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Rainy Day at the Cairns Botanical Garden

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Despite on and off drizzle, the Botanical Gardne was at its best. The rain washed all the leaves clean and gave a bit of shine to all the plants.

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Outdoor plantings are complemented by the indoor collection of bromeliads, orchids, and butterflies. We also saw the weirdest mushroom I’ve ever seen. It grows a little lace dress for itself. Very strange indeed. They probably came out during the rain.

 

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Cairns: Tropical North Queensland

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Before the plane lands in Cairns you see the new environment. Unlike anywhere else we’ve been in Australia, the forest of north Queensland is dense green. Enough rain falls year round to keep a thick cover of trees and underbrush growing. We thought Darwin would be like this, but even though it is often hotter, Darwin is in seasonally dry tropical forest. There isn’t enough rain in the dry season to keep everything growing. As a consequence the forest around Darwin is thinner, with less underbrush.

Not only is the forest around Cairns dense, it covers coastal mountains so steep that only a few roads cut across into the interior. Though we are well into autumn in the southern hemisphere, the temperature hits 80° F. most days, and we do use the pool in our yard. Two blocks away is Kewarra Beach. On weekends there are lifeguards and the net to keep out box jellyfish. There are reminders about other hazards, as well.

We had a preliminary look at the coast, driving from our base in Kewarra Beach north as far as Wangetti.

Next we went inland to Barron Gorge. There are boardwalks built along the edge of the cliff overlooking the gorge. There isn’t a swimming hole here because the water eventually runs into the power generating station for Cairns. The view is lovely and we saw new birds along the way.

At the far end of the complex is Wright’s Overlook, where you can see Cairns in the distance. We’ll do more exploring across this area now that we’re back on our schedule of staying for a month rather than having to “run off” after a week or two.

 

One week in Adelaide

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One week is barely long enough to get an introduction to a place like Adelaide. We did our best, visiting Hahndorf, walking around historic Port Adelaide, tasting wine in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, and visiting beaches, despite a bit of rain. The drought in South Australia is so bad that we can’t begrudge farmers what they need.

Our Airbnb in Sellicks Beach was a good outpost for exploration. We watched sunset from the second floor deck and listened to the flock of cockatoos twittering in the nearby pines.

We knew there was a lot of wine produced near Adelaide, but we had no idea how many wine regions are crammed into this relatively small area. We were very close to McLaren Vale, where we tasted wine at a couple of different places. We did the same in the Adelaide Hills, and of course, the Barossa Valley, perhaps the best-known of all. Some marvelous wine came to light. The more places we visited, the more suggestions we received about other wineries. So much wine, so little time!

We had some surprising wildlife encounters along the way. After looking for kangaroos and seeing a very few, we passed a field of them.

Even closer to home we passed a field of at least 1,000 Little Corella cockatoos. The birds were playing, fighting over sticks, all flocking together, waiting for the sunset (?).

We spent an afternoon in Hahndorf, a small town with many well-preserved stone houses. The area was started as a German Lutheran outpost and today is a lively tourist destination, full of shops and cafes. It makes a nice visit.

Historic Port Adelaide has a self-guided walking tour map that takes you past local stores and many large murals. I stopped to chat with a woman putting the finishing touches on hers. The community hosts muralists every two years and has just added another dozen in 2019. This area, so close to the downtown of Adelaide, makes me think of Fremantle. Port Adelaide may be the next hip community in South Australia. It looks up and coming, with lots of new housing and businesses opening.

On Saturday morning, we stopped at the Willunga Farmer’s Market, one of our favorites in all of Australia. The market had really lovely local produce. It’s not all food stalls and perfumed soap. When I commented to a woman about how much we enjoyed and appreciated the range of products, she told us the secret. Vendors are carefully vetted and get a stall based on a point system that rates whether all their products are local, whether their ingredients are local, foods made and cooked locally, with an effort to have everything that is sold there come from a maximum of 100 km away. The more local a product, the more likely the vendor is to get a space.

Willunga contrasted sharply with the other farmers market we visited. The Torrens Island market is a farmers market in an older sense of the word to my way of thinking. It’s a place where produce is sold at the end of the week (Saturday) and it consists of what is left over from wholesalers. We didn’t buy much, but the prices were about half what you’d pay at the grocery store, and much less than most farmers markets, as most have gotten very upscale in their pricing. Torrens Island is the opposite of boutique. It’s held on a scrap of raw land in an industrial zone that makes you happy to see other cars parked in the lot. Booths are stacks of crates, truck beds, and an occasional canopy. You can buy a coffee, but there are none of the food stalls that crowd out the merchandise at other markets. It’s a bare bones operation in a bare setting. Jonathan asked the people parked beside us what they planned to do with the crate of tiny potates they were loading into the trunk of their car. The man said, “We’ll eat some, give some away, and toss the rest. I couldn’t pass them up, they were only two dollars!”

