Archive for December, 2008

The Australia Zoo

December 29, 2008

On the drive down to Byron Bay for New Years we dropped in to the Australian Zoo for the day. This is Steve Irwin’s family’s zoo of The Crocodile Hunter fame. I didn’t realize the zoo was opened by his parents years ago or that he’d literally grown up in the zoo – hence his, er, comfort around animals.

Despite his tragic death the zoo has continued it’s efforts in educating the public of all the little beasties in the land. His wife Terry and their two kids are heavily involved day to day and occasionally head up the big Croc show in the "Crocasseum" – we were fortunate enough to see them that day! Their kids are now mini-celebrities and it looks like their being molded to carry on the fame and publicity their father and mother have garnered. While I have concerns with kids being pushed in to the spot light at least their cause is a good one – unlike some other children of the rich and famous. The daughter Bindi seems to already have her own clothing line and music videos – all animal related – to help rope in the young and spirited to saving animals.

The Zoo itself doesn’t have as many animals as some bigger zoos, i.e. Atlanta or Toronto, but the paddocks are huge and natural and the animals look healthier and happier than any zoos we’ve seen before – this was part of the demands Steve placed early on the Zoo’s administrators.  Apparently he felt that if the animals are being kept for the enjoyment of humans, they should eat and live as well as their visitors – hence the food is as good, or better in some cases, as anything we could buy! The tortoises were eating pumpkin, buttercup squash, beetroot, lettuce, carrot, rocket, and broccoli! And that was just her lunch!

Most people know Steve as pretty crazy and fairly hands-on, a tradition the zoo has adopted through and through. Handlers wander around with all sorts of animals and critters on their shoulders for close encounters of the furry kind. As well, the presentations all have the handlers in the cages – including three excited young lads ‘playing’ with 6 tiger cubs – who didn’t look like cubs to us! At one point the handler had 4 of them follow him through the air and leap in to the [heated in winter, cooled in summer] swimming pool! From the viewing area you could see through the pool to see the buggers swimming around with him chasing balls and sticks! Sorry there’s no photos but none came out through the wet glass.

Further to Steve’s fondness for pissing off Crocs, the Crociseum show included Irwin’s long time pal jumping in the water with them, and eventually leading this prehistoric hunter back to his pen by swimming 4 feet in front it him!

All in all, a great day!

See photos of all the animals here


Fraser Island. Christmas on the beach!

December 28, 2008

Having rented a 4-wheel drive camper and had no real reason to use it, I relished the thought of getting over to Fraser Island! Located north east of Brisbane, Fraser Island is the worlds largest sand island, and holds the worlds only sand rooted rain forest!

The entire island is now a protected national park and heritage area and is only accessible by 4 wheel drive – all the roads are loose sand, wicked fun, and the eastern "70 mile" beach (actually only 53 miles long) acts as the highway to scoot up and down the island. Driving was unbelievable fun – bouncing around the van on squishy tires, off-roading in sand ruts, over roots, up hills, through rivers and booting up the beach at 85kms/h! Sarah had some ‘fun’ learning to drive standard on the left side of the beach, and I got to help a few people get their trucks out of foot deep sand, yahoo!

To top it all off of course, this was Christmas week.  We spent 5 days on the island in total, camping on different spots of the eastern beach each night.  We’d had trouble with the camper van’s fridge (it turns out the second battery had been disconnected from the alternator, meaning it had NEVER worked!  A letter will be written….) so we found a mechanic on the island who jerry rigged a switch to our bumper to allow us to charge the thing up while driving.  This allowed us cold beer (and eggs etc etc) and of course champagne on Christmas morning! As you’ll see from the photos, there was no snow, but plenty to look at.

On our first day, we visited Lake McKenzie – a picturesque fresh water ‘perched’ dune lake, surrounded by pure white sand.  Dune lakes fit under 3 categories – Perched, formed by water trapped in the sand above sea level by a layer of rock; Window, formed by depressions dropping below the water table; and Barrage, lakes formed where a water course has been dammed by sand. Whereas McKenzie is crystal clear water, there are also tea-coloured lakes… much safer for skinny dipping but a bit more frightening as god knows what is lurking beneath you! That night we found a fantastic (and shaded!) spot to camp and returned to this spot the next night for Christmas morning.  You’ll see in the photos the view we woke to on Christmas!

