Preparing for New Zealand

In any trip, you need to take some breaks – time to drink a coffee or a glass of wine, walk by the beach, write postcards…do laundry or other similarly glamorous tasks. By Friday, after hiking, camping out, swimming, and diving, i was ready for a break. Plus I was flying to New Zealand on Saturday and I needed to clean the Outback dust and mud from my shoes. New Zealand takes protecting its biological treasures very seriously, and their bio-security is extremely strict.

So I spent Friday morning scrubbing my hiking shoes and sandals with a toothbrush and doing some other errands around the hostel. And I spent Friday afternoon eating seafood paired with Australian white wines.

Then Saturday it was off to Auckland! I had booked my flight from Cairns on Orbitz and hadn’t realized that the layover in Sydney was actually a change in airline (Jetstar to Qantas). It meant going from the domestic to the international terminal, checking in again, and dropping off luggage again. Luckily it wasn’t busy and I had a three hour layover, so all was fine.

Both Australia and New Zealand have an e-passport expedited immigration system where passengers from certain countries just scan their chip passport, get their photo taken, and go through without waiting for a person. It’s quite efficient, though I really do miss having the stamps in my passport!

The incredible, amazing Great Barrier Reef

Words can barely describe how fantastic the Great Barrier Reef is. Think of any coral exhibit you’ve seen at an aquarium. Now increase the diversity ten fold, and think about swimming in this underwater world, in the quiet and filtered sunlight. It just blows you away.

Last Thursday I went out on the Reef with Passions of Paradise. The day was hot and sunny, the ocean pretty calm. It was a perfect day to be out on the Reef.

We went to the deeper site first (Paradise Reef), where I had my intro dive. I’ve done a Discover Scuba/intro dive a couple of times before, so I was really surprised when I panicked putting my face underwater and trying to breathe through the regulator. Maybe it was because it was a deep dive site – the other two trained us in shallow water first. Or maybe I was just nervous about diving on the Reef. Regardless, my dive instructor, Geordie, was amazingly patient. You’d think that was a prerequisite for the job, but believe me, it’s not. (The instructor I had when I started getting an open water certification was not, part of why I never completed it.) I got my breathing under control and went underwater. I didn’t even have as much trouble equalizing as I previously had.

This intro dive had us all link arms, which was good because I was rolling (my weights may have been unbalanced) and panicking a bit that I was going to touch and harm the coral. Again, Geordie was great, and towed me around for most of the dive. I’m not sure why I had so much trouble on this dive, but the instructor was just amazing and I trust he kept me from destroying anything with my flippers!

There were so many different shapes of hard coral, and it seemed like every fish we saw was a different species! Apparently there was even a shark, though I wasn’t fast enough to see it. Some of the snorkellers saw it, though. (And while it is important to respect reef sharks, it’s also important to remember that they generally eat small fish and leave humans alone.) I was wearing a prescription mask I had rented and I could see everything so clearly! There was this one formation that looked like a tethered hot air balloon!

The second location was Michaelmas Cay, a sand island that is 95% a bird sanctuary (and smelled like one too!) You can walk into the water from the Cay and swim back to the ship. Instead of the hard coral of Paradise Reef, this area had an array of soft corals, like spaghetti coral.

I passed on another dive and instead snorkelled for the first time. I was nervous as my only prior experience with a snorkel was during the certification training, and ended in my swallowing a ton of water. I decided to stay close to the staff member taking a few of us on a coral tour, not least because he dragged a floaty around that I could grab on to. (I have never really swum in the ocean and while I am swim, I’m not a very strong swimmer.)

The non-coral sea life was also different – there were several turtles around, one of which I saw resting down in the coral. These Green Turtles are beautiful, multi-colored and majestic. We saw sting rays (well under us). There were even giant clams!

The whole experience was absolutely incredible. And I worked up quite an appetite, so I decided on a roo burger for dinner!

My pictures are pretty terrible, but here are a few. (It’s not easy learning to dive/snorkel and take pictures!)

Daintree Rainforest

The first day in Cairns, I headed out on a day tour to the Daintree Rainforest. This rainforest is notable as being the oldest surviving tropical rainforest in the world.