Like all our other stops in Australia, there were gorgeous beaches. Sellicks Beach was our local, but we had a great visit to Port Elliot and to the beaches beyond on the barrier island at the mouth of the Murray River. We even saw a stubby lizard on the dunes.

With all our stops and strolls, I still feel there was a lot more to see and do in this area.

Opal Hunting in Coober Pedy

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There are said to be two million spoil heaps from opal mining in and around Coober Pedy, and the same number of holes…

I wanted to hunt for opals. I like rocks and minerals, have years of experience poking around in the dirt as an archaeologist. If anyone can find them, it should be me. True, thousands of other people have hunted for opals over the years and most of them have not become rich. I don’t need riches, but I want to find an opal.

Opal hunting areas are remote, and the annual opal festivals are held in the dead of the austral winter when temperatures subside and we will have left Australia. (Coober Pedy’s daytime temperature can hit well over 100° from October through April.) Taking a day trip from the Ghan to Coober Pedy was the way we could visit this strange mining town where half the population lives underground.

Jonathan emerges from the underground Serbian Orthodox church.

Underground life began as a practical choice. People dug into the soft rock hunting opals and camped beside their works. With a bit of enlarging, the former mining areas became rooms that maintain a constant mild temperature. Occasionally, the opal mined during room construction paid for the digging.

Opal is a fickle material, formed as liquid evaporates from cracks in other rock. Lots of opal is very thin, a sheen on a surface. There are beautiful opalized fossils where opal formed on the fossil’s surfaces in the hairline crack between fossil and parent rock. Unfortunately for jewelry lovers, this means that a gorgeous colorful solid opal is a great rarity. I was told that you cannot get opals wet. Part of the reason was that inexpensive “triplet” opals (a sandwich of backing, opal layer, glass) can peel apart when wet. A salesman said that these days there are excellent waterproof glues used and now opals are watertight. It also means that it is more difficult than ever to tell whether the opal you buy is solid or a composite. Honest dealers clearly mark the differences. Colorful opals run well over $10,000 for an attractive ring with a medium sized stone.

Though the train had a day-long stop in Coober Pedy, the staff didn’t understand that some of us (me) really wanted to hunt for opals, not just spend five minutes poking the rock after a mine tour. Jonathan and I got directions to the “Public noodling” site and set off. We promptly got confused, possibly by the “Waffles and Gems” sign across the street. It took part of our precious time to find the place, but then we got to work. There are acres of crushed pale rock. It’s very soft and you’re immediately covered in dust from the surface. It is possible to rent shovels and sifting screens locally, but we contented ourselves with poking around, which is why it’s called noodling, or fossicking.

My opal

Because opals can be one side of an otherwise plain rock, people are always finding new items in old piles. We found very little, and wished we had more time, but I did find a tiny piece of opal, and that was my goal. We chatted with a mother and daughter who were giving the piles a full day. They had hunted around, gone into town for equipment and were settling down for an afternoon of hunting. The daughter showed us the pieces of pale opal they had collected–more than we found.

Rejoining our group, we visited a mine and looked at the shaft, heard about how you make explosives (alarmingly easy), had lunch along a long table in an old mine tunnel, and did a bit more poking. This time we got to pick the rock out of the cave wall. It could have yielded something. Mining opal is a bit like spending your days scratching lottery tickets. Every strike of the pick is another try, but at the end of the day you are more likely to have nothing than a jackpot.

An opal mining works above ground portion.

Uluru: A Wonder of the World

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We planned to skip the Ghan’s Uluru option (crowds, distance, expense) and tour Alice Springs, where the train stops for the day. We changed our minds when we found that the scenic flight from Alice to Uluru included a stop on the ground to see Uluru up close, a drive around the rock, and some time to walk around.

From the air, we finally saw The Outback. Not a bare desert, but a vast area of tan grasses, spindly gum trees, and lots of an invasive grass from S. Africa that we are assured no animal will eat. Parts of the Outback resemble the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico. What differs is its immensity. We flew more than 400 km and saw roads only at takeoff and landing. There was one town, Hermannsburg, a former mission. There was also Pine Gap. If you watch Netflix, you may have seen the new show set at the CIA/Australian joint spy base. Having seen a few episodes, it was a bit strange to actually see the field of white domes that covers the spying equipment. Beyond Pine Gap and Hermannsburg, we saw no isolated farmsteads, roads, trains, trucks, vehicle tracks, not even any animals. Somewhere below us was a cattle station of over one million acres, yet we saw no evidence of this. There were no fences, water tanks, windmills, air strips, the features of remote farms.

