Australia & New Zealand
March 1, 2014 -- We woke up this morning in Australia
"It's hotter than a firecracker," Con said, wiping his dripping brow. Good thing he's wearing his DripFit shirt. The humidity in the Cairns is so thick, I think we could step off the balcony of our Shangrila Hotel room and walk over to the marina, just a stone's throw from where we're sitting.
This is Fall, and the monsoon season in the down under. We're well below the equator, the first time I've ever been so far south in my life. Not for Con, he lived in Australia for a few years in the early 70s.
Birds are beautiful and talkative -- loud! Walking down the main street in Cairns, Con stepped into a car rental shop. I called Con to come back to the side walk, "Listen to the birds!"
The lady in the store called out subtly, "They're not birds; they're bats."
"In the day time?"
"In the day time." I stepped further into the street and clearly saw them, and instantly sprinted to take cover. Bats are on my “not comfortable at all with them” list. The lady just laughed. It likely surprises a lot of first timers to Cairns.
There were thousands of them in the trees, "Watch that you don't walk under them," an Aboriginal man stood near me snickering, "they'll shit on you."
The lady added, "Don't worry, you'll smell them first."
(Take a moment to buffer the video by playing it through once and returning to start for smooth viewing.)
I watched a few lone bats fly out of their upside down position, circle the perimeter, land upright, and swing upside down in their hanging position. They're extremely important to the eco system, cross pollinating the fruit trees and all, but they're creepy. They're Black Flying Fox Bats and an extremely large colony of them too, and have taken up residency in front of the public library. They are among the largest bats in the world, feeding on the fruit trees and flowers.
Our good friend Judy, from Pacific Pearl is visiting her mom in Cairns and we prearranged to get together. It was wonderful to meet up with a friend but in a completely different country! We’d wintered with Judy and Bruno in Kos and in Marina di Ragusa in the past.
With our Great Barrier Reef visit aboard a catamaran booked, we will be viewing the real "down under" in the morning. Stinger suits, mask, snorkel, and fins will be provided. It's the season for the box jellyfish and a tiny thumb-sized one that is dangerously prevalent in the waters around Cairns. Its sting is tiny but it creates a very nasty Irukandji syndrome, which can cause death if not treated within 30 minutes. While snorkeling around the reef, it would be incredibly rare to encounter any of those creatures. Below is a photo of the box jellyfish that creates the Irukandji syndrome.
Why this bird decided walking across the street was a good idea we'll never know. (See video -- allow buffering time and then replay.)
March 3 -- Great Barrier Reef
An amazing day at the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the world's largest coral reef and one of the seven wonders of the world, joining the Grand Canyon; The Harbor at Rio de Janeiro; Mt. Everest; Northern Lights; Paricutin Volcano; and Victoria Falls. The boat set off despite the fact that rain was scheduled a few times throughout the day and heavy winds, and for us, it was the better of the two days, because tomorrow promises more rain and more wind. A cyclone just north and east of us is kicking up the water. Unfortunately for a quarter of the people aboard the catamaran to the Reef were sick and crew passed around sea sickness pills and barf bags left and right. If they weren't throwing up, they were sleeping because those pills can knock you out! Once we arrived at our first dive sight, tied to the buoy, nearly everyone scrambled to get into their skin-tight jellyfish protective lycra gear to get into the water. Con and I were among the first. The water was warm and wonderful. The skin-tight gear is important for two reasons: the deadly miniature box jellyfish and to prevent sun burns. I loved the suit! We were covered from head to toe, full mitts too. The only exposed area was just below my mask and part of my chin.
Can you believe it: I WAS STUNG BY A PINK JELLY FISH! Right on my upper lip – the ONLY exposed area. I turned my head left fascinated by the sights and when I looked forward again, the jellyfish was right in front of me -- too late -- it sucked onto my lip and stung me! I swam quickly over to Con to tell him and he said without sympathy, "How could you miss it?" I waited 20 minutes, and when there didn't appear to be any poison seeping through my body, I enjoyed myself again. This time, I swam with one hand covering my lips and chin. We didn't have an underwater camera and I really kick myself for that! Instead, I've scooped pictures from other websites and off the brochure. On our second dive, we swam over clams the size of small cars! Incredibly colourful. One had purple living tentacles all over it, with a large pipe-shaped opening that was meant to lure fish inside for its dinner. Everything we looked at was alive, from the fish to the coral, to the tiny living creatures floating around us and in and around the branch-like, mushroom-like, oddly shaped objects. It's another world down there! You can hear the "chomp chomp chomp" from the Parrot fish eating away at the coral, creating sand as poop. There's a purpose for every living creature down there (even the blasted bastard jellyfish) that keep the eco system alive and well.
