Archive for the ‘Oceania’ Category

So Long, New Zealand!

Monday, December 10th, 2007

We ended our stay in New Zealand with a great trip to a small island on the east coast of the North Island, Tiritiri Matangi, and then a final day exploring Auckland. Both days were “heaps of fun,” as they say in New Zealand, and a great way to conclude our stay in this country.

Tiritiri 291 Tiritiri Matangi is a wildlife sanctuary reachable by ferry. The day got off with a bang when we saw one of our favorite birds, a Sacred Kingfisher, eating one of our favorite animals, a lizard (a Copper Skink). Ymmm! All fall, we’ve been trying to find a way to balance nature hikes focused on seeing birds (relatively easy to set up) with nature hikes focused on reptiles and amphibians (harder), and finally came up with the perfect solution!

Tiritiri 344 The island is a gorgeous spot, and we had a terrific time hiking around it. We were accompanied by one of the volunteer naturalists (Spencer) who was very knowledgeable and made the exploration quite educational. There are some great birds there that we missed on this trip (including the Takahe and the Kokapo), but we did spot a Morepork (a type of New Zealand owl) and its baby, which was unusual.

Auckland 223 While in the Auckland area, we focused on getting packed for our return to North America, but found time to visit an aquarium and the Auckland Museum. Like zoos, I’m not sure we’ll ever generate as much enthusiasm for aquariums as we did before our trip. There was an Antarctica exhibit, though, which was quite interesting. And at the Auckland Museum, there was an excellent exhibit on Charles Darwin, which we all found fascinating. Since we plan on being in the Galapagos and Antarctica after the turn of the year, it was a great way to end our stay in Asia and Oceania, and get ready for South America and Antarctica!

There was something very unusual for us on our last day of this part of our trip — rain. We realized that, somewhat incredibly, we haven’t had a real day of rain in three and one-half months. The rain had no impact on our schedule, since we were packing and checking out some museums. But it was probably good preparation for December in Seattle :-( .

Originally, we were planning to spend time in Fiji after New Zealand. It’s awfully hard to pass by Fiji, but that’s what we decided to do. It was going to take us the better part of a day to get there, we’d have three days there on the beach, and then three different flight legs to get to Seattle. When we weighed the appeal of three days on the beach versus the complications in travel logistics, we decided to save Fiji for another time, and hopped on a direct flight from Auckland to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the kids are going skiing and building snow forts, and Elizabeth and I are getting organized for Christmas.

Feel free to check out our Tiritiri Matangi photos.

A Good Walk, Spoiled (Sort Of)

Friday, December 7th, 2007

Milford 068 We set off on our Milford Track hike with great expectations. I had done the hike eighteen years ago, and remembered it as being pretty easy. Well, when we attended our briefing, the distances seem to grown over the years, and we faced three days of hiking, with distances of 10 miles, 9 miles over a 4,000 foot pass and back down, and 13 miles over rocky terrain. The good news was that the weather forecast was promising. The bad news was that, because of avalanche risk, the descent of the pass would have to be on the super-steep emergency trail, and there’d be no chance to see the Sutherland Falls (the fifth highest waterfall in the world).

Milford 033 We drove to Te Anau, and got on the one-hour boat to the trailhead, with all of our hiking stuff in our four backpacks. Then we hiked a very short mile into Glade Lodge, where we were able to explore the surroundings. Sterling even jumped in the Clinton (not Hillary, thankfully) River for a swim. And we hung out with another dad and his eleven-year-old son who, along with his wife and other child, were spending a full year in New Zealand but were from Arlington, Virginia. I also looked at the log book from 1989, and found my entry (as well as Mike and Tom Hill’s, two people I met from Boston on that trip and went on to become good friends with).

Milford 064 We set off at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, geared up for the first phase of our hike. I had carefully made sure to bring my pack, my camera, my binoculars, and . . . my painful heel injury from last summer! While in Jamestown, Rhode Island, last summer, I hurt my left heel and had to drop all athletic activities for almost a month, and made several visits to my foot doctor, including a cortisoneMilford 085 shot. Well, my left heel had been fine all fall, but about half-way through the hike, I was hurting. Every step on my left leg felt like I was walking on a knife — not a machete, mind you, but at least the biggest blade of a Swiss Army Knife. I made it into the lodge that night, but couldn’t walk particularly well. I iced it all evening, and decided to see how it felt in the morning.

Milford 294 I’m sure a painful left heel colored my view of the hike, but I’m not sure any of us would have been having a great time even if my foot had been perfect. The Milford Track hike is a great hike through some of the most gorgeous territory imaginable, but the experience doesn’t feel like you’re in nature. We had so much distance to cover, and a tight schedule, that there wasn’t time for exploring a river bank, following a bird, looking for a gecko, or even pausing for a great photo. And if day one was in somewhat unsatisfying, the other days would have been that much more difficult, in many respects.

