a week in Yirrkala

I’m pretty thrilled with my new blogging app. I foresee lots of blog posts!

Ok, so first of all I’m inspired to finally put up the pictures of my week in the Northern Territory, when I was fortunate enough to get to spend time in the Yirrkala Buku Arts Centre as part of my degree in cultural heritage conservation.

First night, driving to the township where we were staying. This is a blurry shot out the back of the van, where 7 of us were bouncing around (2 more up front).

First morning, inspecting a selection of sculptures that have just been sold and need to be shipped… not easy when you live far in the outback!

Learning how to pack them…

I love them, they look so sad! I wish I could find my notes on what they are and their meaning, I will have to come back and add in more details.

Break for lunch. I was staying with three other girls in government-provided shipping containers. It was very luxurious, we all had our own bathrooms and a/c units.

In-filling cracks using sawdust and glue.

(I have stolen some of my classmates’ pictures when I feature in them; this probably shows due to the sudden leap in size and quality. I haven’t asked for permission as I am loathe to raise awareness of this blog, but humbly beg your forgiveness if you are reading this now and spot your stolen pictures!).

Sanding down larger cracks so they are easier to in-fill.

Manini, one of the artists, taught us how to make the ochre-based paint, as well as the fine paint-brushes used for the delicate hatchings in Aboriginal art.

The brushes are made from human hair, and fine, strong, straight hair is very much a prized resource in the artist community.

After sharpening a skewer, the hair is wrapped around with fine thread. I pointed out it was like hair wraps from the 90s, but just about all the other students were born in the 90s, so they didn’t get the reference.

Here is my finished brush. I’m really proud of it (in this picture I hadn’t yet trimmed the skewer-end of the hair, it looks much neater afterwards).

Manini showed me how to practice hatching on my own forearm, to get a feel for the brush. I think this small aside, when she was helping me, was one of my favourite moments of the entire trip. I won’t make it cheesy and lame by waxing lyrical, but I don’t want to forget this either.

After our day of doing our conservator thang, moving and packing and mending…

…we got to go to the beach. We couldn’t actually go in the water because of the crocodiles and stingrays, but it was excessively beautiful. I’ll try to limit the number of pictures, but I took so many, I just couldn’t capture the magic in the light and the air.

The surface of the water truly was opalescent, shimmering like mother-of-pearl – so many greens and blues and yellows and colours I can’t describe.

Driving back to our digs… blurry snap, but I wanted something to remember how the red roads always look so intense against the green of the bush and the blue of the sky.

Sunset at what was later to be named by us as Optus Rock, the only part of Yirrkala where there was a signal for those of us on the Optus network.

The next day when I look at my picture folder, I almost exclusively have many, many photos of a series of artworks by the artist Wukun Wanambi. I fell in love with it at first sight — a series done on foil-laminated insulation foam, teaming with small fish. I don’t feel comfortable putting photos up as my studies have taught me that Aboriginal art and sacred patterns shouldn’t just be put up whenever you feel like it, wherever you want, without permission from the artist. But one of the series was nominated for a Telstra Aboriginal Art Award this year, so you can go look at a sample and read a little about it here. Anyway, I spent a lot of time assessing the condition of this series and photographing it, with a view to making it a research subject, but in the end it took me in another direction — Aboriginal art on Found materials, which I became slightly obsessed with and ended up writing two different papers on (hit me up if you want to read them!).

Back to more traditional materials in Aboriginal art, we were able to go bark-cutting. Driving out into the forest, looking for suitable trees, I naively hadn’t realised the tree dies after the bark is removed. Here is a barkless one from a previous expedition.

Target identified:

Removing the first strip:

Cutting around the bottom and top with an axe:

[the removing of the bark was documented by video, so I could capture the sound it makes as the bark comes away from the tree… but videos are even more of a challenge than pictures, sorry… ]

Inspecting the bark after removal.

Naked tree.

We had a few more barks to collect. I got to participate this time… I remembered being quite adept at swinging an axe back in 1994, when I used to amuse myself by cracking kindling (and mostly making a mess) in the woodbarn at home. It was NOT the case 20 years later.

Making an inelegant fool of myself.

Whilst the bark-cutting was happening, the grandson of one of the artists who had come with us, Charles, spotted signs of something interesting beneath the ground (he’d already spotted croc tracks on the road, I have to say that made me just a wee bit nervous).

