Sunday, 17 January 2010

17.01.10 Coastal Drive up to Cape Tribulation

Mossman Gorge on the way up to Cape Tribulation
A lot of the land up here has been given back to the indigenous Aboriginal population because of it's sacred importance. It's much less populated up here and once you get past Cape Trib there's only a 4WD track which takes you up to Cooktown. The drive is pretty as it hugs the coastline and goes through ancient tropical rainforest.
view over the top of the rainforest canopy
We take a rainforest canopy walk to learn a bit more about the environment and find out lots of things including the way fig trees grow. They are parasitic vines which attach themselves to mature trees growing round them and eventually taking them over, suffocating the original tree inside until it rots and becomes hollow. The Ideasternum (Idiot Fruit) is the oldest of flowering rainforest plants dating back 135 million years and still grows in this rainforest in Daintree National Park. We chance our luck at spotting a crocodile on the Daintree River on an eco-cruise and we do manage to catch a glimpse of a baby one sitting on the bank.
can you spot the baby croc?
Unfortunately we've come at the wrong time of year to see crocs because the water temperature is at a warm 28 - 29 degrees and the crocs don't need to come up to the surface to regulate their body temperature with the sun. When the water's colder, about 20 degrees, they come out on to land to soak up some of the sun to sync their temperature with that of the water. Our guide explains the species of mangrove plant which dwell on the edges of the river. They're termed mangrove if they are able to root down into saltwater (we're in the river's estuary, to explain the presence of saltwater) and twenty of the thirty international wide species of mangrove plant can be found in Daintree National park. One of the ingenious ways of plant reproduction in mangroves is the use of long pods which dangle from the plant's branches, then drop into the water managing to root themselves into the river bed and soon enough new green shoots start appearing on the surface of the water.
Cape Tribulation beach- it was a cloudy day!
view from Alexandra lookout over the north Queensland coastline
On the way back to Cairns, we spot kangaroos enjoying long green grass pastures next to the highway. It's a bit cooler at this time in the evening and the ginger roos are sitting and sometimes hopping through the grass. Yes! We've seen one!

Aussie Dictionary

G'day - hi!
Fair'd income - I know what you're saying
Tucker - food
Esky - transportable travel fridge which plugs into your yute for cool drinks and picnics. (Mike had one we were very impressed with!)
Mate - friend or complete stranger. The Australians tend to be a very friendly bunch and call everyone their mate.
Yute - pick up, a must for every self-respecting outback fella or farmer.

16.01.10 Quicksilver Cruise to Flynn Reef

After our disappointment at not getting to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef because of the stinging jellyfish two days ago we decide to give it another go and book to go out on another cruise to reef sites further out, hoping that there won't be any jellyfish there. The larger cruiser makes easy work of the offshore waves and we power through the water, covering 36km to get to our first of three dive sites of the day on the outer reef. When we ask about whether there's been any occurences of jellyfish on the sites we're told there have been and not just the blue bottles. Kurandji jellyfish have been spotted also and they pack a sting that'll put you in hospital for two days. We're quite worried from this news but we're all given stinger suits to wear in the water which prevent jellyfish from being able to sting you through the stretchy lycra. The suits have got mittens, hoods and come right down under the feet so we're pretty safe. And, much to our relief, today there doesn't seem to be that many jellies on site so our snorkelling experience is 100 times better than it was a couple of days ago. The reef is more pristine out here also and the coral is very impressive. We're able to float above the shallow waters of the reef with fabulous viewing of the sun-illuminated coral formations housing and providing food for thousands of little fishes. Butterfly fish with different stripey patterns of yellow and black swim around in pairs, occasionally turning on their sides to show us their colours. Rainbow parrot fish use their sharp little beaks to bite off the coral and it's possible to hear the cracking sound they make. Many other types of parrot fish can be identified by the way they use their side 'wings' to 'fly' through the water. We both like the little black tiger fish which sit motionless on the coral's edge, their bulging eyes making them distinctly different from the other fish.
underwater pics- the red unfortunately doesn't come out underwater
The coral itself is not as bright in colour as that swim around it, apart from the fuschia pink flower-shaped coral, but it's strange and wonderful formations are very impressive. There's fluorescent blue and white finger coral which looks a bit like deer antlers, big balls of smooth coral, undulating wave-shaped coral with frills on the edge and formations that snake up and down to make up a tight nit pattern on the reef. Polyps, which are micro-organisms that attach themselves to the coral make it look hairy as they all dance in the underwater currents. Some of this coral is extremely slow-growing and just by looking at the sheer size of some of the individual organisms you can tell that they're hundreds if not thousands of years old. We're excited when we spot two clown fish swimming in and out of a pink anemone. They are part of a symbiotic relationship with the underwater plant, giving each other protection. The anemone has a stinging power as a defence system but offers a certain immunity to the clown fish who in turn live in the anemone and will protect their home from predators. It's actually wrong in Finding Nemo though, when all Nemo's brothers and sisters are eaten by the barracuda and only his dad and himself survive. His dad would in fact turn into a female fish and begin sexual relations with him to produce more of their species. Wouldn't really work for a kids film though would it? Maori wrasse are large, fat-lipped fish displaying intricate blue green patterns on their purple skins which are reminiscent of traditional Maori tattooes, hence the name. As in much of the animal world, it's the male fish in the ocean that are the pretty ones, displaying the most colour and pattern. Three snorkelling sessions later and we're psyched by our experience on the reef. It's been a great day and such a serene yet stimulating visual experience.

