The good news is, I’m alive and well. I know it’s been a while since my last post, so for those of you who might have been worrying (somebody, anybody?), I am sorry. Since my January Thailand post about wrapping up the 2015 year of travel, I spent three weeks in Australia, another two in Kenya and now I’m back in the US for ski season. Somehow time just got away from me since I’ve been busy having new adventures.
But let’s go back to Australia. It’s one of my favorite places to travel and this time was no exception. The place is so darn big, there’s always somewhere new to explore; this visit included three new places. As always, the people I met reminded me not to apply stereotypes or judge a book by its cover.
The first week was devoted to exploring new wine regions—a welcome change after the beer of Thailand. Following Travel Rule Number One (if someone invites you, accept), I spent a few days with my fellow travel writer Nina Karnikowski at her husband Peter’s Krinklewood winery in the Hunter Valley. I met Nina in 2014 while on safari in Zambia; we became fast friends when her luggage didn’t arrive and I loaned her clean underwear. After walking among the vines, talking with French Woofers at the pond, and drinking Peter’s great biodynamic wine, it was time to move on to two off-the-beaten track colder climate wine regions: Orange and Mudgee (no, I’m not making up these names).
At the Lowe Winery in small-town Mudgee, I met the vibrant David Lowe, whose family goes back six generations in Mudgee and who claimed he had no city skills whatsoever. His wines have won numerous awards, as has he, including the 2014 Legend of the Vine award. In Orange, I found the De Salis Winery despite help from my GPS. By the time I arrived at the barn that didn’t look at all like a tasting room, it was only fifteen minutes to closing time. A young man met me at the door, invited me in and said he’d be happy to do a tasting. From behind a forklift, a handsome older man welcomed me as he tinkered with the motor. By the time I left an hour later, I had learned that they were father and son, their bubbly and Pinot Noir were the best I tasted in Australia, and that Charlie bought the winery after a prestigious career utilizing his Ph.D. in fermentation for everything except winemaking.
Although the wine itself ranks as highbrow stuff, the atmosphere was anything but. On Saturday night in Mudgee, Roth’s Wine Bar was rocking. The funky tavern felt like a beer joint, but had local wines by the glass and local characters by the handful. I sat down next to Gary, long-time resident and keeper of the town’s secrets (which he freely shared with me). Soon, we were joined by Scott, a winsome Australian TV celebrity with a penchant for train travel, and a hipster twenty-something who owned the local trophy-engraving store, but whose passion was vintage vinyl records, which he also sold. We shared a lot of wine and I probably shouldn’t have driven the four blocks back to the Perry Street Hotel that night, but there were no other cars on the streets and I arrived safely.
By my second week in Australia, I needed to dry out a bit. A visit to Gaia Spa and Retreat was just the thing. My Portland friend Kathleen joined me at this spiritual and healing haven near Byron Bay on the east coast; we are both now rejuvenated and renewed after daily yoga, massages and meditation. Instead of pampered spa-goers, the people I met there were down-to-earth Aussies who shared insights, humor, and now, friendship. I highly recommend it and if you go, tell them I sent you—I think I get a discount on my next trip if you do.
A third place I’d always wanted to visit was the Blue Mountains National Park, an Austalian jewel just two-hours west of Sydney. Thanks again to Travel Rule Number One, I stayed at the home of Carol Prior, the woman who arranged my Morocco trip, in the adorable, well-manicured little town of Leura. It was the perfect base to explore this area known for dramatic sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, and eucalyptus forests that give off a blue haze, accounting for the name.
A hiking mecca, Kathleen and I decided to warm up with a walk to Sublime Point, a scenic lookout over the red-rock walls. A short way along the trail, we came upon a man unsuccessfully attempting to photograph two butterflies that flitted mercilessly around him, never landing anywhere. A black XXL t-shirt barely covered his copious beer belly.
“I work for the coal company,” Craig explained when I asked about the logo on his baseball cap. “We’re mining just outside the park, so I’m stationed up here temporarily.”
He went on to say that he lived “up past Orange—in the aboriginal village.” I must have looked surprised, since he seemed as white as me. “My mom is aboriginal, but Dad wasn’t. She raised me.”
“These butterflies are territorial,” he said, not seeming to want us to leave. “See how they chase each other? They won’t stop long enough for me to get a photo.”
“Too bad you can’t get one to land on your hand so you could get an easy shot,” I said.
“Oh, they land on me all the time,” he said. “Sometimes it’s my brother’s spirit come back to tell me he’s okay. When that happens, the butterfly lands on my right shoulder.” He patted his back. “That’s where my brother’s skin cancer was first found, so that’s how I know it’s him.”
The three of us started walking downhill together to the viewpoint. The midday sun was hot and sweat dripped from our brows. Crossing a small bridge across a ravine, we stopped at a rock outcropping with a staggering view across the Blue Mountains and the valley below. Craig continued his story.
“My brother was afraid to die. He was still young and didn’t want to let go. In our culture, there’s an in-between place where souls who hang on too much get stuck. I didn’t want him to end up there.”
He looked so macho and like a tough-guy miner that I was surprised by the sensitivity and spirituality with which he spoke.
“I sat with him one day and told him it was okay to pass over. That we’d all miss him, but he needed to go. He confessed that he was afraid to be put in the ground.”
Craig looked out past the chain link fence at the expanse of blue haze and red cliffs. Kathleen and I shifted uncomfortably as the midday sun beat down on our hatless heads. He continued with the story as if these two American strangers weren’t there.
“I told him he wasn’t going in the ground, just his body. His soul was going to heaven where he’d meet all of our Aunties and Uncles and grandparents that had passed before him.”
“Really?” his brother asked him. “That wouldn’t be so bad.”
Craig said he re-assured his brother and felt a wave of calm overtake them as his brother slowly inhaled his final breath. Certain it was the end of the story, I thanked him for sharing it and the three of us quietly began back up the trail, Craig huffing with shortness of breath. We had reached a flat resting spot when he continued.
“A couple of weeks after he died, I was worried that he might still be in the in-between place. I was driving a long stretch of highway home for the weekend and there were storm clouds in the distance. I asked my brother to give me a sign that he was okay.
“Just then, I could see the face of my favorite Auntie take shape in one of the clouds. Then two clouds parted and created a sort-of stage between them. All of my relatives were there on the stage. I could recognize them all. Then there was a flash of thunder and my brother walked onto the stage and was embraced by the family.”
Craig had that far-away look in his eyes again. Did this really happen or was he a crazy man?
“I know it sounds strange, but it’s true,” he said, as if reading my mind. “My brother smiled at me and waved and the clouds came together again as if nothing had happened. I cried like a baby because then I knew he was where he needed to be.”
We stood in silence until a trio of teenage girls bounded down the trail, breaking the spell of the Aboriginal story. Craig said he was going to stop and take more photos, so we bade him good-bye, with no idea why he had chosen to honor us with his tale.
We all make judgments about people based on what they look like, where they are, or what they believe, but my experiences in Australia reminded me that the familiar is rarely what it seems, especially if we take the time to listen to what someone has to say instead of assuming we already know what it will be. I wish we could have civil discourse about American politics this way, but I fear the knee-jerk stereotypes and reactions control.
As Craig walked away, I couldn’t help but notice that a butterfly was following him.