He dug carefully…

Bush nuts!

We gathered a few more barks and a few more bush nuts, and then headed down to the beach to set up a fire. The wind blows in fiercely off the ocean and this helps get the fire roaring!

The barks are placed over the fire, with the outer rough bark down on the flame and as they heat up, the moisture evaporates and they slowly relax and flatten out.

Then you rip away the smouldering stringybark in strands. This is also great fun (that is me below with the white hat and the terrible posture and the iPhone tucked into my bra strap, mucho eleganto).

To my dismay I don’t have any pictures of the bush nuts Charles and his grandmother cooked in the embers of the fire… they tasted somewhat like hazelnuts.

The next day came one of my favourite moments as a budding conservator — we got to clean mold off a huge crocodile carcass that hangs in the Art Centre. I’ll try and keep the number of photos down; you’ll have to forgive me, it’s not every day you get to clean crocodiles and I personally just love seeing these photos.

Close-up of croc-in-my-face.

Same croc, different day:

Okay, last one.

The first “crocodile day”, I also met and fell in love with my first serious art purchase. It means so much to me, for a number of reasons, not least because I came to Yirrkala with a very limited understanding of Aboriginal art. I certainly did not expect to leave with a bark painting of my very own. As an aside, it took me several days to settle down after buying it; I lived in constant anxiety due to its inherent frailty. Bark paintings are notoriously ephemeral and I knew before I even purchased it that it has a limited lifespan. But I love it so much, that I hate to think of anything happening to it. And yet it had to fly back first to Cairns and then to Melbourne, in the hold of the planes as neither Air North or Jetstar would let me take it as carry-on. I was so scared it would get damaged, cracked, dropped, hurt somehow. Then once I got home, I inspected it twice daily in case my living-room’s fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity were making its existing cracks grow. Two months in and I’m much more relaxed (and the cracks haven’t shifted, I don’t think!). I am looking at it on my living-room wall now, and just as it did the first time I set eye on it, it brings me immense joy. It’s a crying shame I do not have a better picture of it yet, sorry…

All too soon our week was almost up. More walks on the beach on our penultimate night in town. I’ll spare you the multiple beach pictures, this post is already so long!

On the last day, I made this little basket whilst waiting around for things to get started. I learnt how to make random-weave baskets in Cairns (new post coming up soon on that, I promise, now I have all this photo-blogging under control!), and consequently I was keen on learning more about traditional basketry skills, still very much part of the Art Centre’s offerings.

One of the Yolgnu ladies (I think her name is Eunice, this is the frustrating thing about leaving it months before writing things up) was generous enough to come along to give us some insight. First she showed us how to gather fresh pandanus leaves, using this hooked stick.

You use the stick to drag down the topmost freshest leaves from the top of the tree. Then you give them a tug and gather up the ones you want. When I did this I ended up with little thorns in my hands and legs, but Eunice didn’t seem to notice them herself. There are no photos of me trying to do this gathering process, fortunately, as I sucked at it.

The others went for a dip in a water-hole certified “probably croc-free”. I am not a coward, I genuinely wanted to sit with Eunice and learn how to prepare pandanus leaves, but knowing I was thereby less likely to get attacked by a crocodile did make it more enjoyable.

Dear reader, it was really freaking hard. Eunice made it seem really easy, when she split the upper layer from the bottom layer of each leaf.

When she handed me one so I could try, I discovered there was no “top and bottom layer”, as far as I could ascertain. I started out happy and graceful…

Rapidly becoming frustrated… Eunice kindly said that these were not very good pandanus and that’s why they were so hard to peel, but really… I don’t think it was the pandanus.

There’s a trick whereby you grip and fold and press super hard… my wishy-washy hands (already offended by thorns) found this very difficult. I laughed at my uselessness as I shredded stem after steam. My classmate was also struggling, and we rapidly realised that there wasn’t going to be much weaving of pandanus today.

I offered my little basket to Eunice as a thank-you, and we laughingly compared it to one she was working on at home… ah well there’s always next time.

I think that brings me to the end of my Yirrkala trip. We flew out the next morning, and I came back to Melbourne with exactly 3 weeks to write my assignments before starting my new job!

