"All The World's a Classroom"

Updated Oct 27, 2006......................................................................................

New South Wales, Australia

July 27, 2006

A travel day today to Coonabarabran (pronounced Coonabarabran) at a pottery place and farm stay. Huh? Pottery AND farm stay? Makes one wonder what they put in the clay, doesn't it. I thought the place had a funny smell...

It's getting pretty cold at night because we're going south, and it's still Australia's winter. Many of the campgrounds at which we stay have heaters in the rooms, and some even have heated mattress pads. These are both really good things. This farm stay had neither...just an undersized wood stove, vaulted ceilings, doors that didn't close well, and windows that rattled.

They might not rent this cottage much during the winter because the supply of wood for the stove was miniscule. It was pretty much just half a box of matches and a handful of dirt.

I guess they thought that if we put the matches into the wood stove and then lit these matches, that it would be sufficient to heat this large cottage for the 10+ night hours. Dunno what the dirt was for...

I was raised in apple country in northern Virginia and we heated part of our house with a big wood stove, so this was not unknown territory to me. I would be Mr. Woodstove man for the duration of our stay, which means I must gather and chop wood, and make sure my family was warm and dry.

This was my first foray into the different types of wood that Australia has to offer. I'm used to apple wood, oak, pine and locust. But in Australia, they have a bunch of different woods, and it's tough, just like the people. Here's a short introduction to each of the wood that I chopped/cut/burned and their advantages/disadvantages. Some of these are US-based woods, some are Australian; I thought that it might be interesting to compare/contrast the two:

Wood Hard/Soft Comments
Iron wood, native to Australia Hard This is a good name for this wood. It took a long time for me to split these huge pieces into little pieces. And it was magnetic. Just kidding.
Oak, popular in USA Hard Good for building and firewood. Good all-purpose wood. Produces acorns.
Pine, popular in USA Soft Pretty wood, good for building especially ceilings. High sap content which is good for fire starter logs.
Diamond Wood Very Hard This type of wood doesn't burn very well, but small pieces of it look good on a woman's finger.
Paper Mache Wood Soft A wood that's mostly made from pulp paper and glue, this is used mostly for carving or artwork. Very pliable, easily burned.
Kerosene Wood Medium Very flammable. Good for camping.

Did I mention that the wood stove was undersized and we had very little wood? I thought about chopping up the sofa, but they'd probably notice that it was missing in the morning.

I know that Nicky was interested in the pottery aspect of this farm stay; I was interested in keeping the family alive from hypothermia during our stay. While she was perusing the pottery, I was chopping wood. While she was reading to the girls, I was building a roaring fire in the stove. While she was sleeping comfortably, I was feeding the blaze that was our heater.

I've been called many things in my 40 odd years on this planet. I've never been called, "Mr. Heater" in a non-sexual way until today. I'm proud to wear this label.

July 28, 2006

Today I fought the good fight that is against the cold. It threatened to come into our drafty cabin with vaulted ceilings, drafty doors and wind-influenced windows. I said, "Nay, there will be no entry to you, the cold!"

If you slept in the loft at this place, it was actually quite toasty; if you were, like me, lying on the floor close to the wood stove in order to keep it fed all night long (did I mention that it was undersized and very small, and that you had to cut the wood into pencil-sized pieces?) then you would experience a bit of the chilliness that is Coonabarabran.

But this place is not called the Astronomy Capital of Australia for no reason. Because of its high altitude, clear cloud cover, and little light pollution, they built several astronomy observatories, and one of them had a mini-golf course. And a restaurant. And you could buy a hat and snow-globe.

It was called The Skywatch Observatory.

We played the 18-hole mini-astronomy-based golf course at 6pm. Each hole had an astronomy trivia fact:

  • This hole will give you Ring Around the Collar (Saturn)
  • This hole will make you think of chocolaty goodness (Mars, as in the chocolate bar?...)
  • Mickey will like that you played this hole (Pluto, aka Mickey Mouse's pal, which at this time, was still hotly debated as to whether it would continue to be classified as a planet).
  • Which planet could you marry? Saturn, because it has the rings. OUCH!

These weren't the exact trivia or stuff that was written at each hole, but I made up stuff that was equivalent in the hokiness factor.

We had an appointment to tour the telescope at 7:30pm. The astronomy lab was led by this dude named Alex and he was pretty cool. I pulled the normal Darren routine-baffling him with my barrage of insightful and astute questions in such a manner that nobody else was able to ask anything.

But the rest of the people weren't saying anything anyway. And I tend to be on the inquisitive side of things. And I figure that they learned from my questions. Plus I was really cold and I needed to keep moving and touching things and asking questions.

