Saturday, June 30, 2007

Movie review: 'Transformers'

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A movie about giant toy robots shouldn't be anywhere near this much fun, really. I mean, c'mon. When I heard there was going to be a live-action Transformers movie, I pictured a debacle. Was Hollywood officially out of ideas? What's next, "My Little Pony: The Motion Picture"?

I take it all back. Transformers, it turns out, is the most sure-fire bombastic entertainment we've had in a summer of worn-out sequels. It's brainless, of course, but it's effortlessly good popcorn movie fun with some of the most dazzling special effects I've seen in years. And let me just repeat: Giant robots. Fighting other giant robots. If that doesn't set the 12-year-old boy in one's heart a-quivering, I don't know what will.

Michael Bay – director of The Rock, Armageddon, Bad Boys and other such airy cinematic action confections – isn't known for his artfulness or subtlety. But it's like he was born to make The Transformers, where all the Bay hallmarks – choppy bursts of violence, slow-motion explosions, patriotic he-men, burnished golden-skinned women – come into play in a grand pop-art tapestry of mindless action.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe plot isn't terrifically important – basically a search for a magical MacGuffin called "The Allspark," a cosmic cube very important to both sides in the robot war. The good robots and bad robots have been fighting for a long, long time, and now they've come to Earth to find their Allspark. Young Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) turns out to have an important clue to finding the Allspark, resulting in both Autobots (the good ones) and Decepticons (the bad ones) coming out for him. Even the beat-up yellow old Camaro Sam just bought turns out to be part of the action. It all adds up to an escalating series of set pieces, alternating with human subplots such as Sam's crush on a sexy delinquent (Megan Fox), and it culminates in a spectacular brawl in downtown Los Angeles.

I was a moderate Transformers fan back in the day – watched the cartoon, owned a handful of the cool toys – but have to admit I've never been a nut about it and couldn't tell you the difference between Generation 1 and Beast Wars to save my life. So changes like Optimus Prime's truck having flames painted on it and Megatron turning into a jaggedy plane-thing instead of a handgun don't really bother me. What matters with this kind of movie is the adrenaline rush, the laughs and the "wow" moments, and Bay delivers. You'll believe a robot can turn into a truck, or a plane or a boom box. The story has echoes of Independence Day with its mysterious government conspiracies and cast of quirky everyguys doing battles against cosmic menace, but it doesn't leave you with a vaguely unfulfilled feeling like that flick did.

Oddly, for me Transformers was least effective when it dwelled alone on the robots. The Autobots and Decepticons here have no real character besides "good robot" and "bad robot." The movie seems at its cartooniest when you're hearing lines such as "One shall stand, and one shall fall." The human element grounds this movie, provides most of the humor, and provides the perfect background for rock 'em, sock 'em Transformer battles. And it's an excellent cast; nobody's taking it too seriously, but LaBeouf is quite good and genuine as the wisecracking teen the movie revolves around. Fox is extraordinarily easy on the eyes and even shows hints of acting talent, while old hands like Jon Voight and John Turturro chew the scenery very well as assorted politicians and military men.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe special effects used to animate the Transformers are stunning and seamless – and the robots themselves, mostly 30 feet tall, stomp around the screen like transistorized dinosaurs (this is the kind of movie 1998's woebegone Godzilla remake aspired to be). Toon fans will be pleased to hear the familiar warm tones of the cartoon's Peter Cullen behind the voice of towering chief good guy Optimus Prime, while an unrecognizable Hugo Weaving voices the evil Megatron.

It's not a perfect movie – the villainous Megatron only shows up in the final half-hour, and the robot designs are just too cluttered – they really don't show much emotion at all, as you're too busy trying to find the faces in the gizmos and chrome. The nods to pop culture and product placements are a bit much, and as usual with most Michael Bay movies, in the end you get a little overwhelmed by all the explosions and flying tanks and swelling orchestral music at every moment.

