The micro-adventure

The micro-adventure

A normal Thursday at work. Six to eight half-hour meetings before lunch, a working lunch, and trying to get some work done amidst a handful of other meetings.

But, tonight, I would sleep under the stars.

The Beginning

One of my unmet goals for 2016 was to do a quarterly ‘micro-adventure’ with my friend Tash.

Finally, over a year later, we pulled one off.

The concept is that we don’t explore the world around us nearly enough. We are trapped in routine commutes, that our path through life is larger than a hamster wheel, but it’s still largely a hamster wheel and often difficult to tell one day from the next.

I can become incredibly comfortable with routine, with planning, with habit. Triathletes generally are – ask most members of my tri club what they’ll be doing Saturday morning and there is no question: a long bike ride.

Mastery, which is recently a topic in vogue, comes at a cost – dedication means repetition, it means the exclusion of other pursuits.

Personally my life has represented this in the extreme – more and more I have narrowed my life to fewer pursuits. Unfocused time became the first to go. A broad social life disappeared. Family faded in and out at times based on avalanches of guilt, loneliness, or love. Relationships could never fit into the focus of work and selfish pursuits.

While mindfulness is a concept I have discovered late in life, it doesn’t hold all the answers. The physical world is just as important as the space between your ears, and learning to combine both.

So now that I’ve built up this concept to the point where it sounds like it will save humanity, the most basic micro-adventure can be summed up as ‘an impromptu hike.’

Today when you talk to most people about camping, it’s an ordeal. Select your destination, plan your meals, find your gear, pack it all up, pick your trail, reserve your campsite, apply for leave to make it an exorbitant three-day weekend. All this means people don’t go camping that often, or that camping is the pursuit of the few that do it enough that the overhead is reflex.

I grew up camping, even in my own backyard. Summers in Eagle River, Alaska, meant getting the canvas tent and it’s external frame pack – which took one of us to carry the beast, and heading down to the Beaver pond to camp overnight. Three kids, early teens, running around a pond riddled area next to the train tracks. As the trains came by, we’d don bandanas and wave machetes and knives at the wide eyed tourists as they rolled by, sightseeing cattle looking at the Alaskan wilderness. A decade later, I rediscovered camping with friends in uni and even returned for a six week hiking trip through my home state of Alaska.

So the idea of re-introducing a bit of outdoor life into my ‘trapped in the city’ routine had instant appeal.

The Plan(ish)

While the idea was to be as spontaneous as possible, there was tension between being totally unplanned and having a complete disaster for our first attempt.

With my work and training schedule, there’s no such thing as ‘free time.’ So I had to start with picking a date. Once that was set, we started with the broad strokes plan:

We’ll meet after work, go to the train station, take the next train 90 minutes, then exit the train, then hike for an hour, and then sleep overnight.

Now, I live in Sydney, Australia – a unique place where this is possible. Most US cities have dangerous areas, or you could not reach wilderness within 90 minutes, or even in Queensland that wilderness might be filled with things that will kill you. So this is easier than it would be in other places.

Still, by the time we had boarded the train, we actually had decided to head South, to hike into the Royal National Park, and find a place to camp along the trail.

The Train Ride

Fish and Chips

The ride South went quickly. The guy sitting across from us talked about the great trails, wished us well, leaving 5 empty beer cans in his seat. That’s quite a routine for anyone’s commute.

We grabbed a fish & chips dinner before hiking into the park. There was way too much to eat, and always fearful that my metabolism and hypoglycemia will turn me into an angry idiot, I packed the rest of the chips away in their paper bag in my backpack. (This is exposition)

The Trail

Bush walk

The hike was fantastic. The trail provided only an occasional view of the horizon, but kept your attention on the winding, well maintained but not sterile path through rocks and trees. We were constantly on the lookout for places to sleep – looking for protected flat spots. There are no camping spots in here – what we were doing is technically illegal.

I love the phrase ‘technically illegal’ because it means the same thing as ‘illegal.’

We found a couple of places that would work out along the way, feeling the pressure of the race against the setting sun to try and reach one of the water pools in case we could get in a swim before going to sleep.

The Pools

Time for a swim

Hmm… Can’t see anything. Let’s jump in.

Finally, we emerged. The natural pools were there, in an open space, with flat rocks above. Before the sun set we found two flat spaces to camp. Then a quick change into swimmers, and trying to ease into the largest pool without breaking an ankle or scraping a knee on the slippery rock surfaces. The water was completely black, the bottom invisible. The water was cold, but in an invigorating way, rather than numbing or paralyzing. It required you to move, to breathe.

The notion that you could not see anything below you – how deep it was, whether the Aussie equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster was staring at your toes deliciously, whether there is a fresh water bush jellyfish species that your friends have failed to mention, or even whether your leg will get caught in some vegetation and this will be the tragic story of your life that is told. Isn’t imagination fun?

Time for sleep

Campsite

The sun set, forcing bedtime. We read, drank, had dessert, and departed to our “sites”.

Our packs were fantastically small – I had a small rock climbing backpack and Tash had something similar. It was warm enough that I had only brought a sleep sack, a small Thermarest, and a tarp. It turned out to be perfect as the night was warm. The rock surface was not comfortable but the tarp and Thermarest helped.

The larger your pack, the less mobile, the less flexible, the more stuff you’ve carted in with you. A minimalist activity is well suited with minimal stuff.

My eyes began to get heavy.

The Visitor

Bush rat

No hot chips for you.

I am sure that as soon as I entered the park, that the entire kingdom was alerted to the smell of a paper bag containing a half-kilo of hot chips. Luckily most creatures in the park are afraid of man.

As I was about to drift off, I heard a noise in the bush next to me. I knew it wasn’t large, no bigger than a house cat and likely much smaller. Tash had been talking about a friend who owned lizards on the hike in, and how they existed in the park. I listened for the foot patterns of the animal, as if somehow I would determine “aha! that is clearly a mammilian scurrying cadence and not reptilian!”

As the movement neared me, I turned on my flashlight trying to catch a glimpse. It scurried (or crawled or hopped?) back into the bush. Finally after much cat and mouse, I caught it in the light. It was a small rodent.

From Tash’s site she wanted to know what in the world was going on. I told her a small mouse was around. The hot chips were certainly the draw, so I called upon my bear survival skills and broke a branch to hang my packback which contained the hot chips. Now, the nearest and best tree happened to be located a lot closer to Tash than me, which I swear I was not thinking about at the time.

The mouse stopped coming near my tarp. The next morning I learned that I didn’t fully deter him/her, but just refocused his attention on the new location of the backpack, so Tash had a few skirmishes of her own through the night.

The next morning, a google image search helped identify it as a bush rat. Tash was not happy that I had reported ‘a small mouse’ to find out it was a bush rat.

Morning

The hike out

The alarm went off, and we packed via flashlight, and quickly hit the trail. On the way out the trail looked different but familiar, the way that only a wilderness trail can have a completely different side in cloudy sunset or bold moonlight.

I felt full of life, half-sleepy, partially relieved, but mostly connected and at peace. We boarded the train back to the city, had breakfast at a cafe, and then parted ways to head to work. I showered, dressed, and began Friday. It was the best Friday I’d had in a long, long time.

Thanks to my friend Tash for introducing me to such an amazing, simple way to reconnect to the natural world.

