Mr. Houghton in the Land of Oz

The ongoing chronicles of Mr. Houghton's yearlong teaching exchange to Adelaide, Australia!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Tropical adventures!

Pictures: http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=9AauGrlo3bsMc

Geez, I think I’m getting worse at this, not better! I figure I really ought to update this and tell you about the trip we took nearly two months ago now! Things have been busy at school, but we are now done with reports and there is a lot of packing up to do, both at school and home. I am finally making myself sit down and tell about the last trip, so settle in!

We packed out bags one last time before the final trip home, this time heading to the tropical northeast coast of Queensland. We flew into Cairns (pronounced “cans”) and checked into the Reef Palms. We had been watching airline prices to Cairns for a while, and they were very expensive, as the Cairns area is a popular vacation spot for many Australians. Melissa, being the smart shopper she is, discovered that it was only a few dollars more per night to book a package deal. So for an extra nine dollars per night (you could hardly get a campsite for that!), we spent our first four nights in a great place with our own private living room, kitchen, as well as a grill and pool that we certainly made use of! We used this as a base camp to explore the many offerings of this tropical land. There aren’t really any beaches to speak of in the area, as the coast is very rocky, and during the summer the ocean is filled with potentially deadly irukandji, bottle, and box jellyfish (plus many other less dangerous ones, collectively known as “marine stingers”). In populated areas they have “stinger nets” which provide a safe area to swim without getting stung, but many people opt for stinger suits, which are thin stretchy suits with long sleeves and legs (and sometimes a hood) to protect themselves. Not exactly the flashiest of swimwear, but I’ll take that over a trip to the hospital!

The morning after we arrived, we picked up our rental car (I hardly ever flip the windshield wipers on anymore when signalling a turn…) and headed north to Mossman Gorge. This is not so much a gorge as a scenic river, but it was great to get out for a hike in shorts and a t-shirt! There was a neat suspension bridge on the trail (called a “swing bridge” here), and it was amazingly dark under the huge trees. This was our first glimpse at the structure of the rainforest. The tall trees grow tall quickly and spread out once they are up to gather as much light as they can. The resulting canopy not only blocks much of the sunlight from reaching the ground, but holds moisture underneath it as well, making it very humid and dark underneath. Occasionally, a large tree will die and fall down, leaving a hole in the canopy. The well-adapted plants take advantage of the newfound sunlight and quickly sprout upwards to fill the hole. Most of the time, though, the forest floor doesn’t get much light, so there isn’t a lot of vegetation between the ground and the canopy. We checked out the coast as well, stopping in at several of the small towns that dot the coast.

The following day, we had booked a snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef. I’m sure you have heard of this, but it is actually not one reef, but a collection of more than 3,000 individual reefs and over 900 islands stretching over 1,000 miles from Brisbane past the northern tip of Australia to Papua New Guinea. Cairns provides a good spot for many people to see the reef, as it is relatively close to shore. This was actually my second trip to see this amazing natural wonder, as I visited the reef when I was in Australia in 1995. A trip that took 3 hours then has now been reduced to half that with modern high-powered catamarans that are able to provide a smoother, faster trip than traditional boats. Now, I mean to take nothing away from the splendor of this place when I make my next statement, but I was not as impressed this time around. I don’t know if it was that we went to a less spectacular part of the reef this time, or the coral and sea life weren’t very healthy (which is certainly the case for many parts of the reef), or just that I’ve done a fair amount of snorkelling since that first trip and it takes a lot more to “wow” me now. It was still a great trip, though, and neat to get a second chance to see one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.

The next day we had booked an interesting but popular combination: the train to Kuranda and the Skyrail back. The Kuranda Scenic Railway was a great way to see some of the rainforest and coastal hills, and it provided some insight into the history of the region and its settlement by Europeans. While in Kuranda, we stopped into the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, where we were hoping to see the unmistakably blue Ulysses butterfly. We weren’t disappointed! There were plenty of them flying around inside the Sanctuary. The neat thing was, once we knew what to look for, we were actually able to spot several of them in the wild later on! After spending a few hours shopping and walking around Kuranda, we hopped on the Skyrail to get home. This is a 4.7 mile long gondola that travels over the top of the rainforest canopy, allowing you to get a look from a very different perspective. We got a car to ourselves, and enjoyed checking out all of the neat plant and animal life from above.