But good lord, as movies about robots turning into cars and trucks go, this is right at the top of the heap. It's likely to be one of the year's biggest hits, as in a season of returning pirates and trolls and superheroes, it definitely shows us something we've never seen before on screen. Now where can I get one of those fancy Camaros?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Random notes: Antony sings; the Surfer … surfs?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketListening to Antony and the Johnsons' "I Am A Bird Now," in near-constant rotation on Radio Nik the past couple weeks. I'd heard about this 2005 album a fair amount but never checked out any of the music, until I was listening to Björk's new CD Volta, which boasts a duet with Antony on it. He has a fantastic, unearthly warble of a voice, straddling genders and with an almost unbearably sad undertone to it. It's a bit like Jeff Buckley crossed with Nina Simone. His androgynous voice drove me to check out his album "I Am A Bird Now," which is kind of like a cabaret set in the world of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." The opening track on this disc, "Hope There's Someone," just knocks me in the gut in the way few songs can Рutterly heartbroken and naked, a gorgeous lament or eulogy. (You can find an mp3 of this stunning tune right here.) And the rest of the disc is nearly as good Рintricately arranged songs of love and remorse, a kind of passion play of sadness all orbiting Antony's alien voice. Genders are interchangable, as when he sings "My Lady Story" or "For Today I Am A Boy" (which starts out, "One day I'll grow up, I'll be a beautiful woman"). The music varies between spartan and orchestrated majesty, but always is designed to heighten Antony's voice. If the "Hunky Dory"-era David Bowie had started his career in 2000 instead of 1970, he might well be making music like this. Guest appearances by Lou Reed, Boy George and Rufus Wainwright help lend hipster outsider cred. While there's a true melancholy underpinning all of "I Am A Bird Now," there's also a crystalline, haunting beauty. Highly recommended stuff.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...Watching "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." While this one won't win any Oscars, it's a terrific popcorn flick, and a lot better than the muddled first one, I thought. In its way it's really faithful to the idea of the classic Lee and Kirby comics it's based on – get in, throw around some humorous family conflict, have a ton of action, get out again in 90 tidy minutes. This one had a much more epic feeling than the first movie, with a nifty globe-trotting plot and the enjoyable presence of the Silver Surfer, brought wonderfully to life I thought. These FF movies take themselves a lot less seriously than most of the current comic book wave, which can be refreshing (and occasionally annoying when it doesn't work). Sure, they're not entirely faithful to the comic book, but you can't really nitpick every detail to death (although without that diversion, what would so many fanboys do with their lives?). This flick was far more entertaining in my eyes than the overblown, convoluted 3-hour "Pirates" franchise, for example. The acting is still fairly wooden, save Chris Evans' terrific Human Torch, and they just can't make the stretching powers of Mr. Fantastic look realistic at all, can they? Biggest disappointment for me in these two movies is how badly they've bungled Dr. Doom, comics' finest villain, as a generic cackling madman without a plan (although the final battle with him in this one was fun, with its imagery lifted directly from the comics). All in all though, a pleasant time at the flicks. I'd give it a solid B grade.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Peter and the hedgehog

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Some days, you just wake up and say, man, do I have a cute kid!

(End parental bragging)

More writing about music, drugs, dead people, etc.

Head on over to BlogCritics for a few recent pieces by me:

A look back at Lou Reed's 1973 cult classic "Berlin"

Remixing and recreating the work of Yoko Ono with "I'm A Witch" and "Open Your Box."