The place was much better than I thought it would be. It seemed very hokey and cheap when we entered, and their "museum" was pretty home-grown with many of the exhibits either broken or really, really bad. These guys actually built a small dome in which they put a computer-monitored 310mm telescope housed in a geodesic dome that rotates. I actually found out how to find South from the Southern Cross, which you need a protractor and a slide ruler to figure out. Or an abacus. Or you just Google the darn thing.

For a place that seemed really hokey to begin with, it turned out to be very informative and pretty cool.

Coony telescope

Alex explained about several of the southern hemisphere's constellations, different galaxies, planets, light-shifting, and mood swings that depended on the forces of gravity of the solar systems, which can and do affect your experiences and predict your future.

I made up the last bit. This way of thinking is called make-believe, or sometimes called, "Astrology." Ha!

July 29, 2006

Today we went to the Sliding Spring Observatory.

Sliding Spring

We toured a huge observatory today. The Sliding Spring Observatory is home to the 2.3m Advanced Technology Telescope, the world famous 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope, 2m Faulkes Telescope, the 1.24m UK Schmidt Telescope, two Boller & Chivens Cassegrains 1m and 0.6m along with the 0.5m Automatic Patrol Telescope and 0.6m Uppsala Schmidt Telescope.


Sliding Spring2

I think what this mumbo-jumbo means is that there is a pretty large telescope here, with advanced technological stuff in it. They should have said just that.

Actually this is a pretty cool place that is missing a good PR person and tour guides. The place is a self-tour, uh, place, and it's very disjointed. There's a bit of information on astronomy in general, a bit of info on the Sliding Spring Observatory (i.e. history, construction, significant astronomical finds), and the obligatory under-funded-museum-broken-hands-on-exhibits.

One exhibit that worked well and I thought was really cool was the seismic-measuring instrument. This is a device that measures impacts, at a very, very small scale. They had one that mirrored the measurement instrument sent to Mars and we could clap, hit, jump, etc. and see how this thing measured the resulting vibrations. I did the Hokey Pokey and the Charleston to see how it ranked on the Movement-O-Meter (I affectionately called it the "Movement-O-Meter" mostly because it seemed to tick off an older English couple that was in the museum with us, and the kids seemed to think that was funny. I thought it was funny, too).

The Charleston ranked a measly .02 on the scale (what's the scale? I couldn't figure that out), but the Hokey Pokey measured in at a whopping a .05 - .06! To put this in perspective I created another table for your seismic measuring enjoyment:

Action Measurement
Charleston .02
Hokey Pokey .05 - .06
Jumping Jacks 1.6 - 1.9
Hitting the glass in which the measuring instrument resides 9 - 12
Dominique farting against the glass .04, but it really wasn't her best attempt

I'm told that seismic activity is measured by the Moment Magnitude scale, which replaced the old Richter scale (What?! The Richter scale has been replaced? Did YOU know that? First I've heard of it, and I should tell you that I'm a little upset that I wasn't notified of it...).

I'm not sure I ever understood the Richter scale, and I'm pretty sure that I don't understand this new Moment Magnitude scale. What's going on here - I don't remember being consulted as to the efficacy of the new scale, or the reasonableness. And what about poor Richter? He did a lot of work making a base-10 logarithmic scale obtained by calculating the logarithm of the combined horizontal amplitude of the largest displacement from zero on a seismometer output.

Those science bastards!

July 30, 2006

Dubbo, New South Wales (pronounced Dubbo). We visited Dubbo Zoo, in Dubbo. These names are not a coincidence.

We were skeptical of this zoo because, well, we're skeptical of all zoos because we've seen just about all the animals IN THE WILD, up close, and in person, when we were in South Africa. Our time in South Africa has ruined just about every minute we could ever spend in a zoo. But we heard good things about this place and, realistically, there are no kangaroos, nor kangaroo-like animals in South Africa. Nor Wallabies, nor Koalas. So we thought a visit to this Australian-based zoo was a good bet. Plus it was a self-driven tour, but you could rent a couple of cool bikes:

Darren & Annette

Nicky & Dominique

Armed with our multiple bike-bogeys, we attacked the zoo.

Despite our close-encounters with the real thing on safaris, this was a pretty good zoo. It's funny that the Australian animals (kangaroos, wallabies and koalas) were either listless or not seen.

Dom & a deer

The girls got close-encounters with deer and, uh, deer. I guess that's about it. But we got great views of hippos and up close with baby zebras. So animals and kids mesh well, we got some exercise dragging the kids around the zoo, and it was a great day.

July 31, 2006

I toured The Dish today!

the dish

The Dish is the most famous radio telescope in Australia, located at Parkes, New South Wales. It's actually called, "The Parkes Radio Telescope," a single dish that was used by NASA throughout the Apollo program to receive signals in the Southern Hemisphere. Parkes might be the most successful scientific instrument ever built in Australia. Its first big find was the discovery of quasars and on several occasions has held the record for the most distant object known in the Universe.

