Thursday, August 15, 2013

Australia, part 2 (Cairns, Sydney, and the Hunter Valley)

We did so many amazing things in Cairns that I didn't even have time to fit them all into the last post! On our third full day in Cairns, we went on an evening safari. The safari started in late afternoon, and our guide surprised us by first turning into a nearby suburb. We soon realized why he'd taken us there: we saw hundreds of wallabies just hanging about in people's yards and in vacant lots.

I learned a great deal on this tour, I have to say. I'd always thought that there are kangaroos and wallabies and that was about it, but it turns out that there are dozens of species that are kangaroo-like, all with different names.

This was a sort of bird whose name I've now forgotten, but it was nesting all along the edges of the road in this neighborhood.

From there we headed towards the rainforest, where we were going to spend most of our time. Our guide made a stop along the way to show us a flying fox colony. Flying foxes are one of the largest species of bats.

They were very cute, and also pretty noisy, as you can see from this following video.

Our next stop was at a lovely lakeside teahouse, where we had incredibly yummy scones with cream and strawberry jam, and tea and coffee. Afterwards we went for a walk in the rainforest nearby. It was, quite literally, a rainforest; it rained on us the entire evening! Fortunately, rainforests have very dense canopies, and so we didn't get very wet at all. Here is a picture of Carter standing in front of a huge rainforest tree. Our guide said they have no way of telling how old these trees actually are, but he guessed this one was 1000 years old.

Our guide on this particular tour was fantastic. I think I learned more from him than I've learned from any guide I've ever had. He had a wonderful way of painting the big picture of the rainforest and how all the organisms within it interact, and it was fascinating. One of the things he said over and over is that the plant world is just as cutthroat and exciting as the animal world is, but on a much slower time scale. He said that if you could speed it all up and watch how vicious plants can be to each other, it woudl rival anythign you see on National Geographic!

Below is an example of this, a giant strangler fig tree called the Cathedral Fig. Strangler fig trees start out as vines that begin growing at the top of a tree. They send vines down that go into the ground and form roots, and they keep doing this over a long period of time until they "strangle" the host tree. They basically use the host tree's hard-won height and take it to grow themselves, so that they don't have to fight for the sunlight at the top of the canopy. 

This was is called the "Cathedral" Fig not only because it's so massive, but also because there is room to stand inside it.

One of the things we'd really hoped to see on this safari was a platypus. We spent a good hour of the tour looking, in a couple of different spots. They prefer creeks and rivers with slow-moving water, where they dive to the bottom for insects, and so you basically just hope for a glimpse of one as it surfaces to breathe. We saw nothing at the first place we stopped, and at the second place, we trekked way back into the woods (in the rain) along a muddy path by a creek. Our guide pointed out the burrow of a platypus on the riverbank (see below), and so we knew that if we were patient and spread out along the banks of the creek, we'd catch a glimpse.

Mom was the first to see the platypus, and she saw it surface a few times before she could get our attention and let us know. It was getting dark by then, so we had to use flashlights to see it and try to get pictures.

They're tiny - or at least this one was, maybe about a foot long at the most. You can see it in the video below, which also features a green possum we saw.

If you live in North America and have seen a possum, you know that they aren't pretty creatures. The possums here in Australia, though, are really very cute! They're very distantly related, it turns out, and both are marsupials.

After we had dinner at a famous and kitschy Italian-Swiss restaurant in the area, we headed back into the rainforest to do some night spotting. Since it was raining, we had a hard time finding much, but we did see a few more possums and some wallabies. Below is a rock wallaby.  

Here Carter has an encounter with a cane toad, one of the many non-indigenous species in Australia.

Overall, it was a fascinating tour, and at the end I felt like I had learned a great deal about the Australian rainforest and rainforests in general.

The next morning, we rented a car and drove up the coast from Cairns. The drive itself was gorgeous, much of it along some spectacular coastline with the road darting in and out of lush rainforest. 

We had picked a point on the map about a two-hour drive north and programmed the GPS to take us there. So you can imagine our surprise when the GPS announced, "In two kilometers, turn left and board ferry." We all looked at each other in surprise for a moment - a ferry?

The ferry turned out to be a small one that takes cars back and forth across a river. I've never been on a ferry like that before, nor have I even seen one, so it was definitely a cool experience.

We finally reached our destination: Cape Tribulation, a stretch of beach in the middle of the rainforest. It seemed to be an area popular with hikers and many of the shops along the way sold camping supplies.

We got out and spent a little time on the beach. The warning signs there were ominous. Welcome to Australia, eh?

