To celebrate the new year, Dan's mom and stepdad surprised us with a harbor cruise of Mandurah, Western Australia.

Sliding by multi-million dollar homes and searching for dolphins (without luck), it was a different view of a familiar place. We stopped midway for a stroll through a bird sanctuary and some refreshment at the Mandurah Quay restaurant.

**Click here to see our photos of Mandurah**
Australia is big.

I know that like a fact, the same way that I knew before going that China was overpopulated or that Malaysia would be humid.

But taking the train out to Kalgoorlie from Perth, the facts of Australia's vastness (almost three million square miles of area; 24,000 miles of coastline) are set out like a personal lesson in geography.

The train from East Perth to the goldrush town of Kalgoorlie is called the Prospector, a sleek, air-conditioned three-car (sometimes only two) locomotive. Settled in the plush seats eating sandwiches from the buffet and watching the suburbs of West Australia's capital recede into farmland and bush, I wondered how the men the train was named after survived this journey as they pushed donkey carts or rode camels mile after waterless mile. 

Now, the trip takes about seven comfortable hours, stopping briefly at some one-street country towns--easy to miss if you close your eyes for a nap or get engrossed in the movies shown on the screen above your seat. But back then, when the trip was a real ordeal, these small towns must have been oases to the gold-smitten travelers.

We crossed salt flats, groves of gum trees and plains of native grasses. Birds flitted away from the sudden approach of the train and I searched for kangaroos until my eyes hurt.

Kalgoorlie was founded in the late 1800s when some Irish prospectors noticed gold on the ground.  It turned out to be a lot of gold, and soon gold fever had brought prospectors pouring in to the waterless desert to search the ground now known as the "Golden Mile." 

City fathers figured out how to pipe water the 500 or so miles from Perth, brothels sprang up to accommodate the lonely miners and a large gambling and drinking culture grew in the scores of saloons built in the city's heyday.

Now, the water still flows from the coast, the brothels remain but also make money turning tours as well as tricks and the saloons still capture gold miners' attention with scantily-clad waitstaff.  The Golden Mile has consolidated from many privately-owned mines into a huge operation known as the 'Super Pit,' an open cut gold mine three and a half kilometers long and more than 350 meters deep.

To Dan's disappointment, the famous Hay Street brothels just looked like windowless motels (we didn't pay for a tour) and the "skimpie" waitresses weren't on duty on Monday or Tuesday nights.

But while in Kalgoorlie we did venture out to the Super Pit's free viewing platform to gape at the size. We also took an underground tour at a defunct mine, panned for gold with Dan's mother and stepfather, and watched the nation-stopping Melbourne Cup horse race on TV (and won a little money!) before heading back across the vastness to Perth.

** Click here to see pictures from Kalgoorlie!**
For the last three years, our trips from China back to Australia have been blissful forays to "The West," complete with watching mindless TV, overindulgence in cheese and all things dairy and plenty of excursions to check out the continent's abundant wildlife.

Unfortunately, this year has been different.

On September 21, minutes after we bought a used Indonesian guidebook to read on our fight to Bali the next morning, Dan got the news every traveler dreads.

His father, Karl, had passed away suddenly of a heart attack.

In shock, we boarded a plane to Perth instead of Denpasar and spent the next 20 days with Dan's brother and mother, dealing with the things you don't take with you when you die.

It has been a tough time for Dan and his family, and we extend a heartfelt 'thank you' to all the people around the world who have sent Dan condolences. Thank you also to Leah Andrews, whose German translation skills were a big help in communicating with Dan's European relatives.

In the sadness of the last weeks, there was also something to look forward to--Dan's brother's upcoming wedding in Bali.