The following morning we said goodbye to our nice soft beds and headed north to Cape Tribulation. You have to cross the Daintree River on a cable ferry, which we had done before but is still fun each time. We drove past the Noah Beach campground where we would be staying that night and headed up to “Cape Trib”. While checking out the beach, a lace monitor (a large lizard) sauntered down the path, climbed a picnic table (promptly falling off the other side), and then headed out to the beach, seemingly unaware of the horde of tourists (ourselves included) following and photographing its every move. We later got to watch another one sprint away from us and race up a tree – fascinating considering it was about six feet long! We stopped in to try out the local homemade ice cream, using whatever fruit was in season. We tried three different flavors – blueberry, mango macadamia, and wattleseed. I liked the mango macadamia the best – the mangoes here are incredible!

We had made reservations at the Cape Tribulation Exotic Fruit Farm for a tasting session and farm tour for that evening. This is a self-sustaining farm that organically grows exotic fruits from all around the world. We tasted and learned how to prepare breadfruit, custard apple, Davidson plum, durian, rose apple, and soursop. They were all definitely different, but some I wouldn’t care to taste again! After the tasting we toured the farm. We saw some of the other fruit that wasn’t in season yet, like the jakfruit. This is the world’s largest fruit, sometimes producing fruits weighing over 40 pounds! We also learned a neat trick for getting your vitamins – licking ants. The common green ant secretes ascorbic acid from its abdomen – pure vitamin C! While it was an interesting thing to try (very sour!), it made me ponder who was the first one to think to try it…

We camped at Noah Beach National Park that night and got up early to hike to the Mt. Sorrow lookout. It was a bit cloudy, but it made for a neat effect as the breeze blew the mist through the trees. Early on in the hike, we got a glimpse of a cassowary and her two chicks. These third-largest birds in the world (following the ostrich and emu) can be quite aggressive, so we were glad that they had seen us before we saw them so we didn’t startle them. This was a great hike – very steep and rugged. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see at the top because of the trees, Oh well!

We took off heading south, as we had a long way to go in the next week and a half. We stopped for a swim in a freshwater creek, and saw some Ulysses butterflies flittering around. When we returned to our clothes, we spooked a goanna that was checking them out, and he almost took off with my shorts! We stopped for dinner in Cairns, then camped just south of Innisfail. This is where Cyclone Larry had made landfall in April, devastating the big crop in the region – bananas. As a result of the cyclone, the price of bananas went from $2-3 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) to upwards of $15 per kilo! Needless to say, we haven’t eaten a whole lot of bananas this year. Prices are coming down now as the crop recovers. When we got up in the morning, the cyclone’s wrath was still evident in the trees, many of which were snapped off twenty feet up or uprooted whole.

We packed up camp and drove to Mission Beach, where we caught a water taxi to Dunk Island. The water taxi was cool because you had to walk out to it from the beach – no frills here! Dunk Island is a small island with a nice resort on it. We hiked around a bit, then walked to a nice beach for a swim. We discovered a huge amount of people here, and soon learned that they were filming a new Australian TV series called Sea Patrol. We chatted with the National Park ranger who was in charge of overseeing the filming to ensure that the ecology of the area was protected. It was interesting to learn about all of the policies that are in place to ensure that filming that occurs in national parks and World Heritage areas does not harm the very plants and animals that make these areas so special.

After catching the water taxi back to the mainland, we drove south some more and camped near Paluma Falls National Park. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I thought showering with some cute little green tree frogs was pretty cool! We got up early the next day and hiked up to see Jourama Falls. It heats up quickly in this part of the country, so we decided to squeeze in a quick dip before we caught the ferry to Magnetic Island. We rented bikes on the island and spent the day learning a bit about its history as a World War II base. We then caught the ferry back to Townsville and headed south again. This area is a huge sugar cane growing area, and they were burning some of the fields in preparation for harvesting as we drove through. All of the smoke made for a spectacular sunset! However, the campsite we stopped at was less than fantastic – I’d have to say it was the dodgiest place we had ever camped at. We slept a lot better than we thought we would with all the noise and took off early the next day.

We got to Airlie Beach (which, ironically, doesn’t have a natural beach) at midmorning and investigated the sailing options. Airlie Beach is a takeoff point for the famous Whitsunday Islands. This network of islands ranges from uninhabited to full on world-class resorts. The sailing around the islands is, as we found out, absolutely incredible. The choices were numerous – everything from historic schooners to racing catamarans is available for any number of nights’ accommodation. We booked a 3-day/2-night sail aboard the Whitsunday Passage, a 39-foot sailing yacht that departed the following morning. We got a campsite for the night and spent the day in Airlie beach doing laundry, getting supplies, and hiking Mt. Rooper. From the top we got a view of what we would be sailing the next day, but the cool part was watching an Azure Kingfisher eat a lizard in a tree. He beat it against the branch about 100 times before swallowing it whole!

