Category Archives: Australia

Exploring the East Kimberly

After my fantastic trip to Kakadu, I had a short flight to Kununurra. As I took off, I had lovely views of Darwin, and could see how it is surrounded by a maze of inlets. I landed in Kununurra before I took off, as it is in a different time zone. For those who do not know it, Kununurra is more or less in the top left hand corner of Australia.

I collected my small SUV (a Toyota Rav 4), necessary in these untamed parts, and was told which parts of El Questro were off-limits in the hire car (as it did not have a snorkel) and told I was not allowed to drive the car at night because of the danger of hitting wildlife. I set off for the town centre to stock up on water, bananas and muesli bars. I parked outside a cafe called the Mango Cafe where I bought a coffee and a wrap for lunch. I later read good things about it in my guidebook, which were borne out by the tasty coffee and delicious wrap.

I decided to head to El Questro straight after my small shopping expedition. El Questro is a vast, privately owned cattle station which has been developed for tourism to give people a taste of life in the Outback.

Lake Kununurra and Diversion Dam

Lake Kununurra and Diversion Dam

As I left Kununurra, I drove across the Diversion Dam, which holds back the Ord River. I was held up for roadworks so had plenty of time to admire the view. As I drove on, I could see the scenery of the East Kimberly. Rocky red escarpments, dry yellow grass and gorgeous, bottle shaped boab trees, topped by the bluest of skies. In winter boabs shed their leaves to reveal their distinctive shape. I say winter, but it is a warm 31 degrees, and the sun is strong enough to burn the foolish who forget their sunblock.

Boab tree

Boab tree

After stopping for a couple of boab pictures and to eat my lunch, I turned onto the infamous Gibb River Road. It was rather a relief to discover that not only is it paved all the way to the El Questro turn-off, it is quite tame at this time of year in that I did not have to cross any flooded sections.

imageAfter the turn off I was on an unpaved road, and almost immediately got a scare when a people carrier going in the other direction took a corner too fast and fishtailed in my direction. Adrenaline pumping, I drove on without further incident, admiring the scenery. In a few places where there is more water the dry grass gives way to green palms and pandanus trees. After fording my third river, I arrived at the station township. This consists of a large campsite, a bar, a shop, a rather nice restaurant and a few little bungalows, one of which was to be my home for the next few days. I was in Insect, which was rather nicer than its name implies. It is a room with a nice balcony over-looking the river behind, with a shower room.

The view from Insect

The view from Insect

After settling in, I wandered back to reception to see about the activities on offer. After expressing an interest in riding, I let Christian, who leads the rides, talk me into an all day ride. He eyed my unlovely body and pronounced me plenty fit enough to ride all day.

The road to El Questro

The road to El Questro

After agreeing to do the ride, I decided to go for a little drive. After about 15 minutes, I noticed it was starting to get dark (just before 5!) so I turned around and went back, owing to those restrictions in my car hire contract. I headed for the bar, where over a gin and tonic I began to worry about my plans for the following day. I had booked myself on a scenic flight over Lake Argyle and the Bungle Bungles. I had opted for the afternoon flight, thinking that the morning flight would involve driving before dawn, but the one and a half hour time difference just 800 kilometres from Darwin meant dawn was around 5 am and dusk around 5 pm.

The following day the receptionist told me the flight was two hours, not three as I anticipated. I drove to the El Questro resort of Emma Gorge, about 20 minutes away, feeling reassured.

Olive python

Olive python

The walk at Emma Gorge takes about an hour to get to the lovely pool at the end. It is more or less flat, but is quite rocky and involves some scrambling over rocks and a stepping stone river crossing. About 15 minutes into the walk I came across a large brown snake asleep under the lip of a rock. As I paused to look at it, a tour group caught me. This was helpful as their guide identified the snake as an olive python.

Stepping stones on the Emma Gorge walk

Stepping stones on the Emma Gorge walk

Emma Gorge walk

Emma Gorge walk

Emma Gorge

Emma Gorge

As I continued, I started chatting to Barbara, a lovely former South African who had been in Australia for more than 30 years without losing her accent. We came first to a beautiful blue green pool, before heading on to the larger pool at the end of the walk. Flanked by red cliffs, and with a thin waterfall on one side, it is well worth the walk, although the water of the pool is icy. I decided against a swim as I had to drive on to Kununurra for my flight and did not want to do so while wet. I headed back to the car, having a nice chat with Barbara on the way.

Pair of black kites

Pair of black kites

I drove on to Kununurra, and returned to the Mango Cafe for lunch. While there, I picked up a flyer for Kimberly Air Tours and saw that sure enough, my flight was three hours long, so would finish just as it started to get dark. I went to the dock to tell them I would not be able to do the flight, only to eventually discover that the flight was leaving from the airport, and not the dock as they had told me. I had a discussion with one of the owners, which was a little awkward as he is the nephew of a friend of mine, and he tried hard to convince me to do the flight, but I was really not comfortable breaching the terms of my agreement with the rental agency, which would see me driving without insurance at the time of day I was most likely to run over some wildlife. Eventually we swapped to a morning flight on the day I was leaving.

Wallabies

Wallabies

I drove straight back to El Questro, but was feeling the effects of the motion sickness tablet so had to have a little sleep. Once I perked up, I headed to the bar for a veggie burger and to listen to the open mike night. They have a resident singer, who sang a few songs before opening the floor to anyone else who fancied a go. Immediately a guy stood up with his bag pipes. He was really good, rather to my surprise. After him, a young boy of about thirteen came forward and told us he would sing but first his brother would do a song about Harry Potter. His little brother then performed a little rap summarising the Harry Potter books, before his brother sang and played the guitar. At first he was nervous and went wrong, but encouraged by a sympathetic crowd he sang quite beautifully. As the evening wore on, we heard from a lot of talented people. As someone who cannot carry a tune in a suitcase, I am always impressed by those who can. Afterwards I had another chat with Barbara and met her sister. We discovered that her grandchildren go to the school where my sister teaches in Johannesburg.

Cowboy Christian and boab tree

Cowboy Christian and boab tree

The day of the horse ride dawned and I set off to the stables. Joining me on the ride were 21 year old Brooke and 12 year old Georgia. After I made friends with my horse, Sajit, I hauled myself on (increasingly a challenge for my inflexible joints) and we set off through the campsite and across the river. Christian first showed us a beautiful and ancient boab, and then the nest of a bower bird. The male makes a lovely nest, about a foot tall, with an arched top. He then decorates his building work to attract the ladies. This one had collected scores of tea lights from the camp, as well as some bits of green glass, all carefully arranged in front of his nest.

We rode on, eventually coming to Zebedee Springs, where we stopped for lunch. After lunch, we changed and went to soak in the springs. They are naturally warm pools that flow down through the palm trees. While Brooke and Georgia explored the various pools, I just sat and relaxed in the top pool, which is just deep enough to sit in up to your neck. The pools are beautifully clean, shaded by palms, and do not have the sulphurous smell that often accompanies hot springs. Just the thing after hours of riding.

After that relaxing soak, we got back on our horses and rode back to the stables, having a few little canters along the way. Christian worked with Brooke on her cowgirl skills as we went, teaching her to do a one rein stop and back her horse up. At the end of the ride, Christian’s one year old daughter sat on my horse, grinning a gummy and delighted grin as she posed for photos with her mother. After the ride, Brooke and her grandparents invited me to join them for dinner.

Little corella

Little corella

After my ride I took a quick snap of the beautiful blue eyed little corellas which roost in high the trees all around the station township before jumping in the shower. Unfortunately I did not have a proper camera at the stables, as they were all around there. Their raucous dawn chorus ensures no one sleeps in past about 5.30 at El Questro.

Dinner that evening was a barbecue at the outdoor bar, with live music from El Questro’s resident musician. I had a really nice evening with the delightful Keogh family.

The following day I got up early to check out and head to Kununurra for my morning flight over the Bungle Bungles and Lake Argyle. At the airport, we were met by our pilot and guide, this time not my friend’s nephew. We loaded into the plane and took off. Unfortunately my view was obstructed by pieces of the plane, so I did not get the best pictures. We flew over the farms that surround Kununurra and then on to Lake Argyle. The lake is the result of damming the Ord River to provide irrigation for the farms. It has created one of the world’s largest man-made lakes, which is home to 30,000 freshwater crocodiles, although I did not see any.