We woke up early Christmas morning to see what Santa had brought us, drank some champagne (it should be noted of course that it is actually ‘sparkling wine’ of which Australia seems to be currently making the best stuff!) and lounged about. We drove up the beach for a swim in Eli Creek where Sarah did another monkey impression – and was a bad influence on some young children who followed suit. Further up the beach is an old wreck of the Maheno, an old trans-Tasman ocean liner that has seen better days, and the Pinnacles – multi-coloured sand formations, supposedly the best in Australia! Further still we came to Tukkee Sandblow – one of many on the island.  This was our chance to run up a sand dune and pretend we were in the middle of the Sahara!

Christmas night we took some sleeping bags down to the beach to look at the stars for a few hours – an unbelievable view from out there! Did we mention there are wild Dingoes on Fraser Island?  Hundreds of them? You aren’t allowed to feed them or interact with them but sometimes you can’t help it – insofar as jumping out of your skin, yelping, and running back to the Campervan as quickly as you can.  Yes, our star gazing ended suddenly as, upon turning towards a noise in the dark, we found packs of wild dogs ready to pounce.  Sarah assures me it was only 2 or 3 of them and they were more scared than we were but I know she’s just saying that to make me feel better.

There are also some photos of the Champagne Rocks – some tidal pools that fill with ocean waves leaving you surrounded by bubbles of air …. like sitting in a glass of salty champagne.  Our first visit was when the tide was out and it was quiet, the next we had a few hours to ourselves until about 9am when a bus load of Irish joined us!

All in all, this was one of our favorite stops so far – thanks to Ed for suggesting we spend time here – it made the 4wd all worth while and hats off to Toyota – that van was almost as capable as Eric-The-Jeep (whom I miss terribly).

We made it off the island in once piece on Dec. 28th, and headed south to Byron Bay for New Years.  The last photo there is me with a statue of Mary Poppins in Maryborough…. we stopped there just for this photo! P L Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins stories (from which Disney made my favourite film) was born here in 1899 and lived in the building next to the statue!  She looked taller on film I thought.

See the photos

Rum and Turtles

December 21, 2008

After leaving Denise and Pete, and remembering our hangovers with Matt in Townsville, we took a quick detour to Bundaberg and did a tour of the Rum factory… very interesting stuff indeed.  The stuff before the tasting wasn’t bad either.  Imagine a ‘room’ (a massive concrete tank with a roof and walkway really) that holds over 4,000,000 gallons of molasses!?!

The night before however, to Sarah’s delight, we stumbled upon the "Mon Repos" turtle hatchery.  Mon Repos beach on the Bundaberg coast is one of few remaining (and now protected) areas for sea turtle nesting. As many of you know, sea turtles lay their eggs on beaches very close to where they were born many years before – a phenomena that still baffles scientists.  About 50 years ago a scientist was studying sea turtles in the area and along with the EPA and Ministry of Agriculture has established a completely protected stretch of beach to help these endangered creatures survive and hopefully rebuild their populations.