Unusually, almost the entire group of travelers on the tour were a group of Australian retirees. They were going on to stay for another couple of days in the Daintree area after the day’s tour.

On our way out, we passed tons of sugar cane fields, along with cattle. We were told that the cattle were a special hybrid bred to withstand tick bites, as a type of tick bite in that area could cause paralysis. Ah Australia, where almost everything wants to kill you, but there are soany cool things! (Needless to say, I was very careful to avoid high grass!)

We started out with a crocodile cruise on the Daintree River, hoping to see salties. And we were successful! We saw a couple of adults and some juveniles. Amazing how something so deadly has cute babies. They’d probably bite your finger off.

We then walked on a boardwalk in the rainforest. I had been really nervous that this would be elevated high and I would have trouble with the heights, but luckily it wasn’t high at all. Most of the living things we saw were plants, though we did see this lizard and some large spiders (off the path, thank goodness!) Warning if you hate spiders: the bottom two pictures out of the next five are of spiders.

Spiders:

I was a bit disappointed that this walk wasn’t longer, as it was really only about a half hour stroll and it was the primary reason why I had booked a (very expensive) day tour. Our guide explained to me that tours are only allowed to be in the Daintree for a total of six hours, and since a lot of time was spent going from site to site, we couldn’t really spend more time in any one place.

We spent some time further up at Emmagen Creek, heading onto a road requiring four wheel drive to get there (the Bloomfield Track). We were told we could swim, but I only waded, in part because the thought of crocodiles scared me. (Of course they’ve never seen a crocodile in that particular spot, or they wouldn’t let gullible tourists swim there – it’s bad for business! – but there were crocodile warning signs posted nearby.) The water was lovely, cold and clear enough we could see some fish.

At that stop, we also got to drink billy tea (made in a billy can) and taste a variety of tropical fruits. I was really glad to try the custard apple, which was yummy and dessert like. I had actually bought one in Melbourne at the Queen Victoria Market and wondered what all the fuss was about. Turns out it wasn’t ripe!

Then to Cape Tribulation, so called because of the trials and tribulations Captain Cook ran into there. (He got stuck on a reef and tore a hole in the hull of his ship.)

It’s where the Coral Sea (Great Barrier Reef area) meets the Daintree – two World Heritage sites meeting. It is a lovely beach. We could see piles of sand excreted by worms or balled up by tiny crabs.

One final stop – tropical fruit ice cream – and then it was off home to Cairns.

Ultimately I’m glad I went since I’d not have made it without a tour, but this one trip did seem to be less value than others. (It wasn’t the tour company – most companies I saw had a similar itinerary.)

Big Rocks

It’s hard to describe just how incredible last Monday’s two day, overnight Outback adventure with Emu Run was  (but I sure as heck will try, probably with a hefty word count!)

I was picked up from my hotel in Alice Springs at an hour I shudder to even mention, 5:44 am. My hotel was the first pick up of the day, as, lucky me, it was really close to Emu Run HQ. We spent 30 minutes picking up the others then headed towards Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and our campground close to the park. It’s a five to six hour drive, and strangely enough, for part of it, it was raining. The Outback is not exactly known for rain, though our guide Andy did clarify that the Outback is a semi-arid environment, not actually a desert. Makes sense since they have cattle ranches out there, but still strange to see all the green from the recent rains.

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Luckily by the time we arrived at camp, it was not raining. We set about getting a lunch of burgers put together (yay BBQ, Australia’s national cooking method!) then headed to Uluru.

Those first glimpses were so exciting – the biggest monolith in the world! Otherwise known as a darned big, single piece of rock!

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The first excitement had more to do with the fact that I was seeing this iconic landmark, one which I imagined to be, well, monolithic. But the closer we got, the more I realized that there were features on Uluru that distinguish its different faces.

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I joined the group doing the almost full base walk (9km out of around 12, I believe, or around 6 or 6.5 miles). This meant that I had less time in the cultural center, which I was sad about. The cultural center helped put a bit of context around Uluru and the sacred spots of the Anangu (the traditional owners, aka a couple of Aboriginal peoples). So did some of the signage. I won’t go into detail of the stories here, as part of the tradition is that the stories and specific views of Uluru are intertwined and contextual. (I don’t know that the word “stories”does justice to the complexity of the Anangu interaction with Uluru, either.)