Bungle Bungles

Bungle Bungles

Bungle Bungles

Bungle Bungles

The dome shapes are caused by wind and rain

The dome shapes are caused by wind and rain

Note the stripes caused by algae and oxidisation

Note the stripes caused by algae and oxidisation

After flying over the lake, we flew over the Bungle Bungles, an amazing range of sandstone mountains which have be been eroded by wind and rain into domed shapes. Their stripes are the result of oxidisation and algae growth. The range was only “discovered” by white fellas in 1983, but is now an increasingly popular tourist attraction, although only a small part of it is accessible by road.

Argyle Diamond Mine

Argyle Diamond Mine

We then flew back to Lake Argyle via the Argyle Diamond Mine. The mine is famous for its coloured diamonds and is one of the largest employers in the area. The mine is a town in itself. In particular, it is famous for its pink diamonds, but it also produces champagne diamonds. It is a really clever marketing trick to give them a fancy name and call them rare and therefore valuable, as to me they just look like dirty diamonds!

View of Lake Argyle from Lagoon Island

View of Lake Argyle from Lagoon Island

Lagoon Island

Lagoon Island

Kimberly Air Tours Float Plane

Kimberly Air Tours Float Plane

Lake Argyle

Lake Argyle

We landed on Lake Argyle and cruised to a small island to have a cup of tea. While we stood on the beach, several large Australian pelicans glided past on the lake. After a couple of take offs and landings on the lake, we returned to the airport. Before my afternoon flight back to Darwin, I just had time to go looking for birds around the fringes of Lily Creek Lagoon. There were lots of little finches and rainbow bee-eaters.

I have loved this part of the country. The remoteness, the scenery and the boabs – even the noisy corellas – and I wish I could have had another few days here. I was not even all that stiff after my ride! I even loved my 4WD.  Who would have thought this city girl would be happier in a 4WD than a convertible?  It is a good thing that I am so excited about Borneo as I am really sorry to leave Australia behind. I have caught up with friend, met some lovely people and seen many amazing things. I will miss it.

Rainbow bee eater

Rainbow bee eater

 

Juvenile crimson finch?

Juvenile crimson finch?

 

 

Crocs and birds in Darwin and Kakadu

Rainbow bee-eater

Rainbow bee-eater

I arrived in Darwin late on Saturday night and checked straight into my hotel. The following day I had breakfast at a very nice cafe in the town centre called Four Birds before hiring a car. After a few administrative difficulties, I secured another little car. I had a short drive around but realised I would see more on foot, so I parked at the hotel and walked along the esplanade to the waterfront. There is a long narrow park all along the harbour edge, which is very nice to walk through. It was full of birds. I saw kites, a rainbow bee-eater and scrub fowl, as well as ibises.

It was very hot, and a section of the walk was not very nice as there is development going on, but once at the waterfront I discovered that a section of water which is walled off (presumably to keep the crocs out) was hosting an open water swim. Lots of swimming-hatted heads swam around marker buoys, closely watched by lifeguards and marshals. The shallower area behind it and its surroundings were full of families lying on the grass and cooling off in the water. There are smart flats surrounding the waterfront, which is a slick contrast to the town centre which is full of bars, hostels and adventure holiday companies servicing the backpacker market.

I set off towards Kakadu the following morning. I realised I would soon need another SD card, so I found Darwin’s camera shop in the morning, only to find it was closed for a family emergency. The note on the door mentioned a shop in nearby Palmerston, so I decided to try that on the way. I established that it was a straightforward drive and elected not to hire a GPS, so I was slightly nervous about getting lost, but it was as easy as it looked on the map and I was on the right road very soon. In contrast to much of my Aussie driving to date, this was easy; on a straight, well-maintained road, in daylight. My detour at Palmerston was a waste of time, as it has no centre (at least not that I could find) and just seemed to be a collection of shopping centres linked by roundabouts. I had no joy locating a camera shop.

As I had already burnt a fair amount of daylight, I decided I would not stop to try to photograph the huge, cathedral-like termite mounds not far outside Darwin, thinking I could get them on the way back. This was another mistake, as it was dark when I returned to Darwin several days later.

Tern at Fogg Dam

Tern at Fogg Dam

Waterlily, Fogg Dam

Water lily, Fogg Dam

Lotus lily, Fogg Dam

Lotus lily, Fogg Dam

I stopped at Fogg Dam, which is an area which was set aside for rice growing which did not prove a success (I understand this was because birds kept eating the crop) and which has now been left to become a bird sanctuary. There I saw scores of whistling ducks, magpie geese, jabirus, egrets, ibises and little terns which skimmed the water. I drove slowly across the dam wall, stopping to shoot occasionally from the car, as the risk of crocodiles means you cannot walk across. At the far end is a hide, which was a pleasant spot to sit for a few minutes and chat about camera lenses with a Russian man, while watching the birds.

Just a bit further down the road is the Windows on the Wetlands. This has a little display about the flora and fauna of the wetlands, as well as a viewing platform with a lovely view over the area. I spotted a kangaroo hopping through the trees just below the platform. It never came out into the open, and was gone by the time I climbed down. The woods there are full of birds, including a beautiful rainbow bee-eater, as well as lots of butterflies.

Kapok flower I decided not to take a jumping crocodile cruise at Adelaide River. I am not a fan of feeding wild animals, and attracting them to boats seems harsh on local fishermen, especially as fishing is such a popular pastime in this part of the world. I pressed on and stopped at the Bark Hutt. This is a well known roadhouse, and may be worthy of a brief look, but was not worth the hour or more I spent there! I ordered a sandwich which took forever to appear, and was just an indifferent cheese and salad on white bread.

Broad-billed flycatcher, Mamukala

Broad-billed flycatcher, Mamukala

Whistling ducks, Mamukala

Whistling ducks, Mamukala

Australian darter at Mamukala illustrating why it is also known as the snake bird

Australian darter at Mamukala illustrating why it is also known as the snake bird

Red-combed jacana, Mamukala

Comb-crested jacana, Mamukala

After that prolonged stop, the speed limit increased to a speedy 130 km per hour. I do love the Aussies. None of these boring numbers preferred by everyone else, like 100 or 120 kph. No, they like 110 and 130. As I sped along, I entered Kakadu. A small bush fire was burning at the entrance, and lots of people stopped to take pictures of the fire. I passed a tiny wallaby by the side of the road, imploring him not to move into my path as I went by. I eventually stopped at Mamukala, where there is a lovely platform for watching the birds on the water there. There actually were not a lot of birds there that day, just a few ducks, a darter and a little comb-crested jacana. As well as the water birds, I snapped a beautiful broad-billed flycatcher. I started to do the three kilometre walk there, before I realised it was probably a bit late in the day to start a hike in an area where crocs have been seen on the trail, so I turned around and went on to the little town of Jabiru to check in to the crocodile shaped hotel that was to be my home for the next two nights. Jabiru exists to service the local uranium mine, but may start to struggle as the mine switches to more fly in, fly out workers. Tourism exists mainly in the dry season, so local businesses will start to struggle in the Wet. As I drove along I could see evidence of the impact of the Wet. There are signs everywhere warning of floodways, and depth markers by the side of the road.

Blue-faced honeyeater

Blue-faced honeyeater

Right outside my room a blue-faced honeyeater was foraging in a tree only feet away, enabling me to take some nice pictures even though the light was fading.

The following day I was collected for a safari to the aboriginal-owned area of Arnhem Land. The whole of Kakadu is owned by the traditional owners, but parts are let out as a national park, parts are subject to mineral leases (uranium is found here) and parts are exclusively owned by the traditional owners. A permit is required to enter these areas, so it is easiest to access them through a tour which will ensure the necessary permits are obtained and adhered to. After crossing the river at Cahill’s Crossing, where many a vehicle has been washed away, we entered Arnhem Land. On the way, our guide, Sab, pointed out areas of interest, such where a boy was recently taken by a crocodile. He also pointed out which areas were mineral concessions, which were national park and which were owned by the traditional owners exclusively.

We stopped at the Injalak Cultural Centre at Gunbulanya to see the local men paint and the women weave. There was only one artist in action, so there was not much opportunity to compare styles. There were four women weaving baskets under a tree. The oldest explained the techniques, using the pandanus leaves and vegetable dyes. When she was finished her explanation she politely invited us to move on, by stating that that was all she had to say.

