Category Archives: Travel

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Live Stream of the Jamie Oliver / Ministry of Food event, brought to you by The Good Guys

It’s the morning of the event, and I am a touch excited…ok, VERY excited.  Was somehow able to sleep well last night, and woke up very refreshed.  Breakfast at the Hilton was very good, and now it’s a waiting game for the bus to arrive to take us to Ipswich.

Here is the link for the live stream: CLICK HERE IF YOU PLAN TO VOTE FOR ME!

Thanks for all of your well wishes.  I know how blessed I am to get this opportunity, and I intend to do you all proud.  You are all up here with me.

In the Mirepoix Au Gras of life, today is the Bacon.

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2011 Christmas Vacation – Day 16 “MERRY CHRISTMAS”

Values are intrinsic beliefs formed by past experience, and no time of the year reinforces this to me like Christmas.  In the simplest terms, Christmas to me is a celebration of family and friends, perpetuated by a ritual of excess food consumption and gift giving, performed on a sun drenched open stage of ungainly card tables, cracked concrete patios, and a gum tree standing tall where midwicket should be fielding.

In 12 years living in the Northern Hemisphere, I could never get excited about a Christmas that occurred when snow and ice covered the sidewalks, preventing excited kids from safely riding new skateboards and pogo sticks.  It just never felt right.  So I understand my wife and kids all to well when they are seemingly unable to enjoy a Southern Hemisphere Christmas in quite the same way I do.  It’s not a case of bah humbug, but rather an example of how deeply past experiences shape our values and expectations for the rest of our lives.

Today looks as though it’s going to get up to the low 30’s (mid 80’s), and the sun is streaming through the window just a few hours after Santa came sneaking in through the front door (using a special Santa key, as this house has no chimney).  Jaimee is running around the house excitedly waking us all up, so that she can get to the all important business of opening the presents that have magically filled the living room overnight.

Red puffy eyes stare blankly ahead, tired from helping Santa assemble a 100,000 piece doll house and kitchen, made in China by a group of Santa’s helpers so devious, they deliberately placed about 10% of the joints and dowel holes 5mm off of true.  This thing needs no glue.  Ill fitting pieces have locked together with enough pressure, that it is as tight and secure as a cross threaded wheel nut.  Elves Helen, Alana and James did a great job of finally getting the thing assembled without losing an eye.

The joy of a child as she opens one great present after another is one of the heart strings that makes Christmas a joy regardless of where you spent your formative years celebrating it.  Slowly, Jaimee and the boys worked through their presents, as surely as I worked through my third cup of coffee.  In the end, we were all excited, though admittedly to different degrees and for slightly different reasons.

Jaimee opens one of her presents

Jaimee works through her Christmas Stocking

Then it was time to pack up all of the food and the rest of the presents, and head out to Clonbinane for Christmas day.

I always look forward to Christmas, though recently Christmas for me has taken a more sombre tone.  It seems as though as I get older Christmas is marked by those who are no longer with us, celebrating the day, as much as it about those who are in attendance.  This year especially, melancholy was a passenger for me and, in hindsight, it probably added a little extra stress to an already frenetic day.  Helen, if you’re reading this, you somehow held it together this year, though I am sure it was not easy on you.  Kudos to you.

The last Christmas I had in Clonbinane was the last Christmas I had with my mum.  Within a couple of weeks I was back in the USA preparing to move back to Australia, and just a couple of weeks after that she passed away.  My lasting memory of my mum is the look on her face when my dad gave her a new laptop for Christmas.  It’s an image I treasure as it’s an image full of joy and dignity, when the occasion was filled with the foreboding that comes with the knowledge you are likely spending your last days with a person near and dear to your heart.  With the exception of the funeral, It is also the last time I remember my dad being my mum’s wife.  It’s an odd statement and I am not sure conveys well enough what I am trying to say.

Clonbinane is about an hour from Sunbury as you have to take a very circuitous route to get there, and the GPS had a field day.  It led us a merry dance through the countryside, and I traveled roads I had no idea existed.  According to Navman it was the “Quickest” route, so I’ll just have to take it’s word for it.  We did get there eventually, after forgetting some of the Christmas presents and having to turn back.

Our host for Christmas Day in Clonbinane - Aunty Pam (AKA Crazy Eyes)

Christmas was a typical affair for us this year.  Beer and Cocktails accompanied nibbles, and were followed by teasing and laughter.  The odd argument was well seasoned with expletives, and accompanied by more shit stirring, and more laughter.  Uncle Peter decided to have a bit of an involuntary lie down during a laughing/coughing fit, which added to the drama of the day, and to finish it off, Dinner was followed by a storm of massive proportions.

Before we all sat down to dinner, the kids had their Christmas present ceremony to perform, with them all gathered eagerly in the living room while wrapped goodies were passed around to all.  Following the kids, the adults had their Christmas presents handed out.  This years Kris Kringle was a winner for me, as I got just what I was after.  A great stainless steel food mill (thanks Aunty Pam).

Dinner was then served, with the typical endless supply of roasts cooked on the Weber BBQ.  Lamb, Beef, Pork and Chicken joined the Ham and I brought the rest of my Mussels and Calamari.  Roast Vegies and various Salads lined the benches, with Jeri’s secret family recipe Potato salad a popular hit, and as usual we all ate until we could eat no more, and still there were leftovers to feed a Sudanese village.  Pity they weren’t close by.