The next morning we got to sleep a bit later than usual, as we didn’t have to be at the marina until 9:00 am. We only brought a small backpack each, as all of the food and bedding was supplied. We found the boat and met our skipper Tony and his first mate, Sally. There were five other people on the trip with us – Marilyn, Ian, and their daughter Vicki, and Christopher and Christiane. We motored out of the harbor and across the bay to Dumbbell Island, where we donned our stinger suits and jumped in for a snorkel. We then motored over to Whitsunday Island to visit Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet. This place is amazing – it actually looks just like (even better, actually) the postcards! From the lookout, you could see tons of stingrays swimming right next to the beach, so we were excited about seeing them more closely. And that we did! We walked over the ridge and down to this amazing pure white sand beach. We saw snails in the shallows, and a bit further out were several stingrays. We stood still and let them come to within about twenty feet of us before shuffling our feet to let them know we were there. We went back to the boat and had dinner, and Melissa and I went with Tony in the dinghy to see if we could catch anything. We didn’t, but we got to see a HUGE sea turtle. As we slept that night, we could hear them coming up around the boat for breaths of air. Over the next two days, we learned where to look to catch glimpses of them before they dove back down. It was so soothing to fall asleep to the sounds of the breeze and the rocking of the boat. We had had an amazing day, but we knew that the weather was supposed to turn a bit sour over the next couple days.

We woke to less of a breeze and more of a wind, and the boat was rocking quite a bit. It certainly made getting dressed very interesting! I didn’t mind, but others on the boat needed to go outside so they could keep their breakfast down. There was less sun today but plenty of wind, so the prospect of actually sailing was pretty much guaranteed. We hoisted the sails and headed for Maureen’s Cove near Butterfly Bay on Hook Island for another snorkel. Melissa and I were the only ones to go snorkeling, and it was incredible. The color and variety of coral was amazing! We got a bit cold, though, as there was no sun to warm us up. We then motored into Nara inlet for a short hike to see some Aboriginal caves and swat at the most gigantic flies I’ve ever seen. We slept a lot better the second night – I think we were getting our sea legs, as well as getting used to the tiny but cozy sleeping space. It was a bit windier overnight, though, and despite tying our towels to the boat, we lost one of them overboard during the night. Apparently this happens with some frequency, and we found out that in popular mooring spots scuba divers are sent down every now and then to collect the towels, which can smother the coral and kill it. Now we felt even worse – not only did we lose one of Pam’s towels, but it was now in a beautiful place killing the coral! Well, we couldn’t so much except make sure that we didn’t let anything else get away from us for the rest of the trip.

In the morning, we had brekkie, then headed to Caves Cove for a snorkel. It was a little rainy, but what were we going to do – get wet? The coral wasn’t quite as good here, but the fish made up for it! A few people dropped in some fishing lines and Vicki caught a little fish she nicknamed “Nemo”, which she promptly had for lunch. It took several people (and about a half hour) to reel in the other major catch, a batfish. These large fish put up a good fight, but we chose to let it go once we got it to the boat. We were sad to have to head back to the mainland, but it was getting a bit late and we needed to get back. We put up a bit more sail and really hauled back to port.

After we got unloaded and said our goodbyes to the crew and other passengers, we drove south to Sarina, planning to stay in a hostel or hotel, but everything seemed booked up. We stopped in at a hotel and pub in town and they went far out of their way to find a room for us in town. The room wasn’t much to write home about, but it was good to sleep in a real bed, and we really appreciated all they went through to find us a place to stay. We got up early the next day and hit the road, as we had a lot of ground to cover in the next few days. We stopped in Rockhampton for a walk in the botanic gardens and got a great close-up look at a pair of kookaburras, then continued to the town of Bundaberg. This town is famous for two things – sugar and rum. I have developed a taste for both over the last few months, so a visit to the Bundy distillery was a must. Unfortunately, we were too late to catch the last tour and the first one the next day was too late for our tight schedule, so we had to settle for a trip to the gift shop for a couple t-shirts. We popped into the Bundaberg Ginger Beer brewery as well, and were amazed at the variety of sodas they produce. We also visited the Mon Repos conservation park, where many sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. These turtles are endangered, and the park was created to educate people about these animals and what is necessary to protect them. In nesting season, limited access is allowed for tourists to view the turtles as they dig their nests and lay their eggs, and again when the hatchlings dig their way out and head for the open ocean. We camped in a great spot right on the ocean in town and fell asleep to the sound of the waves on the rocks.