As well as a full lab and research facility (the primary facility for Australia where ALL nationally collected data is stored and processed by volunteers year round) Mon Repos has a large visitor centre to introduce and educate travelers about the plight of sea turtles.  Years ago 1000s of people would flood the beach every night from November to March to watch the turtle building nests which, naturally, was a bit disturbing for the exhausted mothers! The scientists decided to set up a system where up to 300 visitors can book a ‘tour’ in a controlled and structured way so that both the natural process can continue, but also visitors can see first hand the laying of eggs through to the emerging hatchlings.  Because it’s a natural event it’s a toss up what you might see but wow, did we luck out!  After the sun went down, Dave, one of the original scientists gave a great presentation on the life-cycle of the various sea turtles and told us what to expect, when we can take pictures, and why it’s important to stay together.  then the waiting begins…. some groups wait 20 minutes, others 5 hours, until a turtle arrives to deliver.  We waited until about 12 am (watching various turtle documentaries… some great, some not so great) during which we had a few false alarms – a turtle would arrive on the beach, but sensing the wind was up (poor buggers getting sand in their eyes!) would turn around to try again tomorrow.  Finally one mother decided it was time and up she crawled. To my satisfaction a not-so-great documentary about some irritating girl following the life of a turtle she saved was cut short and we were sent off in our group (those that hadn’t given up waiting!) to the beach to watch the events unfold.  Standing there on the windy beach (without lights!) we were given the surprise that HATCHLINGS had appeared!  Turtle eggs take 6-8 weeks to hatch and none were expected for another few weeks but sure enough two babies had emerged, been taken to the lab for measurements and quick physical (only the first few of each season are examined) and were brought over for us to look at! Two baby Flatback turtles… an exceptionally lucky event as Mon Repos is the only spot in Oz where the (endangered) Flatback’s reproduce!! very cute.

We were then taken up the beach to watch a HUGE Loggerhead turtle (a 99.7cm long shell, born in 1988 and named "T41260" – clearly turtles are named by the same dull scientists that name stars!) plopping eggs in to her nest. They lay around 100 eggs per ‘clutch’ and usually build 3-4 nests per nesting season – this was T41260’s 4th clutch this season. After they’re laid, the turtle instinctively covers them in sand and then makes her way back to the ocean.  It’s incredible to see Nature in action like this – we (arrogantly) assume this is all instinct but the turtle can find the beach (using the earth’s magnetic field, imprinted on the turtle when they made their way down the beach the day they were born!), dig a nest (exactly 55 cm deep, in an inverted cone shape), lay their eggs, bury them, disguise the nest, and make it back to the ocean all within a few hours… and only when the conditions suit her taste!  Back in the ocean they can (on will) fertilize another batch of eggs using sperm (from up to 40 males!) stored internally from the mating that took place weeks ago and miles away and come back to build additional nests!  Crazy.

FYI, turtles can’t reproduce until they’re over 30 years old, and only 1 out of every 1000 make it to this age. Some more interesting tid-bits:

  • The sex of a turtle is determined exclusively by the temperature of the sand. Warmer sand means 100% males in a nest, colder means 100% female.  +/- 5 degrees or so, otherwise the nest doesn’t survive.  Lookout global warming.
  • Sea turtles have 15-20 ‘Lost Years’ after they’re born to when they return to their mating grounds ready to mate… no one knows where they go, why or what brings them back!
  • Once old enough to reproduce, each turtle remains alone and stays close to the same reef for their entire life, except when leaving to the mating grounds or (in the case of pregnant females) to their nesting site
  • Females only reproduce when they are fit enough to manage the journey and months of starvation – usually once every 3-4 years
  • Hatchlings find the ocean by looking for the lowest source of light (usually the horizon) and will follow flashlight beams, head lights, or light from beach town resorts.  Luckily HERE there is none of that! Too bad about all the other beaches!

As with so many sea creatures, they are endangered by over fishing (Asian markets continue to think turtle and sharks are magic elixirs!?), hunting, drag nets and accidental capture, and boat collisions. 

Oh – on this note, EVERYONE should watch the movie "Shark Water"… you’ll be shocked by what continues to go on in our oceans.  Remember, when the oceans die, we die.  Global warming holds NOTHING on the devastation of the oceans.

All that adds up to what we saw being a bit of a miracle – a very worthwhile stopover and an unforgettable experience to witness.  Sorry there aren’t more photos – for the sake of the turtles you are limited on what you can photograph, but there are thousands of photos online if you google Mon Repos!

