Thursday, August 8, 2013

Australia: Melbourne and Cairns (part 1)

Apologies for the length of time between posts - my mom came to Australia to travel with us for a couple of weeks, and we had so much fun that I didn't have much time to work on updating the blog.  This was actually our second time in Australia on the trip. We were here about a month earlier and spent most of our time driving around in the wine regions north of Melbourne. This time we started in Melbourne and stayed a few days.

We were in Melbourne a couple of days before my mom arrived, so we had a chance to explore and get a feel for the city. We'd previously spent a single night in Melbourne on our driving trip, and so we saw very little. This time we chose a hotel on one of the city's extensive tram lines, and spent a lot of time riding around and exploring.

Melbourne is an interesting city. It feels very different from Sydney, and reminds me more of San Francisco than any other place I've been (minus the steep hills, anyway). We did some shopping, had dim sum (which they call yum cha in Australia) in Chinatown, and explored the Victoria Market, which is a sort of a cross between a traditional fruit and vegetable market and a flea market. We even found a place there where Doug could get the scratched lenses in his glasses replaced - in fifteen minutes while we waited! 

Here Carter is playing on a playground in the market.

Finally the much-anticipated day of my mom's arrival came! Carter was so, so excited. He'd been counting down the days, and he was giddy with excitement when we headed to the airport to meet her. He even made a sign for her, and held it up while we waited at the arrivals area.

Mom had a long, long trip to get to Melbourne, and combined with the big time change, we expected her to be wiped out when she got here. But despite the jet lag and lack of sleep, she was happy to be there and ready to go. We went out for lunch and she even went to the hotel's executive lounge with us that night before finally going to sleep. She was a trooper!

The next day we went out and showed her around Melbourne. She and Carter were attached at the hip! 

After all these months of traveling, it was fun to get to show someone else what our traveling life is like. It's interesting to have being on vacation be your everyday life -- it's such a strange way to live, and yet, this is our life right now. Every day we wake up and have breakfast in a hotel, then decide what we'll do that day to explore the place we're in. We usually find an interesting place to eat lunch while we're out and get back to the hotel in the late afternoon. If we're staying in a Hilton, we head to the executive lounge for some snacks in lieu of dinner. It was really interesting to show mom how we spend our days!

Mom had only a day and a half in Melbourne before we all flew up to Cairns on the northeast cost of Australia. Cairns is located in the tropical region of Australia, and is a place where you can see a fascinating combination of attractions. We explored the rainforest, the beaches, and the Great Barrier Reef from here, and saw and did so very much that it will have to be finished in the next blog post.

As usual, we stayed at a Hilton. The benefits of choosing a single hotel chain and being loyal to it have really paid off. Not only do we usually get upgraded to a nicer room, but our breakfast is included, the internet is free, and we can spend our evenings in the executive lounge drinking free drinks. It really helps keep our food budget under control when we only pay for one meal a day!

You might think it would be boring to stay at one hotel chain all the time, but each individual hotel is actually quite unique (and sometimes in ways that are a bit baffling, I have to admit). This one had this fantastic huge sofa in the lobby under a large work of ocean-inspired art. It was a perfect spot to take some photos.

I particularly love this one of Mom and Carter. He spent a lot of time giving her hugs and kisses, and here she looks like she's soaking it all up. 

This hotel was located right along the main wharf in Cairns, an easy walk to restaurants and to the place where the boats to the Great Barrier Reef depart.

It was warm in Cairns, with temperatures in the high 70s, but it was strangely windy the entire time we were there.

Here Carter is sporting the awesome shades he picked up in Tahiti.

The hotel was also close to a small park with a fantastic playground built around this enormous fig tree. Carter tried his hand at climbing it -- as did Mom! 

On our first full day, we decided to take a scenic train ride up into the rainforest to the town of Kuranda. The train ride was beautiful, and a lot of fun. 

Our trip included some yummy refreshments.

The city of Cairns gave way to suburbs and rural sugar cane fields, and finally to rainforest as we headed up into the mountains.

There were spectacular views as we crossed bridges and passed waterfalls, and wound our way up through gorges on this century-old train route.

We made a stop near the top to see a dramatic waterfall in the rainforest. 

Kuranda is a tourist town -- perhaps even better described as a tourist trap -- but there were several fun things to see and do there. We started out by visiting a butterfly sanctuary, which turned out to be even more fascinating than any of us expected. There were hundreds of butterflies inside, including the gorgeous electric blue Ulysses butterflies. (Those were hard to catch on camera, since they folded up their wings every time they perched on a leaf.) 

I was wearing a light-colored shirt, and at one point I had butterflies all over me! There were on my shirt, on my hands, and in my hair. They did the same to another woman wearing a light-colored shirt, so I can only guess that had something to do with it. Unfortunately, I was holding the camera at the time and so didn't get a picture of that - though many other people were taking pictures of me with all the butterflies!