Gary

Gary

We then collected Gary, who was to be our Aboriginal guide for a climb up Injalak Hill, or Long Tom Dreaming. He had us all introduce ourselves with our names and where we were from. When I explained that I lived in London but was originally from South Africa, he pointed out that there were many black fellas there. Yes, indeed, was my response. This was to be a bit of a theme, as he continually pointed out that he was just a simple black fella. We set off on a hot steep climb. Every 30 metres or so we stopped for Gary to tell us a long story which he implored us to share with our families. I must admit that the point of many of his stories escaped me, but it was nice to find a shady spot and listen to his soft voice. He did ask us to ensure that we threw chicken and fish bones on the fire after eating, rather than let them go to landfill, where their sharp edges might hurt someone. He chose a bad victim to illustrate his tale, as he asked a man who was allergic to fish whether he enjoyed eating barramundi. I think he planned to ask him what he did with the bones after eating it next, but of course this man had to say he did not eat fish. Gary was not thrown for long, though, and continued his story.

Echidna

Echidna

Fish

Fish

Rock art

Rock art

Hand print rock art

Hand print rock art

We eventually came to an overhang which was painted with rock art. The shelter under the overhang had little hollows which were used for grinding food. It was hard to work out how old it was, as for Gary things either happened before or after he was born. I think he must be bemused by the white fellas’ obsession with dating things. It did seem that this shelter had been used for a long time, based on all the layers of overlapping paintings. After listening to a number of stories about the art, including a warning to stay away from trees during lightening storms in case the Lightening Man eats us, we moved further up the hill. We came to a cave where Gary showed us some of the tools used for rock art; the brushes fashioned from twigs and the ochre and clay used as paint. Afterwards he pointed out a hand painted on the wall. Taking a torch, he shone a light behind a large rock and illuminated a set of bones crammed in burial behind the rock where the hand was pointing.

We finished the climb with another steep ascent, followed by a scramble through narrow tunnels until we emerged at the top of the hill where Sab waited with sandwich fixings for lunch. From there we enjoyed views over Arnhem Land, including a view of Gunbulanya and the billabong on which it sits. Sab seemed remarkably relaxed about taking a group up a steep climb in 30 degree heat, with an average age of well over 50 before sitting them at the top of a cliff for lunch. We all made it up and back more or less intact, other than one poor man who managed to impale himself in the shin with a large twig. He had to go to the clinic in Jabiru to have it removed. On the way back past the burial site, Gary gave the bones some water and asked us all to bid them farewell by saying “bobo” – goodbye in the local language. At the bottom of the hill Sab handed us welcome frozen face towels, before taking us back to the Injalak centre to purchase art from the shop. Although there were many beautiful pieces, I cannot carry anything more on my travels, so I kept my money firmly in pocket, even though some of Gary’s work was on display.

As we drove back to Jabiru, I did wish we could have stopped for pictures, as we saw a number of brolgas (a large crane) near the road, but we sped past them. Unfortunately those were the only brolgas I saw, even though they are common in Kakadu. I think perhaps they had not yet arrived in great numbers in the park.

Dancing figures, Nourlangie Rock

Dancing figures, Nourlangie Rock

Kangaroo, Nourlangie Rock

Kangaroo, Nourlangie Rock

The following day I had to wait in Jabiru for the supermarket to open so that I could buy the SD card I had failed to find in Darwin. Once purchased, I set off for Nourlangie Rock, another place where there is rock art. I was just in time to hear a fascinating talk by one of the rangers about the archeological dig that has taken place there at the Anbangbang Shelter. The tools and hunting techniques of the Aboriginal people only changed when the landscape (and therefore the animals found there) changed, over tens of thousands of years. The ranger passed around examples of the sorts of tools found there. She explained that the aboriginal people would leave the tools in the shelter so that they would be available when needed. As a result, she asked us not to remove any rocks from the park. She did say that they got a few letters every year enclosing rocks collected in Kakadu which were bringing the collector bad luck.

Nabulwinjbulwinj - watch your head!

Nabulwinjbulwinj – watch your head!

Further up the trail from the shelter there is more rock art, depicting the unpleasant Nabulwinjbulwinj who eats women after hitting them over the head with a yam. I hate when that happens.

The Lightening Man is the little chap on the right

The Lightening Man is the little chap on the right

Also depicted is the Lightening Man with his wife and family. His children are the brightly coloured grasshoppers which precede the start of the rains. The trail continues past the paintings to a lookout, showing the distant and forbidden area where Namarrgon, the Lightening Man, resides. He cannot be disturbed as he sits and waits for the storms of the rainy season.

Whistling ducks, Anbangbang Billabong

Whistling ducks, Anbangbang Billabong

I headed back to the Anbangbang Billabong, but the walk there was closed, perhaps as buffalo had been spotted there. I satisfied myself with a short stroll before heading off towards Cooinda where I would stay that night.

View from the top of the Mirray Lookout

View from the top of the Mirray Lookout

Spider web, Mirray Lookout

Spider web, Mirray Lookout

On the way I stopped and climbed to the Mirray Lookout. Although only about 800 metres up the hill, this was a very hot and steep climb, particularly lugging my camera gear. At the top is a platform with partially obscured 360 degree views over Kakadu. I am not sure it was worth the exertion and battling many flies on the ascent! Although it looked like the trail was shaded, it was only partial shade, and the rocks reflected the heat back fiercely.

Since I drank all my water following that climb, I went to Cooinda, with the air conditioning on maximum, to check in and get some more water. I saw that there was a photographic cruise available, guided by a photographer called Paul Arnold whose work I had seen at his gallery in Darwin. When I expressed interest in his trip, the receptionist summoned him, and he immediately told me I would get much more from his small trip than the larger cruise I was booked on for the following day and told me to swap to his trip. After much debate, I was told I could not swap, so I booked his trip for the following afternoon in addition to the morning cruise I already had booked.

Forest kingfisher

Forest kingfisher

Jabiru

Jabiru

All there is in Cooinda is the small resort, with a shop, a petrol station, an informal restaurant, rather bizarrely a fine dining restaurant, some small cabins (of which I had one) and a campground. After settling in, I went down to Yellow Water (just a few kilometres away) to do the short walk there, after discovering that the walk from Cooinda to Yellow Water was closed. There is a boardwalk there about 600 metres long next to a narrow channel. Unfortunately it is not great for photography in the afternoon, as from the boardwalk you are looking straight into the sun across the water. As I was photographing a forest kingfisher, some young men just ahead pointed out a mid-sized crocodile swimming silently past. Occasionally a barramundi would splash or the kingfisher would pounce on a dragonfly skimming the water, but otherwise it was hot and still. At least until the mosquitoes started to bite! From the jetty, I could see lots of birds, including the graceful jabiru. Owing to the number of mosquitoes ignoring the repellent I had liberally sprayed on, I decided not to wait for the sunset, which had been my original plan.

Back at Cooinda, after a much needed shower, I joined the long queue for dinner at the informal outdoor restaurant. I made a friend, Catherine, in the queue, who invited me to join her family for dinner. Her husband, Richard, and two teenage boys were very pleasant company, and I am sure I earned my huge cheesy pizza on the Mirray lookout walk earlier that day! Despite our mutual scepticism, the fine dining restaurant was reasonably full as we walked past for an early night, as we all had a sunrise cruise booked for the morning.

Sacred kingfisher at dawn

Sacred kingfisher at dawn

Crimson finch

Crimson finch

White-bellied sea eagles

White-bellied sea eagles

Before dawn I waited with about 80 other people for the shuttle down to Yellow Water for the sunrise cruise. I was on the smallest of the three boats which set off. After my discussion with Paul the day before, my expectations were low, but the guide, Belinda, was very knowledgeable about birds and the opportunities for photos were not bad, particularly when things were on my side of the boat. As well as crocs, we saw many, many birds, including three species of kingfisher, a bush full of crimson finches, nankeen or rufous night herons, and two beautiful white bellied sea eagles sitting side by side in a tree.

Rufous night heron

Nankeen night heron

Azure kingfisher

Azure kingfisher

The ticket included a cooked breakfast back at Cooinda, where my 100-400mm lens attracted some attention. There did not seem to be many people with long lenses. I had a chat with a man from Adelaide who was planning an African trip and thinking of upgrading his 300 mm lens. I told him he would not need a 400mm lens in Africa unless he was into birds.

I set off to do a walk but realised that to get there I would have to cross a river in my hatchback. In crocodile infested country that did not seem wise, so I headed back to Cooinda. It was just as well, as I had muddled my dates and was supposed to have checked out! It was the first time in more than two months of travel that I had got confused about my itinerary. I quickly packed the car, and found a shady spot to check my photos, eschewing the nearby cultural centre on the basis that it was just too hot, before my afternoon trip with Paul.