Because of this contextual dependence, they ask that you not take pictures within specific areas. (For religious respect, safety, and minimization of environmental damage, they also ask you not climb Uluru. I signed the “I came and didn’t climb” guestbook they have in the cultural center.) Interestingly, it’s not just a specific marking or feature of Uluru that is considered sensitive, but the feature viewed from specific angles. I’ve taken some pictures, but only from outside of sensitive areas, respecting the beliefs of the Anangu.

Trudging through the red dirt, you get a sense of respect and awe for this enormous rock. It is easy to lose sight of others doing the base walk, what with all the scrub around the base, and you could feel yourself completely alone barring your hiking buddies, dwarfed both by the majesty of Uluru and the knowledge of the empty Outback spreading around you.

Back at camp, we headed to a viewpoint behind the camp to see sunset over Uluru and Kata Tjuta, a glass of bubbly in hand. The clouds parted enough for us to get some good color, and for a short instant to see what looked like a straight chunk of rainbow right next to Uluru. (Sadly, the rainbow doesn’t come out in the pictures.)

Andy had kindly made us dinner and started a campfire, so we ate, cleaned up, and went to bed early after a discussion of how we did not have to worry about snakes or spiders in the clear patch of dirt of the campground. Surprisingly enough, I did feel rather reassuref. I was rather hoping to hear dingoes at night (they don’t generally bother anyone larger than, say, a baby) but no such luck.

It wasn’t terribly cold, and the Australians have a fantastic device called a swag which is like waterproofing, mattress, and insulation all in one that you slip your sleeping bag into. I decided to risk the possibility of rain and sleep under the stars in the Outback. Unfortunately, there were no stars due to cloud cover.

As usual when camping, I woke up several times. At one point I opened my eyes and the sky above was sparkling. The clouds had lifted and more stars than most of us will ever see outside of a planetarium shone above. I have never seen so many stars. Stars lay behind other stars. It was clear enough that you could even see a milky band of what seemed like an unmoving cloud of stars – the Milky Way.

It was a privilege to see those stars, a profoundly moving sight. I woke up again and saw the stars before the clouds rolled in.

And Tuesday morning was another equally early morning as we headed to the viewpoint to see the sunrise behind Uluru. As the light dawned, we saw more and more of Uluru, and then suddenly it disappeared. Clouds had rolled in and we were getting rained on.

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We headed out to Kata Tjuta, the rain coming down in buckets. The primary hike in the Valley of the Wind was curtailed, as it would not have been safe in the downpour. We did a shorter hike,  beautiful, but increasingly wet and windy. Going wasn’t too bad, but the combination of wind and rain led to somewhat slippery conditions. Several of us turned back a little early due to that.

Everyone was drenched once we made it back to the bus. Our guide made the decision to go back to Uluru since we couldn’t hike Kata Tjuta and it’s very rare that visitors get to see waterfalls on Uluru. They only last maybe an hour after rainfall as there is nowhere for the rain to soak in to the rock – it all rushes down and past.

We were all game and started to exit the bus at the Mala Walk part of Uluru. Then suddenly the middling amount of rain became a downpour that assaulted us and we gave up, taking pictures from the open door of the bus. Eventually the rain slackened back to a middling downpour and I ventured out. It was worth it. The waterfalls were incredible!

We made a last stop at a waterhole that was shrouded in cloud then headed back to camp. Almost everyone else was heading out for the third day of hiking (due to be King’s Canyon, though that might have changed due to the rain) but another person and I headed to the airport.

I was off to Cairns!

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Flying to Alice

Last Sunday I flew to Alice Springs, a small town that is one of the larger cities in the Australian Outback, and best known to foreigners as a jumping off point to get to Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) and some of the other rock formations around there.

There are things to do there, but it’s pretty dead on a Sunday afternoon. I was excited about going to the Royal Flying Doctor information center, which fortunately was open. It’s pretty pricey ($15 Australian) but the money goes to a good cause, and if you’re interested in the Royal Flying Doctor service, where else are you going to get the experience? Also, should anything drastic happen to someone in the Outback, the RFDS are the clinicians who are going to take care of you, and I was about to head out on an overnight Outback camping trip!