After Dinner Aunty Pam proudly brought out the Pinata that she had made.  It kind of looked like Gleep (from the cartoon Herculoids), if Gleep wore a tight belt around his middle.  You remember the Herculoids?  Had a Rhino that could shoot rocks from his horn…Just Google it.  Anyhow, we filled the Pinata with candy and then tried to find a place to hang it.  Of course, in my family everyone is a fucking expert, so it took 7 of us to find a place to hang the Pinata.  30 minutes and one swing later, the Pinata lay on the floor, battered, but still in one piece.  The hangy bit had broken from the pinata itself.  So then we went about the task of fixing and re-hanging it.  By now, there were 12 opinions of how it should be done.  30 minutes and one swing later, Gleep was back on the floor still holding on to his lolly guts.  Eventually, someone propped the Pinata onto the table, and whack…Gleep was cleft in twain, spilling his sweet innards all over the concrete patio.  By now, all the kids had all left out of boredom, and the spoils were shared by 5 over-enthusiastic adults.

At this time the next door neighbour walked down the outside steps and warned us of the approaching storm.  The cool change rolled in with dark foreboding skies, rolling and boiling with with malice.  You could tell by the colour and the shifting movement of the clouds that a Tornado could form and touch down, and there were a couple of strikes recorded across Melbourne’s outer North West.

Storm arrives

The storm is coming...run away!

The clouds roll and boil with malintent

Over 5000 homes suffered damage serious enough to require SES (State Emergency Service) assistance, and we had hail fall the size of grapes.  It fell with a velocity I have not seen, and was as though someone was hurling the ice from the sky with all of their might.  Despite covering the cars with blankets and quilts, some of us (including me) took a little hail damage on our cars, which was nothing compared to some outer Melbourne suburbs who suffered lemon sized hail!  I think it is very important to use different types of comparisons for hail size.  The normal “golf ball” and “baseball” size scale just doesn’t cut it.

Blankets and towels are the best protection we can find

Hail falling fast enough to streak a photo at 1/40th of a Second

Northern edge of the storm as it begins to clear

Bailey inspects the Hail

Meerkat Ornaments weather the Hail

The Hail Tossers in action

Our trip hope to Sunbury was eventful, as it took us right past the airport, which had been seriously affected by the system.  The skies were like a highway, as planes queued up to take off and land after the forced closure of the runways.  It was a slow trip home with heavy post-Christmas dinner traffic, and the roads a mess with strewn debris and standing water is low lying areas.  Eventually we made it home, and fortunately without incident.

And that was Christmas for 2011.  Eventually I fall asleep, and dream of headless snowmen.

2011 Christmas Vacation – Day 15

Today is Christmas Eve.

The plan for today is to enjoy a bit of a sleep in, and then to join the mad rush in the shopping centres to buy food for tomorrow’s Christmas Dinner.

Christmas this year is at Aunty Pam’s and Uncle Peters in Clonbinane, about 60km north of Melbourne, along the Hume highway, in a picturesque part of rural Victoria.

Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to provide the days lollies (candy) and chips, a task that is not to taxing on the family spending it’s holidays viewing thousands of kilometres of black top disappear beneath the front of their car, and for that I am grateful.

Alana and James have built a hair dressing salon in their garage, and she’s busy with clients all day, so we offer to do the grocery roundup for us all.  The set up James has built is really quite impressive.  It’s a modular salon, complete with floating floor, a wash bay with that funky head tray for the sink, special hairdressing chairs, and even a portable spray booth.  When you walk through the full sized glass paneled timber door , you are transported into a salon that could be anywhere…anywhere but a Garage, that is.

We rise at a leisurely 10am, and gather shopping lists from various family members (to collect their Christmas Meal requirements) before heading off to Costco (again) with the boys in tow.  This time they too will get to enjoy the Costco Hotdog and Pizza experience.

The next 4 hours are spent wandering the isles of Costco and other Grocery Stores, crossing off each item on the shopping list like Santa crossing off the names of naughty girls and boys.  Included from Costco were 5 dozen oysters which were to come back and bite us a bit later on.

We returned to Alana’s house and divide up the groceries, before we start our meal preparations for Christmas Eve dinner as well as the Christmas Day feast.  Jeri starts working on her Grandma’s Potato Salad recipe, as it is a tradition of hers to eat it for Christmas, so she was going to make it regardless of the simplified food request we had before us.

I decided to work on the Oysters, as I was going to prepare them in about 4 different ways.  The first was a Bloody Mary Oyster Shooter.  Then a Prosciutto Oyster Kilpatrick, a Mornay, and finally au naturale.  I try one of the Kilpatrick oysters first, and the taste from the oyster itself is ghastly.  I swallowed about half of it before spitting the rest out.  From a different tray, I try a natural oyster, and it too was wretched.  I took one bite and immediately spat it out of my mouth and into the waiting rubbish bin below.  Alana takes a whiff of one of them, and quickly agrees that something is not right.  We decide to take the safe option and throw all 5 dozen away.  What a disappointment.

To try to make amends for the Oysters, I score and cube some large squid tubes, before marinating them for a couple hours.  At the same time, I add about a kilo of mussels to a pot before pouring in white wine, water, some garlic and fresh herbs.  I steam the mussels until they are just opening.  Over cooking mussels makes them rubbery and bland, but properly cooked mussels are one of my favourite all time seafoods, and these turn out to be delicious.  I also toss the calamari on a scorching bbq plate, just for a minute or two until just cooked, and finish them with a squeeze of lemon and a few turns of cracked pepper and rock salt.  The result is tender and absolutely delicious.  A bit of char on the calamari works with the lemon and salt, and makes the dish without overpowering the delicate flavour that squid has.

We eat half of the seafood before celebrating the rest of Christmas Eve with some refreshing cocktails.  The distance between us siblings, though not as bad as it once was, still means we don’t get together as often as we would like…well at least not I.  I love my sisters, and really miss their company at times.  This is a good night, and in the morning, Santa comes.

 

2011 Christmas Vacation – Day 14

I love the zoo.  Always have.  Always will.  It’s a bit of a controversial view point in my family, because Jeri (my Wife) hates them, and I understand why.