The new greatest hits collection by the late Jeff Buckley, "So Real: Songs From Jeff Buckley"

...And I haven't had time to write anything on it yet, but let it just be said, the new White Stripes disc "Icky Thump" doth rocketh hard. Bagpipes!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dalai Lama-rama

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSo I went with friends Daniel and Suzie down to the brand-new Vector Arena Sunday to see none other than his holiness The Dalai Lama give a talk on compassion to a whopping huge crowd of 10,000 people. Although I was seated in row 6,392 I could still vaguely make out the little man in orange robes on stage below (and they had those big TV screens that help you see the details). It made for a fascinating spectacle, and the Lama had a nice, folksy tone that struck me as very different from how many of the major religious leaders of the world tend to present themselves, as all fire-and-brimstone. And he was wearing a jaunty visor – how can you not love that?

The talk itself was good, not particularly deep – the language barrier precluded some of that - but had a simple message anyone could get behind. He's clearly pretty fluent in English but still had to use a translator at his side fairly often to help smooth out the bumps, and it took a little while for his accent to be easily understood to me. But it's the general "vibe" the man puts off that's so appealing – he seems utterly relaxed in his own skin, like a friendly uncle figure, and his laugh is completely infectious. He had fascinating stories to relate to his message of peace; at one point he was talking about his relationship with Chairman Mao, and that really struck me how this man has interacted with most of the major figures of our time. They talk about "charisma" and it's a telling thing when you're one of 10,000 people in a room and still leave feeling a bit like you had your own personal audience with the Dalai Lama.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

My three favorite bookstores

Peter is inching oh-so-close to learning to read, which I figure is pretty good for 3 1/2. He knows all his letters by heart and is constantly asking us to "read that story" and "tell me what that says," and the other day he sure seemed to be able to read some of his books (but he's got a very strong memory so not sure if he was just reeling it off by recall).

Proud papa is pretty darned happy because next to P and the wife, books have always been just about the most important thing in the world to me. Books are my crack, basically, and there's nothing quite like the smell of an old bookstore filled to the gills with mysterious old tomes. Given an afternoon to myself, there's nothing I like so much as browsing in bookstores, wild man that I have become.

I've been in bookstores from Australia to Alaska, from Montana to Mississippi, and here are three of my favorite bookstores. Just missing the list were stores like my "hometown shop" of Ames Bookstore, Grass Valley, Calif.,; Hard to Find Books right here in Auckland; City Lights Books in San Francisco; Burke's Books in Memphis, and probably a dozen more I'm forgetting.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe Strand, New York City
When I lived in Noo Yawk for three months in the summer of '94, I had little or no income, but that didn't stop me spending it on used books. The Strand boasts of itself as "18 miles of books," and it's a sprawling labryinth right outside the Village, the kind of store that wanders in and out of itself and you might find yourself in a strange alcove that hasn't been seen by other people in 10 years. Cluttered and dusty and cobwebby but full of glamourous Manhattanites, it's an ideal New York City bookstore. My poverty didn't stop me spending many a lazy Sunday there in my summer in New York. And get this – they rent books by the foot: "Interior decorators, film/television set decorators and homeowners, give us your specifications and we'll select just the right books to fit your shelf, all priced by linear foot." That's extremely New York, ain't it?

Powell's Bookstore, Portland, Oregon
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIf this list were numerical, Powell's would be crouched at the top, the mastodon of bookstores. It's the largest independent book store in the world – an entire Portland city block, or about seven or eight regular bookstores put together, not counting several annex stores around town. And it's justly world-famous. I remember my Dad went there in the 1980s and came back with fantastic tales of this unimaginably huge bookstore he'd been to; it took me more than a decade to make it up to Portland myself, and I was not let down. While it's not the cheapest bookstore in the world the selection is unfathomably huge (entire sections devoted to arcana like Arctic history, giant microbes, rock history or Lewis and Clark) and you can easily spend entire days browsing there until you get that glazed, what-was-I-looking-for-anyways expression on your face and have to stop for some coffee. A sure sign of its status is that this book store is one of Portland's biggest tourist attractions. Bring your wallet.