Milford 120 When I woke up the next morning, I had a hard time walking to the bathroom — not a great sign prior to the hardest day on the track. We spoke with the guides (who were terrific!) who described a second option. Take the supply helicopter to Milford (a ten minute helicopter ride, but eliminating 16 hours of hiking!). Well, that helicopter option worked for us, we got some great views, waved to the hikers, and completed the track in record time :-) . Given that my heel still hurts two days later, I’m glad I took the “easy way out,” even though I hated to pack it in.

Milford 186 We explored the Milford Sound area for a couple of hours, with a nice leisurely hike along the Sound. Then, we took a helicopter back to Queenstown, stopping for lunch on the top of Mount Humboldt. The views were spectacular, and the kids took advantage of the snow to get in some fabulous summer “sledding” (see sledding videos of Gibson and Sterling), which was great preparation for our return to North America for Christmas. After returning Milford 245 to Queenstown, we strolled around the downtown area, concluding a great day. So our Milford Sound experience wasn’t what we expected, but ended up working out terrifically for us. We got to experience what the hike is like, got some great views of the area, and didn’t come out of it unable to walk for the next six months — a pretty good outcome all around.

Feel free to look at my photos from Milford. It’s a big collection, but then the area is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever limped through in my life.

The Spectacular South Island

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

We spent a three days in Abel Tasman National Park, one of the top spots globally for sea kayaking. In addition to kayaking, this area is terrific for tramping (New Zealand-ese for “hiking”) and exploring by motorboat or helicopter. That kept us plenty busy during our time here.

Abel Tasman 418 Our highlight was coming back one afternoon late from a day of kayaking and hiking. We got a lift back to our lodge on a motorboat and decided to head home with a more offshore route. Our hunch that this route would be interesting paid off, as we came across a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins, about one hundred of them! We spent about a half an hour cruising at a medium speed (8 knots or so), and the dolphins followed our wake the whole time. Some cameAbel Tasman 417 way out of the water with their jumps, and others just tucked in behind us and drafted on the boat. At times we’d see two, three, four, and even five dolphins jump out of the water at the same time. It was unreal! The best pictures of the day were taken by Gibson (I tried!), including the ones above and to the right. I have about 100 pictures of the ocean with a big bubbly area right where the dolphin just re-entered the water :-( .

Abel Tasman 196 We also did our share of sea kayaking in Abel Tasman, in all sorts of ways. The kids took some light kayaks out in a cove one afternoon, and loved it! On a different day, we went out further in two-person kayaks, which was a tad less successful until we put the adults in one kayak and the kids in the other. Somehow, that made it a whole lot more fun for everyone! Kayaking, as we found out, is a lot of work, but we got some very close-up views of New Zealand Fur Seals and the Little Blue Penguin, so that was exciting. And the scenery in Abel Tasman is just beyond words — it’s so beautiful.

Abel Tasman 194 We took a helicopter to and from our lodge, which gave us great views of the Tasman coast. Our pilot explained that much of the land along the coast was farmland two decades ago, but has now been developed into some sizable beach houses. There are even private homes in Abel Tasman National Park, although no one seems to mind. Anyway, this area of New Zealand has clearly been “discovered,” and the tourism services business here is pretty mature.

Abel Tasman 256 No time at the beach would be complete for our kids without building a structure of some kind. If Elizabeth and I ever want to go away for a few months and make sure our kids stay out of trouble, we’ll just leave them at a beach that has lots of driftwood. We spent hours down at the beach by our lodge, and there was lots of raw material to work with, with a tee-pee and a not-terribly-seaworthy raft being built during our stay.

Abel Tasman 307 After our stay in Abel Tasman, we flew on a crystal clear day south along the “Southern Alps” to Queenstown. The views of the mountains were just incredible, especially Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand (see below). We could see snow-capped peaks, glaciers, glacial lakes, and rivers from our plane, which was quite a sight! Abel Tasman 315 The South Island of New Zealand is formed largely by the collision of tectonic plates, and the Southern Alps are the result. It’s quite a contrast from the North Island, which was formed almost entiirely by volcanic activity. The islands are quite close together, but geologically are worlds apart. It’s been great to see both of them in such a short time frame.