I’m not talking about zoos that house Big Cats in small squalid cages,  stressed animals wearing tracks in the cement floors as they pace endlessly in a mindless routine that is tantamount to psychological torture.  I’m not talking about zoos that buy baby animals from factory farms because cute babies keep turnstiles humming and revenues climbing, while they euthanize older animals that are past their view by date to make room for the crowd pulling infants (this does happen).  I’m talking about a zoo that put’s the welfare of it’s animals, and the welfare of the species as a whole, first in it’s priorities.  And the Melbourne zoo is one of these organizations.

I think it’s not only a day of immense pleasure to visit these institutions, but it’s a duty.  To support these zoos so that they can continue their work in preservation and research benefiting the animals they house is a noble cause, and the ability to see and interact with some of the Earths more amazing inhabitants, is icing on the cake.  The Melbourne Zoo in particular imports and sells crafts made by villagers on the fringes of wild animal habitat, so that it can help provide a source of income, turning the relationship into a valuable resource for these communities so that they, in turn, see the benefit in preserving the wild habitats.  It’s the kind of evolution in thinking that will make a difference in the survival of many endangered species.

One of the many species supported by the Zoo's wildlife preservation programs

I remember going to the Melbourne Zoo as a child, and it’s exhibits weren’t all something to be proud of.  In the past 35 years the zoo has changed as our knowledge of animal welfare and husbandry has changed, and it is in part this evolution of the Zoo that has fueled my interest in animals and drives my passion for zoos.  It doesn’t matter how often you go to the Zoo, and I am speaking specifically of the Melbourne Zoo, there is always something new and different to see.  Not just with new state of the art exhibits and displays (of which there were), but even during different seasons, or even from one day to the next, the animals are acting differently, so that if you visit again and again, you will always have a different experience.

If you haven’t guessed, today I went to the Melbourne Zoo.

Well, to be more accurate, Bailey and I went to the Zoo.  The day beckoned bright and clear, with barely a cloud in the sky.  We arrived as the Zzoo was opening, which meant the day was still nice and cool, and that the crowds had not arrived.  Both definitely a great bonus.  In addition, we find out that kids are admitted free on School Holidays!  That means the 5 hour visit cost us less than $5 an hour.  That’s pretty cheap entertainment.  You should go.  Wait…finish the blog first.

We enter the Zoo, and much to Bailey’s delight, the first exhibit you see (if you turn right from the main entrance) is the Meerkats.  Bailey’s love of Meerkats is second only to his love of Penguins, and the visit to the Zoo could not have started any better.  Who could not love Meerkats though.  Even before Timon graced the silver screens as the sidekick to Simba , the Meerkats at the Zoo standing rigidly to attention and scurrying around the exhibit interacting with each other was always a crowd favourite.

A Meerkat stands to attention at the Zoo

Late Spring in Melbourne means many of the local animals are giving birth, and it was amazing to see the number of non-caged residents (I call them volunteers), especially the birds, living in the Zoo.  Parent birds leading groups of young around, oblivious to the human foot traffic, just shows the level of comfort these animals have in the Zoo environment.  Ducks and Peacocks were being chased by small furry offspring, weaving in and out of people without fear, everywhere you turned.

A Peahen leads it's chicks oblivious to the people around her

The next exhibit proves that Drop Bears exist, in my opinion.  I mean, if you can have such a thing as a Tree Kangaroo, then surely a Drop Bear is not so far fetched!

Tree Kangaroo...can a Drop Bear be far from being discovered?

I remember one of my earlier visits to the Zoo as a child because the Zoo had just received from China some Pandas.  With great excitement we braved the crowds to look at these rare and exotic creatures, only to find a small red raccoon type animal staring back at us from high in the tree tops.  I remember the deep sense of disappointment I felt at not seeing a Black and White Panda Bear, and I still can’t walk past the poor Red Panda without just a little bitterness.  Maybe I hold a grudge too long, and maybe it’s not even his fault, but still, I was just a kid and the emotional wounds obviously cut deep that day.  Stupid Red Panda, looking down on me, mocking me.

Red Panda...it mocks us all from a great height.

I want to go on the record to say that the name “Little Penguins” is the lamest species name I think I have ever heard.  Come on people of the zoological world, couldn’t you have come up with something better?  I grew up calling these things Fairy Penguins, and until someone comes up with something better, I am just going to have to keep calling them Fairy Penguins.

I remember swimming near Rosebud at a pier somewhere, I must have only been 8 or 9 years old, and people from the pier were pointing at me and yelling incoherently.  Even at that young age, I immediately went cold and thought “Shark”, and the adrenalin shot through my body as I spun around in fright.  I caught the movement only a metre or so from me, and there was a Fairy Penguin bobbing around beside me, enjoying the cooling waters of Port Phillip Bay on a sweltering summer day.

Rafts of these amazing little birds waddle inelegantly up the beach at Phillip Island, seemingly oblivious to the thousands of onlookers nightly as they navigate their way past the crowds and boardwalks to their burrows above the high tide mark.

Fairy Penguins are not an uncommon sight around Melbourne, and there are better places to see them than the Zoo, yet the Zoo still performs a vital task even in this exhibit.  The Zoo hosts sick and injured penguins rescued from the wild, and rehabilitated in many cases before being released, so the value of their Penguin exhibits (there are more than 1) are not to be understated.  The Fairy Penguins are the next exhibit we come across.

This Fairy Penguin lost an eye and was rescued.

One of the things often overlooked at the Zoo, is the fact that it is a Zoological Garden, and that great pains are taken in their flora, as well as fauna.  Plantings often reflect the home ranges of the near by exhibits, or even just a specific theme for study and reflection.  One such garden exhibit is the stunning Japanese Garden.  Flanking the Ornamental Lake and the Lakeside Bistro, the Japanese Garden was built in 1990 and invites a peaceful contemplation as you stroll around it’s meandering pathways.