The finish

A trek along the Mekong

A trek along the Mekong

After the incredible day at the library at Andaung Trom Primary School, Khanh and I parted ways with the Room to Read team at Kampong Thom, and climbed in a car with Untac, our guide for the next five days of cycling along the Mekong River in Cambodia.

The next five days were hysterical, magical, simple, and filled with delight.

Ferry going across the Mekong

The first of many ferries

Our route would take us along both sides of the Mekong River, and onto islands in the middle of the Mekong, which is often over 2 km wide. At many points, we’d be throwing our bikes onto a ferry and crossing.

The ferry system along the Mekong, except in Phnom Penh, is not what you think of if you live in Sydney, or Seattle, or any major city with a ferry system. It is often a man and his boat, and sometimes neither, and just a sign with a cell phone number on it.

Before we’d even spun the pedals once, we loaded the bikes on to a ferry to cross onto an island where we’d spend our first night.

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You can fit more on a small wooden boat than you might imagine

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Our first ferry on the 4th day. Horse carts returning from the Phnom Penh markets.

Hungry Ghosts

Our first night’s accommodation was a cabana on stilts in the Arun Mekong Guesthouse, that we reached via cycling in the dark along a narrow path, weaving as motorbikes passed us in both directions. After dinner, Khanh announced that an animal had pooped on our bed, but judging from the size of the poop, it was a small animal. The humidity was high, even though the rainy season had been mild and we hadn’t seen rain yet. With no AC, the fan was keeping us sane, until the generator cut out at 2 AM, when we pulled the mosquito net around us.

At 4 AM, a blaring noise drilled into my brain. It was if someone was pointing a loudspeaker directly at our cabana, and 100 monks were chanting into the mic. That turned out to actually be the case. We told ourselves that it would go away in 30 minutes – we’d heard chanting before and it lasted about that long. 30 minutes later, the chanting stopped.

And then the drumming began. When the drumming stopped, the singing began. With each new wave of booming sound, we broke into laugher. I think I began singing back at some point, a bit delirious from lack of sleep.

When we asked Untac the next morning, he smiled and let us know we had started our trip at the beginning of the 15 day “hungry ghost festival”, and that everywhere in Cambodia, we’d hear this at 4 AM, and then twice more during the day. The festival is about feeding the ghosts of your ancestors and other people to make sure they are well fed in the afterlife and don’t haunt you.

The beauty of the temples and their presence is every village is entrancing, but behind it sits the sad fact that temples outrank schools in the priority of the government.

By the end of the trip we could grunt along with the rhythm of the monks.

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One of the many sources of Hungry Ghost chanting in Cambodia.

The path along the Mekong

  • Day 1: Our route started in Kratie town (in the province of Kratie) on the East bank, starting in the morning from Kaoh Trong island, where we ferried  to the West bank, and rode North to ferry across to Sambor, returning to Kaoh Trong island that afternoon in a tuk-tuk along the East bank.
  • Day 2From Kaoh Trong we cycled to the same ferry crossing to the West bank, but went South to Chhlong, ferrying back to the East bank to reach Chhlong.
  • Day 3: From Chhlong, we rode South to Kampong Cham, ferrying to Koh Tasuy island and then off again to reach the West bank. After lunch, Untac and I averaged 30 kph (on mountain bikes) for about 10-12k, and I managed to survive an addition 6k solo.
  • Day 4: We started by casually riding around islands near Kampong Cham, then hopped in the van to skip some high traffic’d bits of road, and then rode the final 30k along the East bank before taking a full-sized ferry to Phnom Penh.

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Our journey took balance and a sense of adventure

Food along the Mekong

Almost anywhere, you’d find a small store, with the strangest combination of single serving Men’s shampoo packets, assorted plastic items, and you’d wonder how it came to this part of the world. But there was always food – fresh, local, and usually delicious. Normally, I’m not that adventurous of an eater – I know what I like and what I don’t. But in Cambodia I wanted to try more of what locals ate. There were several firsts: balut, tarantula, and then a host of fruits: longans, jackfruit, palm fruits, jujubee and rambutans, along with previous favorites dragonfruit and asian bananas.

No meals were ever indoors, which makes eating so much better. At a restaurant in Chhlong, the owner cooked right in the middle of the restaurant, pulling fresh ingredients from the piles of vegetables and meat around him, sweating and smiling over the wok-like pans and open fire.

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A simple snack (salt, lime, and duck embryos)

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No, it doesn’t crawl into your mouth. You just eat one of the fried ones in the bucket.

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I wonder why we liked this guy so much?

Children

Everywhere we rode, kids yelled “Hello!!” and cackled with laughter if we responded. I answered in Khmer most of the time. On ferries and in towns kids would openly stare, amazed by the foreigners in cycling gear. I would ask them what their name was in Khmer, which would send them into an absolute fit. Either my pronunciation is horrendous, or my comedic timing is exceptional.

On one ferry that never actually left, Untac was talking to local Muslim girls about what language they were speaking. He promised to buy them a book and a pencil if they wrote their language out for him. After we left the ferry, the girls and their little brothers followed us to a small lean-to market stall where a man had a number of activity books. A few other kids caught wind of the transaction, and Untac agreed to give them books as well. Within minutes, the alarm in the village had sounded and kids of every age under 13 were streaming in to the market stall, which barely held 5 of them, but was suddenly flooded with what seemed like 20. Untac handed the merchant a handful of cash and we fled the riot we had spawned.

It’s easy to see the kids – even in their often dirty and simple clothes, living on a small boat, who have so little, but who laugh so loud and smile so easily, to wonder if education is really what they need? Ignorance is supposedly bliss, is it not.

When you see a 9-year-old girl laugh and smile, you don’t see that in 6 years she will be married, in order to provide income for her family. You don’t see that 40 years ago, there was very little laugher, that this was a country filled with orphans from the genocidal regime of Pol Pot. Her smile does not reveal that without education, the Khmer people are at the whims of the government and cannot see though the political arguments and propaganda that has sadly been their diet for generations.


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A girl along the Mekong

The Cycling

Khanh had never done anything like this before. I’ve done a solo, month-long tour of Ireland, and a two month tour of New Zeland. I spend a decent amount of time on a road bike. Let’s just say Khanh is now familiar with a mountain bike, clipless pedals, and their delicate and special relationship with gravity, mud, cement, and dirt. She’s incredibly tough – much tougher than I am, and never a word of complaint did escape her lips.

The tour was so well done from start to finish, and our guide is a legend. Originally born in a small village in Cambodia, he was the national barista of the year two years ago in Cambodia, along with being a graduate of the nuclear engineering program in Cambodia, and has cycled through so much of SouthEast Asia and even parts of Australia. Grasshopper Adventures is an amazing cycle-touring company who I’d love to get to ride with again.

A comfortable bench waiting for the ferry

Yeah, this totally looks like a comfortable place to wait for the next ferry

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A bamboo bridge over peaceful waters


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Mind the cows.

Bryan holding bike overhead
The usual BJR-triumphs-over-the-bike pose

I’m not sure exactly when I’ll be back in Cambodia, but it will be within two years. I can’t wait.

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A view of the mighty Mekong from one of the few hills in Cambodia

Turbulence at all altitudes

Turbulence at all altitudes

In the next 9 days, I’ll be in 4 different countries, with each hop being more than 5 hours. I’ll cover more than 100 km of changes in altitude before I get back home. With every flight, there’s are always rough patches, smooth patches, and the unexpected glass of wine spilled on you by the woman sitting next to you (true story, and it was not intentional or deserved, just for the record).

