Tuesday, 11 March 2008

I'm on a Plane

Tasmania, Day 1, 06/03/08

For someone famous for his worldwide adventures, it feels strange for me to say that today was my first time on board a plane since September 2005. Of course, this just goes to show how much credibility one can give reputations: up until May 1998, when I first flew for free while working for El Al Israel Airlines, the only time I boarded a plane in anger was to visit my father who, back in 1982-1983, was working in New York. Till then my policy was that travel is not as good a way to spend my money as buying hi-fi and listening to music / watching films on my stereo; in retrospect, I think true travel is one of the best things to do to enhance one's life. [For the record: by “true travel” I mean getting to a new place in order to truly experience it and its culture, as opposed to flying somewhere to hang out at a resort, visit a theme park, and then fly back home]
Of course, today's flight will not be remembered because of my own personal record, but rather because it was Dylan's very first flight. To add to the excitement, things didn't go according to plan.
We left home 15 minutes later than planned and drove towards United Airport Parking, which supposedly provides better long term parking facilities than Melbourne Airport's own facilities. Alas, we drove by looking for signs to direct us to their premises, but these proved as useful as used toilet paper and with time pressing we just continued on to the regular Melbourne Airport parking.
The trick at that parking lot is not to try and park near the entrance but rather to go as far away as possible. The bus that goes through the parking lot collecting people starts from the end and works its way up to the terminals; by the time it gets to the parking lot's "closer to the entrance" areas the bus is too full for comfort and often fails to be able to collect passengers in the first place. We found ourselves crammed up ala Connex, Jo was sitting with a couple of bags on her and Dylan in between, and I had Dylan's stroller up my chin. We had to sit; there was no other space available.
We got to the terminal at pretty much the last minute they allow to check luggage in, so Qantas put us on this special late queue. I also had myself a cross terminal run (an essential component of a healthy day) in order to secure my Thursday copy of The Age, sporting the must read weekly Bleeding Edge column. Then I was sent back by security for forgetting my Leatherman tool in my key chain; I posted it home for $6, the first of many stupid expenses on our trip. Felt weird to post something to myself with the sender's address and the recipient address being the same.
Obviously, we needn't have hurried. In an effort to help us relax, Qantas has delayed our flight “due to airport congestion”, which made me ask: Since we're not exactly living in a Die Hard 2 world, it's not like the people there didn't know there'd be lots of flights around; why didn't they plan ahead? (Answer: to make more money)
The flight was only an hour long. Thank god for that (figuratively speaking, of course), because the flight experience with Dylan on board Jo's knees was not something to write [lovingly] about. Dylan, still sick, was a very good boy as usual; but the crammed up seats on the 737-800 were horrific. No space for the bags a baby requires, no room to maneuver, no room to open the tray on (Jo's meal was on my tray, together with my meal, and together with Dylan's). Qantas surprised us by giving us a nice meal pack for Dylan: four containers of his favorite mashed up fruit shit stuff. He ate half of one of them and we stashed the rest in our bags.
Landing at Hobart airport was funny. One is not used to such small airports anymore: You just walk from the plane to the small terminal building, where people in uniform and dogs scramble at you to make sure you're not smuggling a vicious banana in. Australia is the only place where airport security is at your destination, in the form of food quarantine, rather than at the point of embarkation.
After collecting our suitcases and Dylan's stroller (which we left by the plane's door and collected with our suitcases) we went on to the Avis desk to collect our car. I had my share of romance with them: their website offered a $33 discount when booking a “class C car (e.g. Toyota Corolla)”, so I booked a Corolla. Later I called to coordinate Dylan's baby seat, and as an afterthought they told me they would not honor their discount because a Corolla is a class B car. I told them I couldn't care less about their class definitions, as they can change them whenever they feel like it, but I know all too well what a Corolla is. They didn't know who they are messing with and told me I just have to trust them, I told them I don't trust anyone's word because the next thing I know they'd tell me the world is flat, and eventually they've succumbed to my Israeli resilience. Anyway, when we got to actually get our car it turned out they ran out of Corollas (an elderly German couple that couldn't speak English was rotting there waiting for their last Corolla to be ready) so they gave us a class C car instead – a Mitsubishi Lancer.
We were actually looking forward to the Corolla experience because we have already started thinking of our next car, and a Corolla definitely represents a more economically sound choice (not to mention environmentally more friendly, even though not by much) than our much reverend Honda CR-V. Thing is, the Mitsibushi (that's Mitsubishi in an Israeli dialect for you), bigger as it is than the Corolla, probably scared us enough to knock on Honda's door the next time we want a car. We simply need a station wagon to get by, and the CR-V is an excellent station wagon; a family car's boot is not enough, and Dylan has to sit next to lots of our shit thrown on his side. Not the safest thing ever. Dynamically, although the Lancer is lower than our CR-V, handling is significantly inferior; or at least it feels this way. The steering wheel feels completely dead, and the car seems to wallow almost as much as an American made car. The car feels like it was designed to make you feel you're in a racing car, sitting wise, which is not my cup of water; that said, it could be that we got too used to the CR-V's higher sitting position. Last, but not least, one cannot compare the finishing on the Mitsubishi to our Honda's. Having owned a Mitsubishi Lancer in the past and having had many nightmares as a result, our rental car has totally failed to make me regain confidence in the Mitsubishi brand. Still, as rental cars go, it's quite good: between the cruise control and the space to lay my GPS, it will do the job well.