After landing smoothly in Queenstown, we spent the better part of the day exploring Queenstown and the surrounding areas. I had been to Queenstown in 1989, and it has changed considerably since then. Now, Queenstown seems more like a Vail or Aspen (see below) than the tiny little town I visited years back. I wouldn’t say the change has been for the better, though, and we’re moving right along on to the Milford Track. We did Abel Tasman 379 take time to see a bungy jump from the place where bungy jumping originated. Be sure to check out the video, and ask yourself if you’d be willing to do it (I wouldn’t!). Anyway, we’re now square in the middle of extreme sports territory, with lots of tourists, and all sorts of wild activities. But within twenty-four hours, we’ll be on the peaceful and isolated Milford Track.

I have to admit to an interesting alignment between technology and nature tonight. Our Queenstown hotel, the Azur (a great spot), has wireless internet access, but the signal is weak in the room (tin roof). The only place I could get a decent signal is out on the deck, which overlooks Lake Wakatipu and the mountains surrounding Queenstown. So I’ve been writing this blog on the deck well after dark on a late Spring, cloudless Southern Hemisphere night. The stars tonight are impossible to describe, so numerous and bright. And the only sounds I can hear are a light breeze blowing through the trees and occasional ripples on the lake. Everyone else in my family is asleep, and I’m outside, in my bathrobe, writing a blog, and gazing at the Orion’s Belt. It’s just been that kind of a trip.

Feel free to check out our Abel Tasman and Queenstown photos.

The Eye of The Volcano

Friday, November 30th, 2007

White Island 059 New Zealand is an active volcanic region, and has been for millions of years.  The North Island was largely formed through volcanic activity.  Its biggest active volcano is White Island, about 50 kilometers off the east coast near Rotorua.  We had a chance to visit White Island by helicopter, including landing on the small island and exploring it by foot.  We then flew over a chain of volcanoes in the area, including Mt. Tarawera, a large crevice volcano on the main North Island.

White Island 068 The day we flew by helicopter to White Island was quite windy, so I was reassured when our helicopter pilot said it was his second full week on the job and, so far, so good.  The Kiwis have very good senses of humor (or at least I hope he was joking :-) ).   We took off and in no time were hovering above the most interesting geology.  You could see all of the patterns of mountains, caldera lakes (lakes that fill in the top of a volcano that’s caved in), and valleys.  We then crossed over the Pacific, heading for White Island. 

White Island 074 Our visit to White Island might as well have been a visit to Mars.  It bears no resemblance to life on Earth.  At the center of the small island is a small, bubbling pool of sulphuric acid.  Needless to say, none of us were tempted to go in for a dip in the 60 degree (Centigrade!!) acid bath.  Surrounding the pool are some of the weirdest rock structures, many of which are oozing hot sulphuric gases.  We were equipped with gas masks, and put them to serious use!

White Island 081 Years ago, there was a sulphur mine on White Island, the remains of which are still in place there, barely.  The last major eruption on the island was in the year 2000, wiping out most of the structure.  As the price of sulphur collapsed, the mine ceased to be economic and was shut down.  The island was viewed as a wasteland and sold — for two pounds (British).  Now, though, it’s an active area for tourists, who come by boat or helicopter, and pay ten pounds per person.  Given that some 20,000 people visit a year, that initial purchase is looking pretty shrewd.  The next time someone wants to sell me an island for a couple of bucks, I’m a taker!

White Island 108 Well, as much as we were all hoping for a major eruption while we were on the island :-) , it stayed dormant, and we whisked off to the mainland.  But not before braving the sandy winds that whipped across the island, and we were all feeling lucky to make it back to the chopper.  And we felt even better when the helicopter made it back safely, especially Elizabeth (who is not a big fan of helicopter travel, to say the least!).

White Island 123 We got a good overhead look at Mt. Tarawera, which is another volcano in the chain around Rotorua.  It doesn’t look at all like a volcano, though.  No cone, no crater, no symmetry.  It’s more like a nasty cut in a mountain where the volcano erupted and oozed out its lava.  It last erupted in 1886, killing hundreds of people.  Before it erupted, there were world-renowned pink and white terraces around Tarawera that drew visitors from all over the world.  They, like much else in the area, didn’t survive the 1886 eruption.

White Island 132 We then spent a couple of very nice days at the Treetops Lodge in Rotorua.  The Treetops is set on 2,500 acres forest acres, and is incredibly well run.  We did a whole range of things, including getting a geology and natural history lecture from a very interesting local expert.  We also did a night hike, seeing glow worms, brush-tailed possums, and wild hares.  We toured an interesting museum in Rotorua, and got a great tour from the curator.  And on our last morning at Treetops, Elizabeth and Sterling went horseback riding, and Gibson and I took a photography class from a very talented local photographer.  We hope his expertise rubs off on our photos!!

Feel free to check out our photos of White Island, Treetops, and Rotorua.