See some photos

Rocky – with Denise and Pete

December 20, 2008

As you may know, my connection with Australia stems from time my mum lived here back in her 20’s.  To their credit, mum and all the friends she made have stayed in touch and visited us in Britain and Canada throughout the years. Some of them I have met, others I’ve only heard stories (and stories, and stories…) about. One such couple is Denise and Pete Dalton in Rockhampton ("Rocky" to the locals, just south of Townsville) who graciously put us up for a few nights, sight unseen!

As with all Aussies it seems, Denise and Pete are warm, welcoming, laid back and really friggin’ funny.  Denise took us on a whirlwind tour of Rockhampton where we saw (and finally got photos of) more fruit bats, various lookouts and ocean views, a BLACK Cock-er-two, an old non-denominational chapel (as all should be IMHO) built by U.S. soldiers stationed during the war, and the very cool ‘singing ship’ memorial – a tribute to the revered Capt. Cook, this statue actually ‘sings’ and whistles as the wind blows through it, imitating the sound a sailing vessel makes as wind passes through the rigging.  Pretty neat-o. We also stopped for a photo at the Tropic of Capricorn (my birth sign!) after Denise had shown us a photo she took there with mum and dad years ago!

That evening we were back for a swim and BBQ next door – another fine example of an Aussie BBQ… meet, drink, meat, drink, repeat.  Conversation became so lively that a ‘conch’ was passed around to keep the jokes from overlapping! It was also revealed that Denise has in her possession something of priceless value – THE recipe for my gran’s infamous Cornish pasties! and in my mum’s own handwriting!!! You could almost still smell the sherry.  To top off the evening, we had a surprise visit from a small green tree frog, which, like all creatures great and small took an immediate liking to Sarah.

Oh, and in case you haven’t seen enough photos of Sarah and I together, Denise made us take a few…. hundred.

See some pix

Climbing Frames and Water Rings

December 19, 2008

Australia continues to amaze me – I really never expected it to be as tropical and diverse as it is! As well, man, they have the coolest playgrounds for kids!! Townsville so far wins the prize of a) the nicest water front and b) the coolest kids playgrounds – and that’s saying a lot ’cause other towns haven’t been too shabby!

One of the sea-side attractions is a huge rope climbing frame sitting in the sand for all to play on…. naturally I lost Sarah here for a while, along with all the other kids! (see first photos)

I love hostels for the people you meet – we met a pretty cool guy, Matt, at the hostel in Townsville who graciously put us up in an apartment his dad had rented for them so we stayed in Townsville one extra night.. drinking and playing in the swimming pool – the first COLD water we’d been in for weeks!  I had no idea the ocean could get as warm as it does in North Queensland.  To say it’s like a bath is an understatement – it’s no wonder the coral is having a hard time surviving with temperatures like that.  So finding a cold (and by cold I mean about 82!) pool to relax in.  I almost figured out how to blow ‘water rings’ – like smoke rings but underwater and without a cigarette. Matt also introduced us  to another Australian custom "Bundaberg Rum." It is to Queensland what Guinness is to Dublin… and the morning affect is similar.  Oh, that photo of Sarah underwater – she’s sipping tea, nothing else…. long story!

See some photos

Claustrophobia, Crocs and the Camper Van

December 16, 2008

Thick, moist, tropical heat makes you remember how much of your body is actually made up of water as you watch it persistently evacuate your skin in impressive amounts of sweat.  In all of my guesses and musings about what Australia would be like, I never imagined a landscape this tropical.

Heat has definitely been the theme of this most recent leg of the trip.  We abandoned the queen sized top bunk of the camper for the twin sized "kid" bed below because the heat was too oppressive up top and there was more airflow down below.  Ok, it might have been a little bit swayed by Sarah’s claustrophobic tenancies……a bit.  "Oh **** it’s cramped in here!"  The other bed is narrower, but much needed, merciful airflow and head space is abundant.  We’ve had a few spectacular nights parked on beaches watching the stars and feeling the breeze (like a blow dryer) roll over us.  We discovered a giant mango tree at Ellis Beach and collected at least 15 perfectly ripe mangoes off the ground that apparently had been knocked down by the fruit bats who preferred to eat off the tree.  We were like little kids.  Much fruit induced stickyness and joy ensued. 