The Dish was so famous that a film was made called, "The Dish" showing the role Parkes played during the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Yesterday Dominique and I played Bowls. Bowls is really popular in Australia - it's organized Bocce, with weighted balls that make them curve, on a very long grass pitch.

Dom bowls

It's surprisingly difficult because each ball has a different weight in it (at least that's my impression, but I don't do impressions!). And the pitch is really long, at least 50 meters (that's about 50 yards). Plus it's a drinking game and even though Dominique and I weren't drinking, I can see the added difficulty it would add.

August 1, 2006

Today we enacted the Big Con of the trip! We booked into a two-bedroom place in Port Elizabeth for the night. It was a pretty good place and they had wireless internet access, as well as free nightly movies, free outdoor hot tub, mini-golf course, and we were on the beach. So we decided to stay there one week. When we made the change in reservation, they upgraded us to a house that had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dishwasher (we don't even have that at OUR house!), washer/dryer, broadband internet access and 3 TV's.

OK, I understand how pedantic this sounds. But know this - we've lived for the past 5 months in a state of limbo for consistency in communications, cleaning, transportation, medicine and entertainment. We've also lived in many accommodations that gave us less than ample room to move about. This place was about 900 sq. ft., and it seemed huge and comfortable to us. We embraced the place with open arms. I wept at the possibility of a machine washing our dishes; at satellite TV, and a dual-head shower. Could it be that I missed civilization? Possibly.

August 2, 2006

I tried to make my teeth look whiter today by painting them with White-Out.

Just kidding. I thought I'd add some spice to today's commentary because it was pretty boring. It's OK that it was boring because we were at the most amazing cabin since our normal stay in South Africa. So it was a bad-weather, dumpy day that we mostly stayed indoors and booked a whale cruise and a sand board thing.

"Sand board thing" you ask? Verily, this is true. But we enjoyed a whale-watching expedition first.

August 3, 2006

We saw whales!

Annette_whale watcher

OK, this is a picture of Annette not actually doing anything with whales, outside of the fact that she was on our boat that was on a whale watching cruise.

While this boat company didn't guarantee a whale sighting, and the fact that we were out of prime whale-watching season, we continued to be hopeful.


This picture might be the best thing that we can offer/prove that we went on a whale-watching cruise. We saw some whales spouting air and some whales' tales (like the college drinking game), but overall it was equally exciting and disappointing. We were excited about the hunt - we know about the hunt from our days on safari; we were disappointed a bit because of the distance from our prey.

Video: Whales

Note: if you can not see the video, download QuickTime and view the movie with it.

quicktime logo (4K)

Did you see it in the video? The small-looking blast of water, then the tiny little tale come up? Did you see it about mid-way through the video? Yeah, us too. And I thought they'd have some WHALES on their whale tour?...

And we didn't get to harpoon anything! A whale trip without harpooning and taking the blubber from the dead carcass isn't a good whale cruise. And I was running low on candles and my oil supply...

Hey, we're used to meeting our wild animals up close. Anything less than a couple of feet away is a disappointment. South African safaris continue to spoil us in our endeavor to enjoy the natural wildlife.

August 4, 2006

Rain day today. Nothing great happening, although I found out that this county's libraries will let you loan/borrow something from their coffers if you can prove that you're a traveler staying at a reputable place for at least 3 days.

I'm not sure what you, or anyone else, can do with this information, but it was interesting to me at the time. I like the trusting attitude of this county's libraries.

August 5, 2006

Toboggan Hill

Take a piece of thick plastic about 18" x 48". Put wheels on it and a small brake. Put this on a track that's made from a tube that's been cut in half, and has been put together as a downward track.

Picture a luge track. Add the aforementioned skateboard-cum-luge-thing. Now you understand the toboggan sliding down the mountain thing.


It's a one kilometer long track that features 11 turns, most of which depend on a huge bank. It's very cool and very fast and you have to control your speed or you'll fly outside the track and die. Plus you have to dodge the snipers that shoot deathly poisoned darts at you during your ride down. This last part adds to the adrenaline rush, and it's also something that I made up.

They also had a climbing wall

Dom climb

and an Australian-style bumper car.

Dom Bumper

This is a great picture that shows how horrible a picture can be - out of focus, poor lighting, and un-centered. And she even has Devil-like eyes, even after cleaning it up with Adobe Photoshop (actually I didn't touch the eyes because I thought she looked cool. I thought that she could use this picture in case she was bullied by some older kids). But it was difficult conditions that created this picture, not difficult children.

August 6, 2006

Sucky day today, so we did sucky-day things. A movie, some playground time, a bit of banjo-playing (the kids don't like this).

