Tag Archives: Australia

Australia, mate II

We’re b-a-a-ck. Back from our five-plus weeks of travel to Australia. Here’s the second and final report.

I know you are all wondering if the toilets and sinks swirl “the other way” … when draining due to the Coriolis effect.  And how do boomerangs work? We’ll get to these and other compelling topics in due course.

Australians are generally very happy, even though their electrical outlets

Australian style electrical outlets (off position)

look kind of sad.  And nobody can sing.  Can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Oh where is Olivia Newton-John now?  I base this conclusion from our experience of coming across five birthday parties at geographically and culinarily diverse sites like pubs, parks and restaurants; not a single group could sing “Happy Birthday to You” without making us cringe.

Don’t you think these outlets look sad?  Every outlet has to be turned “ON” in Australia before you can draw current from them.  Do you think they’d be happier if we flipped them ON?  Sadly, no.  Take a look.

Switched ON. They still look sad to me.

They might be sad because they are lonely.  Australian building codes are quite different than we spoiled Americans are used to.  Each room we stayed in had only ONE pair of sad looking outlets. And at least one of those usually had a light plugged in.

Compare to US and Canadian outlets which look kind of surprised.  And you don’t even have to turn them on.  The “surprised” look is suggested by the open mouth (ground port). They also kind of look like they’re trying to wink at you : One socket port is slightly larger than the other. (This is to maintain neutral potential polarity on devices that require it.)  So they look surprised and like they are winking at you. “What?!?! You mean Donald Trump won?!?  I’m so surprised!  I’m shocked!  (winkie winkie).”

US-style “surprised” outlet … with winks.

But this is supposed to be about Australia. Australians are happy.  And friendly.  And helpful.  Often TOO helpful.  We’d get a list of 50 things to do for every hour we had to spend.  And just listening to the lists was time consuming.  And that was from EACH single person.

Maybe they’re happy because they get to go around a lot.  Around and around. It looks to us like Australians LOVE Traffic Circles. Except they are probably called Roundabouts. You can go days and days, miles and miles, traveling (oops, travelling) from one good sized community to another (which we did) and never, ever see a traffic light.  And maybe not even a stop sign.  Just look right, enter the circle, and go around.  Clockwise, of course.

Australia is big.  Really big.  And sparsely populated.  I think 98% of it has fewer than 0.1 people per square mile.  So, outside of the cities, people get used to doing a lot of driving.  Their vehicles have odd names (few recognizable model names) and odd nicknames.  A pickup truck is called a ute.  And a 4-wheel drive will almost as often as not have a snorkel.  Here’s a picture of our AirBnB host Steve, in Dunsborough (Western Australia)

Steve, our AirBnB host and road warrior, with his snorkeled 4-wheeler.

standing in front of his 4-wheeler with a snorkel.

He’s a retired truck driver.  Well, actually, he drove “Road Trains”; those are gigantic rigs with three or more trailers.  [Road Train video demonstrations]. So Steve’s vacations are actually Busman’s Holidays: huge epic road trips with his patient wife Marg  as they drive across every sort of landscape one can imagine.  And that’s where the snorkel comes in handy.  Fording a deep river with water halfway up the windscreen?  That snorkel will get plenty of air to the engine.  Driving across the wickedly hot and dusty Outback?  The snorkel will fetch the cooler and cleaner air, up off the desert floor.

By the way, if you watched the Road Train video, you might have noticed that some of the trucks had massive front bumper assemblies.  Those are called Roo Bumpers, and many civilian vehicles have them too.  Travelling cross country, across the vast bush and largely unpopulated regions (by humans), it is inevitable that you will eventually hit a kangaroo.  Usually at dusk. The damage they can cause is immense.  A high speed collision can even destroy a road train cab.

Well, since we’re on transportation by road.  There are no “free left turns” anywhere in Australia.  This would be the equivalent of our ubiquitous “free right turn on red.” Unless it is marked specifically as permitted, of course, which was very rare.  Waste of time, if you ask me.