The City of Sails and the Bay of Islands

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Kauri Cliff 005 We flew from India to Auckland, and the transition couldn’t have been more dramatic. We went from camels in the middle of “highways,” cows roaming the sidewalks of major cities, and young children smiling and waving to us everywhere, saying “Tata,” to . . . a beautiful and civilized, yet unspoiled, country. New Zealand is one of the few places on our trip that Elizabeth and I have both been to before, but we loved it so much that we were anxious to return.

Auckland 215 In Auckland, called the City of Sails, we got together with dear long-time friends, Greg Neil and Jayne Tankersley. Some of you may remember them from Beacon Hill, where they lived with us for several years. Well, now they’ve returned to their New Zealand homeland, and now have a good-sized family of their own — a four Auckland 219year old son Harry, a two year old son Oliver, and a new two-month old daughter Juliet. Wow! It was fabulous to see them again, and their children are adorable. It reminded us of how quickly children grow up (ours were three and one when we first met Greg and Jayne), and how fortunate we are to have this magical year as a family!

Auckland 221 I was in Auckland in 1989, and it has changed dramatically since then. I spent very little time in Auckland on that trip, focusing on the South Island, but had the impression that, apart from the airport, there was little to do or see in Auckland. During this stay in Auckland, we went to the Auckland Museum and the Auckland Zoo. The Museum had a Maori show, which we took in and really enjoyed. If you’re curious about Maori dance, check out our video (or one or two more) from our visit to the Museum. The country of New Zealand has done a fairly good job of integrating the original Maori inhabitants with more recent immigrants, although I’m sure there’s room for improvement. But the situation seems much better here than for the Aborigines in Australia.

Auckland 233 As we walked around the Auckland Zoo, Greg and Jayne observed that zoos will probably never be the same for our family. We’d see a caged peacock and say, “Gee, they were everywhere in the wild in India.” Or we’d wait in a big crowd for the tiger feeding and we’d be thinking about the Bengal Tigers of Ranthambhore. And it was fun to watch a hippo bathing in the zoo, but all of us are thinking forward to Africa. I’ve always loved zoos, so I hope down the road the magic will return to a visit to a great zoo, but for now we’ve decided to skip them for the next while or so.

Baseball in New Zealand 039 After a brief, but fun, visit to Auckland, we flew up to Kerikeri, the largest city in the Bay of Islands. We were able to start the visit off with some baseball with a group of twenty kids who play regularly in a neat little town called Russell. We then headed to our hotel, at Julian Robertson’s Kauri Cliffs, which we used as a base for exploring this particularly beautiful area on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand.

Kauri Cliff 085 If you’re from the U.S. and are looking for a metaphor for this area of New Zealand, think California, before many people lived there, but with warm ocean water. We went to some beaches here that were among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in my life. Honestly, I think I could spend months just watching the deep blue ocean collide with the spectacular rocks and sandy beaches here. We met many people who emigrated here from other parts of the world, and it’s easy to see why.

Kauri Cliff 137 We got a real education in sheep shearing while we visited Kauri Cliffs. If you want to see how a sheep gets sheared, check out this video. We learned that the world record in sheep shearing had been set by a Kiwi (their word for a New Zealand native) earlier this year. He sheared 721 sheep in nine hours. If you watch just one sheep being sheared, you quickly realize how back-breaking and demanding the job is (and it’s lent itself to little inKauri Cliff 140 the way of automation). The pay is around $1.50 per shorn sheep in New Zealand (more in other countries, like Australia and the U.S., but not much above $2.00). All I can say is that if my family depended on my ability to shear sheep to provide for them, we’d be a DEEP SHEEP DO-DO. I have a feeling I’d be the one ending up with no hair!

White Island 031 The next day, we went out sailing in the Bay of Islands with Don and Marilyn Logan, a fascinating couple. They designed their own katamaran, working with mast designers for some of the America’s Cup teams (but, unfortunately, didn’t work with Scott Ferguson from Jamestown!!). They had taken the television crews out during the last two America’s Cup races held in the Auckland area, and had amazing stories about the challenges of working with the crews to televise the competition. Anyway, Eliazabeth and I are hardly knowledgeable sailors, but their design seemed brilliant — lots of comfortable living space, a very stable boat, and quite fast. We hit 13 knots that day, and they often go above 15 knots.

White Island 017 We feel fortunate to spend time in Jamestown, Rhode Island, and are big fans of the scenery there. But, boy, the Bay of Islands is just amazing! Everytime you think you’ve just seen the most beautiful island you can imagine, you come across something even more spectacular. We saw a few good birds (including this Australasian Gannett) while we were out, including the Little Blue Penguin, but were hoping to see some dolphins and killer whales, which didn’t work out. Nevertheless, it was a terrific adventure.