This is the best picture I was able to take of the Ulysses butterfly.

Another wildlife attraction we visited was a bird sanctuary, where we saw many colorful tropical birds.

A highlight here was the cassowary, which is a very ancient bird that is very endangered, nearly extinct. It's one of the most primitive birds in the world and almost looks like a dinosaur with a large crest on its bright blue head. It's also a large bird, as you can see in the photos with Carter below.

Interestingly enough, this bird was fascinated by Carter. It followed him around and even mimicked some of his movements! We're still not sure why, but check out the video below:

I'm not sure what types of birds many of these were, but they were all very beautiful.

Our third stop in Kuranda was at a small zoo, where we were able to see many native Australian animals. These are freshwater crocodiles:

We saw other reptiles as well.

But for me, the highlight was seeing koalas! I don't think I've ever seen a real koala before this day. They look just as soft and cuddly and adorable as I'd imagined!

I jumped at the chance to hold one. Carter doesn't look terribly excited here, but he liked petting the koala.

This is a wombat, another animal I hadn't seen in person before.

And of course, there were kangaroos! They were rather lazy.

This sign in the snake exhibit made it clear that the snakes were not to be messed with.

We had a late lunch and then took a cable car all the way back to Cairns. It was an amazing ride over the rainforest canopy.

This is the sort of view that is extremely difficult to get to experience. There are a few canopy walkways around the world, including the one we climbed in Peru, but this is truly a rare thing to get to see!  

There were a couple of stops along the way where we could get off and see more of the rainforest. So many pictures I have are Carter look like this: him running away to explore something while I'm trying to take a picture of him.

This tree is huge, and it's a fascinating example of the way plants have evolved to survive in the rainforest. This particular tree shoots up as fast as it can to reach the top of the canopy before it sprouts leaves at the top, so it has no branches along its trunk. 

Many plants don't even bother trying to grow on the ground; instead they attach themselves to the tops of trees to get to the sunlight.

At the end of the cable car ride we had a beautiful view of the ocean off in the distance.

It was a beautiful day, but it was only the first day in Cairns! The next morning, we headed out on a tour Mom had booked for us to see the Great Barrier Reef.  Early in the morning, we boarded a catamaran and headed first to Green Island in the middle of the reef. 

We had a couple of hours to spend here, and we spent them on the beach. The water was a gorgeous shade of blue and the sand was white, and it was a truly beautiful place to see!

Mom and I walked up the beach while Carter played in the sand and Doug relaxed on a lounge chair. We had a long stretch of beach nearly to ourselves and were able to take a lot of beautiful pictures.

Carter always loves digging in the sand.

I think he was pretending to fish here. He's really into sticks lately. Everywhere we went, he would find a stick and carry it around.

I've had the opportunity to see so many beautiful beaches this year, and it just doesn't get old!

The catamaran picked us up again (just as it began to rain!) and we headed out to the reef, where the tour company maintains a pontoon that is a base for exploring the reef. Because of the winds, the sea was very rough that day, and many people on the boat got sick along the way. It was surreal: the crew were handing out barf bags and cups of ice, and people were throwing up all around us! None of us are prone to motion sickness, so we were all fine, but there were many people on that boat who had a very bad day.

Once we arrived at the pontoon, there were quite a few activities to choose from. The first thing we decided to do was ride the semi-submersible. It was a great way to see the coral reefs, and Carter was very excited!

These photos don't quite do it justice, of course!  

I didn't get a photo, but we also saw some giant sea turtles! The water was chilly and, though snorkeling was an option, I decided not to do it that day. Many people did, and they all looked really cold when they came out of the water! We had such great views of the reefs both from the semi-sub and from the pontoon's underwater viewing area that I didn't feel like I missed anything by not going in the water. 

Carter took this picture of me and Mom on the pontoon.

The highlight of the day was the helicopter ride that mom organized to get us back to Cairns. None of us had ever ridden on a helicopter before, and Carter was so, so excited! We first had to ride a small boat out to a helicopter pad floating in the ocean.

From there we got on the helicopter, put on our headsets, and off we went!

This video shows some of the highlights of our ride.

This was a fantastic way to see the Great Barrier Reef, It looks completely different from above than it does on the surface of the water. In the photo below, the large structure on the left is the pontoon we'd been on.

I don't know if these photos do it justice, but even looking at them now, I find them stunning. This is one of the great sights to see in the world, and it was such a thrill to get to experience it this way! 

We finally had to turn away from the reef and head back to Cairns, but we flew over some stunning islands along the way.

Carter's favorite part was talking into the headset, I think! 

At last the harbor came into sight and we landed on a helicopter pad a short walk from our hotel. It was a half-hour ride, but it went by so quickly that it felt like ten minutes!

This only brings us the the halfway point of our time in Cairns! I'll continue in the next post.

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