Pied heron dices with death

Pied heron dices with death

Too full to move

Too full to move

Pied cormorant

Pied cormorant

White-bellied sea eagle with snake

White-bellied sea eagle with snake

Spoonbill

Spoonbill

Tern on waterlily

Tern on waterlily

I was his only customer, and we set off with Belinda, my guide from the morning trip, driving the boat. It was very hot and the sun was strong, which made me worried that I would not get any shots. Despite this, we managed to find some good shots, particularly of birds. One huge croc was right on the bank, too full to move even when we nudged the boat right next to him. Paul had seen him take a stillborn foal from the bank the day before. Kakadu is full of brumbies, although I did not see any on my trip. Another croc splashed into the water when we got near him, but his eye made a cool shot through the reeds. At least I liked it so much I made it the featured image of this post.

Juvenile night heron

Juvenile night heron

Radjah shelduck

Radjah shelduck

Sacred kingfisher

Sacred kingfisher

Pied heron

Pied heron

Paul mostly left me to it, just pointing out things I might like to shoot, and telling me to lie on the front of the boat to shoot at eye level to my subjects. This was all very well, but the boat was very hot so sprawling on my stomach on it was not all that comfortable! It was mainly birds, and the only one which really did not play ball was the jacana with a baby, which stayed firmly in the reeds, although I managed to get one shot of the chick which was not too bad. The chicks are well camouflaged in contrast to their brightly coloured parents. It amazes me that these little birds don’t trip over their huge feet, which are perfect for lily pad hopping. The pied heron was darting about right next to a huge crocodile, but the crocs generally prefer fish to birds, and Yellow Water is teeming with fish, so this was not as risky as it might appear. However, a small crocodile which was lying in the water with just its head visible was taking a very keen interest in a juvenile nankeen night heron. I think I captured the intensity of the heron’s gaze as it watched the croc closely.

Magpie goose

Magpie goose

After the photo cruise, I bought a big bottle of water to rehydrate after the hot expedition and headed straight back to Darwin without stopping. I was excited when a road train passed me in the other direction, as it was the first of these huge trucks I had seen. The novelty soon wore off when one sped by at 130 kilometres per hour and shook my little car in its wake.  Still, at least I did not have to overtake any of these monsters. I drove along the almost completely empty roads and hit the wonderfully named town of Humpty Doo before it got dark. It was a gorgeous sunset, even it did occasionally make it hard to see as at times I was driving straight into the setting sun, and of course it was too dark for me to see the termite mounds I had planned to photograph on my return trip. Dusk also brought little pale agile wallabies bouncing across the road, so I kept a sharp eye out to avoid them. Darwin is so small that even I, with my epically useless sense of direction, found my hotel with no problems in the dark. The following morning I was off to the remote East Kimberley.

Jacana chick

Jacana chick

Comb-crested jacana

Comb-crested jacana

Cruising from Cairns

I was dropped at the wharf at Cairns rather early for my cruise. Fortunately I was able to leave my bags and head into Cairns to grab some lunch before heading back to the Coral Princess II, a small cruise ship. On my trip there were 35 passengers and a crew of thirteen. They like to have you on board an hour before departure to settle you in and provide a safety briefing. This was bad news for me as I am not a good sailor, and by the time we set off I was feeling rather queasy. While everyone else was bonding over pre-dinner drinks, I was in my cabin sleeping off a sea-sickness tablet. I went to dinner, but turned tail as soon as I smelled the food. Fortunately I was able to compose myself and join the other passengers for dinner. Thanks to the tablet, I went straight to bed after dinner. I woke about four hours later with no idea where I was when the tablet wore off, and tried to get out of the wrong side of my bed. The wall was in the way! Clearly I should say no to drugs.

Olive backed oriole

Olive backed oriole

Water lily, Cooktown Botanical Gardens

Water lily, Cooktown Botanical Gardens

We travelled all night and and in the morning arrived at Cooktown, where Captain Cook landed to repair the Endeavour after he holed it on the reef. Owing to the tides, we had just two hours to explore the town. Having left a crucial item behind in Port Douglas, I had to find a supermarket. I eventually did after finding someone to give me directions, which left me with just an hour to explore and return to the wharf. I decided on the botanical gardens over the museum as I would not have time to do the museum justice, and spent a few minutes there photographing some olive-backed orioles before I had to head back to the boat. They were facing one another, singing, but sadly one was obscured by leaves so only one appears in the pictures. As the tide was out, we had to be transferred on the glass bottomed boat back to the ship. Once back on board, we headed towards Lizard Island. On the way, the crew announced that there were dolphins off the bow, but they did not stick around long enough for anyone else to see them. It was nice to stand at the front of the ship and get some fresh air though.

Blue sea star

Blue sea star

We got there in the afternoon. Lizard Island was hammered by a cyclone in April, so the resort there is closed, and it was looking rather bare, with many of its trees stripped of leaves. We were transferred to Turtle Beach to have a snorkel. Even though the reef was damaged by the cyclone, it gave us an opportunity to start to see what the Great Barrier Reef had to offer. I saw an octopus sticking out of a crevice, colourful parrot fish, and lots of other fish I could not identify. I had been hoping to test my newest toy, a GoPro which I bought after being frustrated at not being able to record my underwater experiences in Maui, but I had not charged it properly, so it would have to wait until the following day. As the sun began to sink we went back on board, and all went to bed straight after dinner after our early start.

The Coral Princess II at dawn, from halfway up Cook's Look

The Coral Princess II at dawn, from halfway up Cook’s Look

Cook's Look - we made it

Cook’s Look – we made it

View over Lizard Island

View over Lizard Island

The following morning, we had an early start to hike up to Cook’s Look. Captain Cook scaled a hill on the island to look for a way out of the reef. He found one, but soon returned to its sheltered waters. Our guide, Chris, set off at a frantic pace that soon saw me confined to the rear despite being younger than most of the others on the trek. Fourteen of us braved the climb, and he did say it was the first time no one had turned back. It is a steep climb, and hot even at first light, but taken at a slower pace it is perfectly doable. On the way I finally tested the GoPro. Back at the beach, there was just time for a quick snorkel to cool down after passing a catamaran which had been parked on the beach by the cyclone. Hopefully the owner will be able to get it back on the water, otherwise it will be an expensive houseboat. We then returned to the ship to head off to Ribbon Reef No. 9.

Houseboat

Houseboat

At Ribbon Reef No. 9 I decided to go for a dive. I am a PADI certified diver, but other than the brief Snuba experience in Maui, I had not dived for years. I gave it up because I suffer from such bad motion sickness, but I decided that off the back of a big boat like the Coral Princess II, I would not suffer in the same way as diving from a rubber dingy. There were four of us who went down with Elayna, the instructor; father and son Mick and Nick and novice diver Angelo. There was a strong current, which meant that we did not get very far, and we got through our air very quickly, so it was not the best dive, but at least I was not sick.

Sea cucumber

Sea cucumber

That night at dinner saw a young person’s table form, as I sat with Nat and Scott, a young couple from Sydney having a last holiday before the birth of their baby, and Sonia and Clemente, honeymooners from Italy. Sonia spoke good Spanish and Clemente’s French was better than his English, so we had a conversation in four languages. Dinner was a barbecue cooked by the captain on the back of the boat. Tiny blue fish were attracted to the lights on the boat, in turn attracted scores of mid-sized silver fish. Three huge gropers also circled around, although they were not feeding. Perhaps they were just showing off for us. It was hypnotic to hang over the back rail and watch them all. After the hike and battling the current, once again we all retired to bed very early, although perhaps it was having to dig up my French that left me so exhausted!

imageThe next morning I went on a glass bottomed boat trip with Chris, who is a marine biologist. He told us lots of fish and coral reproduction stories. It seems fish swap genders rather a lot, the saucy things. After that, we dived at Ribbon Reef No. 3. This time there was no current, and I had an excellent dive with Mick and Nick. There were so many fish it was like being almost like an aquarium. I tested the video function on the GoPro, and managed to film Mick and Nick on their dive but avoid the fish! All accompanied by a Darth Vader soundtrack.

image image imageAfter the dive I jumped in to have a snorkel on the reef, which is actually better for photos as the light is better in the shallow water.

Whale versus snorkelers

Whale versus snorkelers

No sooner had I got in when I heard someone on the ship shout that there were whales off the front of the boat. I swam out to where everyone was gathered together in the deep water. Chris told us to stay together and let them come to us. After just a few minutes Malcolm, the mate who was in the glass bottomed boat watching them from the surface, told us they were headed our way. I peered down into the inky blue depths and suddenly right below me was a dwarf minke whale. It swam slowly beneath us, looking at us very closely.  I almost forgot to breathe, I was so awestruck.