Auckland 271 Kauri Cliffs is a very distinctive place, complete with hiking trails, beaches, and a great golf course. It’s over 2,500 acres in all, and it’s been designed brilliantly. We had a great stay there, and would highly recommend it for anyone visiting the area, especially golfers. I didn’t get on the course, but did hit some balls at the driving range. While it was the first time I played in four months, I was surprised that not a whole lot had changed about my golf game — a few decent shots in a sea of lousy shots! But it did feel good to get a club in my hand again, and made me think fondly of all my golf buddies!

Feel free to check out our photos from Auckland and the Bay of Islands.

Baseball in New Zealand!

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

Baseball in New Zealand 045 We had a great afternoon playing baseball in a scenic town called Russell, New Zealand, on NZ’s North Island.  Our point people were Ric and Kitty Martini, who moved to New Zealand 3 1/2 years ago from Hawaii.  Their son P.K. is an excellent player (barely missing an out-of-the-park homer!), and more than twenty kids in total turned out for a fabulous Sunday afternoon practice game.

Baseball in New Zealand 031 The team practices on a nice grass field in Russell that is used for all sorts of sports, including football, soccer, and — believe it or not — a golf driving range.  They don’t have fixed bases, a pitcher’s mound, or a backstop.  But the grass is very well kept and quite smooth, and the field sits nicely on one end.  The program was started by the Martini’s three years ago, and until this year, less than ten kids would play regularly.  However, they’re doing a great job with the program, the enthusiasm for baseball is spreading, and now well over twenty players participate, and they’ll be able to field two full teams for a tournament in three weeks!

Baseball in New Zealand 058 The age range of the children was roughly 10 through 14, with a mix of boys and girls.  The coach brings a great, positive attitude to the field, and combines terrific advice with lots of encouragement.  And the kids are very athletic, so I can see why the interest in the program is growing so fast. 

Baseball in New Zealand 039 Gibson got to pitch and play third base during the game, which was a close contest between the Expos and the Marlins.  We brought them Red Sox hats, and they looked great in them.  They said that the only baseball hat that the local sporting goods’ store carries is for some second-tier U.S. team called the Yankees (I think I’ve heard of them, but seem to recall they folded the franchise a few years back) :-) .  

Baseball in New Zealand 064 My wife got a chance to catch up with several of the parents while I was on the sidelines of the game, watching and occasionally helping to retrieve foul balls.  And I had a particularly interesting conversation with a woman whose family had moved to NZ from the Netherlands, and another New Zealander who settled there after sailing around the world with her husband for eleven years!!  (And we thought ten months was a long time :-) ).  My wife and I concluded that life in Russell, New Zealand, is amazingly great.  The weather is gorgeous allBaseball in New Zealand 076 year long, the scenery in the area is spectacular, the people are super, and the schools are good, but flexible to readily accommodate families that are away for months at a time (often sailing).   Plus, the people of New Zealand just seem to have their heads screwed on right when it comes to what’s important in life.   Such a great combination, and now it’s emerging as a center of baseball excellence!!

Feel free to check out our photos from this great baseball day.

Australia: Looking Back on Down Under

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

When we organized our trip, we thought it would be good to start with Australia.  We figured it would be an easy transition from the U.S., our kids would start off on a good note, and August/September would be a good time of year for visiting the country.  What we didn’t anticipate was just how much all of us would love Australia.  And we really loved it!

IMG_0181 We started with Sydney, a world class city on Australia’s east coast.  I’ve always thought Sydney would be a fabulous place to live, and actually being there only reinforced that view.  It’s got great culture, some beautiful architecture, an outstanding climate, really great people, and lots to do. 

Tasmania Eclipse 003 Following Sydney, we went south to the island of Tasmania, a really wonderful, unspoiled, and beautiful place.  Its air is crystal clear, as are its skies.  And its wildlife is incredibly interesting.  We met the wombat (a favorite with our family), the Tasmanian Devil, wallabies, and platypus there, as we toured most of the northern half of the island.  The highlight was a great viewing of a full lunar eclipse, during which Gibson somehow produced the above photo, which pretty well summarized our feelings for Australia.

Kangaroo Island 009 We had never heard of Kangaroo Island prior to our trip, but we’re really glad we stayed there.  Sure, there were some kangaroos there (not as many as other places), but we saw koalas in the wild, as well as fur seals and sea lions.  And we loved the place we stayed, perched over the Pacific Ocean.  In exploring the rocks on the beach below us, we encountered nesting Little Penguins, a real find.  We also got a real feel of the power of the Pacific Ocean, as we watched waves crashing ashore on a day when the sea swells were 25 feet high.