more images from botanic gardens

Cairns Botanical Gardens

No greenhouses needed here- it's so hot all these tropical plants are thriving.

saltwater lagoon

14.01.10 Reef Daytripper Cruise to Upolu Reef

We start out early to catch our boat out to the Great Barrier Reef. It's warm at this time of the morning but it won't be long til the heat of the day sets in and out on the waves especially you can feel the full force of it.
the reef's the turquoise bit in the distance
It's nice to be on a smaller boat than the huge motor cruisers, which carry up to 300 people, because there's only fifteen of us on board and it's a much more intimate sailing experience. However with a catamaran of this size, it's easier to feel the waves as they pull us up, down and side to side, so we soon begin to regret having forgotten to pick up the travel sickness pills off the side when we left this morning! I just keep my eyes fixed on the static horizon and try not to move my head around too much! It's always the same. Going sailing looks so appealing from dry land but, as I get older, motion sickness seems to take it's hold easier. It's really unfortunate that blue bottle jellyfish have infested the water around the Upolu reef because it means that when we all get in the water to go snorkelling we all get stung and it's not a very nice experience.
blue bottle jelly at the top of the picture
It's like a nettle sting and the pain lasts for around ten minutes before it subsides leaving a small welt. There are so many of them in the water, (they're dark blue and clear 'bubbles' about the size of your little finger with a stinger tail that can be up to two metres long) that it's impossible to avoid swimming past them. It's a very uncomfortable experience and it's not long before everyone is upset by the stings and making their way back to the boat. We do see a few tropical fish but don't make it all the way out to the reef bed. It's a real shame and it's a very unusual event to see so many of them at this time of year. Normally they congregate closer to shore but our captain advises us that due to the unusually warm waters the blue bottle numbers are rising. He's obviously disappointed for us and encourages us to try an introductory dive because going further down would eliminate being stung by the jellies on the surface. We're both very keen to see if we would enjoy the experience but unfortunately due to Greg's asthma, the State of Queensland diving regulations prevent him from trying it even though his condition is very mild. It's an over precautionary regulation and Iris the dive co-ordinator advises us that once he receives a clean bill from a dive doctor he'll be all set to give it a go. I still opt in and get geared up with an oxygen tank strapped to my back, mouthpiece and flippers. Iris gives us a few pointers on how to clear our mask if it fills with water and how to remove our mouthpiece underwater should we need to. Aside from this brief introduction we're simply guided off the back of the boat and beckoned to begin our descent by using a rope dangling from the boat.
me in my diving gear, jumping into the water
Extra weights round our waists help us to sink and Iris fiddles with our equipment to release the pressure. Once we hit the sandy bottom, around ten metres, we begin our underwater tour of the reef. It's very impressive to view the large numbers of colourful fish and coral up close and personal. I have to train myself to get used to breathing in and out, releasing all the bubbles to the surface, and not to panic. It's a very calm and slow paced environment under the violent waves above. Little shoals of yellow fish flurry around the anemones and larger rainbow coloured fish hide under the bigger coral formations. We see stripey flounders and are very excited when we come across little Nemos (clown fish) swimming in and out of the anemones. Iris picks up a black sea cucumber off the sandy floor and passes it round. It's just as I expected it to feel, like a moving water balloon! We spend a good forty minutes round the reef before we ascend and swim back to the boat. This time I'm only stung once as I make my way back.

Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef

North Queensland Coast
12.01.10 - 19.01.10

When we arrive in Cairns one of the first things we experience is a heavy tropical rainstorm. The town has large open gutters along every roadside to cope with sudden increases in water level. The rain doesn't last for long and hasn't rained again since, although we are here in the region's wet season so it can't be ruled out to not happen again. This is in fact also the low season for tourist activity because of the high levels of humidity and the presence of deadly box jellyfish off the beaches making swimming or going anywhere near the edge of the water a big no no.
There's also the threat of freshwater and saltwater crocodiles who like to build territories along the coast and in the muddy mangroves so that's another reason to steer clear of any water! Fortunately the city of Cairns town council has realised the public's love of swimming in hot weather and built a large saltwater lagoon just off the esplanade with views out to the ocean and round the bay. The town itself has a very tropical feel with an abundance of palm trees and exotic plants lining every street and garden.
It sprawls out from the centre, where the Reef Fleet terminal dominates the front, in long boulevards, with tons of holiday apartments, car rental shops and restaurants on either side. It's unashamedly Queensland's most popular holiday town and some would admit it's become a bit over-commercialised. The main reason tourists flock to Cairns is it's location for touring the Great Barrier Reef and this is exactly why we're here too. We book ourselves on to a snorkelling cruise in a flash sailboat catamaran and look forward to getting underwater to see the exceptional coral and tropical fish.

Newtown and Chinatown (Sydney)

eccentric shops on Enmore Road, Newtown

pretty shops in Chinatown

Three Sisters Lookout

the Three Sisters and the Three Amigos! (me, Mike and Tristan)

views over the Blue Mountains

10.01.10 Wentworth Falls Hike - Blue Mountains

An hour and a half's drive west of Sydney are the Blue Mountains, which get their name from the blue haze that emanates from the eucalypts after a hot day in the sun. They are plateau like, huge orange sandstone cliffs overhanging dense eucalyptus bush with many spectacular waterfalls, the best of which is Wentworth. It's named after one of the three explorers who crossed mainland Australia. We're driven out there by Tristan's dad, Mike and taken on one of their favourite hikes down the cliff face into the valley, through the bush, past the falls and the beautiful swimming holes and up the next cliff face by ladder.
They often explore different tracks in the area but do admit that this is one of the hotter days (34 degrees celsius) and if we don't feel that we can cope with the heat we don't need to attempt it. True hikers that we are, dismissed this as a small barrier, and started out nevertheless. Mike wanted us to see a venomous brown snake- he'd heard a statistic that there's one in every 10m squared of bush- so we kept our eyes peeled, but the scenery was exciting enough. The waterfalls were very pretty
and we especially appreciated a refreshing dip in the swimming hole at the bottom of Wentworth Falls.
the swimming hole at the bottom of Wentworth Falls
It was a stunning location with rainbows in the glistening water coming over the cliffs. It wasn't long til we were sweltering again after climbing ten sets of metal runged ladders up the other side. The view was worth it though, over a great sea of green bush to the horizon in the distance. Mike explained that every few years there's a bush fire but we were in no danger today because, even though it was mega hot, there was no breeze to carry the flames. He took us to the Three Sisters lookout to appreciate the unusual three vertical outcrops of sandstone as the sun was setting then it was back to Sydney, exhausted but exhilerated by our trip to the bush.

The Plight of the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia

This is an excerpt from the official document of apology from the government of Australia to the indigenous people, the Aboriginals for the mistreatment at the hands of authority over the years since British colonisation.

"Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples
House of Representatives
Parliament House, Canberra

I move:
that today we honour the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest cultures in human history,
We reflect on their past mistreatment
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations- this blemished chapter in our nation's history
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians
We apologise especially for the removal of indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country
For the pain, suffering and hurt of those Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non Indigenous to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievment and economic opportunity
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins are truly equal partners with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in the next chapter in the shaping of this great country, Australia.