Once again, the stark absence of Aboriginal artwork in this post is mainly due to the fact that I prefer not to post anything rather than risk posting something I shouldn’t without permission. I also am very grateful to the artists and their families who are glimpsed throughout this blog post, and have tried to limit pictures to preserve their privacy. It’s such an insane privilege to get to spend up in Yirrkala, to get to meet and spend time with these incredibly kind and generous people, who are so patient with us when we say and do foolish things. I mentioned above how much I love my bark painting, and among the many emotions I feel when I come home to it each evening, is that of gratitude for being allowed to learn about it and understand it, and appreciate it, and meet the artist, and carry it off home to Melbourne.


onze kilometres à pied

Today my legs are almost as stiff and sore as when I climbed Mount Hallasan in Jeju Island, so I can’t imagine how much pain is currently afflicting all the teams who walked the full 100km of the Oxfam Trailwalker. We did 11.something km from checkpoint 4 (Olinda) to checkpoint 5 (Ferntree Gully). These turned out to mostly be trails familiar to me from training in the Dandenongs late in 2013, but it was still nice to revisit them under such altruistic conditions.

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James and I arrived early as my sweet Natalie dropped us off (and then later picked us up) saving us the hassle of organising transport between the two checkpoints. James was keen to walk down to Olinda once we had checked in, but I was not making the mistake of adding ANY extra kilometres (“It’s only 1km there!” he tried to fool me, I am not falling for that trick). So I lay in the sunshine and James kindly kept the sun out of my eyes.

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We watched other volunteers on the clinic side pack up and head home. It’s quite tough that the slowest teams who have the hardest time of it (and arguably require the most TLC) miss out on all the fun at the checkpoints but also on all the support. Then the rest of our sweep team arrived, and we waited for the very last hiking team to check in so we could begin sweeping up behind them. The last team of hikers was obviously in quite bad shape when they hit the checkpoint with only minutes to spare before disqualification, but they kept up a good pace for most of the time we were on the trail.

There were 5 sweeps, and only one grabby stick (labelled a “nipper”, but I like grabby stick better), however I found nobody else challenged my ongoing possession of it and therefore I got to carry it for all 11.42km.

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James (well-camouflaged) was the official carrier of the markers.

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I don’t know how much he enjoyed being lumbered with markers, however I *loved* my grabby stick. I grabby-sticked every wrapper, every morsel of paper and every wad of chewing-gum I could spy — even when it would have been quicker to bend down and pick it up by hand like the others. This is obviously my dream hobby. I fell behind several times due to my passionate, borderline obsessive grabby-sticking. I’m sure everyone else appreciated it.

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On our walk we saw not one, but two kookaburras, which felt quite special. One of the kookaburras was watching us as we sat down for lunch, not remotely perturbed by our presence, and then eventually swooped and grabbed a mouse-lunch for himself, which he also consumed in front of us.

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I also saw some form of parrot — whenever I see a brightly coloured bird here in Australia, and dare to suggest it is a lorikeet, parakeet, rosella or whatever, an Australian will immediately contradict me and say it is something else. It was bright red (well its belly was bright red, as they were directly above me):

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Towards the end we caught up with the long-suffering last team. At first we lurked politely just out of sight, as it’s important they don’t feel we are pushing them. At one point we stopped just downwind from a patch of controlled burn, and the late afternoon sunlight falling through the trees was terribly poetic.

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Eventually we closed in on the hikers and sat down with them for a chat and to try and cheer them up. I felt so sorry for one of them in particular as she was obviously in agony long before checkpoint 4, and by this stage was hobbling on what must have felt like raw stumps! I remembered very clearly the pain I had gone through when I was walking home from Spain, and when she asked us if we had taken precautions for our feet, I remembered how all you can think about is your feet, it’s as if nothing else exists. La tête dans les pieds. Anyway the three of them eventually dragged themselves off and we pushed on again, only a few kilometres from the end.

I found the sight of the checkpoint quite pleasant as I knew Nat and Tim had roast beef and potatoes waiting for me, but I felt so heartbroken hearing the team (who I had begun to think of as my team) was disqualified from going any further. The poor girls were all crying and I got a bit tearful too… to have got so far (70km, in around 30 hours with one hour of sleep) only to be disqualified seemed so unfair.

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I didn’t let that put me off my dinner though. Nom.


