out what I want to do when I go somewhere. I will admit to spending hours online trying to find the best car rental deal and you know I am not booking a hotel before trolling tripadvisor forums to check out the good reviews and to avoid the horror stories.

So imagine my surprise when I was checking in on Air New Zealand at LAX and the woman at the desk asked where my visa was for Australia. I was like, uh, what visa? With all of my planning and research, I had failed to come across the teeny tiny fact that you need a visitor visa to come to Australia. I was all like, but I have a Canadian passport! She gave me a withering look and went ahead and applied for it electronically for me, thank God. What good is being part of the Commonwealth then, eh? 

All went well with the flight in the end and after a couple of days of recovering from jet lag and getting to know Maroubra Beach (Tammy’s neighbourhood) a little bit, we didn’t waste any time wading right in to the Australian stereotypes. Because, really, what’s more Australian than kangaroos and koalas? We headed north to Featherdale Wildlife Park on a bright Saturday morning with Tammy’s mum, Penny, riding shotgun. Our original plan was to go to the Watarah Park Earth Sanctuary which was listed in one of Tammy’s Sydney guide books, but apparently it was closed in 2007 due to lack of interest. Featherdale was more zoo-like than we expected, as some of the animals roam free and some are caged. I may not rock a PETA bumpersticker, but it’s always hard to see animals caged up.

All of the animals and birds at Featherdale are native to Australia and as we walked through the park, kangaroos and wallabies bounded about, kookaburras chortled and koalas snoozed. I was amazed that I had never even heard of a bilby, a bettong, a quoll, a quokka or a pademelon (all small mammals). We also saw echidnas, wombats and two goannas getting it on. I was completely fascinated by the colony of red flying foxes which gently stirred in their sleep, constantly unfolding and readjusting their wings, trying to find a more comfortable position, I guess.


And of course, like any tourist attraction worth its salt, the path through the park ended at the gift shop where amongst the fridge magnets, Akubra hats and tea towels were these delighful souvenirs:

I’m not really sure what to make of these golliwog dolls being for sale at the Featherdale Wildlife Park gift shop. There are few black people in Sydney (and I assume the rest of Australia) and you don’t really see many Aboriginal people either. Like in many other places, people stare at me, but it’s always difficult to know how much of that has to do with “Holy black person, Batman!” and how much of that has to do with solving the gender puzzle (I’m like sudoku, but cuter).

Of course there is racism everywhere, but Australia has a long, complex relationship with white-on-black racism from the Stolen Generations to the more recent Cronulla Riots. And a  study released last week by the Foundation for Young Australians showed that 80% of non-Anglo secondary school students across Australia have experienced ‘racial vilification’.

While violence and verbal abuse are always shocking, after 17 years of living in Canada, somehow it was even more shocking to see those dolls lined up for sale in a souvenir shop. So casual. So oblivious. So unrelated to Australian wildlife. I’m still not sure what to make of it.

Long Weekend in L.A.

When I booked my ticket on Air New Zealand in July, I decided to fly via L.A. so that I could visit my cousin Andrea and her husband Mike on the way down under. I really wasn’t thinking of it as a trip in itself but it turned out to be a sweet little weekend that involved great company and good eating. The food gods treated me well as I just had great stuff to eat the whole time.

So what did I do?

  • Visited the Getty Center and the Griffith Observatory with Andrea
  • Had Sunday afternoon drinks at The Abbey with my friend Julia
  • Shopped at The Grove and The Beverly Center
  • Saw one minor celebrity, Andy Milder, Dean Hodes on “Weeds” 
  • Took an oceanfront bike ride from Pacific Palisades down to Venice Beach

My cousin Andrea

And more importantly, what amazing things did I eat?

Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n' Waffles

I’m really really glad I took that bike ride.

4 days in Reykjavik

This is a bit of a throwback since I really didn’t blog about my trip to Iceland, but here’s a compilation video that Anna and I made while we were there.


Marrakech Express

When I was a kid and I got my Crayola box of 64 crayons, Jardin MajorelleI remember being amazed that there could be so many colours. I loved burnt sienna and forest green and oh, cornflower. But there is nothing quite like the colour bleu Majorelle, the most intense vivid cobalt blue that is everywhere you look in the Jardin Majorelle.