The Royal Flying Doctor service provides primary care to people living scattered across the Outback. (To give you an idea of size, I’ve been told there is one farm – I think a cattle ranch – the size of Belgium.) This includes farmers and Aboriginal groups. They also, famously, provide emergency call out care and can provide a couple of ICU-level beds (or a NICU bed) in the airplane itself. It was a revolutionary concept when it was thought of. (If I remember correctly, in the first World War, though it took years to form it). Today it also acts as a medical transport service for patients going from an urban area to a state capital (for example transporting an organ recipient to the hospital the organ arrived at where the surgery will occur).

The museum has a short video presentation about the RFDS and then you can see a replica of their current plane, versions of their old radios (when they originally started the RFDS, communication was a problem until a pedal radio was invented), and old and current medical boxes. Even today, medical boxes are left in specific locations with each item numbered. Doctors will communicate with patients and tell them what emergency care to provide by speaking to the patient or caregiver and telling them which medication or procedure to follow based on the number on the label on the item in the box.

It’s an early form of telemedicine that I can’t imagine being routinely practiced in the US, though maybe we are getting there. (And in all fairness, maybe something similar that exists in the US that I don’t know about, but there has certainly been a lot of concern around regulating telemedicine in the US.)

I had been told by an Australian on my airport shuttle bus not to go out alone after dark in Alice Springs, and I had an early day the following day, so I just had a picnic dinner in my room. I didn’t actually particularly want to wander anyway. The locals sat out on Todd Mall – the main (tourist?) drag and watched the passersby. The steady gaze of so many people sitting the grass or curb was a little disconcerting!

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Exploring Melbourne

My one full day in Melbourne dawned rainy and chilly, unlike the previous day when I got to eat breakfast by the river:

The laneways (narrow streets or…lanes) do have a certain charm in the rain. I grabbed breakfast in a little coffee shop around the corner and then set out to follow a Visitors Centre suggested itinerary that wends its way through a number of laneways and arcades. Many  are charming, some are atmospheric and made me think I was in Phryne Fisher’s Melbourne. (Note the picture of the old warehouses.)

I then joined the I’m Free walking tour of Melbourne. We went from the State Library (a beautiful building)

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around to the old Melbourne Jail where Ned Kelly was held and hanged. Ned Kelly is an Victorian hero (Victoria as in the Australian state) who, from what I gather, could be considered as a mix of Robin Hood and the old American West. He was a famous bushranger (as these outlaws were called) who in his final showdown with the police, protected himself with what sounds like a suit of torso armor. (Apparently the suit is on display at the state library, though I didn’t have a chance to see it.)

We passed some beautiful old houses with wrought ironwork on our way to the Royal Exhibition Building. It’s an imposing building built after there was the influx of gold rush money.

We caught a passing glimpse of the state parliamentary gardens, followed by a lovely old theater and the state Parliament itself.

Chinatown, as I’ve seen in many other cities, is set off by entry arches. I’d caught a glimpse of them the night before when I had dinner at a dumpling house.

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We ended the tour by going through some laneways on our way to Federation Square, passing what is apparently the most photographed laneway due to it being legal to do street art there. There wasn’t much impressive street art like I’d seen in Buenos Aires, more an accumulation of tags. Our guide said part of why the street was so photographed is that Melburnians know to photograph a great painting any time they see it, as it might be covered by someone else’s artwork twenty minutes later.

I popped into the Koorie Heritage Trust Indigenous Cultural Center, worth a visit upstairs for indigenous art and artifacts. There was a photography exhibit going on as well, showing photography by an indigenous activist who took pictures of the aboriginal community. I got the impression her work was most important from a social/historical/activist context more than an artistic one.

I also popped into the National Gallery of Victoria’s Federation Square building to look at the aboriginal art. I wish I understood the symbolism in the art as I would get a lot more out of it. As it is, I enjoyed looking at the paintings but have no framework to put them in.

I wandered a little more and ended up going to the Greek area of Melbourne for some tasty lamb for dinner. I made it an early night as I had to get up early the next day to get to the airport.