We used the GPS to quickly find our way to our hotel of choice for the trip, Quest Trinity at Glebe. But before we get there it's time for first impressions, and indeed the question is – judging by those 20 kilometers or so between the airport and the hotel, what do I make of Tasmania? Well, the initial answer was “England”: Green pastures, and roads that look and feel similar to what I have experienced in England sans the traffic congestion. Some more driving has revised the impression to “Scotland” instead, with the adding of hills/mountains to the equation. Indeed, Hobart seems to be overlooked by mountains that seem to me of Alpine qualities (as in, high) – and you don't see many of those in my usual neck of the woods.
Back to the hotel, the Quest Trinity is rather special. Yes, it's located within walking distance of Hobart's center without being too close for parking to be unavailable (each room has its own parking space). But that doesn't matter; Hobart is not exactly big, it feels more like an outer suburb of Melbourne (and it's only a fraction in size and population). The thing about the hotel is that it's made of these small cabins, and I seem to remember reading it's an old monastery that was converted into something beneficial. Anyway, it's not like we're really enjoying that; by the time we've booked (two months ago) the only thing we could get was a studio apartment, and despite warnings from the hotel that it's too small for a baby plus family we went ahead with it. Well, they were right: it is stupidly small. Still, the annoying thing with the room is not its size but rather the thing it doesn't have: the room is advertised as having a “full kitchen”, yet it only has a microwave, a kettle, a fridge, an electric wok, and some basic kitchen plates and stuff. Isn't an oven missing there? They told us they can bring a portable electric plate, but our idea of cooking stuff for ourselves (e.g., pasta) was put on hold. Instead we went to the supermarket and got ourselves some cheeses and cold meats. And lots of chocolates.
Talking supermarkets, the prices at the Woolworth's next to the hotel are like 25-30% higher than their Melbourne counterparts. It's not like it's because it's a touristy area, because Melbourne is much more touristy for a start; it's probably the price one has to pay for living in a rather secluded island.
For our first adventure we've decided to go to Hobart's center and visit its information center while also having lunch after starving on the flight (breakfast was cereal based, and I don't drink milk but that's all they have, and Jo was too occupied fighting the Dylan monster). We parked and paid the meter enough for an hour, then went to the information center to put our hands on a Tasmanian Park Pass, a rather expensive certificate that allows you to drive your way into national parks. We went inside to find the center's consultation posts were abandoned and instead only the pay posts were manned. We've waited there for 15 minutes and the queue did not even make a sign of progressing, so I just said “fuck this” (and you can quote me on that) and we went away carrying nothing but brochures we could have got at our hotel in the first place.
For the eating part we walked around the corner to this wharf area, a famous Hobart attraction that has “tourist trap” written all over it. I guess it's Hobart's version of Sydney's Darling Harbour. Anyway, we found a fish and chips shop that looked decent and shared a deep fried flathead and a grilled blue something fish, both supposedly caught in the waters just next to us. We've ordered the one of the portions with chips and the other with what the menu referred to as a Greek salad, which at least meant that to the bunch of lettuce based shrubbery that commonly passes for salad in Australia they've added some proper salad ingredients. Overall, it was OK, overpriced but not by much; the problem was mostly to do with us choosing to sit outside because it was nice and then with the wind blowing like I don't know what the minute the food was served. Later that evening we watched an ABC news item shot just in front of where we ate and featuring some government guy urging people not to eat flatheads from the local bay more than once a week because they were found to e carrying stupendous amounts of mercury. Great.
After Dylan has had some sleep back in our room and I've started typing this into the Eee PC, we've decided to go on our first proper Tasmanian adventure. We went for a drive around the gardens next to our hotel, which we mistook for botanical gardens but they looked quite dreary. Then we've found the real botanical gardens, a thing stretch by the water's edge, and we drove by them. Looked inviting but we didn't have the time.
We continued to drive towards Mount Wellington, the tallest mountain overlooking Hobart. As I've hinted, it's pretty high, and to our surprise there's a very good road that takes you all the way up to its peak – pretty impressive! I was quite impressed by the fact they have toilets and other similar facilities at the top. It's amazing they went through all that effort, but they did.
The drive up the mountain from its base is some 10 kilometers long. It starts with a foresty bit that's quite dark (the way forests tend to be dark), but the taller you get the more the scenery changes into something more Martian like. Photos will not really justify the views from the way up, nor the views from the top. Interestingly enough, the temperature at Hobart was 24-25 degrees, but at the top of the mountain it was only 12 and the wind was very fresh – as in, directly from Antarctica.
Driving down the mountain I've discovered this nice feature of the Mitsubishi: Its Tiptronic automatic gearbox, that allows you to have total control over its six gears' selection while still not having to mess with a clutch. It doesn't feel just like a proper manual gearbox, but I have to hand it to the car: it works and it works well. Going up or down the curvy mountain road it proved highly effective and entertaining to do the gears manually; then, when we got to the city with its traffic, lights and all – it was handy to just shift it to fully auto and smell the roses.
Happy with our achievements for the day we came back to our room with a Dylan that was way overstretched even by his healthy standards and has obviously gone to a world beyond. That is, he was so tired he was hyperactive. Our room doesn't have a bath, so Jo took him to the shower with her and he didn't like it in the least; nor did Jo when Dylan became way too slippery after soap was applied on him. Eventually, he went to bed, thus closing the book on our first day at Tasmania: A day in which Dylan flew for the first time ever, has also climbed to an all time high that will probably take him a while to overtake (in the shape of Mount Wellington), and we got to the southernmost place we've ever been to and will probably ever be at until we pay New Zealand's South Island a visit. Mostly, however, it was a crazy day with a crazy baby.

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