But it made me think a bit about Australia and Australians in general. These guys are really cool, outside of the cities. Cities make people tend to be short, unfriendly, hurried, and just unpleasant. I'm not sure what the cutoff of population may be - my guess is it has to do more with density than pure population. But I have to say that during all our travels people seem to be more open, honest, friendly and warm the less-dense their residence is.

Aussies are awesome people. We were approached more by people here with questions and friendly welcome than anywhere else so far. Of course the common language has a lot to do with it, and politically US and Australia aren't that far apart (i.e. there are a lot of people on the planet that don't like Americans, but Australians aren't one of them). But Aussies have an attitude that's, well, "No Worries, Mate." They are wonderfully carefree, but incredibly can-do.

Plus their bottle stores are open on Sundays, but their grocery stores are not. That just speaks volumes, eh?

August 7, 2006

Did you read our entry for August 6, 2006? Then re-read it, because August 7, 2006 is exactly the same.

I think we made a pretty good beef stew one of these days, mostly because it was cold and this place had a really big pot. It turned out well. It was a red wine stew that featured, of course, red wine, tomatoes, green beans, carrots, potatoes and beef. Dominique helped me cut and prepare everything and 4 hours later we had something that was hearty (it was cold there), tasty (we were bored during the rain days), smelled good (this place smelled good enough, it just needed that cooked meat flavor to put it over the edge) and lasting (did I mention that it rained there a lot?).

This place advertised wireless internet access, which didn't work. But I found a broadband connection in the cabin, much to the surprise of the managers, and this worked quite well. We were, once again, connected to the outside world. We could Google; we could Skype. We were real people again, and it was funny how you get used to that connection. When you don't have it, you tend to miss it for about a day or two. Then you revel in your internet-freedom until you try to remember what an isthmus is, or how many islands make up Indonesia. It's at these times that you miss your Google.

To be connected or unconnected - that's the question. It's both liberating and committing to be either. I just hope that someone from AT&T or Sprint of Vodacom is reading this website and sponsors our next trip by giving us free wireless internet access.

Anyone? Anyone?...

August 8, 2006

We sandboarded today!!! Wuhoo!

What the hell am I talking about? Sandboarding you say? Verily, this is not a typo. What freaks these Aussies are.

First, get a huge sand dune. Second, get a huge skateboard and take off the wheels. Third, put your butt on the board and slide down the huge sand dune. Make sure your hands are behind you dragging on the sand so you can steer and control your speed.

Video: Ann Sandboarding

Ann Sandboarding

They actually used to have competitions in the local high schools for this. Really.

Dom sandboarding

Video: Dom Sandboarding

Oh, and the guide forgot to tell us that besides controlling speed and direction, the real reason you need to put your hands/arms behind you is in case you wipeout, your forearms and wrists won't be shattered by the impending doom that awaits. I kid you not.

I love these Aussies! Yeah, you can do this, but make sure that you don't do "X" because you could lose a "Y"...

Good on ya, mate!

What a really cool, albeit freaky morning. Our guide literally took the 4-wheeled bus across the dunes in record time because we were his only riders at that time and we were up for some adventure. He was great, and reckless, and entertaining. And he showed us Pippis.

Pippi the guide

Pippis are like small mussels. They were over-fished a decade or so ago, so they're a protected species now. But they're great fun to find, and great fun to tease:

Video: Pippi into the sand

August 9, 2006

Sydney. Aaargh--The City. I thought it might be useful to put together a table to compare/contrast different cities, their population, their population density (which, I think, is the critical factor) and the Darren Rousseau Suck Factor:

City Population Density Suck Factor
Sydney 4 million 5,736/km2 Sucks
New York City 19 million 10,292/km Sucks
Chicago 2.9 million 4,923/km Sucks
Hong Kong 6.9 million 6,206km Sucks
Paris 2.5 million 24,672km Sucks
London 7.5 million 4,699km Sucks
Male, Maldives (huh - where is this?) 329,000 48,007/km Never been there, don't know where it is, but I'm sure it's very high on the suck factor

Do you see a trend going? I'm not a big fan of heavily-populated cities, which is probably most cities since that's the definition of a city (i.e. a high density of people). A city is a city, and in my mind I'd prefer to be in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, or Chanthaburi, Thailand.

We paid the obligatory $8 per hour parking fees and toured the world-famous Sydney Opera House. It's a beautiful place located on the Sydney Quay (I kept pronouncing it as, "kway" instead of, "key" which Nicky thought was wearing thin. But sometimes I like to wear people thin, especially Nicky).

So here is our obligatory picture of the world-famous Sydney Opera House:

Opera House

And here is the obligatory panorama of the Sydney Quay (see above for pronunciation): Click Here

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