Adelaide Baseball 028 A real highlight of our visit to Australia was our stop in Adelaide, where we met many wonderful families from the Woodville Senators, an amazing baseball program there.  Gibson practiced with the team and the hosted us for a fabulous dinner afterwards.  We’ve gotten some follow-on e-mails from these great families, and look forward to more!!

Uluru 282 A landmark for Australia is Uluru, formerly known as Ayer’s Rock.  We spent a couple of days there, and really got a better understanding of the Aborigine culture.  Our daybreak hike around Uluru was spectacular, after we pulled the ripcord and left the very crowded parking areas.  Over 1,500 people were there (with accompanying buses) at 5:30 a.m. to watch the sun rise on Uluru.  Our hike on the west side, away from the crowds, was magical.

Bullo River 235 After a challenging day of travel, we then went to Bullo River Station, a 500,000 acre cattle ranch in the Northern Territory of Australia.  This visit was a real highlight of the trip, giving us a sense of what Australia’s Outback is all about.  While at Bullo River, we took a helicopter trip to a very secluded and stunningly-beautiful area, where we camped overnight and swam in cascading stream pools.   We learned a lot about the cattle business, saw some amazing birds, and felt very welcomed by the Ranacher family and the Station’s staff.

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 097 We concluded our stay in Australia in Cairns, located close to the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree National Park.  Both were fabulous, but we had a very special day at Daintree.  It’s a 120 million year old rain forest, and the flora and fauna were interesting beyond words.  And seeing the coral reefs, and knowing how fast they are disappearing, made our visit to the Great Barrier Reef unforgettable. 

Our biggest issue with Australia is that it may set too high a standard for the rest of this journey.  As our daughter Sterling said, “Why don’t we just spend ten months in Australia?”  Well, during a twenty-three hour travel day from Cairns to Beijing, her words came to mind from time to time, but stay tuned to hear about our transition to China!!

If you are interested in more detail on our time in Australia, you can check out our blogs on each destination, or our photo galleries.  If you go to http://www.dintersmith.org/pmwiki.php?n=Main.Itinerary, it will point you directly to these. 

The Food of Australia — Another Highlight

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

 

We have gotten several inquiries (and keep those questions coming!!) about what the food is like in Australia.  I’ll give a brief report here, but you might also want to check out what others in our family thought about Australian food:

http://sterling.dintersmith.org/2007/09/19/australian-food/

With only occasional exceptions, food in Australia is more similar to food in America than different.  Breakfasts include cereal, fruit, eggs, a form of bacon (more like a fried slab of ham, than a bacon strip), and toast.  The only real wrinkle is the ubiquitous Vegemite, a nasty spread for toast that all of us judged as inedible.

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 138For lunch and dinner, the options were generally meat of some type (often steak or lamb) or fish (with the barramundi being our favorite).  Pasta or Asian preparation is also frequently offered.  Occasionally, some wrinkles would crop up, like Crocodile Fettuccini (left) or grilled Wallaby (not a favorite).  And if you’re wondering, crocodile does indeed “taste like chicken.”

We generally don’t eat deserts, but Australian deserts also seemed quite similar to American deserts.  Lots of cakes, ice cream, and fruit. 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 137 Maybe we were just fortunate, but the food in Australia that we encountered was fabulous.  There is a big Asian presence here, so we often had stir-fry meals, which were almost always spectacular.  The Aussies grow so much cattle that the beef was terrific.  And some of the fish meals I had were among the best I’ve ever eaten.  So while I didn’t expect the food in Australia to be a highlight of our visit to the country, it was! 

As a final note, a big fringe benefit of food in Australia is that we could easily understand what a menu said, and what we were ordering!  That won’t be the case for most of the rest of our trip, and — believe me — we’re not taking it for granted!!

Finding Nemo and Jurassic Park

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 181 September 11-15, 2007:  Our last stop in Australia was to the Cairns (pronounced, inexplicably, “Cans”) area, on the gorgeous northeast coast of Australia, where we explored the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree National Park, as well the surprisingly-interesting Cairns Tropical Zoo.  The northeast coast of Australia is breath-taking, with kilometer after kilometer of rocky or sandy beaches abutting a deep-blue Pacific Ocean.  Cairns itself has a population of 100,000, and most of the neighboring towns are much smaller, so it’s not terribly developed. 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 272 We put Cairns on our itinerary because we all wanted to snorkel and explore the Great Barrier Reef.  The proposition involved an hour drive from the hotel, an hour and a half boat trip to get to three drop-off points, and then about 2 1/2 hours of fish and coral-gazing.  I asked the tour group organizers if they’d be showing Open Water on the ride out, but got few laughs (Note:  Open Water is about the last hours of a couple left behind by one of these boats and eaten by sharks :-) ). 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 301 The reef is under serious duress from challenges — rises in the water temperarture, pesticides in rain run-off, and the crown-of-thorns starfish.  Signs of strain are apparent in the bleaching that’s occurring.  We went on a smaller boat (100 as opposed to 300-400) with ok naturalists, and it was a bit more touristy than we are generally excited by.  It felt like exploring another planet to see the vast expanses of beautifully-bizarre coral and colorful tropical fish.  But by the end of the day, I was glad to have had a chance to see the GBR, but ready to get away from a group this size.