In the morning we continued our trip south, stopping in Noosa Heads. We got in a great hike at Noosa National Park, then camped at Maloolabah. Queensland gets more populated the further south you travel, and this was really starting to be noticeable. For instance, our campground here was right in town and had a security gate to keep things private. We walked around town that night and treated ourselves (Starbucks for Melissa, ice cream for me) and enjoyed the warm evening. In the morning we packed up camp for the last time, and drove to Brisbane. We returned our rental car and jumped on a train into the city. We wandered around Anzac Square and then headed to the Brisbane Museum. After checking out the museum, we jumped on the water taxi that runs up and down the river. It is a great, really inexpensive way to see the city, and we timed it right, as we were able to see the city’s transformation from day to night. The purple flowers of the jacaranda trees were amazing to see, and it was a perfect end to a great trip. We knew we had to fly back to Adelaide early the next morning, and that this would be our last trip until we headed home. It was a little sad to think about, but we were tired and happy that we had been privileged enough to see this beautiful part of the world!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Central Australia trip


Boy, you'd think I would get better at this with more practice! School has been extremely busy lately as we are preparing to go on an overnight camp with two other classes to Warrawong Earth Sanctuary. It has been a lot of work to organize, and I have to thank Janet (the other Year 2 teacher here at North Adelaide Primary) for organizing the vast majority of it! That is next week's adventure, though, and I need to fill you in on what has happened over the last couple months. School has been cruising along well, with one of the highlights being an Aboriginal story that my class presented to the rest of the school at an assembly (of which my students were also in charge). They really had a great time putting all of the props and scenery together (with some ingenuity to create magic firesticks). Melissa and I are doing well, and have been enjoying footy season (that's Australian Rules Football, or AFL), having attended a couple games to cheer for the Adelaide Crows. We even got a picture of us with the captain of the team (who Melissa thinks is pretty cute...)! It is hard to believe that in three months we will be getting ready to head home - in many respects, it feels like we just got here.

What follows is a VERY long account of our July two-week trip up the middle of Australia, from ocean to ocean, starting in Adelaide and ending up in Darwin, in the Northern Territory. I decided not to split it up this time - let me know if you'd like shorter chunks to read or if you prefer to do it in one shot, if you've even read this far! The pictures from this trip are here: http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=9AauGrlo3bsLi


9+5=5,000? Well, yes, but only when you mean nine days on a bus plus five more in a car will get you across 5,000 kilometers of central Australia! We traveled straight up the middle of the country from Adelaide to Darwin by road. This meant an early start - joining fifty-something other teachers at Adelaide High School at 7:00am on Saturday morning! Our good friend Lou braved the early morning to drop us off at the bus and see us off. First stop: Woomera!
Woomera is quite a ways from anything, and this made it an attractive place for testing rockets and bombs after World War I by Australian, British, and American armed forces. The $2 self-guided tour of the museum gave a great insight into the activities there, and the rockets on display in the town park were neat to look at. We stayed here for the night before making a long trek the next day to Coober Pedy.

South Australia is the driest state on the driest inhabited continent on Earth. While the coast gets a fair amount of rain, the interior is ruled by the hot and dry environment. The mining town of Coober Pedy exemplifies this. During the summer, the temperatures on the ground can get over 50 degrees Celsius, which is over 120 degrees Fahrenheit! To beat this kind of heat, many residents have gone underground - literally. Many of the residents live in dugout houses, where the air temperatures remain cooler than above ground. We even stayed in an underground hostel while we were there. While we didn’t have to worry about the high summer temperatures, it was neat to see how many of the residents live. We also toured an underground house and chapel, as well as a mine. Why a mine? Well, it’s why Coober Pedy is on the map - it’s where 80 percent of the world’s opals come from. We got a quick chance to shop for some opals before heading off to bed. One thing we discovered, though, was that snoring doesn’t get absorbed well by walls made of stone!