Dwarf minke whale

Dwarf minke whale

Chris and the captain were free diving, both capable of staying under for ages. The captain in particular could dive for so long I was sure he was half fish. I, on the other hand, was so buoyant in my wetsuit it was almost impossible for me to dive under, and by the time I got below the surface I had used all my air in the effort to get underwater! There were three whales, and they circled round us, as curious about the brightly coloured group of snorkelers as we were about them. Each time they came a little closer, and we had an amazing time with them. As one came right underneath us, it turned to look at some of the snorkelers more closely. It was not at all frightening, just awe inspiring. Despite being small for whales, they were still impressively large. By this stage the captain had urged the crew to jump in, so they were all there, still in their uniforms, having just grabbed a mask and fins. What a nice boss, making sure no one missed out on a rare and magical experience.

Back on the boat we were all buzzing after our close encounter. As a farewell, the whales breached near the boat, but I missed it having gone inside. This meant that even those who were unable to get in the water got a lovely view of the whales. They left, and we too set off, this time for for Escape Reef.

Ribbon reef No 9

Ribbon Reef No 9

Once at Escape Reef, I decided to do a final dive, as I am not sure whether I will get the chance again. This time it was just me with Elayna and Julie, another crew member. As I moved onto the platform at the back of the boat to put on my fins and my scuba gear, I stepped onto the lower step and just kept going. Once I realised I was slipping, I let myself go so as not to hurt myself and slid off the platform which was about a metre and a half above the sea. When I surfaced, still clutching my GoPro and my mask in one hand, I could see Elayna peering very anxiously at me. She dived in, frantic as I was wearing a weight belt, but in my very buoyant wetsuit I was fine. She pulled off the weight belt and let it drop before ushering me back onto the boat. Once back on board, Foxy, the engineer and safety office who had been watched from the deck above, appeared in fits of giggles to lighten the mood. Poor Elayna got a big fright, but I was fine, despite falling off the boat, and after collecting another weight belt, completed the dive. We did pick up the first weight belt before surfacing!

image

Brain coral

Brain coral

There was no time for a snorkel after that last dive, as we started to head back towards Cairns. After dinner we had a quiz on all the information imparted by Chris over the course of the cruise. I was in a small team with Scott and Nat, and to our surprise we tied for first place. The decider was a picture round, which we lost resoundingly after getting into a helpless fit of giggles when my picture was inadvertently suggestive. It made Nat think of the reproduction stories she had heard from Chris earlier that day. Marine sex is all the boy talked about on his glassy trips. The more I tried to fix it, the worse it got and the more we laughed. We did not mind losing though – we saw whales earlier in the day!

Flying foxes

Flying foxes

Flying fox

Flying fox

We docked in Cairns early the next morning. I then had the day in Cairns before my evening flight to Darwin. I checked my suitcase in but was carrying all of my hand luggage, so I just had a little wander around. There is a very nice esplanade, complete with free wifi and a lagoon pool along the mudflats. Right in the centre of town, I could hear a lot of squawking and looked up to see hundreds of flying foxes roosting in giant fig trees. These amazing bats have beautiful doggy faces and large black wings that they flapped gently to keep themselves cool. It seems the local council has tried to evict them by cutting the trees they like to roost in. I am sure they are a bit messy and they are certainly noisy, but they are gorgeous. Leave them alone, they add to the tropical feel of the place. Also on my wanders I saw a shop selling museum quality shrunken heads. Well, I had been wondering what to get the family. Problem solved!

Australian pelican

Australian pelican

I headed back to the esplanade and watched some pelicans for a while, chatting to a Dutch girl called Franke who had just arrived in Cairns. She was a PhD student who was in Australia to speak at a conference. Nice work if you can get it! We admired the rainbow lorikeets roosting in the palm trees along the esplanade before I headed off to the airport to catch my flight to Darwin, unsure if Queensland could be topped, but at the same time knowing more exciting experiences were waiting for me.

Sunset at sea

Sunset at sea

Rainbow lorikeets

Rainbow lorikeets

Pademelon paradise in Port Douglas

Upon arriving in Cairns I boarded a bus to Port Douglas. We drove an hour and a bit up the lush coast to the outskirts of Port Douglas where I was dropped at my hotel. After my pre-dawn start, I was asleep on my feet and a bit dehydrated. A receptionist rushed to meet me to tell me I was to be sent to a different resort as they had maintenance issues with some rooms. I had an excursion booked for the following day, and after a bit of a delay trying to find contact details for the guide, we managed to ask him to pick me up from the correct hotel. By the time I reached the new resort I was practically comatose, even though it was only about 6 in the evening. They assured me it was Port Douglas’ finest and that I had been very lucky to be sent there. I went to my room, featuring a huge bathroom containing a spa bath which would comfortably seat four.

Lewin's honeyeater

Lewin’s honeyeater

After washing my hands and face, I decided to go out to eat rather than simply collapse into bed. I walked to the Beach Shack which was about half a mile away. The beginning of the walk was well lit, but there was a small section in the middle where it was pitch black. I have got better about eating at restaurants on my own, which is the only real drawback of solo travel. I had a tasty meal and then allowed myself to go to bed. I stopped in the dark section of the walk back to admire the stars before deciding that maybe standing around in the dark was not my best idea. The stars were beautiful though.

Yellow spotted honeyeater

Yellow spotted honeyeater

I had an early start for my excursion to the rainforest. It was just me with my guide, David Armbrust. He told me he would soon be retiring, and that we would be walking on his property where he has allowed the rainforest to grow back over land once cleared for cattle grazing. It was a fascinating, different and magical experience. He is like a pied piper, having got the local animals used to his presence, and occasionally whipping out something for them to eat. It started as soon as we got out of the car. A little bird hopped onto a bush right next to me and stared at me. David suggested I hold out my finger, and the little bird hopped right on. He then told me I would struggle to shoot with a 400mm lens, something I wish he had mentioned when he picked me up and I could have grabbed something smaller. Unfortunately I had taken everything else out of my camera bag to lighten it. Not only was it too dark to hand hold the big lens, it was not necessary as all the animals were so used to people.

Pademelon

Pademelon

He put some banana pieces in a tree, attracting a small flock of Lewin’s honeyeaters, one of which had just hopped on my finger. There were also some yellow spotted honeyeaters, a cat bird, a Victoria’s Riflebird and a female satin bower bird. As predicted, I struggled to photograph them, only successfully shooting ones that were quite still when I pressed the shutter. Thanks, satin bower bird, for posing so beautifully. She is the one at the top of this post.

Mary and joey

Mary and her joey

We set off into the forest, and David explained that the area we were walking through had been completely stripped for cattle farming. He had replanted some trees, and after 30 years there was a high canopy, although there was enough light for some grass to grow on the forest floor. He pointed out a cycad which had a trunk about 30 centimetres high, and explained that they grew about one metre every ten years. As we walked, I heard a noise behind me, and I turned to find a little red-legged pademelon right behind me. “Hello Alice” said David, and offered her a slice of raw sweet potato, which she accepted gratefully from his hands. As we entered a small clearing, we were joined by Mary, another pademelon with a joey in her pouch. While Mary ate her slice of sweet potato, I took pictures of her. In that light, I could not increase the F-stop enough to get her and her joey in focus. One of Mary’s daughters turned up to join the party, as did Belinda, a very pretty pademelon. Mary was very grumpy with the others, growling at them if they got too close to her. David could teach them to trust him, but not to have manners, it seems.

The beautiful Belinda

The beautiful Belinda

As we walked further through the forest, followed by our little gang of pademelons, as well as a number of birds, we saw noisy brush turkeys, which are rather thuggish, trying to chase off the other animals, and periodically fighting with one another, and some scrub fowls. These are pretty birds, with huge orange feet, round dark blue bodies and brown wings. The backs of their tiny heads have a pointed crest. They were much less friendly than the other animals, as a new male had chased off the one David had accustomed to him.

We walked into an area which had never been cleared, so was ancient rainforest. There was no longer grass on the ground as the canopy was higher and thicker. The trees were diverse and very beautiful, and included a palm with enormous fan like leaves.

Musky rat-kangaroo

Musky rat-kangaroo

Suddenly tiny musky rat-kangaroos appeared at our feet. They darted about, frequently rushing back under cover, seldom stopping for long enough for me to take a photo. David explained that he had been getting them used to people so they could be filmed for documentaries, as they are very shy creatures. They are very pretty when the light shines on their coats, which are dark brown with red highlights.