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 061 The next day, we had a fabulous guide, Rick Hall with Outback Expeditions, who led us on a tour of the Daintree National Park.  Daintree is only recently appreciated, but it’s a rainforest that dates back 120 million years!  The Amazon, by contrast, dates back 15-20 million years.  Daintree has more plant species in its 250,000 acres than all of North America!!   We loved our day at Daintree and, for me, it was the best single day in Australia. 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 118 We saw some amazing birds, mammals, and reptiles, learned boatloads about botany, zoology, Australia and its culture, used local rocks and water to make paint used by Aborigines as warpaint (imagine encountering the ferocious tribe on the left in the wild!), liked the backside of an ant loaded with vitamin C, and swam in a local stream that was so clear that, to the eye, six feet of water looked like six inches!  We saw the endangered Cassowary (a huge, tall, and fierce bird, with only 240 left on the earth), and the tiny musky-rat kangaroo, as well as Australia’s legendary saltie (the estuarine crocodile).  At the tail end of the day, Rick took us to a spot where the trees are full (and I mean FULL) of spectacled flying foxes, a type of bat.  WeDaintree and Great Barrier Reef 166 walked about a kilometer, and tree after tree was full of these very curious, and in many ways beautiful, creatures. 

Our last day in Cairns was spent at a local attraction that required an hour train ride to get to, had a Venomous Animal House (our kids are now infatuated with reptiles), an aviary with all sorts of exotic birds, and way too many touristy shops, where we managed to add Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 217 two more wombats to our growing family.  We returned by the world’s longest tram (45 nervous minutes from start to finish).  The day was shaping up as a loser for me until the very end, when our tram passed over a little lagoon.  I checked out the birds with my binoculars and didn’t see anything of note, but Gibson said, “Hey, that’s a spoonbill.”  The Royal Spoonbill, which I mistook as an egret, made for a great “last bird” on our stay in Australia, where we saw 132 different species in the wild.

 

    WILD AND EXOTIC ANIMALS OF THE DAINTREE RAINFOREST

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Endangered Cassowary.  This picture was taken in a zoo, but we saw one in the wild (with a much worse picture).  They have an incredibly sharp middle toe claw and can, if threatened, attack and even kill people.

 

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Close-up of the spectacled flying fox.  These guys were fascinating.  They’d open up their wings and then close them, wrapping themselves up in a blanket of “wing.”  They had the cutest looks on their face, and would seem quite curious about us down below.  Hard to believe these flying foxes, with their 4-5 foot wing span, are actually bats.  And they hang upside down because they have an incredibly light bone structure suited for flying but which can’t support their body weight.

 

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Two-headed lizard, which, when attacked, runs backwards and if the predator catches up, it will eat the lizard’s tail (which can be re-grown).  Not the dumbest animal in the world, and quite possibly smarter than our not-too-on-the-ball tour guide!

 

Daintree and Great Barrier Reef 143 Musky-rat kangaroo, unusual in that it doesn’t hop, but walks on all four legs, and is less than one foot in length.  We saw a parent (probably the mother) and two babies in the wild, and were able to watch them for several minutes.

 

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The golden-orbed mega spider, which actually gets much bigger than this, but even so is very big!  After this, we got serious about checking our shoes each morning before putting them on!

 

 

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We were lucky enough to see the common tree snake while navigating along the Daintree River.  About 1-2 feet long and harmless, this snake is unusual for Australian snakes.  Australia is home to all ten of the world’s most poisonous snakes, only one of which we saw while we there there (to Elizabeth’s and my relief and our kid’s chagrin).

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Probably the single most frightening animal sighting during our three and one-half weeks in Australia.  These tree-dwelling and highly-aggressive creatures make the crocodiles, snakes, and sharks of Australia look tame by comparison.  Naturalists advise you to run, not walk, from these wild animals!