The Hon. Kevin Rudd MP
Prime Minister
February 13th 2008"

It emphasises the Stolen Generations of indigenous children who were taken unlawfully from their parents in order to make them become more 'white', to achieve assimilation within the community. They were put into institutional care or, if more fair-skinned, they were fostered into white families. More than 100,000 children underwent this painful process. It caused many problems of identity for them as they grew older and led to depression, drugs and alcohol and potentially suicide. A lack of identity and not knowing where their true families were must've been a horrendous experience especially since racially stimulated opinions of indigenous peoples as second class citizens were rife. Many civil rights were denied the Aboriginals until quite recently.
It is possible for members of these Stolen Generations to emerge from this cycle of depression and become re-tuned into their heritage through revisiting cultural practises and finding their roots.
poster showing a painting done by an Aboriginal artist reflecting the difficult journey of the Stolen Generations, through a maze of depression and loss, eventually emerging to find their roots (the house at the top).
Original Aboriginal spritiual culture derives itself from the land and connections with it. The Dreaming is a term used to describe the explanations given to the origin of things. These dreamings are individual to clans and are represented in the colourful bark artworks and murals that were painted. The dots' colours are representative of different tribes' members and different symbols have different meanings.
Aboriginal 'totems' used in spiritual practices
I personally love the intricate dot technique which can sometimes be very fine. The geometric patterns are softened by the hand painted dots and daubs adorning totems, shields, masks and murals.

09.01.10 Sydney's Northern Beaches

Tristan's very kindly offered her dad as a chaffeur to take us on a tour of Sydney's northern beaches and show us some of the beautiful places outside the city! We meet up with her at the Sydney Uni swimming pool where she teaches classes, after her morning shift finishes and get picked up by her dad in his flashy white Holden yute. We're extremely grateful to him for taking time out to show us round but he's also very keen for us to see it all and only wishes we were here for longer so he could take us for a longer trip into the outback! The air conditioned car is very welcome to us Brits, not used to the soaring temperatures.
Tristan loves it though- she doesn't seem phased at all by the sweltering heat. We drive out of the city north over the Spit Bridge, past Manly and on to the prettier northern beaches and up to the top of the peninsula to Palm Beach, where Home and Away beach and surf club scenes are filmed!
Palm Beach with Tristan and Mike
There's no film crew there- they do it all during the quiet winter months, but there's plenty of entertainment from the kitesurfers kicking up over the waves and jumping clear into the air. We spot a few blue bottle jellyfish washed up on shore, which can cause a nasty welt if you get stung. It's 4pm and the heat is still hanging around. Tristan's dad takes us round the coastal road to a lookout point with views across the waters of the bays and out to the ocean
and we take a short bush walk through the national park. The sekadas in the trees are starting to make their daily clicking which crescendos into a very loud racket as we negotiate our path watching out for big spiders and snakes. We come across historical Aboriginal cave art in the form of silhouetted hand prints made with red ochre and the pretty twisting branches of the Aussie eucalypts. A goana, large lizard, is being fed by a stupid family of picnickers but it gives us a chance to catch him on camera. Tristan's dad wants to show us kangaroo, often spotted on the way out of the national park at this time of evening when the temperature is starting to drop but, as always, when deliberately searching for wildlife it never shows it's face!

08.01.10 Manly

The ferry to Manly takes you up the harbour past the mouth with views out to the Pacific Ocean. We pass exclusive residential suburbs on the banks of the peninsulas each with it's own golden sand beach and yacht moorings. It takes 1/2 hour sailing to reach the port of Manly and another 10 minute walk through the town to cross the arm of the peninsula to reach the surf beach on the sea coast. The waves here are bigger than at Bondi and Greg especially is in his element boogying over them on his board.