March 3 2014 -- Rainforest in the Rain
It was pouring rain, so why not visit the Rainforest. And, why not by train (the historic Kuranda Train) and sky rail. Not far from Cairns, about 20 minutes by vehicle, we entered the Daintree Rainforest. Con, looking handsome as always, waiting for the train to Kuranda, the touristy village at the top of the mountain. It was a spectacular trip, passing sugarcane fields and the beautiful Barron Falls. We stopped at a half-way point to get out and take a few pictures. Back aboard, we carried on to the top, where we were deposited in the tiny village. Wasting no time, we disembarked and climbed aboard the sky rail that takes us high over the rainforest. By this time, it was pouring rain! Perfect, don't you think? The trees were as tall as high rise buildings in downtown Calgary and the forest so thick we couldn't see the bottom! At times we could see the crocodile filled rivers below meander through the rainforest to the Coral Sea.
Yes, the crocs swim in the salt water! It was all awesome.
House plants we might have in our homes were as big as buildings here, all of them competing for the sunlight above the forest canopy. From above, seeing the enormous size of the sprawling branches, from the winning trees in their competition for sunlight was breathtaking. At times, we passed through rain clouds leaving us feeling suspended in the thick air. My heart was beating twice as fast realizing how very very small we are on earth compared to the surrounding forest, or just compared to one tree. It was awe inspiring!
March 8 -- Welcome to another day in paradise!
We're watching a potential cyclone forming and the Australian Cyclone group expect it to hit landfall just south of our current location -- EXACTLY our planned route for tomorrow! To be safe, since they're talking about flash floods, we booked another night here in Mission Beach until we know better what that cyclone is going to do. Our hotel in Mission Beach is tucked behind mangrove trees and right in front of those trees is the Pacific Ocean. Viewing the pictures from the last cyclone that hit this area in 2011 makes me uncomfortable so close to the water. Especially because the Saltie's live in this neighbourhood. Also spiders, the likes of which I've never seen in my life. Stretching my fingers out on my hand might be the measurement of one suspended in a tree just in front of our screen door. The proprietor said, "Keep your screen doors closed!" You don't have to tell me that twice.
We passed a beautiful beach on the way here, and an aboriginal walked over to us, "Salties swim in them waves. It's like heaven, you can see it but you can't go there."
Nature gives us a surprise every day in Australia. A 100 meter walk from our Port Douglas hotel were the warning signs: Beware of crocodiles.
We were told they lost a lot of Cassowary birds in the 2011 cyclone, so spotting them is tougher. I pulled a photo off a website. They're blue flightless birds, standing six foot tall. Still in awe of the Australian wildness, here's another gem of a picture Stephen, who checked us in yesterday, took on the front lawn of the neighbouring property, a python devouring a wallaby (pictured in the rotation).
On the way to our car, I clicked this photo of the spider, larger than my hand, just above my head. It's one wondrous mesmerizing sight after another as we make our way from Cairns through the rainforest, cane fields, and cattle-grazing lands.
Insurance on the car is high, and we're hoping our VISA plan will hold us covered if we hit a kangaroo. Many vehicles have the big bars across the front, and we see why, having passed two kangaroos that became victims of road kill. Beautiful birds fly overhead and a flock of cockatoo's this morning. We are real tourists here, driving half the highway speed just to take everything in.
March 9 -- Gale winds continue to bash the east coast as the cyclone (now moving back to sea) leaves its wind and rain in its wake. Now in MacKay, we're overlooking the marina watching the big waves roll in and listening to 90 km winds in the night. We kept a close watch on the cyclone advisory and timing.
March 10 -- Rockhampton! The Tropic of Capricorn. The circle of latitude that runs around the world runs through this city. Con and I are at the sun dial that marks that spot, called the Spire. It's the most southern point of the sun in its annual journey. From this point and south, the weather should theoretically be cooler as we're further from the equator 'down under'.
And, "no" the toilet doesn't flush the opposite way if you were wondering -- that's a myth. We had to test it though.
We walked through the Botanical Garden – beautiful. Spotting Australia's wonderful animals in setting appearing to be cozy despite being a zoo. You can see in the picture rotation below a koala in a Eucalyptus tree, kangaroo, crocodiles and a female cassowary bird.
March 11 -- Finally, the sun arrived!
We stayed in a fantastic old building built in the 1800s and restored like many of the buildings in Rockhampton, this one into a beautiful high-ceiling bed and breakfast.
Following the Bruce Highway south toward Bundaberg City on the Coral Sea, we checked into a condo styled two-bedroom luxury place with sliding doors all around opening to the blue sea.