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Geology and vegetation create the landscape. What looks like the green verges of a superhighway is a geological fault. A crack in the earth lets a bit of water escape and a streak of dark green trees emerges. Pale earth is peppered with green shrubs, alongside an empty river cut through rock. An irregular band of white pools crossed our route, a dry river of salt, hundreds of thousands of tons too remote to mine. Straight lines on the ground are bands of red, ochre, and tan stone lying one beside the next, straight as an arrow, or bending in parallel lines created eons ago. On the distant horizon rounded hills suggest this flat plain eventually ends.

Some of the landscape recalls aboriginal painting, circles, dots, lines of contrasting colors. How can there be no roads? Finally, I begin to see roads, threads of orange-brown.

After an hour and a half in the air, we approached Uluru, imposing even from above. The aerial circuit was spectacular, and was followed by a swing around Kata Tjuta, a knobby rock formation that is close by, aeronautically speaking, though it would take at least an extra day to visit by car from Uluru.

Kata Tjuta, with Uluru in the background.

We are compressing a three day visit into one, our aerial outback tour followed by a picnic lunch on the ground at a shelter perfectly positioned to let us soak in Uluru while sitting in the shade. Next we walk to the Mutitjulu Waterhole with a stop at some rock art along the way. Everyone sees different things in the rock art.

Our tour guide was a white Australian, young enough to be completely captivated by Aboriginal stories of The Dreamtime. The age of rock art is given as 5000 to 8000 years old. When we asked whether there had been any archaeological investigation of the area to provide samples for dating the rock art, the young man enthusiastically told us that archaeology wasn’t needed because the stories of The Dreamtime are supported by visual proof. “See the way there is a dark shadow on the rock that follows the curve of the cliff?” “That is the snake from the story of….” He believes that there is nothing more needed than the stories to explain Uluru. Science is not part of his mindset, at least not right now. We wonder why the guides are not Aboriginal people.

Completing a circuit of Uluru by car, we hear the history of visits and visitors. Many people have climbed it over the years, and though the aboriginal owners have banned climbing as of October 2019, there will be controversy until no one remembers when it could be climbed. We are not staying long enough to consider a climb.

On our return flight, I try to photograph as many of the different patterns of landscape as I can, knowing that a photo through the window of a small plane will be no substitute for seeing the many forms of the land that expand the definition of “desert” to a much broader range of shapes and colors. Back in Alice Springs, I am amazed and content. The tiny plane barely scared me and our visit to Uluru was beyond great.

The day is not over, as the entire train of 300 dines al fresco at the old Alice Telegraph Station. As the sky darkens and the stars come out, we walk away from the illuminated dining area to look up. The Milky Way is a starry shawl thrown into the heavens, while the constellations shine brightly, performing the fandango of the night sky.

Internet Photo

 

The Ghan: Railroad Adventure to Katharine, NT

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We wanted to see the interior of Australia, that vast dry landscape that fuels novel after novel, starting for me with The Thorn Birds, on through the mysteries of Arthur Upfield (The Bone is Pointed). Everyone in Australia knows the true stories of exploration by Burke and Wills, who completed their crossing of the continent, dying of starvation at the end of their journey. There are ranches (stations) of more than a million acres, where drones are starting to be used to track animals. We wanted to see a region that is so resistant to encroachment by man.

Australia is both huge and largely empty, and travelers who want to leave the principal urban regions have to go prepared. Having left our camping and RVing days behind us, we decided that taking the train from Darwin to Adelaide would give us a chance to see some of the “Red Center.” We booked our trip on the Ghan, choosing the expedition version that stops each day in the 4 day/3 night journey for a side trip. This was perfect for us. We took the Indian Pacific train across the country from Sydney to Perth last month, and it didn’t work out at all, so with a bit of trepidation, we set off for the Darwin train station.

This time, the trip started on time, and after an early lunch–who doesn’t enjoy a dining car?–we stopped in Katharine, a mere 300 km down the road, for an afternoon visit to Katharine Gorge. We took the relaxing trip, a boat cruise along the sides of the gorge with a stop to look at aboriginal rock art. There is more spectacular rock art in Australia, but most of it requires a healthy hike in the high heat and humidity. I asked our boatman whether the holes in his hat were from a crocodile bite. (He laughed.) We did see a salt water crocodile on our cruise. They have a very pointed nose and are only 4-6 ft. long. They couldn’t even get your foot in their mouth…..