The water's fresh but by no means cold. There's no real threat from shark attack here. Although they are known in these waters controversial nets are in place and helicopter pilots touring the coastline are trained to keep their eyes peeled for that infamous black shadow in the water. The nets are invisible from the beach as they're about 1km offshore and don't come up to the water's surface. Many marine activists protest against them because they are responsible for the deaths of innocent fish including dolphins which get tangled up. It's an agonising death. And they try to convince swimmers they're thousands of times more likely to be in a car accident than attacked by a shark. Other technologies such as sonar sensoring are in the pipeline, but the confidence of visitors swimming at the beaches will unfortunately cause the continuing need for some kind of full proof system, even though many are probably unaware that the nets only partially cover the length of the beaches. The sun reveals itself, the temperature rises and the crowds start pouring in. We enjoy another boogie board session then get dried off and take a walk along the prom taking in the sights- serious volleyball tournaments, gangs of Sydney teenagers whizzing by on colourful chopper bikes and skateboards and hundreds of young families having picnics and kids running around in their special UV protective vests. The heat sets in for the day and, although I enjoy it, at times it's uncomfortable and I find myself scanning the pavement for areas of shade. Carrying our foam boogie boards proves annoying because of their size so we have the genius idea to marker pen a price on each and sell them on the beach. It doesn't take long before a couple of lads approach us and eagerly take them off our hands, pleased to be able to try it out along with everyone else. We walk out to the north head of the peninsula to look back at views of the distant city centre before catching the ferry back.
view from the Manly ferry back towards the Sydney skyline

07.01.10 Bondi Beach

We grow more confident navigating the city's transport system and manage to make our way out to the eastern suburb of Bondi and the famous seaside beach. The locals are known to stay clear of Bondi because of it's popularity with tourists and the abundant choice of other, quieter beaches to be had just south of it, but it's a must on our itinerary so we slot into the crowds and take a dip in the waves. The Bondi beach rescue isn't quite the svelt, muscle bound figures of Baywatch, but they do have a serious job to do, watching the dangerous rip tides and making sure people swim between the flags marking the easier to predict waters. The white sand is pristine and the water clear but we are a bit disappointed, the beach isn't actually that long and the suburb of Bondi isn't the nicest in the city, so we head back into town to visit the Maritime Museum and take in a little more of Darling harbour.

Australia 2 weeks in Sydney and Cairns

05.01.10 - 06.01.10

Sydney (28 - 29 degrees celsius)

Sydney is an impressive city with it's iconic Harbour bridge and Opera House dominating the skyline at the waterfront. Alongside these monoliths is a gigantic cruiseship moored up, almost the same size as a skyscraper and countless boats, ferries and yachts coming in and out of the bays all the time.

It's a very 'happening' place with tons of traffic zooming past on the myriad of flyovers crossing the harbour bridge to the north side, city trains and a monorail holding prime position running along the front not to mention the water traffic weaving it's way in and out of the quays. The fresh breeze from the water keeps any fumes at bay however and it's a pleasant place to walk around. We head for circular quay to begin with and stroll round the edge of the water, along the boardwalk, lined with tourist restaurants and hotels, past the Dutch liner and under the bridge. We come across rows of old shipping buildings propped up on the rotten wooden wharfs with fishermen and boys casting their lines over the edge into the harbour waters. This area backs on to the original settlement of Sydney, affectionately named The Rocks. The buildings here have survived the ever-continuing development of the city skyline and comprise Victorian trading houses, old warehouses and small workers cottages. Sydney's location on the harbour inlet which stretches miles inland with many peninsulas on either side, is it's crowning glory. The suburbs sprawl on to all these peninsulas linked to the main central district by highway and boat. The water is where a lot of the action is, from full scale yacht races to sea kayakers crossing the straits and fishing boats lingering round the light buoys ready to net a catch.

We're really pleased when we contact our friend, Tristan, who we met on the tour in South America, and it turns out she lives only 2 or 3 streets away from where we're staying in the suburb of Stanmore. It's a very convenient coincidence because it means we can visit her the following day and drag her round the aquarium with us, although she does say she hasn't done any really touristy things for years and enjoyed it! Her neighbourhood of Newtown is a lively place centred round the eccentric King Street with restaurants from pretty much every country round the world, 'exotic' clothing shops and Thai massage parlours. She introduces us to the best places to eat and gives us a well needed city orientation, showing us the pretty Botanic Gardens with views of the Opera House and the city's sandstone cathedral in the middle of Hyde Park.

We also make a pilgrimage across the Harbour Bridge taking in the panorama of the city skyline behind us and catch a train back.