These next nine days are a microcosm of the last six months – I haven’t blogged publicly during that time for a number of reasons, most of which was turbulence. I didn’t really know which direction I was headed, and I couldn’t reach my laptop because the fasten seat belt sign was on.

No, seriously, fasten your @#$% seat belts. This puppy is about to barrel-roll.

Quick stream of consciousness recap since March. Each of these alone would be blog-worthy, but alas I am rich in humor, prose and adventure but time poor. Go.

  • Returned from Saigon to Australia where Khanh visited Manly for the first time. Torrential rain during an outdoor Opera House performance of Aida, delight in Josh Pyke and the Sydney symphony, a stunning day at Palm Beach, and a wet hike down the side of Govett’s Leap near Blackheath did not disappoint. Neither did my first colonoscopy.

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Palm Beach.

  • San Francisco, the city by the Bay. A weekend with Khanh in Santa Cruz where I was the de-invited wedding guest, and fled from an Orca in the water that turned out to be a porpoise.
  • On to Virginia, for my nephew’s first triathlon. Incredibly proud as we passed each other on the run. My first ever podium, though the competition wasn’t exactly elite.

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“No sharks in Virginia, right?”

  • Prague! Apparently one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, I did not see the outside of my hotel room as yet another sinus infection crushed me. 12 hours of meetings, 12 hours of hazy delirium. Repeat four times then get on a plane.
  • Gdansk, Poland! Presenting in a zombie-like state to 400 people, my speaker rating was essentially “this American is not horrible,” which is apparently high praise in that part of the world. Struggling still and not sleeping well, my team in Poland are such phenomenal hosts, that even in the haze of medication and insomnia I had a huge smile as the go-kart track blurred beneath my wheels. Luckily there are no drug tests in go-karting.

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Gdansk at night. Similar to Gdansk in the day, only darker.

  • Back to Virginia. My 12 year old niece crushed me in a 5K, running 21 minutes, and being the first female across the line, and eighth overall. My pride overflows, but I will also have my revenge!

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The entire family after their 5K. First place goes to my niece in the pink. Until next time…

  • Back to San Francisco. Living in the Marina I do not fit the stereotype, but I am amused and not freightened by it’s homogeneity. I am not a homogene-o-phobe.
  • Colorado for Dan’s Buck’s party. Three days of hiking and two days of celebrating including hot springs induced male nudity, a midnight digestive system attack from a freeze-dried Mexican dinner (imagine running in the dark with a plastic shovel and a flashlight on a very narrow trail, when every second counts), and the joys of seeing one mostly unclothed man in a hot tub slap another mostly unclothed man in that same hot tub in the face as hard as he can.

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Only the residents of Colorado are higher than the mountains

  • Back to San Francisco. An afternoon hike of pure happiness near Stinson Beach, including a quick swim in a calm, placid lake.
  • Back to Sydney for three weeks. A fairwell to Tobes and his arms.
  • Back to San Francisco for Dan’s wedding. Sick again. Amazing to see my brothers from Austin, and the Heller family, all of whom are family to me. As the sun set on the brutal oven that surrounded our black suited band of musketeers, I asked myself “Why have I left my family?” A week later, a perfect weekend, filled with two loops of Paradise, a dip in Aquatic Park, a run across the Golden Gate, and best of all time spent simply being, with Khanh.

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It’s not a seal. It’s just BJR-in-a-wetsuit.

  • Back to Sydney on September 6th.

By September 6th, I had spent 123 of the last 365 days out of the country. As one friend asked, “If you like Australia so much why are you never there?

The cult of FODMAP

fodmapno

“If it tastes good, spit it out.”

After Ironman Busselton in December, it took my digestive system about two weeks to recover from the 11+ hours of liquid sugar I had dumped into it during the day. In April, after talking to an ENT specialist about my sinus challenges, a Gastro specialist about the last 10 years of what I thought was a reaction to my medication, my nephrologist about the same problem, and the exceptional Meredith Terranova, it became clear that during my transplant, my digestive system had been completely reset. All the immune suppressing drugs and antibiotics conspired to destroy the healthy bacteria I had built up through a steady diet of dirt, Tang, peanut better, condensed milk, and lint as a child.

The recommendation was FODMAP. Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Fructose Free, etc. Very similar to Paleo, but more restrictive as it eliminates a lot of fruits and vegetables. Starting in April, within three weeks of this caloric torture I could already tell the difference. Trying to eat like a horse while not being able to eat 90% of the meals in most menus was not something I want to repeat. I’ve now folded back in everything except gluten, and I’m using something call “UCAN” (as in ‘you can’ complete the race without a sprint for the port-a-loo) for race nutrition and recovery. My last half-Ironman was much better – even the next day, nothing out of the ordinary. One small step for bacterial chemistry, one giant step for my behind. I love when I write something, and then have to stop for three minutes because I’m laughing so hard. Do I care if you laugh? Maybe?

Sunny Coast half-Ironman

wetsuit before the race top half

“Of course I’m smiling. I am completed unprepared for this.”

I’ve never attempted a race as undertrained as the Ironman Sunshine Coast 70.3 last weekend. With the travel schedule above, I did minimal maintenance training, and crammed in a handful of mid-length efforts in the few weeks before the race. My mate Nick joined me to support me in the race, and getting to see my coach and teammates was the best part of the whole weekend.

Once again my TT bike is a pain to maintain. The brakes were fully locked on the wheel and no matter what adjustment I tried, they were jammed. The local bike shop fixed, though they were incredibly lose. “It will stop, I just can’t tell you how long it will take,” said the mechanic. Um…

Despite predicting a disaster, I finished in 5:13, which is good for my fitness level but not a stellar time for an incredibly fast course. I started in the third wave but somehow managed a 32 minute swim. My bike was lazy at best, my heart barely working while my legs were clearly not conditioned for it. I did run a PR for the half-marathon (as part of a half-Ironman) – the highlight being half way up the hill near the end of the first lap, a woman who I had been leapfrogging said “Come on, brotha” and got me to pick up the pace, which helped propel me for the remaining 11K across the finish line.

I have another half-Ironman in Austin in November, where I will be in better shape but likely register a slower time given the equipment and course. The next day I returned to a brutal episode at work, then flew to Asia, and within 24 hours I could not focus my eyes or make coherent sentences. For these kinds of reactions I really should at least get the chance to take some interesting hallucinogens.

Our radar shows clouds in a pattern of a question mark

illustration of clouds in the shape of question mark on sky background

I’m a planner. I love google calendar and JIRA – I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing at any time. Usually, a lack of a plan begins to slowly brew anxiety that boils over, and I close my eyes, jam the throttle forward, and push the yoke left, right, or some other dangerous combination, and see where I end up.

My emotional compass points West, across the Pacific. My skin is magnetized by the salt (and negative ions – look them up, they are totally science stuff…) of the ocean outside the window of my apartment. The uncentered, off balance gyroscope in my psyche careens off Argentina into Austin, through Northern Virginia, and comes to a rest against the Pyrenees. My legs are begging simply to sit still, even for a minute.

For now, I’m just letting the trade winds take me, and resisting the urge to attempt aerial maneuvers. Just over the horizon is Cambodia, where a piece of me that I left two years ago is waiting to be reunited, while a warm heartbeat will join me inside of the monsoon. I can’t wait. Stay tuned.