David then pointed out another cycad. This one was at least 20 metres tall. At a rate of one metre every ten years, that was one old tree. Another fascinating tree was a palm which had the root of another tree growing up out of the ground and all the way up its trunk, tapping into the palm’s nutrients.

I heard a soft bleating noise behind me. I turned to find a badly scarred pademelon at my feet. Once the most beautiful of David’s pademelons, Audrey was attacked by a gang of young males after the death of the dominant male, leaving no one to keep them in check. They injured her badly but she survived, although I would not blame her if she does not like men anymore.  She was very polite, gently asking whenever she fancied another slice of sweet potato.

Bee hive ginger

Bee hive ginger

We came to a small picnic area where David gave me a cup of coffee and poured out some food for all of the animals. I did not even attempt photographs in the dappled light of the forest, but it was magical and slightly surreal to sit there in the forest, surrounded by birds and pademelons, while the musky rat-kangaroos darted around our feet, with the peace only spoiled by the sound of bikes going past on the highway, which is obviously popular with bikers, and the occasional brush turkey altercation which would send the other animals scurrying for cover. All too soon it was time to return to my hotel at Port Douglas.

 

Four Mile Beach

Four Mile Beach

Where to sit?

Where to sit?

The lagoon

The lagoon

I decided to explore the resort, as it was the fanciest in the area. The lagoon pool, while pretty, has the unfortunate effect of placing all the sun loungers together at one end as there is no room in front of the buildings. Rather than feel penned in, I headed to the beach. That is where I discovered why people come to this part of the world. This was a much better option. Four miles long, it has a narrow stretch of brown sand. I picked a deserted spot (it would have been hard to find a crowded one) and decided to go for a swim. This was a challenge as the water is extremely shallow for a long way, so after a bit of a wade without managing to get my knees wet, I went back and snoozed happily on the beach until woken by a very friendly dog. Even a Labrador can give you a scare when you awake to find one with its tongue in your ear!

After a float in the huge spa bath in my room I went to explore the little resort town of Port Douglas. It is a collection of restaurants, ice cream parlours and beachwear retailers. At one end is a nice park in which one can sit and enjoy the sunset.

Sunset in Port Douglas

Sunset in Port Douglas

Yellow bellied sunbird

Yellow bellied sunbird

The next day there was just time for a little run on the beach (I confess I did not cover the four mile stretch), some photos of a beautiful yellow sunbird and a quick trip into town to buy another swimsuit before I had to head back to Cairns to join my cruise to Lizard Island.

Patterns in the sand

Patterns in the sand

 

Maybe in Melbourne…

Melbourne skyline

Melbourne skyline

I arrived in Melbourne to find my friends’ lovely Victorian home in the Eastern suburbs. I was to stay there and feed their cat during their absence. When I arrived there was no sign of the cat, but when I popped to the supermarket for some food, the cat was in the house on my return. After some initial distrust, and much plaintive miaowing, the cat decided a warm human was a good thing and settled in my lap, very much my new best friend.

Hosier Lane artwork

Hosier Lane artwork

More Hosier Lane street art

More Hosier Lane street art

The following morning I drove into central Melbourne to return the hire car I had driven all the way from Adelaide. It took a while to return the car, as it was busy. I mooched about the centre for a bit getting my bearings before finding Federation Square, a large public space on the river. I checked out nearby Hosier Lane, famous for its graffiti. It was a bit of a let down, being mainly tags and not street art, so there was not much that was witty or had anything to say. It turns out there is better street art in other parts of Melbourne. I popped in to the visitor centre at Fed Square, where I bought a Myki card, which is a transport card allowing one to ride on the trams. A very sweet volunteer showed me that I would need to get off my tram at stop 43. Is there an announcement of the stop number on the tram, I asked? No, she replied, but it is written on the stops. I was not convinced how helpful that would be, as it was about to get dark.

One for the boys

One for the boys

After having a wander around Fed Square, I braved the tram. It trundled along past some of Melbourne’s many and most distinguished sporting arenas until I had no idea where I was. I spent the next 40 minutes or so peering anxiously out the window, trying to read the signs by the side of the road. Two things made this a challenge. First, the stop numbers are rather small. Secondly, Melbourne is not big on street lighting. However, my eyes got accustomed to spotting the tiny numbers in the dark, and I only overshot my stop by one! Success! Note to public transport chiefs of Melbourne. Please announce the stops; it would meant I did not have to concentrate for the whole journey!

Black swan

Black swan

I slept badly that night. The cat woke me repeatedly by standing on my chest and butting my head. I think he was missing his family, so I forgave him and had a lie in the following morning, letting him lie on my lap for a bit of reassurance. When I set off to the city I was feeling sluggish so I walked for the first couple of miles to get myself moving. I went back to Fed Square and crossed the river for a walk along the bank, past the boathouses and towards the botanical gardens. It was a lovely walk, watching swallows swooping over the river, the odd crew rowing past and a beautiful black swan eating the grass. For once I deliberately went for the rear shot, as they have such pretty, frilly back ends.

Melbourne Botanical Gardens

Melbourne Botanical Gardens

The botanical gardens are beautiful. Directly across the river from the Rod Laver Arena and the MCG, they have views of these fine sporting venues. I promised myself I would not take loads of bird photos (there have been a few comments on my bird fancying) and then I immediately saw a wattlebird posing so beautifully it would have been rude not to oblige. After a very pleasant wander, I headed back past scores of early evening joggers to meet a friend for dinner. You can always tell when a park is nice, as all the other tourists in the botanical gardens smiled hello as they walked past. Either that or I had something in my face.

Burning bush, Melbourne Botanical Gardens

Burning bush, Melbourne Botanical Gardens

Ornamental Lake, Melbourne Botanical Gardens

Ornamental Lake, Melbourne Botanical Gardens

Melbourne Botanical Gardens

Melbourne Botanical Gardens

My friend Kathy took me to the vibrant suburb of Fitzroy, where we started proceedings at a bar with a couple of drinks at Naked for Satan, a lively tapas bar with a lovely rooftop terrace. Patio heaters kept us snug while we waited for her boyfriend to join us for dinner. We headed to the Vegie Bar for delicious vegetarian food once he was able to escape the office.

Yarra Valley

Yarra Valley

Yarra valley vines

Yarra valley vines

The next day I joined a tour group called Wild Wombat for a tour of the Yarra Valley. In the group were some Spanish honeymooners, a couple from the UK and the States who lived in Sydney, a father and son from Glasgow and a couple of nurses from Perth. I was the odd one out as I was the only one who was neither a teacher nor in a medical job! They were all very nice. We arrived at our first winery at 11 am. It was a French owned operation called Dominque Portet. The wines did not go down very well so early in the day, and I could feel the effects after tasting six wines, even though I only had a sip of each.

Next up was St Hubert. This one had the nicest wines. At noon we moved towards De Bortoli, where we had lunch. We ordered our food and then returned to the cellar for our third tasting. This one was very speedy, as we were rushed through each wine with the result that I do not remember any of them! A delicious and much needed lunch followed, accompanied by a glass of wine that was perhaps not quite as necessary. After lunch, the others went to sample desert wines but I decided to take some pictures of the scenery instead. Probably for the best!

On then to our fourth stop, which was a small winery, Graeme Miller Wines, where the owner took us through his wines. I confess that by then I could not face another sip and just played with his dog, a beautiful German Shorthaired Pointer.

I had recovered a bit by the last stop, another small winery owned by Italian Australians and former restauranteurs, the Corniolis. This was the most fun by far. Lucy, the owner, sat us all down before passing out wines to taste, together with some cheese and biscuits, all the while telling us stories. She made me pronounce her surname in my most English tones, as she likes the way it sounds. Her non-stop talking was very entertaining and endearing, and I felt a bit guilty that I did not buy any wine, but I was due to go straight out to dinner on returning to Melbourne and did not fancy carrying it around. I can recommend their Sangiovese, however.

I was a bit relieved when my friends called to reschedule dinner to the following night. Having been drinking steadily since 11 am, I was keen to head back to my borrowed home and warm up and sober up, as the Melbourne night was freezing. So cold, in fact, I ordered a pizza as I could not face popping out for dinner. I was grateful for my warm and clingy feline friend!