One free site we found had a snake in the toilet.  One evening as I made a delirious trek to the bathroom, I found myself sharing a bathroom stall with a cane toad, a gecko and an enormous huntsman spider.  I found it hilarious, but Rog is still creeped out by the huntsman spiders.  They are roughly the size of my hand and look like a skinny tarantula that could easily slip through the crack under a door.  They eat mosquitoes and that’s enough to earn my love and respect.  At the beachy paradise parks we’ve found, the best activities involve a swim in the ocean, drying off in the sun, repeat.

We visited the Daintree Rainforest and bumped along many tourist frequented roads from one lookout to the next.  We walked along the beach at Cape Tribulation where Captain Cook landed way back when.  The mangrove forests along the beach were amazing and the sand had little flecks of mica in it that sparkled in the sun. We took a short hike through the rainforest to a special swimming hole in a clear, cold, river where we saw the iridescent electric blue and black Ulysses butterflies.  It was magical and free of crocs, we were told, because they dislike cold, clear water that moves quickly.  We also rescued two German girls who had walked two hours from their hostel to get to the swimming hole by giving them a ride back.   

One attraction worth mentioning was Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.  We visited this park/zoo/croc farm on a whim and spent two consecutive afternoons gawking at the prehistoric looking creatures there.  The park raises awareness about crocs and helps guarantee their healthy numbers in the wild, ironically, by farming them for their meat and skins.  There are always crocs on display in a zoo like habitat for visitors to watch as they bask and feed and make nests and raise their young.  There are also crocs in pens that are bred purely for commercial purposes.  We watched a demo of croc hunting behaviors including the "death roll."  The keepers are very confident around the crocs which makes you believe them when they say the animals are very predictable and rarely make a move without lots of warning.  A ferry like boat took us out onto a large swamp with many crocodile inhabitants doing their thing.  We saw a five and a half meter croc with no teeth who was guessed to be between 90 and 100 years old.  Needless to say he was the "boss" of the group.  The keepers dangled chicken heads on a pole over the water and tried to make the crocs leap out of the water for them. We were explicitly told to keep our hands and arms inside the boat for obvious reasons.   The most impressive part was the sound that their jaws made as they snapped shut.  It was like the crack of a baseball bat or a gunshot every time.  We also got to pat a baby koala and see Cassowaries, snakes, frogs and lizards.  We made frequent stops at the air conditioned gift shop, feigning interest in souvenirs :).         

The more inland we get, the more obnoxious birds and cicadas to keep us awake 24-7.  One thing’s for sure about AUS, the wildlife is LOUD.  It demands to be noticed.  It’s fantastic.  It bites.  It stings.  The "Stinger Tree" is a plant we were carefully instructed to avoid at all costs.  It is like a giant stinging nettle that flourishes in the jungle with huge heart shapes leaves and a dangling flower like a jellyfish tentacle.  The entire plant is covered in poison tipped hairs.  On the slightest contact the victim feels a severely intense burning sensation that lasts for hours.  The fascinating fact about this plant is that it is the only known entity that can create pain in the body that is not actually the result of any physical tissue damage.  It reacts with the water content of your skin to chemically create an excruciating boiling sensation that is not actually doing any damage (no red, no swelling, no marks).                     

We have seen countless fields of sugar cane, coffee, tea, bananas and mangoes.  I just learned that a single banana tree only produces one cluster of bananas made up of many "hands"(the bunch you would see at the grocery store) in it’s lifetime.  After that fruit is harvested, it is cut to the ground and a new tree takes it’s place.  The dairy and beef industry seems to be big in Tropical North Queensland as well.  The cows are mostly Brahmans with only a few Holsteins.  I assume the Brahmans have a higher heat tolerance.  We stopped off to see many a fig tree attraction (The Cathedral Fig, The Curtain Fig, etc.) and waterfalls as well.  Rog even discovered a very unique place called Paronella Park which he can go into more detail about later. 