We started our day at these gardens which were created by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and then later bought and restored by Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge. The gardens are filled with cactus and succulents and palms, and Yves’ ashes were scattered there after he passed away last year. I grumbled about getting up extra early for this trip, but I’m so glad I went. It was so peaceful and beautiful there.

MustafaFrom there, we headed to the Bahia Palace accompanied by our local guide, Mustafa. This palace was built in the late 19th century and was intended to be the greatest palace of its time. It’s very plain on the outside but inside the complex there are a number of rooms decorated with stunning stuccos, paintings, mosaics with Islamic patterns and coloured carved cedar wood roofs. The attention to detail and the ornate handiwork is so over-the-top but it works.

El Bahia Palace

Then it was back into the medina and a visit to Herboriste le Musee, where Herboriste le Museewe got a demonstration of the various products for sale. There were all kinds of herbs, spices, oils, creams and other natural products to treat everything from hemorrhoids to freckles. The spices smelled amazing and I bought some of this  spice mixture called Hanut Ras which is a blend of 35 different spices and is used for seasoning everything and some cumin and some dried eucalyptus that’s used for clearing out the sinuses. It made my eyes water when I sniffed it, so I had to buy some of that.

Even though the tour didn’t end here, in a lot of ways, that was the last highlight for me.  From there, Fran went shopping in the souks and I went back to the hotel. On the way, I did succumb to paying my 10 dirham for a photo of these guys in the square.

Water sellers

We had a fairly quiet last day driving back from Marrakech to Casablanca where we said goodbye to our driver, Razak. We had a nice farewell dinner with the whole group and said goodbye to our guide, Abdul. Then a smaller group of us sat in the hotel bar area and were entertained by two ladies singing Abba cover songs and light country hits from the seventies. That was pretty priceless.

Route map

In the end, it was a great trip and I’m glad that I got to experience it, but I’m also glad that I got to experience Fran experiencing it. She was so amazed by everything and overwhelmed by so many of the sights and sounds – she was like a kid in a candy store. Thanks to Allah for bringing us both to Morocco.

Over the High Atlas to Marrakech

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the hotels throughout the tour (not that I was expecting dumps or anything), but none moreso than our Ouarzarzate hotel, Le Berbere Palace. Ouarzarzate is the movie capital of Morocco and it wasn’t hard to feel glamorous reclining on a daybed around the gorgeous pool, amongst the beautifully landscaped gardens. “Babel” with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett was shot here and it didn’t take long for a rumour to start circulating that Brad Pitt had stayed here during the shoot, although I might have had something to do with that.

But alas, we were up bright and early again and on the move, so we had very little time to enjoy the hotel. It was another day of stunning scenery as we drove through the High Atlas mountains via the highest paved road in Morocco, the Tizi n’ Tichka pass.

Tizi n'Tichka pass

The mountains turned from green to gray to red as we drove between buses, trucks and tourist SUVs, winding our way past tiny villages and numerous roadside rock shops offering “mineraux et fossils” to passing tourists.

We arrived in Marrakech at lunchtime and it was completely different to everywhere else that we had been so far. It was by far the most modern place we had been and felt much like any other western city with shopping, restaurants, big hotels, fancy condo apartments and traffic. The traffic is remarkable though, as the parade of cars, buses, trucks, scooters and mopeds, endless mopeds, is like a neverending flow of water, with everything  miraculously never quite colliding. 

Scooter ladies

We headed out after lunch for a visit to the medina where we stopped in at the Saadian Tombs, which are mausoleums housing the the sultans, princes and other members of the royal families of that dynasty. And we had a bit of an orientation to the medina and the souks, since most people were planning to do most of their shopping here on their own.

We went back to the medina that night before dinner to see Djemaa el Fna Square come alive. Djemaa el FnaIt is famous for its manic swirl of human activity (both locals and tourists) including snakecharmers, monkey wranglers, water sellers and henna ladies by day, and musicians, storytellers, dancers and steaming food stalls by night, when the crowds thicken.

As we walked through the food stalls, this guy looked at me and grinning and smiling and pointing to his own head, he said “I like this hair you have for you.” The he laughed and said “Like Obama! Like Obama!” clearly pleased at this revelation. So that was a first. Not Tiger, but Obama. 