Angel, apparently

Angel, apparently

On my last day in Melbourne, I had to do some laundry, pack and clean my borrowed home. In the afternoon I joined a friend, Gareth, who took me to two trendy Melbourne bars. The first, the Croft, was down an alleyway decorated with bright street art in Chinatown. Inside, it is decorated like a funky chemistry lab. I told the young barman to make me a nice cocktail, since a G&T or glass of wine would not challenge his chemistry credentials. He made me something delicious with gin, apricot brandy and lime. We then moved on to Madame Brussels, a rooftop bar where all the unfortunate waitstaff dress in tennis gear, which must have been chilly, even if they did look cute! This place is decorated like an old-fashioned English garden terrace, with white wrought iron furniture and faded floral cushions. And hot pink fleece blankets if you cannot handle the Melbourne winter. The views were lovely and the cocktails very nice, if a little sickly sweet.

We joined Peta, a client I have enjoyed working with for years but never met, for dinner in Port Melbourne. We went to Corte, a trendy restaurant in an old courthouse (very apt for three lawyers) and had a lovely meal and a lot of red wine. Thanks Gareth and Peta, it was really good fun, and great to finally meet Peta. On the way out, there was a possum sitting in a tree, avidly watching something we could not see in the darkness. It is odd to see something which looks exotic to me, but is as common as a squirrel here (but nocturnal).

Words to live by

Words to live by

I got up before dawn to get ready to leave, and was at the airport by 7.45 am for my 9.00 flight to Cairns. Only my flight was at 1.00. Another fail for the travel agent, so I spent the morning hanging out at Melbourne Airport when I could have been having a lie-in followed by some leisurely packing. I did get some entertainment at the airport when I was asked to participate in a survey. She asked me a question to which I told her that I did not tend to have strong feelings about airports. This set up the next question perfectly. It went something like “if you were talking about Melbourne Airport to a friend and you gave it a rating out of 10, what rating would you give it?” The absurdity of this question gave us both a fit of giggles from which we took ages to recover. If anyone cares, I would say about a seven out of ten, because I managed to get the free wifi to work for me! There was one major irritant though – Virgin Australia insists on referring to its passengers as guests. Would you charge guests for a sandwich on a lunch time flight? It grated with every announcement.

Great Ocean Washout

After my foiled detour to look at rock art in the Grampians, I arrived at Port Fairy around lunch time, and as I had been driving for more than three hours, I decided to stop for lunch and a coffee. I had a bit of mission filling up with petrol, as for some reason the pump would not work, and someone had to come out and help me. This was a bit of a waste of time and rather embarrassing. My lunch at Rachael’s Cafe was a delicious pumpkin couscous burger (highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Port Fairy), but it did take quite a while especially since I had spent so long getting petrol, so I decided I had no time to explore the town and should set off for Apollo Bay along the Great Ocean Road. I programmed the GPS and set off. It was still pouring with rain. After a while it became apparent that the GPS was steering me inland, away from the Great Ocean Road. I turned left towards the sea, ignoring its imperious demands for me to make a U-turn as soon as possible. After a while it reprogrammed itself and I made the mistake of listening to it, only to realise that once again it was taking me inland, this time along a gravel road. As it was bucketing down with rain and intermittently foggy, I decided to give up on the Ocean Road to try to make it to Apollo Bay before dark. Having entirely missed the Great Ocean Road, I descended towards Apollo Bay on a road that was narrow, steep, winding, and slick with rain. To add further difficulty, it was occasionally so foggy I could barely see the road. It was one of the longest and most stressful hours of my life before I finally emerged onto the coast. The road was so winding I felt nauseous even though I had been driving. It got dark just as I arrived in Apollo Bay, making it hard for me to find the Apollo Bay Guesthouse, where I was staying. When I eventually found it, the owners took ten minutes to answer the door, by which time I was consulting my guidebook for local hotels and feeling slightly hysterical. However, they made up for this initial lapse by feeding me some cheese and crackers so I would not have to go out again in the rain, along with a much needed gin and tonic.

Twelve Apostles

Twelve Apostles

More Apostles

More Apostles

The next day my hosts lent me some gloves and a warm jacket so I could explore the coast I had missed the day before. The first part of the drive was challenging as it was very winding and the rain was very heavy at times, but once back at the coast (the road goes inland for a bit) it brightened up a little. The bad weather meant there were not many people at the famous Twelve Apostles, especially since it was too early for the day trippers to have made it from Melbourne, so I played about with my neutral density filter after taking a few normal shots, in between strong gusts of wind and rain showers. Periodically the sun would come out and illuminate what is a really striking coastline. There are not twelve apostles, and probably never were. The number does change, as some of the stacks have collapsed. These formations were originally called the Sow and Piglets, before someone decided the Apostles sounded a bit more upmarket (and everyone knows Apostles come in twelves). It was so breezy here that a small waterfall was flowing back up the cliff. With my hood on to protect my ears and wearing my borrowed coat, I was not too cold. I spent almost an hour there, occasionally hunkering down to avoid a shower, before carrying on to Loch Ard Gorge.

Waterfall flowing upwards

Waterfall flowing upwards

Loch Ard Gorge

Loch Ard Gorge

The Loch Ard was a ship which sank with the loss of all but two people. The ship’s apprentice was washed into the gorge. He heard cries for help and found a girl clinging to a broken piece of mast. After he brought her to shore (she could not swim) and revived her with some brandy, he climbed out of the gorge and got help. Climbing from the gorge must have been a challenge before the stairs which now helpfully take you down to the beach and back were installed. Although towards the back of the beach the cliffs are no more than a couple of storeys high, they are sheer and crumbling. He was given a medal for his efforts.

View from Broken Head

View from Broken Head

There is also a nice walk past Thunder Cave where the water rushes in to a hole in the cliff, competing with the water pouring back out, along a path to a beach featuring a limestone stack which is almost rectangular. It was beautiful but wild. I did not wander onto the rocks as I was afraid of rogue waves in the strong winds. I noticed others were not as cautious, wandering right out towards the sea which was thumping into the rocks, neatly illustrating how it carves the limestone. It was sunny until I headed back towards the car, when it began to rain a bit, so I gave the Loch Ard cemetery a miss (not many of the unfortunate victims of the Loch Ard were recovered) and headed further along the coast.

The Arch

The Arch

London Bridge

London Bridge

Further along is the Arch, which is as its name implies an arch of limestone. I had another play with my neutral density filter before heading on to London Bridge. This formation used to have a second span connecting it to the mainland. In 1990 it collapsed, leaving two tourists stranded on the new island from where they had to be rescued by helicopter. I bet they had to change their trousers after that experience. Now they encourage people to stay away from the edge of the cliffs.

i had another excellent cafe lunch, this time at Karoa at Port Campbell to warm up for the drive back. Amazing sweet potato chips.

On the way back I went to look for koalas on the drive down to the Cape Ottway lighthouse, but just passed a few cows on the road. The drive back was less scary than the drive out, as it had largely stopped raining.

Hike to Cumberland Falls

Hike to Cumberland Falls

Cumberland Falls

Cumberland Falls

The next day I said goodbye to my hosts and headed towards Melbourne. I stopped at Cumberland Falls and hiked about ten minutes up a steep path to look at the falls. They are pretty enough, tumbling down the hillside, but I rather liked the mossy trees I passed on the short hike. Back in my car, I drove slowly along the edge of the sea. I noticed two things. One was that there were lots of signs saying 80 kilometres per hour, often right in front of a sign warning you to take the next curve at 45, and the other was that after every pull out there was a sign saying drive on the left in Australia!

Breakfast time for koalas

Breakfast time for koalas

Curious koala

Curious koala

Koala ball

Koala ball

The views were very pretty, with lots of pristine beaches and rocky cliffs. I pressed on to Kennett River, where there are lots of koalas. Once there, a sharp left turn took me onto a dirt road which winds slowly up the hillside. I drove along, scanning for koalas but could see none, so I stopped, got out and began to walk up the road. I immediately saw three of the little marsupials, clinging to trees. One was munching away on some leaves. It began to rain again so I headed back to the car, where another car pulled up and asked how many I had seen. An Aussie family of three, they were delighted to tell me they had seen seven without leaving the car! So competitive! Of course, they had two non-drivers to do the spotting. They refused to lend me their child to help me look, but did helpfully point to all the ones they saw as they drove ahead of me. In the end I saw about nine or ten, although some were just furry backs huddled high in a tree. Most of them were curled into tight little balls, sleeping their way through the cool morning showers. Only one paid me any attention, peering down at me through the leaves. After a couple of kilometres, the trees changed and there are many beautiful tree ferns, but no more koalas. As it was raining pretty steadily, I turned around and headed back down the hill. Had it not been raining, I would have walked a kilometre or so along the road, and am sure would have seen many more koalas.