These weblike designs in the sand were actually made by crabs that were digging down and pushing up little balls of wet sand out of their burrows.

Carter enjoyed playing in the sand, of course.

 From there we found a spot for lunch and then started to make our way back down the coast, stopping occasionally for photo opportunities.

We found a beach for Carter to play on. It was actually pretty chilly, but he didn't care; he wanted to put on his swimsuit and get his feet in the water!

The following day we flew down to Sydney, where we spent a few days exploring the city. It's quite a contrast to Cairns and Melbourne, and though I've spent brief amounts of time here a couple of times before, I never felt like I had a chance to really experience the city. We arrived in late afternoon and went out to dinner at a German restaurant Doug and I have been to before. The food was great, and Carter got to try a malt soda, something the menu called a "kinderbier." It was pretty good!


From there we walked down to Circular Quay for the spectacular views of the Opera House lit up at night. None of them turned out very well on my phone, but here is the best I've got:

The next morning we headed back down to Circular Quay to take a harbour cruise. It started out with spectacular views of the Opera House as we sailed past.

I took so many pictures that I think I could almost put them all together and make a movie of us going past it!

The Harbour Bridge is another familiar Sydney landmark.

This little amusement park was closed for the winter, but I loved the whimsical look of it.

Yet more pictures of the Opera House!

The cruise took us all around the perimeter of the harbour, and the guide doing the commentary made hilariously snarky comments along the way about what we were seeing. We passed all sorts of old and beautiful houses belonging to ridiculously wealthy people, beautiful stretches of beach, and rocky outcrops. It was a lovely way to see the harbour!

And the pollution, of course. No city in the world can escape that, it seems.

Unimpressed by the scenery, Carter spent a good part of the trip making a chart of everyone's favorite popsicle flavors.

I love his "possible answers". He decided to start making surveys and displaying the results in chart form a month or so ago, and since this is a math skill (data collection, analysis, and presentation), I've been encouraging him to keep doing it. :-)

Love this view of the Opera House underneath the Harbour Bridge!

We got off the boat in Darling Harbour and walked over to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch. We've been trying to hit as many Hard Rock Cafes as we can (so I can add to my pin collection mostly), but also because it's really nice to have an American-style cheeseburger every once in a while!

The Sydney Aquarium is in Darling Harbour, and so we decided to pay it a visit. Carter loves aquariums (aquaria?) and so he was very excited about this one. There were some fantastic Great Barrier Reef exhibits, though we couldn't help thinking that they weren't as cool as the real thing!

You have to see the anemone clownfish while in Sydney, of course. 

Look, it's Dorrie and Marlin!

This aquarium also had two dugongs, which are marine mammals distantly related to manatees. I had never seen these before!

Carter had a lot of fun here. 

The next day we decided to take the open top double-decker bus tour to see the city. These buses are often surprisingly good ways to get a feel for the layout of a city in a short amount of time, and in a huge sprawling city like Sydney, it was a great way to see a lot of the city.

We hopped off the bus to have lunch at the fish market. 

As you can see, it was a really beautiful day, though a bit chilly.

I'm not sure what kind of birds these were, but they were hanging out by the dumpsters.

Beautiful Victorian building.

Another spot where we got off the bus was at Bondi Beach. It was pretty chilly there too, and poor Doug didn't have his coat!

Carter played in the sand, of course.

Our third day in Sydney was probably the most beautiful day we had the entire time. The sky was incredibly clear, and so we decided it would be a perfect day to go up to the top of the Sydney Eye Tower for the panoramic view of the city.

 After several days in the city, we picked up our rental car and headed out to the Hunter Valley, the wine country north of Sydney. It was an easy drive, and we first headed to a winery where we hoped to have lunch. As luck would have it, that place was closed, but we found another spot nearby that served very interesting pizza. The restaurant was part of a brewpub and winery and had lovely grounds, and so Carter got to run around and play outside.

Lately he's been into sticks: he picks them up and carries them around, pretending they're everything from fishing poles to harvesting equipment. He can seriously play with a stick for hours. Clearly we've wasted way too much money on toys over the last few years!

We stayed at a Crowne Plaza in the Hunter Valley, where we had a two-bedroom apartment. It was a lot of fun to stay all together! We made breakfast and dinner every day and at night we made popcorn and watched movies. Or rather, I should say we watched one movie, over and over again. But Nana was a trooper!

One of the big things that happened here was that Carter lost his first tooth! Doug and I went out to do some wine tasting on our own and when we came back, Carter showed us that his tooth had come out. He was a little freaked out about it, but cheered up when he got to have a special ice cream creation to celebrate.