The Japanese Garden at the Melbourne Zoo

The Garden itself is a delight to all senses.  I love just sitting on the grass and closing my eyes, focussing on each of my other senses individually on the experience.  I try to pick out individual sounds; water, birds, insects, wind and then let them come together in an orchestral cacophony.  It makes for a very serene and meditative experience.

As well as a location for some quiet respite, the Japanese Garden provides for some of the best views of the Ornamental Lake and it’s inhabitants, as well as Lemur Island beyond.

Ducks at the Melbourne Zoo Ornamental Lake

White Swan at Melbourne Zoo Ornamental Lake

In the distance, we can hear the guttural roar of the Lions, and we find ourselves pausing briefly at the other exhibits as we head toward the King of the Jungle.  The Lion enclosure is one of the oldest displays at the Zoo, but it’s flyover gives great visibility of what is a large space for the pride to live.  It looks it’s age, with wire fencing where today’s exhibits use glass or perspex, but the animals seem to be relaxed and healthy.  I’ve always loved this part of the zoo, especially with the Hunting Dogs on the other side of the flyover from the Lions, though I have never really been to enamored by the Small Cats walk.  A less lively bunch of animals I think I have never seen.

Just Lion around on a hot Melbourne day

Have you ever encountered that annoying reptile nerd that walks around the reptile exhibits, loudly and proudly naming each species and their associated characteristics, before explaining to anyone who will listen about their toxicity and the environment in which they live?  Well, that’s me, and after the Lions we head toward the Reptile House.  I love snakes and all things reptiles, and I could easily spend several hours in the Reptile House, despite the fact that I’ve been in there on at least a dozen occasions, and I know the exhibit so well I can identify each species in there without use of the signs.  It makes no difference to me, the Reptile House is something I would dearly love to have in my own back yard.  Sadly, I am reduced to shuffling Zombie like from window to window, naming each animal out loud to any who are within earshot.  By the way, here is a lovely picture of a Death Adder, which incidentally is not a true viper.  Watch out for this guy, he’s an ambush predator, which means he won’t move out of your way like most other Australian venomous snakes…

The appropriately named Death Adder is #9 on the list of Top 10 Venomous Snakes

During this visit to the Zoo there were three new displays that really stood out for me.  Once of these was the next stop on our exploration, the new Wild Sea exhibit.  It houses the Seals in a brand new, state of the art, wave pool.  The waves generated by the pool crash against artificial rocks, and are so powerful that the seals use the pressure waves to “surf” just below the surface of the water.

Again the work of the Zoo proves vital to the local wild population, with all of the seals on display rescued animals from nearby waters.  One in particular, Silva, has been at the Zoo for 20 years, and has a clearly visible scar around her neck.  She was found tangled with a small piece of discarded fishing net that had been there so long, it had cut into her as she grew.

Silva with the scars on her neck from a fishing net

As well as the Seals, the Wild Sea exhibit houses the main Penguin enclosure.  There is also a large indoor area with underwater viewing windows to watch the seals and penguins in their respective pools.  In addition, there is a large Fiddler Ray pool and several fish tanks with local species of Marine life, including some stunningly odd Sea Horses.

The oddest creature in the sea...the Sea Horse

If there is a weirder creature in the Sea, I do not know of it.  How is it possible that these delicate and slow moving creatures evolved as the fittest and strongest?  Bizarre though they are, they are very captivating to watch.

The second new exhibit that caught my imagination was the water plant.  The Zoo has also chosen to turn their recycling and water treatment plant into an exhibit of sorts, and what an amazing thing it is to see.  It’s a great educational tool, showing not only what the Zoo is doing to reduce it’s carbon footprint, and it’s water use, but ways in which we can do the same at home.  If you are visiting the Zoo, do not dismiss this as a non-exhibit.  Spend some time and get inspired, as I did.

From the Water Plant you walk through some of the older exhibits in the Zoo.  It includes the inevitable Aussie Outback trail, with ubiquitous Kangaroos, as well as Emus, Wombats, Echidnas and Koalas.

My favourite Aussie mammal, the Echidna

Then it’s the African Plains Animals, well at least those that have not been relocated to the Werribee Plains Zoo, and after that the Great Flight Aviary.

Another of the Exhibits that I can just wander through in a meditative daze, I love the sensory immersion of the Aviary.  The sounds as much as the sights, it’s a zen place that I hate to visit with others who can’t seem to appreciate the need to walk through the place slowly and silently.  It also embodies my view of the Zoo being a place that offers a different experience every visit, as the seasonal nature of the Aviary inhabitants, and even a revisit to the enclosure during a single Zoo excursion, gives a very different outcome every time you walk through it.

Marabou Stork strutting it's stuff

Do you know of a Pheasant Plucker?

On the way to the Thai Village housing the Elephant enclosure, we came across some activity at the Otter display.  With a keeper standing by, the Otters were creating a commotion, tossing around what looked at first to be a mussel shell.  The biggest of the troop was playing with his new toy, while his family members were trying hard to wrest it from his grip so they could join the fun.  I asked the keeper what was going on, and she explained that someone had dropped in their lens cap, and another keeper was coming to help retrieve it, and sure enough…

The Otters have fun with a Lens Cap

I had seen the Elephant exhibit last time I was at the Zoo, but it still doesn’t fail to impress me.  Obviously the size of the exhibit matches the animals housed within, but the concept of turning the entire section of the Zoo into a Thai village was brilliantly executed.

Elephant at the Melbourne Zoo

The cool rainforest theme was just the ticket for us, as the day was lengthening into a cloudless summer scorcher, and within a short walk the Elephant Exhibit gives way to the Orangutans.