Sorry about Monday. That was a bit embarrassing! so many emotions…

Today after work I had volunteer training for the Oxfam Trailwalker event in 2 weeks — James and I have signed up to do a shift as Trail Sweeps, on Section 5 (Olinda to Ferntree Gully). Kerry is the one who told me about volunteering for this 100km walk, as she is doing a whole bunch of shifts herself, at what I learned today is Oxfam Australia’s biggest fundraising event of the year.

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I’ll be honest I was mostly excited about getting to hike 11km whilst picking up rubbish. I love hiking, but just like David Sedaris (who aside from being a brilliant author, has had a rubbish truck named after him for his efforts), I hate seeing rubbish on trails. It broke my heart in Nepal that you can stand on a Himalayan mountain, looking out to Mount Everest, and see plastic wrappers everywhere around you. Bhutan was relatively pristine in comparison, Taiwan was not quite as bad as Nepal but not great either. Of course an event organised by Oxfam in Australia is going to make sure they leave no trace behind!

It turns out that the Sweeps mostly just collect the trail markers, but there’s bound to be rubbish too, since there will be 3200 people (800 teams of 4!) walking the trail ahead of us. I saw advice somewhere to bring a trowel for burying “human waste” but I really hope I don’t actually have to bury other people’s poop. I’m a bit sad to find out I won’t have a spike on a stick… I guess there’s still time to coax James into making me one!

I’ve spent the evening booking guesthouses and AirBnB rooms for our Taiwan trip. I have been building it all in a nice gaudy spreadsheet. Here’s a teaser!

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And final note: this morning I did the 6am Bikram class. This allowed me to wake up at 5:45, grab my water bottle, roll straight into class, and discover I had purple wine-stained lips from dinner last night with Graham. I love living next door to the studio so much.

a trip to Wangaratta

I haven’t spent much time in regional Victoria, so it was lovely to escape to Wang (as it is affectionately known) to see my dear friend Bonnie for a couple of days. At Bonnie’s we made friends with a foal at the end of the garden:
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“Excuse me, I’ll take care of that”
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We also befriended two darling little dogs, Neddy (seen here in Polly’s lap) and Puppy.
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Sorry for the badly exposed picture, however it captures Neddy and Puppy’s personalities so well!
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Bonnie had to work, but kindly dropped us at the Milawa (which I kept accidentally calling Malawi, not quite the same thing) Cheese Company, where Polly and I devoured this platter of local produce and some Cabernet Sauvigon.
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Then we walked back to Milawa, enjoying the Australian landscape and bright skies. I was wearing SPF30 as always, but unfortunately I was a bad sister and didn’t check if Polly put sunscreen on… so here she is, pre-sunburn.
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We stopped to walk around the cemetery, which drew us in with its cheerful signage.
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Can you spot the mini-ponies?
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I was fascinated by these “tennis-ball trees” — the fruit are the exact same size and colour as tennis balls. I looked them up — they are Osage oranges, apparently.
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By this time Polly was really burnt — I feel terrible for her!
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We had a couple of drinks whilst waiting for Bonnie to come back from work…
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…and then another drink at a different pub, with Bonnie. Because that’s what one does in Australia!
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The pub Bonnie took us to had a little museum in its cellars.
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There’s a tunnel which Ned Kelly allegedly used:
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And a useful illustrated tale of Ned Kelly (yes, Wang is Ned Kelly Country!)
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This picture was my favourite: The North Wangaratta Picnic Committee, c.1910. A highly important organisation, I’m sure.
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I’m so grateful to Bonnie and her mum for having us stay — it was well worth the 3.5-hour train journey; it’s so weird to reflect on how vast Australia is, as 3.5 hours by train could take you to another country in Europe, and we didn’t even leave Victoria.

Christmas at the Zoo

Because people are lovely, everyone asked what Polly and I would be doing for Christmas and many invited us for Orphans’ Xmas or to join their family for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.

I’m a bit of a grinch, personally, and have spent the majority of my last decade of Christmases in non-traditional places (last year was Kathmandu), but whether I’m in Melbourne or Taipei, I really just don’t feel like Christmas is really a thing anymore. Maybe it will be different when I have children… but for now, I’m happy to skip the traditions.