He was also excited that the Tooth Fairy brought him five Australian dollars overnight!

We spent the next few days visiting wineries and exploring the area. We visited some beautiful places and tasted lots of lovely wines. Semillon is a particular specialty here, and we tasted some fantastic versions. That's not a varietal I've ever had much of an affinity for, but I definitely tasted some ones that made me rethink my previous opinions on it!

Tower estate had some lovely wines, including a peach-colored sparkling wine that Mom took a bottle of home.

Carter ran around outside the winery a bit. He's now used to going wine-tasting with us. None of the Hunter Valley wineries had boxes of toys or play areas for kids, but we brought along toys for him and he kept himself entertained. It helped that we generally had fantastic weather and he was able to play outside.  

We decided to go to a Mexican restaurant called Casa Margarita for lunch. It was located in a winery and was advertised as being an authentic Mexican restaurant, with some positive reviews to that effect on Trip Adviser. It turned out that the restaurant was owned by an American ex-pat, and it was the most authentic Mexican food I've had since we left the US! All the details were right, and we had a lot of fun talking to the proprietor. His daughter was just a bit older than Carter, and they ended up playing together the entire time we were there. Carter had so much fun that he didn't want to leave, and we only got him to leave by promising to take him to a chocolate store. 

The restaurant owner and his daughter were thinking of going out for chocolate too, and Carter was very excited at the thought of seeing his friend again. We bought some chocolate and waited, but we didn't see them. And then we realized we'd gone to a different chocolate store than the one they'd said they were going to! Carter was so sad, and Doug and I felt really bad about it. :-(  The chocolate was pretty good, though!

We kept seeing pairs of these pink parrots at many of the wineries we went to. I'm not sure what kind of bird it is, but they're very beautiful. We saw birds just like these at the bird sanctuary we visited in Cairns.

Carter enjoyed running around on the grounds of the hotel. Our apartment was ground level and the back door opened up to a big grassy area with a duck pond, and he loved going out there and playing. Occasionally there would be other kids playing footie or running around and he'd try to join them. Of course he doesn't know how to play footie, so he just kind of ran around and got in the way, mostly. Still, it was cute to watch. He and Mom went for some walks around the pond and spent some time exploring outside in the afternoons while Doug and I went to do a little more wine tasting.

We went tasting at a lot of places, but there were some highlights, of course. We enjoyed the stickies and tawnies tasting at De Bertoli.  

Drayton's had a solid portfolio of wines, including some particularly good tawnies.

Lindeman's is a name that will be familiar to most American wine drinkers. Though I've never been fond of the wines they export to the US, I enjoyed tasting at the winery. It's typical when we go wine tasting in other countries that we have a lot of lovely wine that isn't exported. So we can only stand there and enjoy it!

We had lunch in a restaurant that was converted from an old log house. The food was amazing!

One of the wineries we enjoyed tasting at the most was McGuigan. We tasted many wines here that were very, very good. Their semillon had just won best white wine at a big wine festival in London, and so they were rightfully very proud of it. We tasted many wines here that we liked.

The wines at Bimbadgen didn't stand out as anything special, but the grounds of the winery were really beautiful. While we were standing at the bar tasting, there was a marriage proposal just outside on the lawn! The winery staff took the couple glasses of sparkling wine afterwards.

We spent three full days in the Hunter Valley, and at last it was time to head back to Sydney. We got out relatively early so we could go to a laundromat and do laundry on the way out of town (Mom got to see the truly glamorous side of long-term travel there, where you desperately seek out ways to get your clothes clean without paying hotel prices), and got back to Sydney in time to go down to the harbour and catch a whale-watching cruise. It was a beautiful day for it, and we once again got to sail through the harbour and see all the beautiful scenery.

The water was a little rough, though nothing like our trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. 

We had gorgeous views of the city and the shore.

And we finally saw whales! These were humpback whales, a mother and a young one. 

This short video shows some of the highlights of the whale watching trip.

It was a lovely way to end our time in Australia. This, by the way, is Bondi Beach once again.

The next morning we got up and headed to the airport. Mom flew home to North Carolina and we flew the other direction, to South Africa. It was sad to say goodbye, and we still miss having her here. But we were so glad she could join us for a couple of weeks and share in this crazy adventure of ours!

As we flew out of Sydney, our plane headed down the coast for a bit and we had some spectacular views.

We're now in South Africa, and about to head into the safari portion of this trip. Our internet may be more spotty during that time, but I'll try to update whenever I can. As long as I have a cell phone signal, I'll continue to post daily photos on our Facebook page

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