Wildlife, wineries, fairy penguins, and the Australian Grand Prix

Kangaroo Island kangaroos at the Healesville Sanctuary

Yesterday we went to a wildlife sanctuary, a winery, and St Kilda’s beach to see the fairy penguins. The wildlife sanctuary is called Healesville Sanctuary, and has koalas, wombats, wallabies, platypuses, emus, parrots, lorikeets, parakeets, rare black cockatoos with red tails, lyre birds, several kinds of kangaroos, and other animals we didn’t have time to see, including reptiles and dingos. We learned lots of interesting facts. Like, did you know, wombats, which are marsupials like koalas and kangaroos, have pouches that open toward their bottoms rather than toward their tummies. That is because wombats are diggers and tunnellers and as they dig they push the dug dirt under them. A top-opening pouch would tend to get dirt in it whereas a rear-opening pouch does not.

Also, koalas and wombats are close relatives, but koalas evolved to go up into trees and wombats evolved to be diggers of tunnels and caves. Koalas eat eucalyptus leaves, which are fibrous and don’t have a lot of food value. They therefore sleep for about 19 hours a day, to conserve their energy. If they are stressed, they get sick easily and stress can kill them by lowering their immune system.

Wombats don’t sleep in trees. They are diggers, and are very solid, sturdy creatures.

We had a wine tasting and lunch at a winery in the Yarra Valley, which has been compared to the Sonoma and Napa Valleys in the US. We tasted 6 wines, got to order a glass of the wine we liked best, and had it with our lunch. We learned about grape phylloxera, which is a mite that eats the roots of grape vines and kills them. This is the bug that killed most of the vineyards of Europe in the late 1880’s. Australians say they saved the world of wine because they alone had the stocks grown from old vine cuttings that had not been devastated by phylloxera and that could be grafted onto native American grape stock roots that were resistant to phylloxera.  

After lunch we returned to our hotel for a short break. Then we took trains and busses to St Kilda’s beach where we had dinner at a respectable but not fancy Italian restaurant and then walked out to the end of the breakwater to watch the fairy penguin colony that has made the rocks of the breakwater their home. The adventure of the trams and trains to get to St Kilda’s (because so much of the public transportation system has been diverted to handling traffic to and from the Melbourne Grand Prix) and to get home from St Kilda’s (because young Aussie sportsmen drink a bit and are very enthusiastically rowdy on the trains/trams.) Overall walking was about 11 thousand steps.

Today (Sunday, March 17th) was a free day, so, after Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, I went to the Australian Grand Prix which was being held at the Alfred Park, close to where the hotel I’m staying in. This was the final day of a several-day event, the highlight of which was the running of the Formula 1 race. I am not an aficionado of car racing, although I expect it can be a thing of beauty if you know what you are looking at. However, desultory watching of NASCAR races on television is the closest I have come to car race participation. (No, wait. There was that one time John took me out ice racing on the Red River up near Winnipeg. I was in the car. That would be closer.)

I was tipped off that the Grand Prix is a big deal, and seeing it in person in Australia is a rare opportunity. There are, in fact, more than 20 Grand Prix races each year, but you have to travel far afield to attend them, and typically the tickets are quite dear.

I bought a general admission ticket (that means no seat in the stands and generally not much of a view) for today, Sunday. It cost $106 AU dollars including the Ticketmaster fee. It merely got me in the venue. It didn’t even get me a program. There’s not much shade in Alfred Park, and the park is fairly flat. There are small elevations that have been built up where general admissions ticket holders can stand. There’s not much shade and not much of a view, but you can see cars racing past.

I was warned the noise would be terrible. It was not. I was told there would be music and food for sale.OK, sort of. There was an Australian military rock band that was quite good. They were the only band I heard and they were valiant to play so many sets. The lines for food were very long and slow. Advice to next year’s attendees: bring your own food. Also, photographing very fast cars through a heavy wire fence from a distance isn’t worth the megabytes. Advice to self at the next race: Just watch the race. Or the people.

The racing was interesting, the people watching was interesting, and the cars on display by the local car clubs were beautiful, if a little dusty. And the crowd was well behaved and family friendly. There was a full minute of silence at the start of the race for the New Zealanders killed in the mosque masacre.