The next morning we headed north again, then west toward the settlement of Yulara. This is basically a town of accommodation for people visiting Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Uluru is, to understate it completely, a huge rock. I mean HUGE. It’s around a thousand feet high, and five and a half miles around the base! We were camping here for the next two nights, so we set up our tents and settled in. There was a great spot for viewing the sunrise and sunset right next to our campsite, and we braved the frigid mornings to experience these. This desert area gets very cold at night, and while we were there the temperature got down to the mid-forties. We were glad we brought the down comforter!

The next day we hopped on the bus and went into the park. Our group split up to take on the variety of activities, and we chose to start with an early park ranger tour. We learned a lot of neat things about the local Aboriginal people and some special places around the rock and surrounding areas. When the guided tour finished we went back to the bus and made some sandwiches for lunch before heading to the start of the climb. This is a VERY steep climb - so steep that there is a chain railing fixed to the rock for most of the initial ascent, to give people something to hang on to. Being on top of Uluru gives you a unique perspective on the surrounding land, and just how out of place this rock is. When we came down we started the trek around the bottom of the rock. There are many places around the rock that are sacred Aboriginal sites which tourists are not allowed near and are asked not to take pictures of, either. Walking around it gives you a sense of not only the size of the rock itself but of the place it takes in the local Aboriginal cultures. After the hike we made our way to the cultural center for a cold drink and to check out some great artwork. The bus picked us up there and took us to the sunset viewing area. We had some wonderful wine and cheese and other munchies as we all chatted about what we had done that day. We got a great view of one of the rock’s famous sunsets, which makes the sandstone turn from dark red to orange to gray as the light settles over it.

After another gorgeous sunrise the next day, we packed up the tents and headed to the other major feature for which the park is named, Kata Tjuta. Formerly known as the Olgas, these are towering sandstone domes with deep valleys between them. We had just enough time to hike the Valley of the Winds trail, which snakes between these domes. We were amazed at the variety of bird life and the change in vegetation as we walked among the rocks. Hopping back on the bus, we traveled back to the Stuart Highway and then north to King’s Creek Station to set up camp again. We got the tents up just in time for a spectacular and rare treat - an outback thunderstorm! It only rains a couple days each summer, and it was cool to see the lights flashing in the distance. It rained quite heavily during the night but stopped long enough for us to pack up and cook breakfast.

By the time we arrived at King’s Canyon, it was raining steadily again. We weren’t going to let that deter us from a great hike, so we donned our rain gear and headed up the trail. King’s Canyon is a very different area than Uluru - Kata Tjuta. There is very little dirt at the top levels of the canyon, so there was nowhere for all the rainwater to sink into the ground. It made small streams that criss-crossed the trail, ensuring that our feet were as wet as all of our other parts! The streams also made for spectacular waterfalls as they poured over the edge of the canyon. Despite the rain, we made the loop in record time (I’m sure it didn’t have anything to do with all of the hiking we had been doing!) and had enough time to tackle a second trail in the canyon. We started up the trail that follows the dry creek at the bottom of the canyon, but soon ran into people heading the other way. They warned us to turn around, as the water was coming and would cut us off. Being the adventurous people were are (and having an escape route planned out), we kept hiking until we saw what they meant. Now, this is definitely one of the coolest natural events I have ever seen. Over the course of about one minute, the creek bed went from bone dry to knee deep. It was not a violent or scary thing, but you do get a feeling of how unstoppable this process is. I took a series of five pictures which show the water progressing down the creek bed. It gives you a good idea of how this happened. We returned to the bus thoroughly soaked and happy, and relieved that we would be sleeping in a hotel room in Alice Springs that night!

We checked in to the hotel that night and met the group later for dinner. The next day we toured some local spots near Alice Springs such as Standley Chasm and Simpson Gap, where we saw some black-footed rock wallabies hopping around the rock-strewn hills. We also went to the Alice Springs Desert Park, where they have several different desert habitats to showcase local plants and animals. There was a great birds of prey show there that featured brown kites and the Australian hobby. It was cool to see how these two birds snatched prey right out of the air!

We had a little time back in Alice to get ready for a fancy dinner back at the Desert Park. Though the trip lasted another two days, some people were leaving early and it was a nice time to spend time chatting before we all headed off in our own directions. After dinner a few of us decided to sample the local nightlife. I won’t go into detail, but it involved several unlikely people dancing on the tables and having a great time until the wee hours of the morning! The next day involved sleeping late and getting ready to head out to the Camel Cup.