In the square

We had a fancy full-on Moroccan dinner that evening, course by course, and I think I just might have had the best roast lamb ever. We sat with Charles and Jerry The amazing acrobatfrom Philadelphia, Maureen from NYC and Graeme and Denise from New Zealand. And then then the entertainment started and you just knew that there was bound to be some audience participation required at some point. Maureen was at the edge of the table next to the open floor and I advised her to just go with the flow, but of course by the time the belly dancers arrived following the musicians, fire eater and acrobat, she protested vociferously and pointed at me instead. So in the end, the belly dancer managed to get me, Charles and Graeme up for what was an excruciatingly self-conscious three minutes for me.   

So you think you can dance

As we were leaving, this fleet of black Mercedes sedans was arriving with police all in the street directing traffic and men in suits and gandoras getting out and being waved past us into the restaurant. They were followed by a couple of busloads of wives, girlfriends and other minions. It turns out that there was an international trade meeting being held that day of ministers of agriculture from the region, and they were on their way in for the roast lamb and entertainment that we had just enjoyed. Not sure if the bellydancers would have gotten them up though.

Rockin’ the Kasbahs

I know, I know, the title of this post is cheesy. But I can’t help it. You knew I had to mention it somewhere.

Anyway, after the magic of the desert, the next morning we drove from Erfoud Tinehir oasisthrough the oasis of Tinehir which was just lush and green as far as you could see and not at all like what you see in cartoons and movies where there’s just one teensy palm tree and a small pool of water. This is the longest river oasis in Morocco and it was filled with date palm trees and people working in the fields below. There were also some vendors and Fran and I bought some Berber scarves here.

From there we drove through the Todra Gorge which was simply Todra Gorgespectacular. This steep canyon has been carved by a river that is now no more than a little stream, and it’s hard to imgine that enough water once flowed there to cut into the heart of this mountain. The passage through narrows towards the end and you have to crane your neck to see your way out past the sheer and smooth rock walls.

On the last leg before lunch, we drove through the Dades Valley also known as the ‘Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs’ because of the endless number of kasbah settlements in this area. Many of them have been abandoned and are crumbling and in ruins since they’re no longer maintained.  But some families still live in them and continue to patch the adobe walls to keep them intact.

The highlight at lunch was my discovery of Casablanca beer which was so tasty, even Fran liked it. I’m going to have to track that down in Toronto.

Casablanca beer

One of my fears in coming on an organized group tour like this was that we would be led into situations where we would be obnoxious or voyeuristic or both. And certainly it was difficult to avoid the obnoxious part because 39 people being herded through anywhere is fairly obnoxious. Some members of our group put more points in our obnoxious column by taking pictures of people who didn’t want their picture taken or refusing to pay afterwards. Or pointing and shouting “donkey” every single time they saw one. 

Earlier in the tour, Fran and I had skipped an optional excursion which took the group to some Berber caves to visit a family who had been living in the same cave for centuries and handing it down from generation to generation. We both felt that that crossed the voyeuristic line for us. I don’t mean to be sanctimonious and there is no judgment for the people that decided to go. I also understand that the money that the Berber family receives from tourists visiting is important to their income and helps run their household. But it’s a tough personal call and it’s part of being a tourist everywhere you go. And when we’re travelling, we’re all tourists, whether we like it or not.

So when we stopped at an inhabited kasbah at the end of the day, just before our arrival in Ouarzarzate, I felt anxious. Taourirt kasbahAbdul, our guide, brought us to the Taourirt Kasbah because the families that live there are all related and they are the black descendants of slaves brought from Mali through the centuries and seized by the ruling clan at the time. From his perspective, this was something unique that he wanted us to see. As he led us through, it felt like we were invading their homes as most people brushed past us quickly as they went about their business. Abdul had arranged for one of the women to show us how they make bread over fire in a clay oven, and while everyone stood around taking pictures, this little boy who was holding a soccer ball came up to me and said “picture, picture” and held his hand out for money. I shook my head and pointed at his ball and said “you like soccer?” And he looked back at me for minute, and then finally he said “Beckham”. So I said “um, Zidane” and then he said “Ronaldo” and I said “Kaka” and we went on like this for a few minutes, naming football stars to each other as conversation.

As we walked back to the bus, I teared up for a moment and I think it made me sad to have crossed that voyeuristic line. That might sound a little precious and I know everyone draws that line in a different place, but it was a powerful reminder of just where I draw mine. I gotta remember that.