We spent about 20 minutes watching the young Dewi play tirelessly with her mother.  At just over a year old, she’s as rambunctious as any human child and keeps a large crowd of onlookers engaged with her antics.  The Zoo also has a wonderful display, serving to educate those interested, of the threats to the Orangutans home range, including the Palm Oil plantations created to feed humans of their appetite for Bio Diesel (don’t let the green tag fool you.  Bio Diesel poses as great a threat to the planet and it’s inhabitants as any fossil fuel, and possible more).

Dewi has some play time with Mum

Around past the Tigers, who were lazily sprawled out at the rear of the enclosure, about as far from prying eyes as they could get, oblivious to the fact that there were paying guests eager to catch a better glimpse of them, is the Butterfly House.  You could scarcely get two more contrasting experiences.  One, a fleeting glimpse of a feline capable of ending you with a single bite to the back of the neck, and consuming you in about 3 meals, while the other a fully immersive world of delicate postage stamp sized paintings, sipping nectar from dainty yellow cups, alighting on passers-by momentarily before pulling themselves gracefully through the air with periodic beats of gossamer wings.

Love is in the air in the Butterfly House

My first visit to the Butterfly House was in Winter and, as a result, I always expect to walk into the hoop hut shaped building and into a hot and humid environment.  During the Summer, however, the climate in the hut just feels humid, and it’s something I never get used to.  It’s another of those exhibits that just forces you to be quiet and contemplative.  Slowly you make your way through the exhibit, and you exit into a hap hazard display of other insects and Spiders.  I really wish they would do more with this.

Near the end of our day, a 5 hour sojourn through 55 acres of exhibits and gardens, we weave our way through the Apes and Monkeys.  The new enclosure for the Gorillas offers plenty of glass vantage points of their grassy home of hills and trees.  It was the third new exhibit that really impressed and it’s another exhibit where the attempt to keep the animals healthy psychologically as well as physically is obvious, with lots of props and swings to keep the Chimps busy.

Gorilla gets some relief from the sun, thanks to a hessian bag!

Finally it’s a climb up through the elevated platforms to view the monkeys from glass fronted viewing stages high in each of the Monkey’s exhibits.  The result of the enclosure design is a replicated canopy view of these tree top acrobats, and there is never a lack of show ponies willing to perform for the public.  Colobus and Spider Monkeys swing precariously from ropes and tree branches with amazing speed and agility, and their antics have kids and adults alike pressed hard against the glass making it difficult to see whom is actually watching whom.

I shot almost 100 photo’s today, which is actually a bit down on my usual trips to the Zoo.  We walk through the Gift Shop, and the exit beyond, with just minutes left on our Parking Voucher, and make our way back to Sunbury via the Freeway…which reminds me, I have to get our Toll pass for this trip.

2011 Christmas Vacation – Day 13

Is it sad when one of the anticipated events of a 4 week holiday is a few hours spent browsing the cavernous interior of a Costco?  Perhaps it is, but that’s what Costco does.  The first of currently 3 Costco’s in Australia, the Melbourne Costco at Docklands is an Australian accented version of every other Costco you will find in the USA, and it is a must visit location every time we get back to Melbourne.  This visit is no exception, especially with just 3 days until Christmas!

Sadly, at least for the kids, we sneak off with sister Susan (after dropping Garan off at her house in Melton) and head toward the retail giant, eager to get our Christmas lists all crossed off (not to mention a belly full of Costco Pizza and Hotdogs).  Costco doesn’t disappoint, and after 3 hours of wandering through the place, we leave with most of our Christmas shopping done (and stomach’s full).

It has to be said that Melbourne is one of the easiest cities to drive around, especially given it’s size.  For the most part, the roads are well planned, and there are ample routes in and out of the city, meaning there are not many bottle necks (unless you happen to be on the South Eastern Freeway and someone has broken down, or there is an accident).  Today’s light pre-Christmas traffic makes it even easier, and before we know it we are back in the outer North Western Suburbs continuing our shopping at Watergardens in Taylors Lakes.  A quick trip back to Susan’s to drop off some perishable food, and we are out again, this time in Melton, to put the finishing touches on the Christmas Shopping (present wise, at least).

A long day’s shopping ends with a terrific Roast Pork dinner at sister Alana’s

Unfortunately, Day 13 just has not much more to report.  Shopping is shopping, and (Costco aside), not even I can make that adventure seem interesting.

2011 Christmas Vacation – Day 12

Melbourne is my home town.  I was born there, I was raised there, and almost all of my immediate family lives there…well, at least within an hour of there.  Therefore Melbourne marks the spiritual destination of our vacation, and visiting my family for Christmas was the basic motivation for this road trip.

Today, we drive home.

So, let me get the apology out of the way before I continue my blog.  This entry (and the next few, obviously) are late.  And they are late because our daily schedule of visitations and explorations left little time and motivation to get any writing done.  At the end of each day, it was simply more attractive to unwind with my family, than it was to share the days musings with you all.  For that, I apologize.  Additionally, Dall 11 marks the push into Melbourne, so we did not take any GPS lead back roads, nor did we stop at any exciting attractions along the way, we just pushed on to our destination in Sunbury.

At 9:30am on the dot, after wrangling the kids our of their beds and packing the car for what would be the last time for about a week, we pulled out of the Sandors Motor end and deliberately headed in the opposite direction, crossing the Murray River into New South Wales for a fuel stop before putting Mildura behind us.  Shop-a-docket coupons for 20 cents off per litre dictated our choice of refuelling stations (as they would), and the nearest was just across the border.  A second stop for some breakfast on the run, and we pointed the front of the car South, and turned onto the Calder Highway.

After driving through the NT and Northern South Australia, the proximity of the towns becomes quite a shock.  It seems you hardly get a comfortable groove going at Highway Speed before you enter another town, and are forced to slow down to 60km/h. The other big change is the feel of the communities.  Life just seems that much more comfortable in these communities, and it becomes palpable when you look at the faces of people, and the facades of store fronts.  There are no security guards and screens protecting the retail stores and their consumers within.  Council parks and gardens are flourishing, and the atmosphere is just that much more relaxed…less tense.