Operation Bear Back

Operation Bear Back

Part of my New Year’s Resolutions this year is to have 12 new experiences that are cool enough that I would blog about them.

I didn’t take into consideration that just in the first month, several experiences would be so off-the-charts that I can’t actually blog about them, not only because some family members would disown me, or that some people would start treating me differently, but they could get me arrested if I created a public record of the event.

But luckily, there are other January experiences that I can blog about and not worry about isolation, ex-communication, or incarceration. Operation Bear Back certainly qualifies as one.

When I first announced to a few friends that “Operation Bear Back” was going to happen this year, they saw a very different spelling in their mind, and then really gave me some strange looks. And then once they understood what it actually meant, they suggested I consider a different code name. Pah!

Bear at Dan's place

A Brief History of Bear

Bear was given to me by a girlfriend who knew my love of big dogs. I grew up with Siberian Huskies as our family pets, but when I spent time with Bronson, the rottweiler owned by the (former, alleged) drug dealer who trained me own my high school paper route one summer, I fell in love with the breed.

Since I travelled far too much during my first two years of Trilogy (my first gig after uni), I couldn’t have a dog. Bear was an amazing gift. Always there when I arrived at home. Never caused drama. Always understood exactly what I was talking about.

Bear has been with me for 18 years. The girlfriend? Well, she didn’t turn out as loyal or dependable. Or clean, for that matter.

The Separation

When I first moved to Australia, I didn’t want to bring Bear over, fearing he would be damaged in the shipping process, plus I didn’t like the idea of him being in a crate for three months without any attention.

Luckily, one of my best friends, Dan, has two dogs, and offered to take care of Bear while I was in Australia. So he not only had a good home but the company of Dunkel and Holly.

But when I decided that my move to Australia was a permanent one, I knew he needed to join me in Oz.

And that, is when Operation Bear Back began.

I researched a number of freight options, and Dan had even agreed to pack Bear up and ship him to Sydney, but then Dan decided to move to SF! Bear was ticked that he didn’t get to ride shotgun to SF, since that’s how he’d traveled on my move to and from the Bay Area before. The timing worked out perfectly as Dan found a place to live in the Bay Area the same week I was there on business.

I was nervous pulling up to the house – Bear and I hadn’t seen each other in over a year when Dan brought Bear out to a pub in Austin the last time I visited.

The Reunion

Bear and Bryan reunited

Bear can hardly hold back the emotion.

Bear and Bryan together

The boys are back together. Look out ladies, and look out cats.

Bear in passenger seat

“Why do I NEVER get to drive? BJR, you may be my owner, but you’re not cool sometimes.”

How to travel with a cement dog between continents

There was still an ocean to cross, and I wasn’t checking one of my best friends as luggage, but I also wasn’t about to shell out $2K for a seat for him.  So he needed to masquerade as a carry-on. A 80 cm, 12 kg cement carry-on, no less.

Bear checking out backpacks

Bear wanted to travel in style, yet still be comfortable.

Bear approves backpack

“It’s my color. It’s comfy, and you can’t zip the bag over my head. We’ll take it.”

Bear in backpack 2

And we’re off.

Bear Comes Home

Amazingly enough, no one said a word as I went through the airport. Sure some stares, some giggles from flight attendants, and one request to take our picture.  Somehow we made it onto the plane, and the final test – the overhead bin – passed! He fit like a charm. At one point during some turbulence, he did roll onto a wooden case carrying a cellists bow, but luckily the bow was unharmed. I did get pulled aside by customs because a colleague on my flight was carrying an apple. The customs dog didn’t even pay attention to Bear. Bear was not amused.

Bear makes it through Security

Don’t stare like that. Those guys from TSA will get suspicious.

Bear at Restaurant in Airport

“If I’m going to eat, could you take me out of the @#$% backpack?!!”

Bear in Overhead Bin

“This. Is. Humiliating.”

Becoming Aussie

Bear is adjusting well, and enjoying life by the beach. His daily routine is mostly spent staring at the waves, watching other dogs pass by the window outside. It’s great to have him out here with me.

Bear Watching Aussie TV

So far, Bear does not think highly of the quality of Aussie TV.

Bear Looking at the Ocean at Night

But he loves the smell and sound of the ocean.

Ich bin eine Bärentatze (BJR in Berlin)

I boarded the plane for Berlin with my mind in chaos. There are times in life when alarm bells are going off, and if you don’t change something about your life, then life is about to change it for you. This mental turbulence had knocked me around in a work-induced haze, with the big picture drowned by less significant needs, a continuing struggle with injury, and disappointment in people I trusted.

I hoped Berlin would be the break that my mind needed to sort things out, to see the path clearly, and to make a difficult decision.

Berlin at a glance

Berlin Museum

After landing, a few of us embarked on a multi-hour walk around the city, to defeat jet lag and to check out Berlin. We walked along the Spree river, and then went to the top of the TV Tower (famously boasted as built by East German communists but secretly completed by Swedes), where we could see all of Berlin. It’s filled with green spaces, and plenty of remnants from Eastern bloc architecture. This walk was one of many long walks to come.

Conference

My main reason for being in Berlin was a work conference. One of the problems with any conference is that you can often never leave the venue, and the schedule of meetings I had kept me within a few blocks for three straight days and nights. Thursday evening after we’d wrapped up, many of us ventured farther into East Berlin. While modern East Berlin seems to have a reputation for ultra-cool, it feels a lot like parts of San Francisco, but filled with only straight white hipsters. Yes, it’s that bad at times. There are parts of East Berlin we should trade with Putin for Crimea.

A day in Vienna

Vienna EnhancedI had a customer to visit in Vienna on Friday, so I hopped up for the day and had a chance to experience a taste of the city. The central district is incredible. The opera house, government buildings, etc. are all beautiful and well-preserved. While it was less than twelve hours, and all of the time was either meetings or transportation, Vienna is now on my list to return, and I can say that I have seen the Danube with my own eyes.

The happiness of two wheels

Berlin Bike Victory Column

The four weeks preceding this trip were not the best – mostly long nights and weekends of work, not getting on my bike enough, and generally filled with frustration. I knew I had to break the cycle, and what better than an actual cycle with two wheels to do it. So the Saturday after my work conference, I made my way to the bike shop, to find that my bike was not at this location, but a different one. Another 20 minute walk later, and I had my bike. A short bike ride to a train station, then a confusing episode trying to pay for a train ticket (though apparently train tickets are never collected according to what I noticed – perhaps they have the ‘maximum penalty’ approach where if you get caught riding without a ticket, they just cut off your hand and nail it to the ceiling of the train), a train ride to Grunewald, and finally just before Noon the ride had begun.

It started along an incredible green path for cyclists only, and the entire ride was beautiful. There are bike paths up on the sidewalk in so many places, though I chose to mostly stick on the road and have cars honk at me for not obeying the rules.

Lunch in BerlinI stopped for lunch at Fährhaus Caputh, right on the edge of the lake. I had my fourth schnitzel-centered meal for the week, and polished it off in the rapid fashion that only an American cyclist with no table manners can accomplish. Another 30 minutes later, I looked at the ferry crossing in front of me and smiled, thinking of my ride in Amsterdam where I had missed the fact that I needed to take a ferry as well. I managed to communicate in broken German and English to understand that the ferry was coming in 15 minutes. Overall, 93k around Berlin was definitely part of what my mind and body needed.