Back on board the train, we watched the dry scenery until sunset, then met new people at dinner. Most of the other travelers were Australians taking the trip to see more of their country, though we chatted with people from the UK, the US, and New Zealand. Overnight, the Ghan crossed a lot of empty territory. We watched the sun come up over a dry, dry landscape. It’s not desert with sand dunes, but desert with colored rock, low scrub bushes, and sparse grass.This was Day 1. More soon.

Good to know about Darwin, Australia

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We enjoyed Darwin very much, and were there for a very short time by our standards (10 days).

Airbnb: Our place was excellent, with a large roofed outdoor patio and a small pool. We used both often.

Air Conditioning: Is a must for Darwin, at least in the bedroom. The temperature is normally over 90°F. during the day and doesn’t cool too much overnight.

Do you get swollen feet?: The heat and equally high humidity has a big impact on travel. Between 10 am and 6 pm your clothes start sticking to you after a minute or so outdoors. You may not want to walk very far. If you visit a national park to hike, you need to consider how hot it is likely to be when you arrive, and how long a hike you intend to take. We tried to do most of our walking 6-10 am, and it worked very well, even though we are not morning people. If your ankles/feet swell in hot weather, or you develop heat rash easily, this may not be the place for you. The tropical setting is lovely and there are lots of birds, but it won’t be fun if the heat and humidity make you miserable. We would have stayed longer despite the conditions.

Hazards: During “The Wet,” between November and May, crocodiles spread from estuaries across coastal waterways and into the ocean. The difference between fresh water and salt water crocodiles? The freshies just bite you, while the salties drown you and then eat you. Ready to go swimming? Neither am I. There are a few beaches with nets that make it possible to swim. The nets also keep out box jellyfish, or stingers, that are around during the same season. By June, both menaces retreat and it is safe to swim in most places. It’s never absolutely safe to walk the remote beaches.

Hot Days in Darwin

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Gunn Point Campsite

It doesn’t ever get very cool in Darwin, you have to seize the day and then duck into the shade, so that’s what we did and our ten days flew by. The park adjoining our deck continued to yield new birds, from tiny crimson finches to orange legged scrubfowl, a brown chicken-sized bird with long stilt legs the color of traffic cones. Nightcliff Beach gave us beach glass for more projects. Further along was the Casuarina Reserve, another lovely walk on the shore. One day we decided to take the road to the north until it ended, which is how we visited the Gunn Point campsite and the Tree Point Conservation Area. These places may not be on the top ten list, yet we saw something new at every one. We ended with an evening at the Foreshore Cafe watching the sun set over the ocean.

In Darwin city, we visited the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territories (MAGNT). We looked at the Australian art and Aboriginal art, the stuffed animals, and a display about the sky and art that blended everything from meteorites to contemporary painting. Not far from the museum, the Saturday Parap Market has lots of food stalls, craft shops, flowers, and even some fruit and veg. Art galleries nearby feature Aboriginal artwork. The best known market in Darwin is the Mindil Beach market. To avoid the drenching downpours of “The Wet,” the market runs from the last Saturday in April through October. We arrived a week too early, but Parap operates all year long and had a little bit of many things. Downtown Darwin is not the most popular part of the region, but we went on an aboriginal art crawl, visiting five different galleries and seeing a lot of artwork. There are so many pieces, and prices are high. We wondered how they will manage to sell it all.

The Darwin area is best known as the gateway to Kakadu National Park, but a visit requires at least one night away from home and a healthy hike in the heat. Instead, we drove out to have coffee in Humpty Doo. With a name like that, it was a must see. Beyond Humpty Doo, we stopped at the Fogg Dam nature preserve, an excellent place for bird-watching. There were crocodile warning signs all along the road, and I was happy not to see one.

For a close up with crocs, we visited Crocodylus Park on our final day in Darwin. Crocodiles are a hazard in this region, but they are also protected. A recent article suggested that Australia’s success in protecting crocodiles has resulted in an increase in crocs as far as New Guinea and Indonesia. Sounds like a mixed blessing. Crocodile breeding is big business and relies on wild crocs to provide lots of eggs. During the egg-laying season, collectors with special permits collect thousands of crocodile eggs from nests and bring them to facilities where they are raised in controlled temperatures, since precise temperature differences result in the hatching of males vs. females. Males are the delicate ones, needing to incubate at around 88° F. Otherwise, hotter or colder, the hatchlings are female. Australia exports both salt water and fresh water crocodiles, and croc skins for fashion products. I almost fell for a croc clutch for only AU$200. Then I thought, When would I carry it?

We had a great time in Darwin and wished we had allotted more time for our visit.