The Camel Cup is a yearly event held in Alice that centers around - you guessed it - camel races! Australia’s camels were brought over from middle eastern nations to help transport goods across Australia’s vast deserts. With the advent of the railroad and reliable motor vehicles, many camels were simply turned loose when they were no longer needed. These camels have established a significant wild population since then, and are actually sought after because they are healthier than any other camels in the world. There are several different races at the Camel Cup, but my favorite was the husband and wife race. One person would start the race and have to stop the camel halfway around the track to pick up their spouse. This proved reasonably difficult, as one camel refused to stop and kept right on going until the finish! It was REALLY cold that day (around 50 degrees and windy) so we didn’t stick around too long, but we checked out the camel-themed wares for sale and ended up with a cute wooden camel we promptly named Alice!

Then it was back on the bus back to town to get ready for dinner and the Sounds of Starlight show. This show features Andrew Langford, an accomplished musician known for his didgeridoo (and other natural instrument) playing. This was a great show. I got called up on stage to give it a try - I was pretty nervous as I had only played the didgeridoo once about 11 years ago. However, years of playing the baritone in the high school band must have done me some good! Andrew gave me a signed CD of the performance for my efforts, which we listened to non-stop over the course of the next week. It is very soothing music! We said many good-byes after the performance, as we would not be seeing many of the people on the trip again. It was sad to leave these people we had gotten to know so well over the past eight days, but we were also looking forward to the next stage of our adventure!

The next morning we found the Apollo rental car office and spent the next hour waiting for the slowest employee in the world to go through a camper rental with the family in front of us. Once we finally got our car, we started heading north. There isn’t much to see once you leave Alice, so small things like the marker when you pass the Tropic of Capricorn become things to stop at! I was enjoying it because there is no speed limit in the outback areas of the Northern Territory, the roads are dead flat and smooth-surfaced with no vegetation for 100 feet on either side of the road, and there are very few other cars on the road. All of this meant we felt perfectly safe cruising along at 150 km/h (93 mph!) for hours on end, which got us north fast! We passed Tennant Creek and camped at Banka Banka Station. It was a little unnerving trying to cook dinner with an emu roaming through your campsite - they are HUGE birds! This far from cities and their subsequent light pollution, we were treated to an AMAZING view of the night sky. The Milky Way has never looked so bright! There was no threat of rain that night, so we even got to sleep with the tarp off the tent so we could stare at the stars while we drifted off to sleep.

In the morning we packed up and headed to Daly Waters for breakfast. This is a tiny town centered around the local pub - it is full of trinkets and such brought by travellers from around the world. Everywhere you looked there was something funny or interesting to check out. Just out of town there was a “tree” that supposedly had some explorer’s initials carved into it from long ago that we stopped to check out. I say “tree” because it was really nothing more than a 10 foot high stump. We couldn’t find the initials anywhere, and we felt like the victims of some outback practical joke! Back on the road again, we stopped at the Devil’s Marbles, some sandstone rocks that have eroded into giant spheres.

As we neared the town of Katherine, we finally noticed the weather getting warmer. We stopped in to the Mataranka Hot Pools to take a dip in some naturally heated spring water. It was great! We went on to Katherine and Nitmiluk National Park, also known as Katherine Gorge. We booked a boat tour for the following morning to check out the gorge and camped for the night. The boat tour was a neat way to explore the gorge and hear some of the Aboriginal history of the area. There are many sections of the gorge separated by rocky areas of the river which meant that we had to boat up one section, get out, hike upstream to the next boat, and venture as far as we could before having to repeat the process. We got a good look at the first three gorges in this manner, then headed back downstream, repeating what we had done to get upstream. In the visitor center, we checked out pictures of the severe flooding from the previous wet season. The northern part of Australia is in a monsoonal weather pattern, meaning that there are only two main seasons - the wet and the dry. The wet season (December - April) brings huge rainstorms, high humidity, and most of the year’s 65 inches (!) of rainfall. The dry season (May - November) brings dry, sunny days with temperatures in the 80s and cool nights.

Katherine Gorge is where we saw our first crocodile and learned the difference between freshwater and saltwater, or estuarine, crocodiles. “Freshies” are smaller and only live in freshwater areas, and normally don’t attack humans unless they are really provoked. “Salties” are much larger and a lot more dangerous. They can live in fresh or salt water, and will make a meal of a human if one happens into their habitat. Because of the seasonal flooding that occurs in this area, many areas are unsafe during the wet season because these animals can travel undetected into areas inaccessible to them during the dry. However, in places frequented by people, there are signs everywhere warning you about this risk. We played it safe and didn’t go swimming anywhere unless we knew it was nearly impossible for a saltie to have gotten in, and there were many other people in the water before us!