However we did enjoy going to Melbourne Zoo today — especially from 9am to 11am when there were relatively few people around. It was a gorgeous sunny day and we agreed that it was really very satisfying to have spent the early morning out and about, thus leaving the rest of the day free to laze around at home eating ALL THE THINGS.

Anyway, for our family! Pictures of our Christmas Zoo.

A snow leopard enjoying a chicken.
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A brown bear snuffling its breakfast.
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These froglets are tiny!
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Polly got attacked by a croc.
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Chubby lemurs
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A koala waving hi!
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Polly meets some lorikeets in the aviary.
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Up closer
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Mobile Australian coat of arms
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Just on the left, a kangaroo butt
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Christmas Giraffe
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This was my favourite bit — a mummy and baby elephant were having a bath and were just adorable.
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Then we went to the butterfly house, where butterflies tried to eat Polly’s tattoo-flowers
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Pause for Christmas noodles and beers
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And last stop at the orangutang sanctuary
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Then we headed home as the zoo was by now full of screaming children and we had a lot of chocolate and ice cream waiting for us. End!

Tasmania 2 – Mount Wellington (kunanyi)

We love climbing mountains. You may have noticed. The first morning of our trip, as we drove into Hobart, I saw what is locally referred to as the Organ Pipes on top of Mount Wellington and told James: I want to climb that one. He told me not to get my hopes up, but turns out, yes, I was going to climb it.

I am not sure how to document the experience! We have hundreds of photos and it was such an incredible experience. How can I possibly simmer it down to a blog post? Basically I am going to take you along the hike with me… there’s going to be A LOT of photos (it was 18km after all!).

Start of the hike. I am full of glee because I got to choose the first mountain we are climbing.

Waterfall crossing. Look right…

Look left…

First of two echidnas we saw!

Normally I don’t bother to make my pictures clickable. But I’m going to try and remember for most of these because everything soooo beautiful.

We met these gorgeous spiders (update: they are Nicodamus peregrinus). They have these fascinating abdomens that are like black-turquoise opals, and bright red legs. James got some great macro shots of them, I must eventually get them off him and insert here, mine will have to make do in the interim:

My head, with the Organ Pipes right up in the top right hand corner:

Sphinx Rock Lookout (with James, who due to walking faster than me, is determined to photobomb everything I try to photograph).

I loved these plants, similar to broom?

The view from the lookout (Organ Pipes to the left! yes, I’m going to climb up on top of them!)

As we reached closer to the Pinnacle track, it got a lot colder and started to rain.

Then the sun would come out intermittently. I was taking my rain jacket off and on again every other minute.

The landscape changed constantly too.

Target up ahead! (this also makes me realise how long this post is going to be… we still aren’t even half way there).

This picture may look like it was taken on an angle, but it was not.

Hazy view, not quite Hallasan levels but making me think we won’t see much from the top!

I’m aware I probably need to post fewer photos of these craggy mountains ahead of me, but I just… I just love them!

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Selfie time

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First crystal of snow…
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Suddenly a lot more snow…
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The Pinnacle!
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At this point the wind was gusting over 110kmph and the snow was stinging every exposed part of me — my face, but also my calves! I watched great big men struggle to stay upright! I squealed as the wind whipped snow into my eyes, and I hugged the rocks as we clambered up to the highest point.

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Like a boss despite the howling wind!
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Leaning back against the wind – you can see my boots lifting off!

Then minutes later — this is the view!

We were following a loop which meant we didn’t have to walk the same way back — more landscape changes.

You can’t tell in this picture but it’s now starting to snow again, and the wind was still whipping around us, hence the stylish condom effect.

Getting well snowy!

Ok! That’s enough snow, let’s switch to flooded rainy paths! Definitely reminded me of Hallashan, this one…

The sun is out again…

and I’m obsessing over the lichens everywhere:

Another path presents itself just as the clouds go in.