There are plenty of marked crossings for pedestrians, but autos always get the right of way – unless clearly and specifically marked otherwise, which also is rare.  Fortunately there is a “Pedestrian Refuge” half-way across many busy streets. Run halfway across, wait for an opening, cross the rest of the way.

License plates displaying an “L” or a “P” designate beginning drivers.  They must be clearly marked.  L is a learner and P is, I guess, probationary.  They have pretty extensive programs for getting drivers ready to go solo; these vary somewhat from state to state.

Asphalt is bitumen.  A paved route might be identified as “take the bitumen road.”

Navigating is an issue.  First, many street signs are simply not there, or not easily visible.  Their standards for most types of street signs and navigation aids are quite low. Second, my trusty standby the sun is to the north (not south), and moves right-to-left throughout the day.  If you can find it.  We had many cloudy days.  A reliable trick is that satellite dishes point fairly directly north; the opposite of here. It’s that geostationary thang.

I thought I saw some beautiful pines.  But they weren’t pines.  First fooler was the She-Oak.  Nice needles.  But the needles only came in singles and were actually very spindly leaves.  And no cones.  And it’s not at all an oak. These are fairly ubiquitous, wherever there were trees there were typically also some sort of She-Oak.

Second fooler was the magnificent Norfolk Pine.  Heck it’s even actually called a pine.  But it’s not.  It is such a beautiful and rugged tree, growing almost always perfectly straight to heights of over 50 meters, that the Brits brought it to Australia from Norfolk Island, a small island in the South Pacific.  You can now find them in almost any populated coastal region.

The Norfolk Pine is now considered invasive.  But they are beautiful.  Funny how that happens.

Did I say invasive? The Brits also missed their fox hunting.  So they brought foxes over.  Well that wasn’t such a good idea.  Foxes have decimated the native fauna, including the tender quokka, wallabies, turtles and birds.  Fox scat spreads seeds that then become invasive in new regions where they are dropped. And they cause tremendous economic damage to agribusiness such as sheep, goats and poultry.

The main approach to fighting the fox infestation seems to be baiting and poisoning with a substance called “1080.”  There were 1080 warning signs almost everywhere in the bush.  Basically put out tasty looking meat cutlets and when the foxes eat it … a horrific death ensues.  Same for rabbits, which were brought in for the foxes – and then became invasive.  For rabbits the bait is usually carrots … laced with good old 1080.

Back to happy.  Australians might be happy because they are absolutely sports crazy.  Yes they play cricket and soccer (really boring games by the way).  Cricket seems to award the team that can hit the most well-placed foul balls, while simultaneously not letting the ball hit the wicket or your private regions.  Soccer, schmocker.  Just hours of keep-away, with an occasional oh!-oh!-awwwww.  And finally after 2 hours the score is 1-0.

They actually do call it “soccer”, as we Americans do, and not something like Football, like the rest of the world. Why? Because they do play a sport called football. They usually call it Footie, but it’s technically Australian Rules Football.  What a blast to watch!! The scores are usually like basketball, often in the range of, say, 100-90.  Points usually come 6 at a time.  There are eighteen players for each team on the field at once (18!!!), and they can stand anywhere.  What we’d normally call a field or pitch is called an Oval because it – is – one – huge Oval.  From 150 to 180 meters end to end. That’s almost 200 yards! Well they have to fit 36 players on it.  The evolution of Footie is that Cricket players used the game to stay in shape during the off-season; so the Ovals are the size/shape of cricket fields.

Great Footie rule: if a player can catch a pass before it touches the ground, and that pass comes from a foot (usually like a punt), then he gets a free kick; the other team can’t defend his kick. (This is called a Mark). He can try to kick it to another teammate, or kick it between the goal posts for 6 points (there is no cross-bar; brilliant!  A ball can dribble across the end of the oval between the posts to score).  Oh, you missed the goal? Don’t worry, there is another outboard set of posts; kick the ball between them and you still get one point (called a “behind”).  Almost every re-start is a 50-50 ball.  Example: Ball goes out of bounds; the nearest referee stands on the  boundary and throws the ball backward over his head onto the field! Simply the most fast moving, exciting, high scoring, athletic sport I’ve ever watched.