The would-be cyclone has gone back out to sea, but we're keeping our eye on it. The wind is still strong, but the rain has stopped, much to the chagrin of the locals who could use some more rain.
March 14 -- Noosa Beach
We arrived at the Sunshine Coast (along Australia's east coast) south of the crocodiles "Salties" and south of the deadly jellyfish. The water is cooler here, but when we tested the ocean this afternoon, if was feeling pretty comfy. We are south of the equator and of the Tropic of Capricorn. So, driving "south" for us means the weather gets cooler. In fact, when the sun crosses the sky, unlike what we're used to in the northern hemisphere, it travels across the north. People mount solar panels on the north side of their roofs.
The tiny dots on the waves (in the rotation pictures below) are surfers. The picture was taken down the highway from our hotel, but across the street, the annual surfing competition is in full swing. Today are the semifinals and tomorrow the finals. Perfect timing! Lots of surfers are here from California. I would think they're a bit disappointed with the ocean state with the cyclone turning back to the ocean leaving the waters calm. The waves are only a half meter high, with an occasional taller one.
On our drive today, Con was just slowing down from passing a vehicle (really) and we were flashed by an Aussie officer from the other side of the road, who turned around to pull us over. Waiting for the inevitable ticket, we tried to guess how much it would be (going 116 KPH in a 100 KPH zone)... We figured around $160, but err, it was $220. The officer (walking muscles) had Con go into his vehicle for a breathalizer test – at 10 am. Con learned his lesson in Turkey when we were pulled over a few years ago for speeding, and asked, "Is there a way we can settle this right now?" That question nearly cost Con a trip to the local jail. He smiled at the muscles in uniform and accepted his ticket.
March 18 -- New Zealand
Flying from Brisbane into Auckland, we rented a car and drove up to Whangarei, in the North Island to meet up with my cousin Heather. She moved to New Zealand many years ago, and our reunion will connect us after 30 years. It was wonderful.
New Zealand is beautiful, lush and green. Gone are the hillsides filled with sheep which are now replaced by dairy cows. This morning, we drove up to the Bay of Islands, the most popular place for sailing in the country. You can see why. I pulled this aerial photo off the website. View just around the corner from our motel. Just like a boy -- Con has to walk to the edge of the waterfall.
March 22 -- We tucked in with Con's cousin Iman and wife Marriette who live just south of Auckland on a pretty hobby farm. Now in Auckland, we enjoyed our walk along the waterfront, a ferry ride to the island of Devenport and a McPie from McDonalds. (Meat pie is theirs and Australia's national food.)
Thanks to our friend Judy for introducing us to Jamie (end of the table on the left) and Renee on the right, we had a fun dinner together with other friends Erica and Frans at Jamie and Renee's house.
Sailing friends Jane and Dave, whom we met in Bodrum, Turkey are visiting Jane's relatives in New Zealand and met us at our hotel Sunday morning for coffee. It's a small world!
March 23 -- On our last day in New Zealand, we went up the 328-meter high Sky Tower for a view of Auckland. Just below us were bungee jumpers. It's the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern hemisphere. (Photos above in the rotation.)
Visiting the geothermal area of Rotorura, New Zealand was very "cool" actually HOT! It was once the site of 500 pools, most of them alkaline chloride (hot springs) and about 65 venting geysers. Seven of the geysers are active, spewing up to 30 meters every hour. In the last 150 years, this area has been affected by the volcano's erupting. It was spectacular.
BACK TO AUSTRALIA
March 26 -- Last full day in Australia
Our hotel overlooked the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The view was incredible to the point where it was hard to take your eyes off it to go out and walk around in it!
Weather was comfy, and we set off for another great day on foot, up and down the streets, stopping for delicious sushi from an outside stand and eating it in the sun watching the people.
Making our way to the botanical gardens, just behind the Sydney Opera House, we were dumbfounded by the birds! Beautiful, colourful, some squawking, some singing, and spiders! Spiders! Spiders! They hang proudly in their enormous webs. Pay attention when you walk through the trees in case you walk through a web!
The one pictured in the slide show was shy, stuffing himself the statue's scrotum. He was easily the size of my fist.
I couldn't get over the cockatoos and Con and I sat watching them for some time. Eventually, I walked closer with the camera. This is what happened when I captured two just above my head mating. (Buffer the video by letting it play through, then slide the button back to start for smooth viewing.)
Later, we paid for ferry passage and rode from one end of the river passing the Sydney Opera House, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, passing high-rise buildings, mangroves, and exotic birds (pelicans, love birds, and so many we can't name). Notice the Sydney Opera House is built to resemble sails.
From our hotel window we had a great view of people walking up and over the Sydney Harbour Bridge -- for a price!
(See photos below)