Bullo River Station

Friday, September 14th, 2007

 

Bullo River 212 September 6-10, 2007:  Imagine owning a cattle ranch (or station, in Aussie-speak) almost the size of Rhode Island.  Well, Franz and Marlee Ranacher do, and they were our hosts at Bullo River Station in the Northern Territory of Australia, where we hiked, camped, rode horses, fished, mustered cattle, saw amazing birds, and ate incredible food.  Best of all, we got a real feel for life on a cattle station in Australia. 

Uluru 407 We flew from Uluru in a tiny prop plane and learned when not to fly in the dessert.  Our mid-day flight was after the dessert had heated WAY up, so we ran into lots of rising air pockets — meaning a very bumpy flight.  When we landed to refuel (in a tiny town of 1,000), we weren’t all that sure we wanted to get back on the plane, but it beat — barely — walking 350 miles through the dessert.

Bullo River 184 When the plane was 30 minutes from the main house, the pilot told us we were now over the Bullo River station — it’s that vast.  And when we finally landed, Elizabeth became the first person in  the history of the station to crawl off a plane with a green complexion.  We said a big hello to our hosts, and  looked for a discreet way to dispose of multiple air sickness bags.  Not a trip highlight, that’s for sure.

 

Bullo River 164Next day, Sterling and Elizabeth went on a long horseback ride, while Gibson and I fished.   Gibson hooked a good-sized catfish, and his many years of training under his Uncle Jim of Seattle paid off as he landed it!  We got some barramundi bites, but didn’t land one of the area’s best eating fish.  We saw one fresh water crocodile on the fishing trip (a ‘freshie’ as opposed to a ‘saltie’), and after that I got a lot less interested in putting my hand in the water to test its temperature!

 

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The highlight of the trip was camping overnight in a remote spot on the station called The Cascades.  Believe it or not, the little whitish area in the center of the photo on the left (taken from the helicopter as we landed), in the center about 1/4 of the way down from the top, is a flat sandy area  where the helicopter landed.  We set up camp,  andthen went swimming in stream pools  that were crystal pure, and served as our source of drinking water.  At one point, I said to my kids, “Remember this.  It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”  They responded, “No it isn’t.  We’re coming back!” 

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The geology of the Cascades is fascinating.  Over millions of years, a deep notch (fifty meters deep at some places) had been carved out of the rock by the running stream water.  Where we swam, we could explore the various caves and eddy holes the river has made over the course of time.  At one point, I detected a shape of concern and hustled my family out of the water — only to discover, to my embarrassment, that the crocodile I alertly spotted was a “rock-odile”!

 

 

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We explored up and down the cascades during the afternoon, had a great campfire dinner that night, and then got halfway decent sleep in Australian swags (their version of a sleeping bag).  

 

 

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While the helicopter came in handy for our camping expedition, its principal use on a station is to muster cattle.  Bullo River has two small helicopters that are ideal for herding cattle, and are used extensively.  The stations of Australia have increasingly relied on newer technologies to improve cow economics, and one cattle station is a big enough business that it is now a publicly-traded stock.  I suspect the market there is “bullish” on the stock :-) .

 

Bullo River 083 Bullo River has about 7,500 head of cattle, raised on their 500,000 acres.  When the cattle are sold, some poor soul drives a cattle truck (see right) a LONG way over lousy roads to pick up the cattle from the station.  They sell for about $500 a head.  There are other stations even larger than Bullo River.  We talked to someone from Victoria River Downs, which is 6,500,000 acres (the size of Massachusetts), with 125,000 head of cattle.   The folks at Bullo River do a great job running the station and supporting touring visitors with a staff of about 10 — or one per 50,000 acres!!!

Bullo River 279 You wouldn’t think a cattle station would be a fabulous birding spot, but we saw 27 trip/life birds while we were there.    The breath-taking Rainbow Bee-eater was as omnipresent as a sparrow in the U.S., and everywhere we looked we’d see Corellas, Ibis, Wedge-tailed Eagles, and Galahs.  We were really lucky and saw an adult male Emu, with two baby chicks (it’s the father Emu that watches the babies for 18 months, while the mother heads off looking for other male Emus to hook up with), and Gibson got a photo (below) of the elusive Emu.

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The Emu is the second tallest bird in the world (about 6 feet tall, just shorter than Africa’s Ostrich), can’t fly, can run 30 mph over long distances, has a loud call that can be heard over a mile away, and looks a lot like Big Bird from Sesame Street.  We were thrilled to get a great view of one on the side of the station’s main road.  BTW, the station has its own bull-dozer and grader to keep these dirt roads passable, and Marlee operates and repairs them!

 

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 Well, sorry to have gone on (and on) about this most interesting place.  It wasn’t easy to get to, but it was a real treat to visit, and educated us about Australia’s  economy, history, and way of life.  I don’t think our visit to this amazing country would have been complete without this experience.