 

 

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The Heat of Darwin

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Stepping outside the airport terminal in Darwin, the humidity wraps you like a thick fog. It’s over 90°F, and barely started on the walk to collect the rental car, our clothes are sticking to us. Our new Airbnb is nearby, our host is waiting, and we get all the instructions we need in short order. Two minutes after his departure, we are sitting in the pool. It feels heavenly, and slowly my brain comes back online.

We are in Darwin at a good time, the start of the dry season. It may not rain at all while we are here, there are few bugs, and the crocodiles are retreating into the estuaries (I don’t think I will be swimming, just in case). Within two days, we adjust to the weather by getting up early to look at birds and avoid the heat, shop in the air conditioned stores during the heat of the day, and swim or sit on the patio in the late afternoon. Cumulus clouds build into giant fluffy white mounds. They are the Queen Mum of clouds, in stately progress toward the horizon. There are a surprising number of new birds in our yard and the nearby park, and a pair of huge flying foxes (bats) come out of a nearby tree at dusk. The last rays of the sun turn their leathery, translucent wings orange as they flap in a leisurely loop around the neighborhood (internet photo). When they return to the tree, they hang upside down. Folded-up, they return to their dark brown color, resembling a demented cat hanging by its tail. I’ve never seen anything like this. Welcome to Darwin, a different way of life.

There are lots of places where we can watch the sun set over the water. An hour before sunset, the park between our house and the beach comes alive.  Families emerge to walk or sit and chat, while the “pock pock” of bouncing balls becomes noticeable. Bicyclists whiz along the path. The sounds of people in the parkland continues until well after dark. Streetlights come on but people disappear only gradually. It is much nicer out after dark than it was in the heat of the day.

 

 

Good to Know About Perth, Australia

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Though we were only in Perth for two weeks, we saw a lot of wonderful places. It would be easy to spend six months traveling from the far south corner of Australia around Albany, moving along the coast until you reached Darwin. That’s about 5000 km, and part of the reason that we didn’t see more of Western Australia than we did. This is a really, really big place. Here are a few thoughts about our visit.

AirBnB: We stayed in Yanchep, north of Perth, in a house that overlooks the ocean. There is a drop to the beach of 5-10 m so we looked out over the water, not on the breaking waves, but we could hear them. Our house was comfortable and well furnished for a good-sized group. We had more than enough dishes, linens, etc. The TV was simple to work.

Attractions: We liked a number of tourist attractions that we might not have visited without the initiative of Lyra during her visit.

  • Guidebooks all recommend a visit to Rottnest Island, and now we do, too. It is a lovely vacation spot, with beaches for swimming and snorkeling around every corner. There are miles and miles of beaches along the coast, too, and lots have rocky reefs for snorkeling. Rent a bicycle, or ride the hop on-hop off bus like we did.
  • The Pinnacles, near Cervantes, is a geological marvel. If your group is young, stop to sand board at Lancelin on the way.
  • I was skeptical of the Yanchep Crystal Caves, which turned out to be impressive caves with an interesting story.
  • Fremantle Markets is a touristy area, but fun, with lots to look at.
  • We saw a comedy revue, Senior Moments, at the Heath Ledger theater at the State Theater Center. It was lots of fun–the Theater Center has a busy program.
  • Perth Botanical Garden and King’s Park is particularly nice to walk in. There are lots of paths, some raised so you don’t need to think about snakes. There are beautiful views over downtown Perth.
  • Yanchep National Park is home to a large flock of Carnaby’s cockatoos, an endangered species. We saw lots and lots of them near the Visitor’s Center!
  • We went on an outing with Bird Life Western Australia, and had a lovely time.

    Lyra rides a tortoise at Perth Zoo

    Everyone was friendly and we saw interesting birds at Tomato Lake.

  • Our visit to Perth Zoo was unforgettable due to Michele Cavanagh, docent extraordinaire. We met Michele on our Galapagos trip, and had a wonderful reunion in Perth. The zoo has many animals that are unique to Western Australia. (Do you know what a numbat is? Now I do.)

Driving: Roads are generally good in this area. Despite the distance (about an hour’s drive), we went in to Perth and Fremantle several times. The traffic was slow during rush hour, but it was easy to find parking in the city. The cost ranged from free to about $5.50 an hour. We saw signs announcing speed cameras, but we won’t know for about three months whether we got any speeding tickets. It doesn’t seem likely, but that’s what we thought in other places. There are no toll roads in this area.

Shopping: We found the best place to shop thus far in Australia, Mokoh Designs. They make interesting items with humorous Australian themes. We liked everything they sell.

Mokoh Designs, Perth Australia

We recommend Perth to everyone!