Ironically, we also get our first interaction with the constabulary just outside of Mildura, when one of the State’s finest pulls us over for a random stop.  He is standing in the middle of the highway, at 11am in the morning, pulling over everyone and issuing breabreathalyzer tests.  I am not sure how many people are drinking this early in the morning, but it is the Holiday season, and a speed and alcohol blitz has been advertised everywhere since entering Victoria.  I thank him for his diligence and for helping to keep the roads safe, and we continue on our merry way.

About 2 and half hours into our drive, we pull into Wycheproof and head for the memorial park for lunch and a break from driving.  After 2 hours of driving, the car chimes a rest warning, and we use this as a rough guide for ourselves to take a bit if a driving break and stretch our legs.

As an interesting aside for you trivia buffs, Wycheproof is home to the smallest registered mountain in the world.  Mount Wycheproof climbs majestically to some 148 metres above sea level, or 43 metres above the surrounding terrain.  To put that into some perspective, 8 of the mountains stacked on top of each other would be almost as high as Uluru (Ayers Rock) while 9 Mount Wycheproofs stacked on top of each other would mean you could step out of the 102nd floor observatory of the Empire State building and onto the top of the stacked mountains.  The spire of the famous building would still be visible towering 60 metres above the strange view of 9 small mountains teetering precariously on each other.

Some Communities really take immense pride in their public spaces, and Wycheproof is no exception.  The boys really enjoy the well manicured open spaces, kicking the ball around for 30 minutes or so, while I walk around and read the memorial plaques for the various wars in which locals paid the ultimate sacrifice.  Reading these you really get a sense of the impact these events have on small communities, where generations may be lost in some tragic cases.  Two men sharing the same last name, who you could assume to be brothers, dies in World War II, obviously devastating a family, while two Warnes a generation apart were killed…one in World War I, the other in World War II.  It’s a very poignant reminder of the cost of defending a way of life, while we still have troops serving in foreign theatres of battle.

After a belly full of food, and the kids energy reserves drained some, we pile back into the car and continue south, with 3 hours left to drive.

The next town we enter along the Calder Highway is Charlton, and a sign on the Avoca River as we cross it on the approach to the town reminds us that Charlton was heavily affected by the floods earlier in the year, as Tropical Cyclone Yasi crossed into Australia and wreaked a rain swept havoc across the driest continent in the World.  The previous prosperity and sense of ease is forgotten as residents are forced to hand write pleas to insurance companies on make-shift banners in front yards, as the community fights big business for the funds to rebuild wrecked lives.  It seems that events other than war also help shape the bonds of these rural towns, as neighours rally to support each other in the face of cold hearted insurers some 10 months after losing everything.

Living in Queensland, in the direct path of Cyclone Yasi, we experienced every minute of it’s impact and devastating after effects, as well as the horrific floods earlier in the year that wiped out towns in the Lockyer Valley, and this was a reminder that the impact of 2011’s floods were so much greater and more wide-spread than I could imagine.  Thinking about what those people in Charlton are going through, and knowing it’s a scene being repeated in many small communities across Australia, really put a damper on my spirits as I saw the town shrink slowly behind me in the rear view mirror.

Slowly landmarks and sites become more familiar as we bypass Bendigo and Kyneton on the way through the Macedon Shire.  Familiar rivers, such as the Campaspe and Coliban are crossed, while Mount Macedon and Hanging Rock appear on our left as we pass through Woodend and Gisborne before the view of Melbourne appears ahead as we crest Mount Aitken and turn off the highway into Sunbury.

Just after 4pm we pull up in front of my sisters house in Sunbury, and all pile out of the car gleefully, knowing we can unpack and unwind without having to move on in the morning.  A wonderful greeting by my 3 year old niece is just the welcoming committee we needed after 6,000km’s on the road, and we slowly settle all of our gear inside before enjoying a nice BBQ dinner.

It’s been a remarkable trip so far, with some amazing sights and unforgettable experiences.  As I settle into bed, I close my eyes and think about the days ahead.  Christmas is just around the corner, and tomorrow is the only real shopping day we have ear marked.  Still, what better place to do it in, right?

 

2011 Christmas Vacation – Day 11

After 1,700 km’s of heading south, today we turn east and leave South Australia behind us.  But not before the GPS leads us through a nice drive of the secondary highways, cutting through rolling hills and small farming hamlets.

The scenery changes from open scrub to fields of golden wheat, irrigated by a giant pipeline pumping precious water from the Murray River some distance away.  Gradually, wheat fields give way to hillsides planted with grape vines as we pass vineyards and wineries proudly marked with names familiar from labels on bottles past consumed.

Our travel takes us through a town called Morgan, where we decide to stop for lunch, and we drive off the highway to the Lions Park as indicated by a roadside sign.  The park is set elevated along the Murray River and the town itself is split in two by the great waterway.  Oddly, no bridge joins the two halves, but rather a ferry plies it’s trade 24/7 carrying cars and trucks across the river.

The town is beautiful, and would make a great holiday destination for a nice break from the stresses of City life.  A Caravan Park lies along the river, but House Boats seems to be the preferred vacation accommodation, with hundreds parked up along the shoreline.  We enjoy a nice picnic lunch in the park, while the boys expend some pent up energy goofing around in the playground area, and kicking the soccer ball around.  I decide to hit the local cafe for a couple of coffees, and we pull out glad to have found another quaint little town along the way.

Back on the Sturt Highway and we don’t travel very far at all when the GPS strangely tells us to exit ahead.  We decide to heed the advice, perhaps there’s a short cut we didn’t see on the map.  The road winds around some farms and into another small town called Cadell.  All of a sudden the road comes to an end at the river, and across the water we see a ferry slowly moving toward us.  An unexpected detour, and we get to add a ferry ride to our list of things done on this trip.  The short journey adds a bit of fun to the drive, and we pull off on the south side of the Murray river.