One more interesting Footie rule is that very shifty and fast runners are penalized.  When running with the ball they must touch the ball to the ground once every 15 yards.  At the advanced levels the open field runners will do this “ground touch” by bouncing the ball once off the turf while at a full run.  Most impressive!  As a consequence I saw more than one family picnic where young fathers were standing around practicing bouncing a Footie so that it would come right back to them.

Of course, like Rugby, there are no helmets or padding, and the clock never really stops.  I think I watched 4 or 5 games. On TV. In pubs.  OK, could’ve been 6 games.  ESPN really needs to start carrying these games.

Ok, enough sports, per se.  I won’t even try to describe Netball. Except to say they seem fond of that, too.

Are they crazy about sports?  Well, if betting is any indication, they are.  Every town has multiple off-site betting parlors called TAB. Soccer, cricket, footie, netball, horse racing. Gambling seems to be a bit of problem.  The government is thinking about cracking down on TV and billboard advertising for sports gambling.  However, they have a bit of a dilemma: revenue from taxes on legal sports betting fetches quite a nifty sum for the government tills.

Australians are crazy competitive, even if it’s not sports. We spent almost an hour and a half in the gallery watching the lower house of Parliament in session during a question-and-answer session. Very exciting, and brutal – just like Footie. The Prime Minister and his cabinet sit on one side of a narrow table (just wide enough that a sword can’t reach across); the Leader of the Opposition and his shadow government sit on the other side. The behavior and words were just plain rude. At every possible opportunity, they called each other liars. They turned their backs on the speaker.

Three or four members were kicked out. “Sent off under rule 94a” the speaker would say.  Bye bye.  Ministers sent off seemed quite proud of themselves, smirking as they exited, often yelling at the Prime Minister on their way. Many others were warned by the Speaker, who, I must say, was a most impressive Parliamentarian (Mr. Tony Smith). He had memorized every name, and which district they represented. He tracked all debate and cut off argument if responses went off subject.  He also tracked all side conversation and would shut down all Q & A to scold others in the house if they were behaving badly. “The gentlemen from Brighton is warned!”  or “the Lady from Bundoora – you have been warned before.  You are sent off, under 94a.” One thing he apparently could not do was stop anyone from being rude.  (Australia’s House Rule 94, explained).

Australia has an abundance of beautiful oceanside, much of it beaches.  And many beaches have great surf for the boarding enthusiast. We saw surfers, sail boarders and even kite boarders.  A thrill seeking culture, no doubt.  Oh wait, that’s sports, too.

Speaking of water, if you, as a man, need to purchase a swimsuit, you might be shocked to learn that there is no “support” for men’s stuff down there.   They just expect you to be free-hanging.  Most men will augment their swimsuit with supportive poly underwear.  That’s practical.  Here’s the awkward part: sagging.  Men, even into their 30s, wearing their swimwear half-way down their buttocks so that everyone else has to see the wet underwear they had to buy to support their maleness. Uggg.

A word or two about driving in Melbourne.  More uggg.  On the tollway there are bright lights overhead advertising local businesses and sports betting.  I mean LED super bright.  Talk about distracted driving. Then, in the core of the city, there is the “Hook Right Turn.”

My description of the Hook Turn can’t do justice. But I’ll try. If you intend to turn right (remember, they drive on the left) and you see the hook sign, you must immediately go to the FAR LEFT LANE. When the light turns green, pull ahead and block the intersection … which is okay since that cross traffic is stopped for their red light. By the way, this gets you away from the tramlines that run down the middle of the street, which is apparently the idea.  Now wait until the light turns RED.  The cars travelling in the same direction as you who are to your right (going straight) will have to stop.  Be bold.  Step on it.  Turn hard right and full grenade.  Supposedly the trams stop too, so you won’t run into one. People will know you are doing this, so – as Doug Addams wrote – “Don’t Panic.”

Kitchens?  We never saw a garbage disposal.  Never.  And we never saw a GFI in a kitchen either.  Like I said, different building codes.  I guess people don’t electrocute themselves in Australia.