Tschuß, Berlin

Where books are burned

I woke early on Sunday to get in a swim. Despite the nearest 50m pool being closed when I arrived, my spirits would not be dampened. I hit the gym at the hotel, contorted myself into a few yoga positions, and even hopped in the small, 5 meter pool, and managed a few “laps”, soaking all the casual bathers swimming with their head above water. Das tut mir leid.

I walked about an hour through the 35 C (90ish) heat, unusual for Berlin. Almost no clouds in the sky. I joined on a four-hour walking tour, bringing my total for the day to 7 hours of walking. The tiredness in my legs felt great. I wish I could run, but that’s not possible yet.

I’m not as enthralled as most people by the Eastern part of the city, but Berlin is an amazing historical record despite all attempts to bomb, burn, and bulldoze history out of the way. The Russian Embassy, the Neue Wache (Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny), the parade grounds where Nazi rallies were held: the list of the places where the 20th century was shaped goes on and on.

One of my favorite, nearly invisible monuments is a simple plaque, with a quote by Heinrich Heine, on the site where Nazi students burned 20,000 books. “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.”

No answers yet, just more questions

The storm in the back of my mind has calmed, but despite a temporary lull, it is still brewing. Few people ever get the chance to really ask the question, “What do you want?” and then be able to change their life to get it so easily. I return home to Alaska in a couple of weeks for my 25th high school reunion. I’m going back to the place that formed me in both good and bad dimensions – and will hope to find more time for clarity there.

US Tour March-April 2014: Work is Life and Life is Work

When people talk about work-life balance, there’s an implicit assumption that they are two separate things. When I was 18, I believed in strict separation of everything: spiritual, friendship, romance, family, career should all be kept in separate compartments and carefully managed. And it drove me crazy how my grandmother mixed her food all together on her plate.  But now, while I don’t mix food, I do have more integration between parts of my life.  This last trip to the US was a clear case of that: family, work, athletics, friends, and Mexican food blending together in harmony.

Virginia

The Bryan J. Rollins 2014 US Tour started in Virginia, where a flight delay meant a super shuttle home at 2 AM. The five days that followed were relaxed and comfy: swimming at the pool with my niece, watching my nephew play tennis, going out to lunch with my mom, having breakfast with my sister. I’m figuring out how to be more of my actual self around my family, and it only took 43 years. While it’s incredibly hard leaving, I left this time feeling connected rather than separated, complete rather than shattered, and at peace rather than in pain.

San Francisco

With only four nights in the Bay Area, each one was important. First, a shopping spree at the Sports Basement. Second, a dinner with an amalgamation of friends from different circles. Third, an incredible evening with a friend who I haven’t seen in years. Finally, the formation of a new friendship with a new colleague. While the trip was a whirlwind, I felt focused, and not manic. Maybe I am growing up? Let’s hope not. At the same time I was more productive – swimming most mornings, and every hour in the SF office was valuable (a stark contrast to some of my other trips).

G’Day Y’all

Atlassian just opened an Austin office, and while my role doesn’t overlap much with what will be done in Austin, I wanted to do everything I could to support our opening.  I also needed to return after the debacle of my last trip to Austin, where I enjoyed the worst weekend of the entire year of 2013, in order to purge the mental scars. The Yin from December was completely Yanged by the last week in Austin. Even arriving on a red-eye could not dampen my spirits. After a quick nap at the Sarkars, I went to Jack And Adams, the worldwide mecca for triathletes named Bryan J. Rollins.

Jack And Adams

I have to pause in the middle of my Austin story to talk about how great Jack And Adams is. Since I first walked in 7 years ago, I’ve loved this store more than any store, with the Sports Basement in San Francisco a close second. The business is simple in some ways but incredibly deep in others. Start by taking a smart, insightful approach to retail, but make the purpose of the entire business about making the triathlete community in Austin the best in the world. Mix in hilarious, friendly, and super-cool staff, passionate triathlete nuts, and you get a store that you’d like to hang out in all day. There are few companies where I am truly proud to be a customer, and Jack and Adams is the gold standard.

The First Ride is the Sweetest, Baby I Know

I had time for a two hour ride, and headed up Shoal Creek road. The bike was more impressive than I’d imagined. After stopping in on the Wells, who were shocked to see someone they thought was in Australia, I headed back. While I’m really not supposed to push it that hard on a bike right now, given that my femur is still repairing itself, it was too tempting not to put down the hammer on the slight incline back towards 35th, then pushed up to 50 kph on the final twist and decline to Enfield. Honestly, it hurt. My leg wasn’t that happy. But, it was worth it.

Winding down

After the ride I showered at the Ghangurde’s, and decided to repeat my training ritual of two P-Terry’s chicken burgers and a milkshake. Good times. Funny that my fondest memories of when I was married were when I was by myself. After hanging out with the Sarkars I returned to meet Mak at the Dog and Duck. Throughout the weekend I’d have times where I got to be with people I care about, one on one, and hear the truth of their lives. This was the greatest part of the weekend. By the time I left, Austin had redeemed itself in my eyes, if not purely because of the people I care about who live there. Sunday with the Sarkar clan only emphasized how lucky I am to have the friends I do in Austin.

Atlassian Austin

How did I get to work for a company this cool? I’m better at my job than I’ve ever been in my life (and I’m becoming more modest every day), but I still have more to learn than ever to actually succeed at it. The opening of the Austin office, and my minuscule part in it, are a huge source of pride for me. The people in the Austin office are now family, and they understand, like any family, many of my annoying habits.

Back to Manly

At the end of the day, as I board the plane for Australia, I am going home. While I don’t really act like many of the people I live around (except for La Familia Bunting), I feel at home.  I have a clear picture of what I want in life, and it’s exactly what I get to experience every day. But it would be really nice if Taco Deli opened up a location in Manly.

Festival, Footy, and Fruit of the Vine

A personal half-marathon best, an Australian Rules final match at the MCG, and hard work with good company.  All in all, two great weekends.

Not so great expectations

This morning I rolled out of bed at 5 AM, walked to Town Hall, and hopped a train to Milson’s Point, the start of the Sydney Running Festival.

I was more subdued than I usually am for a race.  First, Lisa was home sick and couldn’t run in the race, and she’s been training incredibly hard, so it was tough leaving without her.  Second, my knees have hurt when running since my City 2 Surf practice run, and my IT bands still hurt after any intense cycling workout.   And third, I hadn’t done a run over 14K since June, while training for the Hunter Valley half marathon (which I had to skip due to a lung/sinus infection). Somehow I was registered in the “A” group, which was the first to start, and the quicker pace around me got me moving at a reasonable pace right off the bat.

I’ll skip the play by play and just say I relaxed through the run, and was shocked to find myself looking at 3K left and a chance to run under 1:45, with my previous best being 1:48.   I kept my pace quick and gritted through the leg pain.  My lungs were fine, no cardio problems whatsoever.  I crossed in 1 hour, 43 minutes, and 9 seconds, my fastest half-marathon by over 5 minutes.   The day couldn’t have been better:  cool enough, little wind, and a generally flat course than only changed elevation by about 100 meters over the 21.1km.   My finish, and the run.