So where do I fall in the Sydney vs Melbourne debate? I love Sydney – it’s an easy city to fall for. Melbourne takes more digging and I didn’t have a lot of time – there were moments like breakfast on the riverbank that were fantastic, but there was also a noticeable tent village under the elevated railroad tracks off of Flinders. Melbourne is known as being more cultural, and very liveable, which is harder to assess as a traveler passing through. I think, with enough time, I would love both cities.

Please Pet the Koala

And feed the kangaroos too.

Last Friday, I went on a day tour out to Phillip Island to see the little penguins. I hadn’t realized how far from Melbourne Phillip Island is, and found out that I wouldn’t be able to make my own way out there. Hence the tour.

Since the Penguin Parade at Philip Island starts at sundown and lasts around an hour, the tours add some additional nature experiences to fill out the day. What’s the Penguin Parade, you ask? Merely groups of adorable little penguins about a foot high (yes, that’s their fully grown height) that come in from the sea in groups and head to their homes, little holes or burrows off the sea.

Our first stop was Moonlit Sanctuary, which has a couple of koalas and loads of grey kangaroos and cute little wallabies, along with a number of birds, Tasmanian devils, and reptiles. For an additional fee, you can hug a koala. Of course I opted to do so!

They bring the koala out into a special enclosure and make sure he is well supplied with eucalyptus leaves. He honestly only seemed to care about his food, as long as nobody touched his head. Koalas spend most of a day asleep, only waking to eat for a few hours each day.20160602214207

His fur was incredibly beautiful and soft. I spent some time petting his back, while someone from the tour kindly snapped some pictures. (By some, I mean about fifty! But it did let me choose the ones where I don’t look supremely silly or awkward, so I am very grateful.)

Then I wandered down the wallaby walk with some food I’d purchased to feed the wallabies and kangaroos. The wallabies are incredibly gentle when they eat from your hand. They also, for your information, drool. Not the mild amount of drool that licking food off your hand entails, either. Totally worth it though of course. At the end of the walk, I coaxed this shy, small wallaby over. He put his paws on my hand while he ate. He was so endearing!

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Kangaroos are also lovely, but I could definitely tell that they have larger teeth. I made sure to keep my hand flat while feeding them!

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We had one of the perennial tour bbqs, then headed to the heritage farm on Churchill Island. We watched a sheep shearing and a whip cracking demo. Interesting though they were, this was definitely the least interesting part of the day. The view was lovely, though, and I got to peek in the old pioneer houses which I always enjoy.

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We then headed to the Koala Conservation Center on Phillip Island, where I got a closer view of koalas in the (more or less) wild. This is a fenced off area meant to keep the koalas contained from roaming the island. There are boardwalks that let you come much closer to the height at which koalas like to settle.

Wandering through, I heard this screeching noise as if someone were in pain or in trouble, so I rushed towards it only to see bunches of  tourists taking pictures. Turns out it was the female koala reprimanding one of the males for getting fresh!

It was getting closer to sunset (when the penguins come out of water) so we had one last stop before the Penguin Parade: the walk at the Nobbies, a beautiful walk in an area filled with penguin homes. We caught glimpses of penguins in some of the holes – just a flash of white, really. Our guide explained to us that little penguins spend long times (if I remember correctly, he said weeks) out at sea catching fish, only catching brief naps while in the water. When they are full, they come back to land, where they may spend days sleeping. This return to land is the Penguin Parade, which happens just after sunset because Little penguins are prey to almost everything (except, apparently, the seals that live nearby). Crossing the beach is slow going for the little birds, and leaves them vulnerable and exposed. And in fact, once the Penguin Parade had started, I did hear and see some predatory sounding birds swooping in.

The Penguin Parade is delightful. A crowd stands on wooden tiers, straining their eyes and ears to see the penguins coming. And then suddenly you can make out a group of small white blobs resting, standing still on the beach. Then they keep coming and are suddenly over the dune, pausing to rest again while more penguins follow their path behind them. Suddenly they are waddling past in classic penguin style, 10-20 of them in the first groups we saw. You can follow them by going along the boardwalk, watching them peel off one by one, then stand outside and chatter. Then another group waddles by.

No pictures are allowed at all, as the penguins’ eyes are very sensitive. I did actually see a ranger throw out some women from the main viewing area after giving them numerous warnings.

I wrapped up the evening back in Melbourne with dumplings in Chinatown with a young woman I met on the trip.