Naturally there were no GFI outlets in the bathrooms either.  But the bathroom outlets did look sad. ☹  At least with those sad looking outlets, they never struggle with putting an electrical plug in backwards.

Now we can move to toilets, tubs and sinks.  And the swirl direction.

We lodged mostly by AirBnB, and we stayed with friends a few times.  Every time the toilet and the bathroom were in different rooms.  So: you do NOT go to the toilet in the bathroom.  You bathe in the bathroom. Some toilet rooms had very tiny sinks, or no sinks at all.  How to open the door and go to the next room (where the sink and shower are) without spreading disease?? Why aren’t they all sick all the time?

I must confess that my earlier comments about Australian toilet paper were premature.  Although not up to German or Dutch standards, the TP everywhere else was quite sufficient.  I think that earlier “breakthrough” was the result of a poorly designed and over-aggressive experiment.

Before we get to toilet swirl, we must briefly touch on the topic of boomerangs and public restroom stalls (not related, by the way).

Boomerangs. If Bernoulli’s equations (fluid energy balance) and the bizarre dynamics of gyroscopic effects (lots of cross products that are most very unintuitive) make any sense to you, then you’ll have a chance.  Cross-products and gyroscopic effects are the things that have physics and engineering students holding their right hand out in front of them – thumb, index finger and bird finger extended – while twisting their wrist or arm in some awkward rotation.  Oh they don’t make sense? No worries.  Boomerangs work.  Simple.  Good. Let’s move on to public restrooms.

Public restroom stalls have handles that seem to turn the wrong way.  Nothing like that brief moment of  panic you get when the door won’t open and your mind goes to “oh my gawd, I’m stuck in the stall; now someone will need to call 0-0-0 (not 9-1-1) and a crew of  emergency workers in bright yellow fluorescent  colored bibs will whoosh in here like a footie team to rescue me – Oh, never mind, the handle turns the  other way. Whew.”

Toilet swirl.  Get over it.  Toilet water does not swirl in Australia.  All toilets provide a thunderous WHOOSH when you push the flush button.  Best to stand back. Did I say button?  Yes.  No whimpy flippers for flushing in Australia.  A good solid button, just like in Germany.  But not one button.  They always have TWO buttons, usually one smaller than the other.  The big button provides a really powerful WHOOSH for the larger loads; the smaller button a softer woosh for the yellow load.

Actually I did detect that water in some toilets has a slight tendency to swirl clockwise, like a traffic circle.  Upon close scientific observation, I noted that in these cases the water was dispensed into the bowl with a certain spin orientation.  Just like in the US. Toilet swirl direction depends on how the water flows out of the tank, and not on Coriolis spin effects.  As a sidebar, I also noticed that if you inspect this phenomenon too closely, you are likely to experience a slight sea-spray effect. You will want to wash up in the sink, where I also could not detect a drain swirl direction; actually, I never filled a sink up full enough to tell. Nor a bathtub; I’m a shower guy.

As you can tell, it was an arduous trip.  We are glad to be back.


Joe  Girard © 2017



Musings on the Wonder of Seasons Down Under

Musings on the Wonder
Of Seasons Down Under

Warm, gentle breezes tickle palm trees outside my living room window across the Swan River.  Is it really December?  Looking up from my work, laid out across my home coffee table, my situation grows ever more hopeless.  Hopeless, that is, to refrain from lapping up the serene eye-candy; hopeless to refrain from pondering the weather of Christmas seasons past.

 It’s nearly 30 degrees (that’s 86 degrees to my friends and family stateside). The quivering palms awaken me to this new December experience. They beckon me to escape within my own “down-under” dreamland.  December in Perth, Western Australia is not at all like wintry climes of all my earlier Christmas seasons.  Here, spring is giving way to summer; hardly my usual Christmas experience.