Waterfall crossing again

Some time after this point I realised I hadn’t seen James in ages. He’s normally way up ahead and I don’t necessarily have him within sight, but generally he stops every now and then for me to catch up. I feel first faint annoyance, then mild anxiety, which prompts me to call out for him, because I am feeling quite isolated all of a sudden. Calling does nothing and my thin reedy voice seems to carry about as far as the next tree. I should pause and mention that my feelings about Tasmania’s landscapes are marked by a film called Van Diemen’s Land, which is famous for its bleak, untouched landscapes, surrounding desperate convicts who are completely lost, and who hack each other to pieces and eat each other as they desperately try to find… I don’t even remember what they were trying to find. ANYWAY. Rosie anxiety begins to evolve into actual panic that I’ve lost James and maybe he’s hurt himself somewhere or I took the wrong path, hah, hah, irrational anxiety is so amusing. I had started crying and wailing Jaaaaaaames, before I finally caught up enough for him to hear me and coming running back, convinced I must be in grave danger given my blubbering wails. Thereafter we held hands until I had regained my cool and my independence. Also we are almost done!

Second echidna sighting!

This one was less blasé and hid from us (in plain sight) under some bark.

And that’s it! Congratulations, you just blog-walked 18km up Mount Wellington and back down again, in rain, wind, sun, and snow. To come still: Mount Amos and Wineglass Bay.

Tasmania 1 – MONA

If you’ve read this blog much in the past you will know I don’t have much free time. I mostly am at work all day, and then when I’m not at work I’m flopping around whinging about all the studying I have to do for this stupid Masters that seems like it will never finish. James being back from Afghanistan meant I got to see him when I get home from work, complain at him about work, then sit down and study, occasionally looking up to complain about study. For this reason I made sure to get a day off work for the long Cup Weekend (a horrid horse racing holiday we all get) and we booked a trip to Tasmania. My plans were: Go to MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art) and climb some mountains. We did both, with great success.

To get to MONA you take the ferry, MONA ROMA. Riding on a sheep.

First sight of MONA, all red and rusty.

I loved MONA. Sadly both the touring galleries were closed whilst we were there, but we spent a good 4 hours wandering the permanent exhibits. You are provided with an specially programmed iPod Touch upon arrival, which detects which artworks you are close to, and then you can find out all the usual details but also look into its “Art Wank” and “Art Gonzo” categories for additional insights. It also tracks everything you look at so you can save your tour, and then log in to revisit everything virtually — forever. Can you imagine always being able to revisit every museum you’ve ever been to, and having access to photos and information about the things you saw, so you could always research them further, or show them to people? I feel it’s such a thoughtful addition to the museum experience.

My tour – not that it’s as exciting for you guys, given it’s just a screencap.

From the moment you start the tour, down in the basement, the building itself is just so incredibly powerful. I think I took more pictures of the walls carved directly out of the cliff, than of any other feature. All the more impressive in a museum environment where temperature and relative humidity have to be carefully controlled.

I didn’t take many pictures of the artworks inside, but I did love this one, called Kryptos. It’s a small, low-lit concrete maze, with binary strewn on the walls, representing an encoding of a translation of the very old Mesopotamian text, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ (yep, stole that from my virtual tour!). It is very atmospheric and slightly spooky.

In the central chamber I went to take a photo of James, and then out of the corner of my eye saw a sinister figure lunging at me from the ceiling and almost had a heart attack. Mirrors.

The only other two that I felt the urge to photograph were ones that I felt a strong link to. This one is a Buddha formed from 8 tons of incense ashes collected from Buddhist temples. The ashes were formed in this aluminium mould:

and then the resulting statue has been gently disintegrating ever since.

The Chinese artist, Zhang Huan, apparently has a gigantic warehouse and many staff whose responsibility it is to sift through all the incense ash they can get, and ship the stuff out around the world to art galleries willing to pay for their own ash Buddhas. I BELIEVE IN CHINESE ART.

The other one I really liked enough to take a photo reminds me of The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke by Richard Dadd. This creepy yet fascinating piece was assembled from “taxidermied hedgehog, wasp nest, rat and hedgehog bones, dried toads, eggshell, crab shell, insects, plant roots”. You obviously can’t see from my photo, but there are tiny fairies made from what appears to be flies legs to me (but I am informed are minute twigs) riding bumble bees and attacking what appears to be everything in sight. It’s called The Fairy Horde and the Hedgehog Host, and my photo is just terrible.

Outside the museum it was glorious and sunny and perfect weather to appreciate the Gothic Chapel.

Inside, the stained glass windows are x-rays of human bodies.

Then we went down to the pier to wait for the ferry and gawp at the landscape. Warning: this is the first of many panoramic views to come. You should be able to click it for a bigger pic.

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