As we get closer to the Sunrasia region of the Murray River, open fields give way to orchards of citrus, with grape vines still dominating the hill sides where the local varietals thrive.

Eventually we cross into Victorian territory, and finally pull into Mildura with a 30 minute tine change from South Australia.  We all settle into the motel for the evening before Jeri and I head off to pick up some supplies and a little dinner for us all.  Tomorrow marks our drive into Melbourne.

2011 Christmas Vacation – Day 10

10 Days into our holiday and the promised sleep-in doesn’t happen.  Unfortunately, a lack of any natural light doesn’t overcome an alarm clock, and a check-out time.  Besides, today we head back to the coast, and the thought of seeing the salt and briny again has me motivated to get moving.  I am definitely a coastal person, and any extended period living away from the ocean affects me at some molecular level I think.  It was the hardest thing to overcome in my years living away from Australia.

Before leaving Coober Pedy behind us, we hit the local grocery store for a few supplies.  Coober Pedy is a very interesting town, and I said yesterday it was very reminiscent of the Wild West.  The locals have a steeliness about them that comes from doggedly working in a tough environment, baked by the scorching central Australian sun, and moulded by working in solitude underground, with no light and the threat of death by burial a constant danger.  It is a town where you ask no questions, and take great pains not to piss anyone off.  The countless mineshafts around the place can just as easily make an unwanted body disappear, as they could produce a fortune in gemstones, and I am sure the pasts of many of the people who choose this existence are as colourful as their personalities.  You get the feeling there are only 3 types of people who would voluntarily inhabit a region like Coober Pedy.  Those who are chasing something (namely the promise of a fortune made from Opal), those who are escaping something (and would rather it not find them, thank you very much), and those who are a little of both.

We leave and get about 24km down the road when the motel calls me (just before leaving mobile phone range) to let me know we have left behind a pair of earphones and shoes.  Dammit kids, let’s go for a walk in the scrub for a bit…

Leaving Coober Pedy, take 2, and I watch the town disappear in the rear-view mirror with a sense of pride that such a place still exists in modern Australia.  A place where the outlaw spirit lives on somewhat unfettered, and that those who still want to graft a good living toiling in miserable conditions can still do so with no questions asked.  I hope that big mining never gets a claw hold in the town…hopefully the threat of a mine shaft as a final resting place prevents the fat cat executives from exploring the area.  Happy trails Coober Pedy, I am sure we will meet again.

Gradually the scarred ground returns to normal, and the endless nothingness takes over the view in front of us (and to the sides…oh, and behind us too).  Wake up South Australia.  If the NT can have a 130km/h Speed Limit in the outback, surely you can too.

A couple hours into our journey and an incredible sight appears to the east.  A huge salt lake pops out of nowhere, and we have arrived into an area of the Country that I never knew existed.  Salt lakes dominate the landscape for the next 90 minutes or so, some enormous in size, the last remnants of the great inland sea that used to exist in Central Australia.  The bright white expanse is almost blinding in the sunshine, and we pull off to explore.

Lake Hart - One of hundreds of Salt Lakes in the area

Stepping out of the car, the heat and lack of any humidity hits you like opening a giant wood oven.  You can feel the moisture evaporating from your lungs with every breath you inhale.  Well over 40 degrees in the sunshine (104f), we take the prudent course and slather on the sunscreen liberally before trekking to the lake shore (about 800m away).  The walk takes us across the famous Ghan railway, and we carefully navigate a crossing without incident.

Garan on Lake Hart

Garan loots his final Rocket Part in Shimmering Flats

“Look boys, it’s the shimmering flats” says Jeri…”Before the Cataclysm” replies Bailey.  World of Warcraft fans will understand the reference, as the lake looks just like the zone in the game.  Garan finds some rusted old rail motor car wheels and proceeds to loot them for his “Rocket Car Parts” quest, while I scan the horizon for Sparkleshell Turtles and Basilisks (to no avail).

As we walk across the surface of the lake, the salt crust becomes thicker and whiter, with the sun reflecting off of the crystals, sparkling like billions of stars set against a white mineral galaxy.  From a distance, the surface looks smooth and unbroken, but there are geometric patterns and piles of salt where the water has evaporated into small pools before disappearing completely, and where insects or some other creature has burrowed into the soil below, awaiting the next rains to fill the lake in some future decade.  About 100 metres onto the lake, the water has not fully evaporated and comes to the surface as you walk across the salt.  Underfoot becomes treacherous as the salt breaks away under your feet and acts as a skate along the waterlogged clay beneath.  We take some photos, souvenir some salt, and head back to the car…and the walk uphill is draining.  Jeri notes that it would be very easy to die in this country, a fact that many other unfortunate people has discovered on their own treks through the outback.

Jeri and Boys explore Lake Hart in the heat

Back in the car, and we begin our gentle descent to sea level, and Port Augusta ahead.  As we leave the vast interior, we ponder on the lack of wildlife on the trip so far.  The previously green conditions have probably meant less wildlife grazing near the road, which is likely a good thing for driving, but means we have missed out on seeing some of the more impressive fauna.  South of Coober Pedy we did spy some Emu slowly striding across the barren plains, but the only other native animals we have seen was the Dingo at the Devil’s Marbles (see the post for Day 4).  This prompts a discussion about the wildlife, and how Australia lacks larger predators, unlike all other temperate continents. The punishing conditions help to control the populations of herbivores, making the land itself the greatest predator.  The sick and the weak have no chance surviving when this Continent hunts using its weapon of a relentless arid heat.  With our experiences of the conditions on the trip so far, one gets an appreciation for the fact that anything manages to exist successfully at all.