Palm trees across the Swan River

Palm trees across the Swan River

Shall I abandon the task before me? Or — now distracted — shall I politely refuse the palms’ offer and, instead, meditate with gratitude on my family, my friends and cheery memories of Decembers-past?  With 21st century magic, “home” is only a click away. Contemplation on the gifts of family, friends and memories of earlier Christmas seasons nudges my thoughts to drift away … drift away to special people and times when holiday pleasantries were carefully exchanged by hand-written letters and cards.



People in my life, many dear to me, have had first-hand experience of “the wonder of down-under”, and had already explained some of the mystery to me before I arrived here, some four months ago. My mother’s sister and my father’s brother had been to the “Land of Oz” on work related travel.  My paternal grandparents made a vacation during my childhood.  My 3rd grade teacher did a one year life-swap to Australia as well.

The much younger me was so excited to have pins, stamps, boomerangs and even Vegemite from someplace that — even in my dreams — was a wild and far-off place. These were before internet was commonplace and mobile phones with video chats were still a far-off dream.  I will never forget that I was a part of those trips too, for example, by the Expo Oz (World Expo ‘88) stuffed platypus and postcards I received.  But those times were different, as now I can share my own experiences daily, and often instantaneously.

What a wonderful thing to be able to just be a part of so many others’ lives … and share experiences from so far away! It is no small wonder that we can forget what it was like before. I have been lucky enough that on all of my travels of the last decade, I have had instant communication and do not know what it is like to truly be far away. As in: “out of touch; Incommunicado.”  However, this may not be all good, because now I am very far away on a regular basis, and the sheer wonderment of thought that my family is literally a half a world away is somewhat of a triviality.

But as we know, there are pros and cons to everything, and if I take a step back and remember the excitement I had as an eight year old lad — with a tube of Vegemite in one hand and a map in the other — then the pros very much outweigh the cons of this ability to share on a moment’s notice.  We can be a part of someone else’s life while also having our own adventures, and then all the adventures in the world seem attainable.

My few months here have underscored my own experience of how the world has changed in just a few decades.  We can meet different people from all over the world in one place: physically and digitally (i.e. via internet-based video). We all know that ‘Western Civilization’ is changing the way things work. But would you have imagined that an American and Romanian together could walk into a grocery store in Australia and both can navigate it and say “this feels like home”?

The homogeneity of the way we live our lives is sometimes more mind blowing than the differences we experience. I still love to meet and talk with people from all over the globe, no matter where we are at that moment. It’s true that many of my closest friends call “home” someplace far from mine.  Even though the world may seem big, with friends like these it can feel small. And yet: the world is still a very large place and home can be very far away.

Sometimes I may feel like I don’t have a home in the physical sense, but being part of a closely knit group of people can make almost anyplace feel like home. Colorado is where I grew up, and a major part of my family is there. But the houses I grew up in are the homes of others now; when I visit Colorado it is just that: a visit. This is why I am so happy to have the chance to share my life with people through electronic communication and fast modes of transportation. I feel lucky to have that connection with people in many places all over the world, at the same time.



To me, Christmas is not about the holiday and the shopping, but about spending time with those who mean the most to me.  We have a chance to catch up, share stories, and be connected when we may have not felt so during the rest of the year. We spend time together over the Christmas week of “down time” to relax and recharge – to prepare ourselves.  It is a time to reflect on the things that have happened, and to look forward to new adventures. The time between the holiday and the celebration of a new year is just under 2% of the entire year, but often seems to be some of the most memorable.

This holiday season, I am farther away from my family than ever before, but still close enough (thanks to high speed digital magic) to share our life experiences, our hopes, and our love for each other.

So much has happened this year as well, for me and the ones I care about, that it’s difficult to get my head around it all. Many of these experiences I will hold dear for the rest of my life. I hope all of you have had a very busy and memorable year – in a positive way – and will keep those memories with you as well.

We are lucky when we have people in our lives that are important to us, and vice versa.  It’s what makes the human race a very special race.  Because of that, I know that my home is wherever I decide to put it, and that no matter where my family (blood or not) is, they will be a part of my home.

Much love and a happy blessed 2015 to you all,


Aaron Girard © 2015

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Aaron’s earlier (not so cheery) Guest Essay