Footy Finals

What we call “playoffs” in the states are finals in Australia.  Last weekend Lisa and I flew down to Melbourne and caught a qualifying final between Hawthorn Hawks and Collingwood Drunken Brawlers, two bitter AFL rivals.   A big reason for the trip was getting to see a match at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Grounds), the mecca of Australian Rules Football.

The match did not disappoint – the first quarter was some of the toughest competition I’ve seen in sports.  AFL pits two teams of 18 wide-receiver shaped athletes against each other for two hours of running, with no protective gear and minimal safety rules.  The coordination, reflexes, stamina, and toughness of these blokes is off the charts. The stadium had 85,000 fans despite a rainy, windy night in Melbourne.

The match stayed close until the third quarter, when the Hawks began to execute like a machine and quickly created a gap that would only grow for the remainder of the match.

Our mate Neil had picked up tickets for us and I loved every second of the match.  I picked up a Hawthorn scarf for myself and Lisa surprised me with a Richmond Tigers (Neil’s team)  t-shirt that she picked up for me.

We’ll make no wine before its time

Neil and I headed out the next morning at sunrise and drove out to Heathcote, where he and Margie own a small winery.  Our mission that morning could not have been more filled with testosterone: Rent a Kanga (the tractor pictured at right) and buy a chainsaw.  The rest of the day we put them to use, along with 5 or 6 of Neil and Maggies mates, relatives, and co-conspirators in their wine hobby.   Followed by an amazing dinner of veggies and roast pork cooked in camp ovens, I slept like a baby for the first time in weeks.

The next day was chain gang work from morning to evening, and I loved every minute of it. I remembered what it was like to be woken up by my dad, to eat a quick breakfast, grab a pair of work gloves, and spend Saturday working with my dad.  While as a teenager I always wished I was somewhere else, I’m glad my dad taught me how to work, how to handle a chainsaw, and that I’m generally comfortable with tools although it always takes me a little while to get back into the swing of things.

While we didn’t do anything related to wine making, we did a lot – new posts cemented in the ground and wired up, and a new crushed stone driveway for the shed (and a few stones for Neil’s neighbor who used to be a jockey!)

At the end of the workday on Sunday I was trying to figure out why I felt so good, and realized it was because I could breathe.  No allergies in the country in Victoria – I had forgotten what it was like to take a breath and have to exert effort.  Now I’m back in Sydney and missing the air in Heathcote!

Rollins in the Northern Territory: Part 2

(Continued from Part 1) Rising early to catch the Sunrise over Kings Canyon, the drive back to Ayers Rock highlighted the fact that while we had slept, every living animal in the territory had walked up on the road and pooped.  So I forgave Hertz’ a little for their “no coverage after sundown” policy.

Why Tour Buses and Brumbies Don’t Mix

 Within the first hour, what looked like a fat person with a ponytail could be seen walking slowly on the highway ahead of us.  It turned out to be an actual horse’s tail, and we saw our first Brumby (wild feral crazy nuts Aussie horse).  Even with a few blasts of the horn he was reluctant to leave the highway, but eventually trotted off into the bush.

Okay, so there are animals on the highways.  Within the next half hour, we saw up close and personal what the after effects are from a 20 person bus hitting a full-grown Brumby.  The front of the bus looked like an accordion, and the horse was, well, dead.  It couldn’t have happened more than 10 minutes before we came by.  So maybe single car accidents are a problem in these parts.

The rest of the drive was less eventful, though it seemed Dingos kept appearing, likely to make sure people realize that they aren’t all baby-killers.

Uluru or Ayers Rock?

The British Explorers named it Ayers Rock while the aboriginal name is Uluru.  Much like Mt. McKinley / Denali, Bombay / Mumbai, or Asking a Question / Axing a Question, different cultures have different names for things.

Getting to see Uluru unobstructed was impressive.  All the photos make it appear to be shaped like a loaf of bread, while it’s actually more like a lump of dough dropped onto the floor – asymmetric and without a memorable form.

The hike around Uluru was less impressive.  The trail starts right up next to the rock, where you can climb to the top – even though the aboriginal people would prefer you do not, because the rock is sacred.  If you’ve ever climbed half-dome in Yosemite when they have the poles up near the top to make it easier for people to summit the last 100 meters, this is similar – but Uluru has a much steeper incline, and the poles extend 4 or 5 times further.  The climb was off limits for us even if we’d wanted to, because of high winds: over 30 people have died falling off the side of Uluru.

The trail quickly moves alongside Uluru, giving you some great up close looks at how the rock is dimpled by craters and not a smooth or consistent shape.  Then, the path takes you back out to the road (what!?) where you walk along the park highway for a kilometer before taking a path that keeps you 500 meters from Uluru.  If I wanted a view from this far away I could have stayed in our rental car.  About 1/3rd of the way around, we saw our first “no pictures” section.  Apparently some parts of Uluru are super-sacred to specific parts of the aboriginal people.  One section is sacred to the men, and only men come to view it and learn what it means.  Another part is sacred to the women, and it’s a part of their rituals.  Another part is sacred to left-handed shortstops who really, really need a hit to get out of this slump.  And at each of these sections, they ask you not to take pictures.  The first time, we didn’t take any photos mostly out of shock.  The second time, we didn’t take any mostly because we were moving quickly.  The idea behind it being sacred is that the images on the rocks have spiritual meaning, and reproducing them for others is blasphemous.  The third time, where a signed indicated a full km that was sacred and you not to take any photos, we were finished with this and decided that for us, our hiking religion required digital documentation of what we’d seen.

Eventually the trail gets you back closer to Uluru, and those are the best parts.  The trail has a walls of Jericho feel about it where you’re just walking in a big circle around a rock.  I’m glad we did the trail, but if I had to skip one thing on our trip, I’d pass on the Uluru hike.

Once again, our room at the Outback Pioneer Lodge had no bathroom, so that meant showering in a windstorm.  We had our one “decent” outfit for the trip, for the “Sounds of Silence” dinner – a dinner under the stars with Uluru in the distance and the sun setting over the Olgas.  The dinner was a great change from the horrible chow we’d been scarfing for the last three days, and we were lucky enough to be seated at a table with interesting folks: a young couple from Melbourne who were driving around Australia for 7 months, a university student (and her mom) from Oregon who had just finished up a semester abroad in Perth, a woman from Darwin visiting a friend who worked in Ayers Rock, a Japanese mother-daughter pair, and Lord and Lady Rollins.  We looked at the Southern Cross and learned how to find South (a LOT harder than our “find the North star”, let me tell you), looked at Saturn and the moon through a telescope, and gorged ourselves on seconds and thirds and dessert.  And, the waiters made it dangerous – your wine glass was always full.   Highly recommended.

Olgas – My second favorite spot in Australia

Only Cradle Mountain in Tasmania has a bigger place in my heart, now that I’ve visited the Oglas, or Kata Tjuta.  I’m very happy Lisa made the executive decision to get us out of bed and into the car, even though we were both feeling it from the late dinner the night before.  A convenience store bacon and egg muffin in our stomachs, we were on our way.

Crickey!  We saw our first wild camel.   There are now over 1 million camels in this region in Australia.  Originally brought over as pack animals to bring goods from Adelaide up to the Northern Territory cities like Alice Springs, when their owners didn’t need them anymore, they just released them.  It turns out that camels breed like, well, camels.  And now camels have actually charged into towns, smelling water during drought conditions, and torn apart rain gutters, faucets, and anything with any water behind it.  Bad Camels!  Bad!