The first place we took a dip was at Edith Falls. We felt a bit nervous about swimming here because of all of the warning signs but we knew that it had been months since any croc would have been able to swim into the area and there were lots of other people swimming (and not being eaten). We then drove into Kakadu National Park and cut off the main road toward Gunlom Falls. It was 25 miles on a dusty dirt road but well worth it. We had a great campsite, hot showers, and even a slideshow at night! One of the traditional Aboriginal owners of the area came with her children to talk about bush tucker - wild foods that were (and still are) traditionally hunted and gathered by Aboriginal people who live in the area. It is absolutely amazing how much these people know about their land and how they had managed it so sustainably prior to European settlement. Some of the food looked really good, but some of it (witchetty grubs and file snakes in particular) looked a bit like an episode of Fear Factor! In the morning we hiked up to the top of the falls and enjoyed the early morning views before heading back to the main road and deeper into the park. We ran into several other teachers from Adelaide in the Kakadu visitor center, and they advised us not to miss the Yellow Water Billabong boat tour. We booked one for that afternoon and squeezed in a quick run up Mirrai Lookout where we could see smoke from bush fires set by local Aboriginals. They intentionally burn patches of land shortly after the wet season (before things get too dry) so that if a bush fire is started accidentally later in the season, it doesn’t have as much fuel and quickly burns itself out.

We returned for our boat tour and were first in line so we managed to get a spot up front. While this provided a great view of things on both sides of the boat, it put us pretty close to some of the toothier inhabitants! This trip was simply amazing. We saw more bird life than I have ever seen in one place - the pictures give you an idea. We also got a good close look at several huge saltwater crocs! They occasionally attack each other, and one of the crocs we saw was missing a leg. We took so many pictures it was ridiculous, but there was so much to see!

We headed back to the car and headed over to Nourlangie Rock. This is one of the two major Aboriginal rock art sites that are open to the public in Kakadu. We had seen lots of pictures of Aboriginal artwork, but to see it in person is much more impressive. One of the things we learned was that these paintings were always being painted over, layer upon layer. Most of them are made using red, yellow, or white ochre mixed with spit or animal fat to make a suitable paint. Because they get painted over and over and often do not use organic material which can be dated, it is often impossible to tell how old some of the paintings are. However, some can be guessed based on what they depict. For example, pictures of people with guns had to have been painted after European arrival in 1788, and paintings of the thylacine (or Tasmanian Tiger) show that there were thylacines in these areas prior to their extinction after the arrival of Europeans. We stayed the night in a campground in Jabiru and visited the other major rock art site, Ubirr. This gave us a great perspective of where Aboriginal people congregated and a glimpse into how they lived. After checking out this site, we headed west toward Litchfield National Park.

Now, we had seen a lot of termite mounds in the Northern Territory. I read somewhere that the biomass of termites below ground is actually greater than all of the sheep, pigs, cows, and horses above it. That’s a lot of termites! Many of these termite mounds are lumpy, pointy structures three to five feet tall. Some, though, are called cathedral mounds, and they resemble castle turrets as they rise 15 or more feet above the ground. As we entered Litchfield National Park, the first things we stopped to see were the magnetic termite mounds. These are thin and wide, and are aligned so that they all point roughly north to south. This helps them deal with the scorching summer heat as the sun only hits the broad side of the mound in the morning and late afternoon, while the strongest midday sun hits the mound on the skinny side, helping to keep the mound cool. These mounds have a slightly eerie feel to them, though, as they resemble gravestones in the fields surrounding you.

We pressed on down the road, stopping to take in various waterfalls along the way. We paused to take a dip at a couple of them, including Buley Rockhole, where you can wander up and down the stream as it tumbles over several small falls. After camping for the night, we got in one last swim at Wangi Falls, where we were surprised to find the trees full of animals we had never seen in person before - flying foxes! These huge (and I mean HUGE) fruit bats were returning from a night of feeding and were making quite a racket - they actually sound like crying babies! It was a little disconcerting the first couple times they flew overhead with a five-foot wingspan, but I thought it was pretty cool.