Square Books, Oxford, Mississippi
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketNot just a literary icon, but an honest-to-gosh center of the community, Oxford's Square Books is easily the best bookstore in the state, cozy and amiable, not gigantic, but perched right in the old-fashioned town square and with an amazing selection of Southern literature (and a used books annex right down the road when I lived there). Such a good bookstore that the owner recently became mayor of Oxford, which had to be connected; the kind of place you can recline on the balcony overlooking the town square with a cup of coffee and while the day away discussing Bukowski while you feed a secret crush on the comely girl behind the counter. Until she files a restraining order, anyway.

I like him, but I don't like like him

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketI found my hits spiking this morning and realized that yours truly is the #6 top Google hit for the search phrase "Obama ode lusty." This -- something to do with a risque Internet video made by a fan -- apparently is a big global news story (yep, the media standards in my profession continue to be quite high; I guess there was a break in the spell of Paris Hilton coverage).

Anyway, for the record, while I admire Mr. Obama's policies, we are just friends. Lusty friends.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Public service announcement

McSweeney's is in trouble. Facing severe financial troubles due to their distributor going bankrupt, one of the finest niche magazine and book publishers going could use some help. They're doing a gigantic sale on their web site with tons of swell books, zines and more at rock-bottom prices. (I just picked up a nice bundle of 10 of their The Believer magazines for like $15.) Go do some shopping, if you please, and support one of the more distinctive voices left out there in this age of Wal-Marts and Starbucks.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Music review: The Traveling Wilburys Collection

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPound for pound, the Traveling Wilburys contained more sheer musical genius than a Lollapalooza of lesser bands. A Beatle, a Dylan, a Heartbreaker, a legendary voice and an Electric Light Orchestrator? It sounds like rock star fantasy camp, but it was reality nearly 20 years ago now.

The combination of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne made for one of the finest "supergroups" of all time. Their first album, "The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1," and to a lesser extent, their second, teasingly labeled "Vol. 3," represent a shining high point in each of the artists' careers.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketShamefully, these discs have been out of print and fetching high prices on eBay for years now. Rhino Records has now repaired the situation by reissuing The Traveling Wilburys Collection – the Wilburys' two discs, remastered and with bonus tracks, and paired with a new retrospective DVD. All I can say is, it's about time.

The Wilburys sprang out of sessions for Harrison's 1987 comeback disc Cloud Nine. In 1988, Harrison and Lynne were putting together a B-side for the single "This Is Love" at Dylan's home studio. Roy Orbison and Tom Petty just happened to be hanging about, and the five slapped together a little song.

But the result, "Handle With Care," was far from a mere B-side – catchy, wistful, anchored by Harrison's sweet guitar solos, the crooning chorus from Orbison, Dylan popping up to blow a harmonica and croak a few lines like a subterranean oracle. It had the ramshackle feeling of a road trip anthem, the universal appeal of a forgotten classic rock tune, and it was way too good to toss away as filler. The group reconvened to record an entire album. Legend has it that "Wilburys" was coined by Harrison and Lynne during the recording of Cloud Nine as a reference to recorded "flubs" that could be eliminated during the mixing stage (as in, "'We'll bury' them in the mix").

The goofy in-jokes continued right into the album itself, where despite their pictures being on the cover, the band members took on pseudonyms as "Wilburys" – i.e. Dylan became Lucky Wilbury, and so on. Although it was a loosely organized throwaway record – written and recorded in just 10 days – the sum was greater than the solo careers of some of the men at this time.

Even Dylan, who one would imagine the least likely of the quintet to take part in such a goofy lark, seemed to have a blast – the charmingly lovelorn "Dirty World," or his "Tweeter and the Monkeyman," a rollicking Springsteen-meets-Bob parody that's light years above most of Dylan's other '80s output. Orbison hadn't had a real hit in decades, and this disc helped launch the career revival that came too late – he died suddenly at age 52 in 1988 mere months after the recording of this set. Some of his tracks here, like the lovely "Not Alone Any More," stand with the best of his work.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWhat was so remarkable about "Vol. 1" is that it's a "supergroup" album almost entirely lacking in pretension – just simply gorgeous, honest soundcraft, polished to a fine shine by Jeff Lynne's typically slick production. Everyone takes turns on vocals and songwriting, and the result is that no one artist pulls rank on the others. The sonic touch was also present on the Lynne-engineered albums of the time, Harrison's Cloud Nine and Petty's Full Moon Fever. In fact, both of those albums featured cameos by other Wilburys and are almost continuations of the Wilbury sound.