After the 50 km drive to the start of the hiking trail for the “Valley of the Winds”, we hopped out of the car to find the wind gusting around us, making it really, really chilly.  We blazed the 2.2 k to the edge of the rocks at double time, getting ourselves warm in the process.  Each day of hiking was like this – start with four layers, a hat, and sometimes gloves, and gradually get down to just two layers mid way through the hike.  Once we got down  into the Valley, no wind.  So I’m a little dubious about the naming.

Instead of just being one rock, the Olgas are a number of rocks, all close by the trail.  Several of the “rocks” (really mini-mountains) appear to be the size of Uluru.  Why isn’t this more sacred?  Well, I’m glad it’s not because we could scramble and take all the photos we wanted.  The trail was exceptional, taking you in and around the rocks, showing you different parts of the terrain, and bringing you through hills and grasses that were chock full of roos.

The sunlight was all around – another brilliant, cloudless day in the Northern Territory.

(Check out the first image, you’ll see one of the roos bounding across our path.  Nice mid-air shot by Lisa.)
The one image of the entire trip that I will always remember is this final one.  Hiking up a shaded divide between two of the rocks, all of a sudden your view expands into the valley showing you the rest of the Olgas in the distance, and the green valley ahead.    The sun catching one side while the other is still dark.  The tangible sensation of crossing into the light and the warmth of the sun.  The massive blue sky above you.  The slope of the trail down into the valley, inviting you to charge forward into territory that makes you squint to catch a glimpse of a dinosaur ahead in the trees.
I already miss being there.

Rollins in the Northern Territory: Part 1

The holiday we took in Australia’s Northern Territory is the exact reason why I moved to Australia.  Lisa and I spent 5 days starting in Alice Springs, visiting King’s Canyon, and then Ayer’s Rock (Uluru).

A Town Like Alice

Ever since Lisa and I read A Town Like Alice we’ve wanted to visit Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory of Australia.  Originally settled as a mid-point for telegraph relays during World War II, the desert community is now 30,000 people including a NASA station.

Saturday morning we began our usual travel routine, grabbing a Museum stop train to the Airport.  This time we flew Qantas instead of Jet Star (Qantas’ discount airline) and there is almost no resemblance between the two airlines.  Shockingly we were served food on the flight, which I haven’t had on a domestic flight in any country in years.  We arrived in Alice Springs to a bright sunny day, which would be the norm for the next five days – rarely ever seeing a cloud in the sky for more than an hour over the entire holiday.  However, a desert in the winter is still cold – and a cold wind greeted us as soon as we stepped off the plane onto the tarmac.

As always, we manage to pack our trips with activity every waking minute, so we dropped our bags at the Desert Resort, where our A-frame cabin was slightly colder than the inside of our refrigerator back home.  (A-frames are great for hot climates, keeping all the heat up high and letting the floor cool down.  There aren’t great for cold days and nights.  This A-frame would be the only type of structure we’d sleep in, in the four different rooms/cabins of our trip, so avoiding getting frozen was a major challenge every night).

Cycling to the Simpson Gap

Our taxi took us to Longhorn Cycling, for a 3 hour mountain bike ride to the Simpson Gap, a divide in the lengthy range of low mountains that stretch out away from Alice Springs.  Clarke, our tour guide, led us out and back along a 30K ride on a sealed path, so no stump jumping or off-road skills were needed.  Clarke is a third-generation Alice Springs local, who studied Geophysics, and who can explain everything about the rock formations. Because the layers of rock are exposed, you can see how the earth has been pushed up and pushed down as you trace the curves in the layers of rock.   The return trip to Alice Springs meant a headwind, but Lisa powered through.  For me, it was the best possible way to start a holiday – out in the countryside, on a bike, with the sun shining down on me.

Safety First

Almost any guide to Alice Springs will warn you about being out late at night.  In recent years, attacks on tourist by a small segment of the local aboriginal population have occurred, and so visitors are encouraged not to walk around Alice Springs at night.  We asked every resident we met, and they all agreed: it was unlikely that anything would happen, but better safe than sorry: take a taxi at night.  Since a 10 minute taxi ride in Alice Springs is about $30, the taxi business is a good one to be in, and all of our taxi drivers were from either India or SouthEast Asia and had moved in the last couple of years.  The challenges that the aboriginals face are strikingly similar to those of Alaska Natives who I knew growing up: alcoholism, high incarceration rates, and general difficulty living inside Western Culture where all values seem upside down.  Back to Alice Springs, Lisa and I ate a couple pizzas at Monte’s and then took a taxi for the 1.5 km back to our icebox bungalow to sleep.

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble

Sunday morning, Kath from Outback Quad Adventures ranch picked us up at our bungalow, and drove us out to Undooyla Station, a working cattle ranch with between 3,000 and 6,000 head of cattle.  We rode Quad bikes for 3 hours around the ranch, learning about how a modern cattle ranch works, and at the same time having a ton of fun racing along desert roads, bouncing along bumpy trails, splashing through shallow creeks.  The water for the cows is pumped up from underground creeks using windwills or solar power – a smart approach that I know my Uncles would all love.  The temperature had dropped below freezing over night, so we started the ride with cold wind, but warmed up as the sun rose higher.  Lisa was grinning ear to ear the whole time, and our faces were caked with dust at the end of the ride.    Once again the scenery of the ranges on either side of the ranch were incredible.

And One More Thing…

As soon as we were off the quad bikes, Kath tossed us into the Land Rover and returned over the bumpy road back to Alice Springs, grabbed our bags, taxied to the airport, and 50 minutes later we had touched down in windy Ayer’s Rock.  The aboriginal name for Ayer’s Rock is Uluru, and we had hoped to spend a couple of hours looking around before we drove to King’s Canyon that night.  However when we picked up our rental car at Hertz, the conversation went like this:

“Here’s your outrageously expensive fully pre-paid rental car”.  Okay, thanks.
“This comes with no coverage.  Would you like to purchase some outrageously expensive insurance.”  Since we don’t have car insurance, sure thing.
“Now that we’ve added that, let me tell you that this only covers you during daylight hours.”  Um, okay.  Why?
“The most common accidents are single vehicle accidents.”  Ah, you mean roadkill.  It’s great that your policy doesn’t cover the most common thing you’d want to be insured against.
“Also, there is a 100 km limit per day on these cars.  Above that you pay $0.25 per mile.” Great.  Since you basically can’t get anywhere without driving a few 100 kms a day, this is even better.  Please give me the keys before I find out that you will charge me each time I use the turn signal.

So, we started our drive to Kings Canyon immediately so we’d get there while the sun was still up and the rental car was covered.   We did see our first dingos!  We expected mangy desert dogs that looked starved.  These were quite the opposite – beautiful red-coated wild dogs that moved quickly and strongly, with their ears permanently at attention.

What happens when Bryan books the trip

Lisa and I usually go for the cheaper options for hotel rooms during travel.  Well, this time our rooms at the Kings Canyon resort didn’t have a bathroom, and the available bathroom was an open air bathroom (think campground) with open air showers (behind walls, just not sealed with doors or windows)!  Given that the temperature at sunset was around 10-12 C (50-54 F), and the wind was blowing through the shower, let’s just say we dried off quickly.  The heater in our room (again an A-frame) barely produced heat.  After a mediocre meal in the cafe and a decent night’s sleep, Monday morning we upgraded to a room with a bathroom.  (Which turned out not to have any heat at all except for a small space heater, once again in an A-frame).