Eventually, we succumbed to the heat (or heat rash in Sarah’s case).  Rog had a recurrence of his tropical nemesis he experienced in Florida, and Jamaica before. We don’t know what bug causes it, but it gives him itchy blistery patches all over.  He’s recovering well now that he’s been to the doctor and gotten some pills and cremes.  Sarah was saved by "SOOV" powder, cortisone creme, aloe vera and a bit of air con. at night.  Red, itchy and sleep deprived, we arrived at a perfect hostel in Townsville.  We have been enjoying the rooftop pool, the Internet access, the huge kitchen, delicious Indian restaurant below, and the din of the drunken Irish and Aussie construction workers who live at the hostel.  We have seen two movies in the theater nearby (Australia and Quantum of Solace).  Both were very good and we recommend them.  Especially Australia!  We are feeling very well rested and far less itchy!  Yay.    

We are booking flights today and planning the next phase of the trip.  In retrospect, the camper was not entirely utilized as it was too f***ing hot to be in it every night and we’ve had trouble finding the good four by four roads, but we still have until January 5th to make the most of our 4×4 capabilities on Fraser Island, etc.          

Take a look at some photos!

Paronella Park, North Queensand

December 10, 2008

On our drive south towards Townsville we made a quick decision to detour for a night at Paronella Park – and what a detour!

Paronella Park is (for those of you in Toronto) a story that reminded me of Casa Loma.  A rather ambitious Spaniard, Jose Paronella, had been working in the Sugar Cane fields for years as a farm hand in North Queensland.  With the intention of returning to Spain to marry and bring over his arranged wife-to-be, he quietly built himself a large nest egg by buying, fixing up, and selling cane farms all over Queensland.  Upon returning to Spain however, he found that everyone had assumed he was dead after not hearing word from him for a few years – and thus his wife-to-be was now a wife-to-another! Crushed, but determined, he looked to his left, gave a wink and married the sister instead. Bloody Spanish.

Upon returning with his new bride to Queensland, Jose purchased 13 acres of land along Mena Creek (with a rather lovely waterfall!) for ~$300 and started to build the house and gardens of his dreams.  Using hand mixed concrete and rails from old railway track the two of them built a home reminiscent of the Spanish Castles they had grown up with.  To say this guy could build is an understatement – by 1935 (6 years after purchase) they opened Paronella Park to the public – they’d built swimming areas below and behind the falls, a theatre (with movies every Saturday night!) which doubled as a dance hall with a 1270 mirror disco ball, refreshment rooms, Tea Gardens, two tennis courts, children’s playground and planted upwards of 7000 native trees! A tunnel (The Love Tunnel) was excavated, small bridges were put up across  streams, and to top it off, a Hydro Electric generating plant was built!! The first of its kind in North Queensland, feeding power to the entire park from the falls.  Amazing!

Through an unlucky history, this park was devastated, rebuilt, and eventually sold in 1977 after Jose had passed away – two years later a huge fire swept through and the park was closed (the current owners are sure this was an insurance job by the new owner! Exciting!)  A few cyclones then passed through in the 80’s and 90’s and the city was lost to the jungle until it was purchased in 1993 by Mark and Judy Evans. The new owners have now excavated most of the site and restored parts for visitors – gaining a listing in the National Trust in 1997.

We decided to visit the park after I saw a photo that looked like something out of an Indiana Jones movie! That’s about how cool it looks!  We arrived in time for the ‘lighting of the gardens’ – just after dark they flood the place with spooky cool lights, see photos below, and met Mark and Judy who are clearly VERY excited and enthusiastic.  There is now a small caravan park attached to the park so we decided to stay the night so we could spend the next day having a full tour and wandering around.  There’s a lane of amazing Kauri trees at Kauri Avenue, ponds to feed turtles (Sarah’s favourite spot!) the most bamboo I’ve ever seen, and loads more to see, including of course the remains of the buildings and cottage … it was an amazing day, and a very inspirational story of what people can do when they have a dream.  We’d highly recommend a visit here for anyone in the area!

Nice story, but photos are better…. so here they are!