Sadly, Orbison died and the result was the Wilburys never quite measured up to an outstanding debut. The remaining four did regroup for 1990's follow-up. With more of that quirky Wilbury humor their second album was labeled "Vol. 3," confusing fans forevermore. "Vol. 3" unfortunately was more like what "Vol. 1" could've been – solid, but somewhat unmemorable, a lark without heft. The operatic voice of Orbison was a key part of the first record's appeal, lending a lovelorn grandeur to many of the songs. He's sorely missed. Songs like "She's My Baby" or "Wilbury Twist" are good-time rock 'n' roll, but there's something missing. The relaxed spontaneity of the first album is a little more forced here, proving that maybe you can't always repeat a winner. Still, the Wilburys never embarrassed themselves.

The reissue includes four new tracks – the benefit for Romanian orphans "Nobody's Child," as well as Vol. 3 outtakes "Maxine" and "Like A Ship," and the UK-only B-side "Runaway." The DVD features the original five charming music videos, along with a 24-minute documentary told in the group's own voices. There's a variety of editions for fans to choose from – the standard 2-CD and DVD set, a "special edition" boxed set that includes a 40-page book and more, and a vinyl set.

Even if you own one of the original rare CDs, you'll want to make the upgrade to this rewarding, long-awaited collection. There'll never be a Wilburys reunion now that George and Roy are both up at the juke box in the sky, but this is the next best thing.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Kibbles and bits, kibbles and bits

Auckland is the centre (not "center") of the universe – not only am I going to see Bob Dylan in a few months time, but this coming weekend, I get to attend a rockin' show by none other than His Holiness The Dalai Lama, who's speaking in New Zealand (and, OK, not rocking). My experience with Buddhism pretty much stops and starts with "The Tao Of Pooh," but at a mere $20 a pop for tickets it seemed like an event not to pass up and sure to be interesting. Everyone into the mantra pit!

• For those three die-hard fans I have out there, you can check out my latest freelance piece for The New Zealand Herald over here, a profile of the New Zealand Sponsorship Agency.

• Also of interest might be my brief look at the new Motown Number Ones records over at my other online haunt, BlogCritics.

• The rainy season has begun. Weather is cold and gray. But the season one finale of "Heroes" finally airs here tonight, and I've studiously attempted to avoid all spoilers as to what happens (it's a drag when you're anywhere from a few weeks to a few months behind on most U.S. shows). All I know is, that spunky cheerleader better save the day!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Modern times, empty wallets

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSo Bob Dylan's coming to Australia and New Zealand for the first time in four years, and reborn Dylan fan that I have become in the last year or two, I knew I had to buy myself a ticket for the Auckland show in August. 'Cause, y'know, the man is 66 years old now, and who knows if he'll come this way again? That coupled with the fact that his last disc, the jaunty "Modern Times", was one of my favorite albums of last year and IMHO his strongest in a long time. And I beat the scalpers to land tickets for the 25th row in the brand new Vector Arena! I just won't think about what the ticket cost.