Our decent back to sea level marks our arrival into Port Augusta.  Port Augusta lives life perched on the gateway to Australia’s interior.  It has the arid dryness of the land North and West, mixed with the productivity of a seaside community.  At 300km from Adelaide, the nearest metropolis, Port Augusta is just a little far from civilization to have grown into a serious beach resort destination, though you can see some of the more adventurous do make the trip with a scattering of facilities catering to the holiday makers as well as those passing through and stopping just prior to, or just after (as in our case) tackling the long drives north through the red centre or west across the Nullabor

We take the opportunity to hit a grocery store, given we are back in a large town, and find a nice supply of local(ish) Coffin Bay oysters to enjoy with a cool Coopers Pilsner, and how delicious were they.  A couple Rib Fillet steaks cooked back at the Caravan Park ends the day on a high note.  We broke through the 4,500km mark and have driven about half way on our journey so far.  Technically the rest of the trip is on the way home, but not before we enjoy Christmas in Melbourne with the family.  Before that, however we have the drive tomorrow to the Citrus Capital of Australia, Mildura.

2011 Christmas Vacation – Day 9

After 3,500 kilometres I think my wife is being a little unreasonable.  No dear, I am definitely NOT playing every song ever released in the 80’s…it just seems that way.  It must be said that Australia is the land where 80’s music comes to die, and that’s not a bad thing at all, in my opinion.  Certainly we had more than our fair share of British Pop and American Rock from that era.  Now if you’ll excuse me, the Vapors are playing “Turning Japanese”.

Our best intentions to beat the sun to Uluru are laid to rest when days of fatigue creep into my bones and my sub conscious greets the alarm clock with disdainful twilight fumblings.  I justify my laziness by looking at my sunset pictures and thinking “how different can it be?”  Likewise, the boys decide that it’s a better proposition to get on the road a bit earlier than it is to ride a camel for 30 minutes, so we all pack the car and pile in to start another 600km trek south.  As promised, we stop at the Mount Connor to take this photograph.  The photo gives the reader no indication at all that I did not even leave the car to take the picture…I merely rolled down the window.  I probably shouldn’t have told you that.  Oh well.

Mount Connor near Uluru

Today, we found the Outback.  After days of driving through a desert painted with hues of green and ochre red, adorned with rugged rocky mesa’s, stands of Desert Oak,  Mulga and Wattle, and creek beds scattered with giant River Red Gums,  our vista opens up to an endless horizon of featureless brown scrub.  Welcome to South Australia.  Again, we complete the ritual photographs of the State Welcoming signs as we stop all to briefly…one day someone will get smart and combine these accidental tourist attractions into something useful by including a rest stop and fuel station, complete with stale heat lamp gourmet offerings and obligatory “genuine” aboriginal artwork and commemorative shot glasses…but not today.

The obligatory photo of the State's official welcome

90 minutes into South Australia we stop at what will be our last roadhouse/motel/pub/caravan park for a short picnic, and a quenching ale.  Once again the crack team of Jeri and Garan beat Bailey and I at an impromptu game of pool when I accidentally sink the black ball trying to play around a tricky shot in which I was snookered.  2 nil.  Tail firmly between my legs, we continue on our journey toward the Opal Capital of the world.  Coober Pedy awaits.

About 30km out of Coober Pedy the landscape changes dramatically.  Man and machine work digging shafts into the ground, throwing up piles of soil like giant ants, hoping to turn the shafts into productive Opal mining claims.  Signs dot the area warning of running and walking backwards through the scrub, for fear of tumbling into a disused and abandoned hole.

It’s a surreal landscape that reminds you of the Wild West.  There is a certain sense of romanticism that single claim miners are still toiling in a hostile climate, eking out a fortune from the rock, in the absence of any major mining conglomerate.  It seems you can still live the life of a gold rush pioneer, even if the target is not a precious metal, but a fiery rainbow of transformed silica.

Courtesy of the lengthening days as we progress further and further south, we arrive at Coober Pedy well before dark, and meander through town looking for our accommodation.  The aptly named “Underground Motel” is carved into the side of one of the many sandstone hillocks.  The Motel is a former Opal mine that never produced any of the gemstones and was converted by it’s owner who had a history in hospitality prior to settling in Coober Pedy.  The subterranean  structure maintains a steady 23 to 28 degrees in the baking climate, and the rooms have this incredible stillness about them.  We’re warned about sleeping in during our tour of the motel, with the explanation that due to the lack of natural sunlight, people often find themselves sleeping in a couple hours past their intended rising time.  I don’t usually need that excuse to sleep in, but I’ll take whatever I can get.

The Underground Motel in Coober Pedy

Underground Motel Foyer

Underground Motel Room

We head into town to pick up some dinner.  The motel gives us a 10% off coupon for a café called “John’s Pizza Bar and Restaurant”, and pick up a Pizza, a Steak Sandwich, and a couple of Burgers.

The day ends watching the sunset over the underground homes in the distance, and the pock marked landscape beyond.  The view eerily reminds one of Tatooine, and you can just imagine a young Luke Skywalker checking the evaporator units as the sun goes down.

There, I can see Luke Skywalker in the distance

Above, the first of the evening stars appears, and gradually the clear outback sky opens up its display of incredible majesty.  It doesn’t matter how often I experience an outback star display, it never fails to make me feel insignificant.  Never will you see more stars, set stunningly against the backdrop of the Milky Way, than you will in the Outback, miles away from any pollution (both light and particulate), and the sight is awe inspiring.

We shuffle off to bed looking forward to the promise of an accidental sleep-in, and fall asleep dreaming of shooting womp rats from land speeders.

Christmas Vacation – Day 8 (Uluru)

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Here are some of the images I took on day 8 of our holiday, a day which finds us in Uluru