Hiking Kings Canyon

The day turned out to be spectacular.  Every day in the Northern Territory (except during “The Wet”) has brilliant blue skies.  The middle of Winter is not a warm place except near the top of the territory, and we were in the Southern portion.  But our hiking trail ascended quickly up a set of stone steps and warmed us up, even in the cold wind.   About half way along the hike, a detour takes you into “The Garden of Eden,” an amazing Oasis in the middle of this desert canyon where rainfall collects and you have tons of vegetation.  Apparently this year there is even more that usual due to the fact that the last two years have delivered more rain than any period in the last 50 years, so we were seeing the desert at its most green.

With each step in the Canyon I was happier and happier.  Since landing in Alice Springs the cramped nature of Sydney had slowly eroded.  I felt more like myself every time I took a deep breath of the air and enjoyed the fact that there was often not another soul around but the two of us.  I am not a city kid, despite having lived in cities.   This escape-from-Sydney was perfect.

We did all three of the hikes in the area, and returned to the resort to watch the sunset over the canyon.  Even the poor quality food and lack of heat couldn’t dampen my spirits.  My batteries were fully charged and I couldn’t wait for the next two days in Ayer’s Rock.  This is what I had wanted when I moved to Australia.
(to be continued…)

Easter Weekend in Oz

The Easter Holiday in Oz

It’s more than ironic that Australians enjoy a four-day weekend for Easter despite the majority of the population being atheist or agnostic, and most who are Catholic or protestant are only keeping their allegiance so their kids have access to the private schools bearing the denomination of their parents or grandparents.  And yet Sydney-siders by the 10s of thousands pack up on good Friday and scatter around New South Wales and father, North to the beaches, South to the beaches, really anywhere to the beaches.  The weather this weekend was excellent, and Sydney-siders, having been robbed of a decent summer, have taken these four days as their last chance for some reciprocation from the weather-controlling powers that be.

Jervis Bay

The Rollins were in desperate need of an escape from the city.  Long work hours for both of us had led to a state almost fully absent of excitement in my day-to-day life.  I was living just to take another step in the same tracks we had made in the weeks before.  So we followed our neighbors and headed South, farther than Kiama (where we had spent last Easter), on just past Jervis Bay to Milton.

Our choice of Milton was largely because we booked our holiday much later than we should, and we found the Meadowlake Lodge available – lucky us, because it was exceptional.  From Expedia it looked nicer than what the frugal Rollins would usually pick, but we realized that we needed a break from Sydney and it was worth whatever we needed to pay to get away and relax.

Friday: The Commute to the Holiday

Our drive South hit what everyone tells us the typical Easter weekend traffic patten – when the road near Berry goes from two lanes to one, traffic comes to a crawl or a halt, and we lost 45 minutes to that end.  After a takeaway chook lunch in Nowra, we made it to the Meadowlake lodge in the afternoon, time enough for me to get a quick bike ride in.  The road to Meadowlake is all vertical – either straight up or straight down.  I haven’t been on my bike in forever, and my lungs kept reminding me of my poor training over the last year.  A shower and a rare nap left me ready for action.

At half past six we met our hosts, Peter and DI, who built the Meadowlake lodge 11 years ago on 100 acres of property. The property is incredible.  You see two different lakes from the hilltop of the lodge, half of which is Peter and Di’s home, and the other half are three separate suites which are incredibly comfortable and a great escape.

We met Dom and Emily from Newton, who were also staying there, and had stayed there before, which seems to be a common theme with the other guests we met – they get a lot of repeat business, and I can understand why.  The breakfast in the morning is fantastic, and you cant help but relax looking out at the lakes and the green, rolling hills that surround the place.

That night we ate at the Wood fired pizza cafe in Milton, which was the perfect fit for our mood – we wanted something casual, where we could relax and stuff our faces with some fantastic pizza.  Once we arrived home I managed to stay awake for 10 minutes before falling fast asleep.

Saturday: Hiking in Booderee

Saturday morning, after an amazing breakfast, we drove back North to enter Jervis Bay to check out Booderee Nattional Park.  We hiked the circuit trail, starting off hiking down to Steamers beach, which I’d rank above Wine Glass Bay and other beaches in Australia because of the small cove, huge breaking waves, and the seclusion.   Initially we ran into several other hikers, but quickly we found ourselves alone for the remainder of the day.  Lisa and I set a quick pace for the day and cruised through somewhere near 15K in under 4 hours, with a lot of vertical up and downs.

We returned to Meadlowlake to clean up and get ready for dinner.  We ate that night in Milton at Bacchus, where everything was great – including Lost Stocks Perdu, a Heathcote Shiraz.  (We’re always picking anything from Heathcote since our friends Neil and Margie have a place there that we visited last

Sunday: Stand Up, Now Paddle

 (Note: picture at left is not of us; borrowed from Jervis’ Bay Stand Up Paddling Facebook account) We left early Sunday so we could make it to Huskisson Beach our time for Stand Up Paddling – essentially where you stand on a surfboard and paddle forward.  I really enjoyed the feeling, despite having jelly legs at the beginning, before I adjusted to the balance of the board.   In playing around trying to quickly spin the board in a back and forth 180 with the paddle, I managed to dump myself in the water, which was warm and made we wish I had jumped in earlier.  I can easily see buying a stand up paddle board when we’re back in Austin – much easier to load onto any car, and cruising down Town Lake would be a great way to start a morning or end the day on a summer evening.   Our instructor, Mel, let us try her board which much like better surfboards, is more narrow and agile (and trying the same 180 as before I dumped myself again).   After our lessons we took a quick swim and packed ourselves back to Meadlowlake.

We ate a mediocre lunch at the Breakers Cafe in Mollymook before driving out to the Pidgeon House Mountain trail entrance.  Half of the drive is unpaved and I expected to see a tire rolling off the rental car at any moment, especially when I hit the one lane bridge entirely too fast.

The hike to the top was steep but not that long – the signs advertised a four-hour return trip, our host Di said she had done it in 2 hours and thirty minutes. We reached the top in about 55 minutes, only taking about 5 minutes of rest on the way up.  Despite a long hike the day before, and shaky legs from the paddle boarding, we had made great time to the top.  The way down was actually more worse, and harder on knees, ankles, shins, though much faster or course than the ascent.

Dinner at St. Isadore made Milton three-for-three in great meals without too much pomp.

Monday: Back to Prison Sydney

Traffic returning to Sydney was bad, though some people have said it took six hours in the last, it took us closer to four hours.  The drive back to the city felt like the end of a prison furlough rather than returning to home.

Over the past months my personal happiness has been a mixed bag, mostly because of poor health, lack of sleep, and too much self-analysis.  Work has luckily allowed me to ignore a lot of it:  the one-dimensional nature of my existence prevents me from noticing the lack of the other dimensions.

After a year of living in Sydney, I think I’ve realized I just need to give up on recreating my life here.  Until we leave Sydney, I won’t be doing triathlons, I won’t have the number or type of friends I have in Austin, I won’t be involved in the other areas that have made my life as rich as it once was, and I should just concentrate on the things that I can do here, make the most of however long we’re here, and take advantage of what’s unique about Australia, 99% of which exists outside of Sydney.  So here’s to escaping whenever I can, even if means I start “commuting” on weekends!