Sadly, I had to make a choice here – because it turned out The Shins were also coming to Auckland in early August for a show as well. (See - we may be far away but we're on the touring circuit!) But as ticket prices for live music are so hideously expensive here, I had to really force myself to choose one or the other as we really are trying to save cash for the housing fund. I've actually seen both the Shins and Dylan live before – the Shins in 2002, Dylan in 1990 – but when it comes down to it, Dylan is Dylan, innit? Sorry, Shins. I'll see you next time when my wallet is heavier. And Bob, I'll see you from the 25th row in August. Play "You Ain't Going Nowhere" for me, will ya?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Notes from Sydney, Part 3

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAh well, a bit disappointed not to have more comments on my Sydney travelogue to date (I know, I'm an attention whore, but hey, aren't all bloggers? Validate me!), but here's the third and final installment for those who're interested…

We arrived back from our Blue Mountains train trip well and truly knackered, but there was still a fair amount of sightseeing to fit in during our final two days in Sydney. Saturday morning we were off early to the Sydney Aquarium, which Peter zipped merrily around for nearly two hours. Excellent displays of platypus, Australia's colorful fish (think Finding Nemo in live-action) and a harrowing shark tank you could walk through. Following that, the wife and I alternated some shopping trips and traded off minding the boy. Lots of folks from New Zealand actually go to Sydney specifically to shop, and things are definitely a good bit cheaper here – not quite U.S. Wal-Mart cheap, but there's an enormous selection, too. (If downtown Sydney really reminded me of anywhere in the U.S. I've been, it had to be New York City.) Loaded up on the books and CDs and clothes.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSaturday night, I ended up actually going to a show at the world-famous Sydney Opera House. While there on my tour Thursday, I'd found out that one of my favorite cartoonists, Seattle's Jim Woodring, was that weekend putting on a musical/animation and performance art showcase at one of the Opera House's smaller theaters, the Studio. I figured I couldn't pass up a chance to see something at the Opera House that wouldn't set me back a couple hundred bucks for a ticket. If you're not familiar with Woodring's art, it's like a surreal combination of Disney and Dali, dream-influenced, often pantomime imagery that is subtly creepy and often staggeringly beautiful. It's not for everyone, but his "The Frank Book" is a hefty gem of a book that shows off his truly unique style. At the Opera House, Woodring was launching an Australian tour with a show that combined Japanese-created animations of his art, slide shows and live music soundtracks, and his own performance art narration to his artwork – plus a Q&A. Quite a unique event, and dazzling to see some of his art come to life. Some of it veered a little too hard into experimental for me (particularly one guitar player whose "soundtrack" gave avant-garde a bad name; it sounded like he spent the entire time tuning up), but it was generally a terrific evening. And how queer it was for an American living in New Zealand to travel to Australia and see a cartoonist from Seattle?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOn Sunday, our last day in Sydney, we had to get out on the gorgeous harbour and enjoy the scenery. (I think we saw perhaps two clouds during our entire time there, and the weather was a good 15-20 degrees warmer than Auckland has been.) We had the choice between Sydney's famous Bondi Beach or Manly Beach, but we picked Manly as you had to take the ferry to get there. The harbour is honestly one of the finest I've seen in the world – unlike, say, San Francisco, the ugly cranes and container ship traffic are nowhere to be seen (they're in Botany Bay further south), so it's all houses, skyscrapers and blue, blue water. Once we arrived in Manly, I felt like I'd ended up back in California – it looked just like Santa Monica, with a boardwalk, lots of shops and a huge, white-sand beach that gradually filled up with beach bunnies and surfers throughout the morning. Considering this was the seasonal equivalent of late November in the U.S., it still seemed like summertime – witness the bikini-clad volleyball players. We wished we'd brought our swimming togs as it was actually warm enough to take a dip. A fine place for a picnic Sunday lunch and people-watching. (Don't imagine moving there though – an article in the Sydney Herald pointed out the average house price there is AU$1.8 million!)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe ferry trip back to downtown Sydney was one of the more amazing sights we'd seen – that famous harbour view, Opera House, Harbour Bridge and all, was populated by literally hundreds of sailboats out enjoying the day. Remarkable, because at 9 a.m. or so when we went over to Manly the harbour was essentially empty. The ferry was practically threading its way through all the boats out on the harbour. Sigh. I wish I was a sailing man.