Another koala ball

Another koala ball

Crimson rosella

Crimson rosella

Juvenile crimson rosella

Juvenile crimson rosella

Australian king parrot

Australian king parrot

At the bottom of the road I could see a lot of people blocking the road and looking into the trees. I parked and walked back, and as I did so the sun came out. There was a koala high in the tree, but all the people were feeding parrots who suddenly appeared and were perching on the arms, shoulders and heads of the tourists whilst ducks pecked around their feet. A group of Japanese girls shrieked loudly every time a bird landed on them. I am not sure why they were encouraging them as they were so afraid of the birds which were very tame.  The tour guides obviously instigate the feeding, which is a little sad to see, but it was lovely to see all the beautiful birds.

Cockatoo

Cockatoo

Wood duck

Wood duck

I left Kennett River and kept going to the town of Lorne. I was going to stop for a coffee, but having admired the town, and its pretty beachfront park, I decided to keep going as it had begun to rain again.

Lighthouse at Aireys Inlet

Lighthouse at Aireys Inlet

I stopped at the town of Aireys Inlet where I hiked up to the lighthouse and to the cliff edge to admire the view. A sign said whales could often be seen from the point, but none were passing that day. I admired the inlet on the way down, and photographed a galah that was eating the grass next to my car, before heading on to Anglesea.

I decided to grab a sandwich to have a picnic lunch at Anglesea, but ended up eating in my car in the car park as it was raining again! The rest of the trip into Melbourne was uneventful. I passed through the surfing town of Torquay without stopping as the beach was not appealing in the rain, and I thought about stopping for a coffee in Geelong, but it is a big and rather busy town, so I simply headed into Melbourne to locate my friend’s house, where I would be staying, in daylight.

All this talk of rain might sound a bit negative, but on the positive side there were loads of signs by the side of the road saying the risk of fire was low. Always a silver lining! It would have been much more crowded had the weather been better. The biggest downside at this time of year is the shortness of the days, I did a lot of rushing trying to see things before it got dark, when really I had to be patient waiting for the gaps in the weather. As you can see from the pictures, there was plenty of sunshine between all the showers.

Galah

Galah

The Glorious Grampians

I drove from Adelaide to Dunkeld at the southern end of the Grampians after picking up a hire car. This time a Toyota Corolla. I carefully made sure I located the lights, indicators and windscreen wipers before setting off, noting that I was going to struggle as the wipers and indicators were on the opposite side to that I am used to. I also noted that, whilst an automatic, it had a squiggly gearbox. I manoeuvred down the squiggle and set off, only to find the engine shrieking, and every time I had to turn left I switched the wipers on. Fortunately I soon came to a traffic light which gave me a chance to sort out the engine (turns out I was in M, not D; I had gone too far down the squiggle) and switch off the wipers, but it was not a relaxing start to my journey. As I joined the motorway out of Adelaide, it began to pour with rain and the car began to fog up, matching the fog on the outside. I switched the indicators on and off before locating the wipers, and had to open a window in the pouring rain while I figured out the air conditioning, but eventually I sorted that out, the car de-misted and I drove along okay in the rain and the fog, except that I turned off the windscreen wipers every time I tried to overtake a truck. Given how hard it was raining, this meant I was immediately unable to see. Fortunately I was able to see the funny side, and managed not to kill myself or anyone else.

Common correa

Common correa

It rained for the first 300 km or so. I stopped briefly in Bordertown, where there is a reserve with white kangaroos. I was feeling tired, and tried to buy a sandwich for lunch, but was told orders for sandwiches closed at 1.30 – it was nearly 3.00. So I relied on a walk in the rain and a diet coke to wake me up. I decided to leave the white kangaroos and press on as I did not want to be driving in the dark. I passed the reserve on my way out of town, and saw the white kangaroos as I drove by, which made me a bit sorry I had not taken a few minutes for a picture or two. The sun then came out and it was a beautiful afternoon and a nice drive through the farmland of South Australia. I suddenly realised I was low on petrol, and fortunately stopped, as it was to be the last chance to get any. It also then quickly got dark, and suddenly I was driving along in the pitch dark, seeing lots of signs warning of kangaroos on the road, and no other signs of life. In two hours, I saw one marsupial, which I fortunately managed to evade, and about three cars. The three cars were all heading towards me on a one lane section of road, so I had to drift half on, half off the road to let them past. Eventually I reached the tiny town of Dunkeld, where I was staying. I had great difficulty finding the hotel as the sign is hard to read at night, but eventually found it on my third pass through Dunkeld’s four blocks when I stopped to call and ask for directions, and realised I could see it!

Flame heath

Flame heath

As I was exhausted, having driven about 550 kilometres in challenging conditions, I was pleased that it was a really nice hotel, the Royal Mail. I eschewed its fine dining restaurant though, as I could not imagine chewing my way through a degustation menu on my own! I had a nice meal and a very well earned glass of wine at the bar instead.

Kangaroo on the Mt Sturgeon trail

Kangaroo on the Mt Sturgeon trail

The easy part of the trail

The easy part of the trail

Getting steeper

Getting steeper

After all the rain, it was a beautiful day the next day, so I decided to do the 7 km hike up Mt Sturgeon to admire the view. It starts with a gentle meander through the forest, where occasionally I would get the sense that I was being watched and look around to find a kangaroo gazing at me. Mostly they have little fear, and simply watched as I hiked past, although I did set a couple bouncing away when I sneezed loudly. Despite being the middle of winter, there were lots of red and pink flowers around. After a couple of kilometres, the path began to climb and went from a sandy path to a steep rocky one. I clambered upwards, occasionally turning to see the view behind me. I often thought I was nearing the top, only to discover more hill beyond what I thought was the top! The views were spectacular, although unfortunately for photographs, directly into the sun. Eventually the path started to descend again, and up ahead I could see a rocky escarpment that I knew must finally be the summit. Descending through another little forest, the path then climbed steeply upwards to the summit, giving me amazing 360 degree views of Dunkeld to the south, the Grampians to the north and farmland on either side. It was very windy at the top, so I was careful not to get too close to the edge. After a quick snack and some water, I started back down again.

The view from the trail

The view from the trail

The summit in sight

The summit in sight

The view from the too - Dunkeld

The view from the top – Dunkeld

The view from the top to the west

The view from the top to the west

On the way down I appreciated how steep the climb was. In a way it was harder on the descent, as I was constantly having to look down to check where I was putting my feet. I passed a young couple heading up, the only other people I was to see on the hike. It was nice to hit the level part towards the bottom and be able to spend more time looking around at my surroundings rather than focused on the path. When I got back to my car, I had climbed 450 metres, walked 7 kilometres and had a thoroughly nice time.

By the time I had checked back with the hotel to let them know I was safely down and eaten lunch, I knew I did not have enough daylight left to drive to the Aboriginal shelter which was at least an hour’s drive, hike to the shelter to view the rock art and be back before dark, so I decided to leave that for the following day and just go for a drive. Driving at night is not recommended because of the wildlife on the roads.

The head of the lawn mowing team

The head of the lawn mowing team

Little roo

Little roo

As I was driving along through the Grampians National Park, I saw an animal moving by the side of the road. I slowed and could see it was an echidna. Unfortunately, by the time I had stopped and turned around, he had scurried across the road and disappeared into the bushes. Still no decent echidna picture! I then turned into a camp ground which was completely empty, other than a team of kangaroos diligently mowing the lawn. They were amazingly relaxed in my presence, most not even lifting their heads when I got out of the car. They are amazingly adept at ducking under fences to get at the grass they enjoy. I watched them for a while, nearly jumping out of my skin when a cockatoo began to screech in a tree nearby, interrupting the peace of the evening. As I headed back, I nearly ran over an emu which suicidally dashed across the road in front of me. While my heart was still racing, and fortunately before I had sped up again, a kangaroo ran across in the other direction. I was relieved to make it back to the hotel without eliminating any wildlife.

After checking out the next day, I set off towards the Manja Shelter, where the Cave of Hands can be found. It was raining on and off, but I was optimistic that I might get a break in the weather. However, once I turned onto the dirt road towards the trailhead, it began to pour. My little car began to slide on the slick muddy surface, and as there were no other cars around, I decided that I had better turn around, as there was no one to rescue me if I slid into a ditch. There was water running across the road in places, so even though I was crawling along, this was a real possibility. I did not suppose any of the many kangaroos I passed would be much help. I turned around and headed south towards the town of Port Fairy, from where I would join the Great Ocean Road, feeling that I could have used another day or two in the Grampians.