We finished off Sunday with some more shopping and bopping around, and I polished it all off with a visit to the excellent Australia Museum, which had some superb stuff – a massive, colorful mineral collection, and tremendous Aboriginal history displays (including one that had a fascinating look at the last tribe of Aborigines to be "discovered" by the white man – in 1984!). Lots of that strange, beautiful Aboriginal art, too, with its hallucinogenic images of the "Dreamtime."

I have to toss in a plug here for some of the excellent books I've read about Australia recently, including Jan Morris' opinionated and trivia-filled "Sydney," which I read while in town; Bill Bryson's hilarious "In A Sunburned Country," and another book by Tony Horwitz, the outback hitchhiking epic "One For The Road" – plus Robert Hughes' legendary look back at the nation's earliest convict history, "The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding."

Considering it's only a 3-4 hour flight away, I'm quite hoping we'll get to Australia again in another year or two for a visit – perhaps up to explore Brisbane and Queensland, perhaps, or over to Melbourne? After all, it's a big country, and there's a lot to see.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Notes from Sydney, Part 2

One of the things I wanted to do during our trip to Sydney was, ironically enough, get out of Sydney a little bit, capture a glimpse of wild Australia. We couldn't exactly do a Jeep journey into the outback with our limited time, but fortunately, a day's trek to the mighty Blue Mountains were an excellent sample of Aussie woodlands.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSydney has a superb mass-transit system, and all we had to do Friday morning was step onto the trains, head to Central Station and catch the line bound for faraway Lithgow, a few hours west of Sydney. It was a fine train trip as we slowly moved out of Sydney's massive suburban sprawl, and rose in elevation up through a gently rolling eucalyptus forest that reminded me a lot of where I grew up in California's Sierra Nevada. We arrived in the touristy town of Katoomba after about a 2-hour ride, where we caught a double-decker tour bus that we'd bought tickets for as a package with the train ride – it went on a 30km loop around the area and you could get on and get off whenever you wanted. It all turned out to be a nice way to see some scenery while dragging a 3-year-old along and not having a car.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAnd the mountains were worth seeing. Katoomba perches on the edge of a huge canyon that showcases immense forests, giant limestone cliffs and in the distance, the blue eucalyptus-generated haze that gives the mountains their name. The Blue Mountains start about 70km west of Sydney, and for the first explorers, they formed an impenetrable wall keeping them from exploring the rest of the country (which they foolishly imagined to be lush and green. Hah hah! Foolish explorers!). It took more than 30 years for the first settlers to "break the barrier," which I always thought a little wimpy of them – until I actually saw the mountains. Imagine these gigantic cliffs and canyons stretching on into the infinite – and crossing them without cars or airplanes. (Peter's favorite sight: the cable car spanning over two sides of the canyon.)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWe took a nice kilometer or so walk along the very edge of the canyon (which had fences for most of the walk, but we still had to keep a very tight grip on Peter during it all) over to Echo Point, which features a Grand Canyon-esque panorama and the distinctive rock formations of the Three Sisters. An Aboriginal busker blowing on a didgeridoo completes the Aussie vibe (note the ultra-modern water bottle though).

We also took a nice hike down into the canyon a little bit, as far as we could safely with Peter, viewing the Leura Cascades (a very gently sloping waterfall) and the Australian bush, including some gorgeous red parrots. Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSure, it wasn't exactly heading to Darwin – tourists from all over the world head to the Blues every day – but standing on that canyon rim staring out over the gum trees without a house in sight, you can still kind of imagine what Australia must've been like, 250 years ago now. I'm already counting the days till I get a chance to explore further into the abyss.

More Blue Mountains photos up on our Flickr page!

Next: Wrapping up our Sydney adventures, a surprise appearance by Jim Woodring, and a day at the beach! Plus, bikinis!