We then headed up to Darwin, amazed that our trip had come to an end so quickly. We drove a few laps around the city, dropped off our bags at the bus station, and returned the rental car. Our flight didn’t leave until late, so we had some time to walk around this beautiful, well-planned city. We had a nice dinner and decided to head to the theater to watch Ten Canoes, an Aboriginal story about a man and what he does when one of his wives goes missing. It was a great movie, and a fitting way to end our trip to the Top End. You can bet that we were planning the next trip on the flight home, though!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Term 1 break adventures, Part 2: Tasmania

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After seeing Kris, Deana, and Autumn off on Monday (they were flying to Melbourne, then riding the train from Melbourne to Sydney before flying home), we prepared for our trip to Australia’s island state, Tasmania. This is a very large island (over 200 miles across in either direction, roughly the size of West Virginia) and we only had four days to see everything we could, so we knew it would be a fast trip. We returned the rental car at the airport and jumped on the plane. We connected in Melbourne and then made a short flight across the Bass Strait on our way to the capital city of Hobart. Hobart is on the southern side of Tasmania, so as we flew over we were able to look down and get an idea of the terrain we were going to see on our trip. How surprised were we when we looked down to see snow on the mountaintops! We were excited to see snow, and quite glad that we had decided just a few nights before NOT to camp during this trip. Brrrrrrrr! We landed in Hobart and loved the baggage pickup system – you walk into a room with garage doors at either end, and they simply drive the baggage trailers in when they have unloaded the plane!
After picking up our rental car, we headed just north of Hobart to Mount Field National Park. There were some great waterfalls there, like Russel Falls. We hiked a bit above Russel Falls to see it from the top and also to see Horseshow Falls. We were surprised by how wet everything was – every time the sun found its way through the dense vegetation overhead, it lit up all the moisture in the air, making neat sunbeams through the darker area below. We drove farther into the park to see the fagus. Fagus is one of the few varieties of deciduous tree (really a bush) native to Australia, and there were signs everywhere that we should go see them because the autumn colors were at their peak. Having grown up in New England where the fall foliage is an unbelievable array of colors, we didn’t psych ourselves up too much and weren’t too let down to discover that fagus turns, well, brown. It really is a pretty shade of brown, though.
Our whirlwind tour of Tasmania took us in a clockwise direction around the island, so we headed northwest from the Mount Field area and headed for Queenstown and Strahan (it took us a while to figure out that it is pronounced “strawn”). We passed through some wild forest areas before coming into Queenstown, and we had been warned that the terrain here changes drastically! Unfortunately it was dark, so we vowed to some back in the morning to see the area. On our way to Strahan, we were able to see two Tasmanian Devils in the wild! They are nocturnal animals and are often hard to see in their natural habitat, but when driving at night through the twisty, hilly forest roads, you have to be alert as there are many marsupials crossing the road. I didn’t actually get to see the second Tasmanian Devil because I was stomping on the brakes and trying not to run it over as it zipped across the road!
Queenstown’s history is rooted in the mining industry, and the hills show the scars of decades of abuse. Recently, the government and the mining companies have taken steps to restore some of the damage and improve mining practices, and the hills are beginning to recover. It was interesting to see Queenstown in the daylight, though – quite a stark contrast to the areas surrounding it. We left the area and headed north and then east to Cradle Mountain, which boasts some of Tasmania’s most amazing scenery. Along the way, we noted how much Tasmania reminded us of the northeastern US, with the winding country roads, rolling hills, leaves blowing along the roads, and the smell of wood smoke in the air.
Cradle Mountain is an impressive series of ridges and valleys that are full of lakes and ponds of various sizes. We wanted to get a bit of hiking in, so we parked the car at Dove Lake and caught a shuttle bus back down the road to Ronny Creek so we could hike over the saddle and back to the car. As we hiked through a wide valley, we noted the abundance of what appeared to be large animal droppings along the boardwalk. Later, we found out that these were wombat poop – there sure must be a LOT of wombats around there! The hiking was absolutely stunning (check out the pictures!), and we had a real treat at the end – a platypus digging around in a shallow pool! Platypuses are very reclusive animals, and aren’t easy to spot in the wild because they usually know you’re there before you spot them and disappear. This one must have been a bit used to people because it didn’t disappear until we walked past on the trail.
We headed north to the coast and then west to the tiny town of Stanley. Stanley is known for a unique rock formation known as “the Nut”. This is what is left of a volcanic “plug” – where the lava inside a volcano’s cone cooled and hardened. In the case of the Nut, this plug was much harder stone than that of the outside cone, so that has long since eroded away, leaving a steep-sided rock several hundred feet high that juts out into the ocean. We got up early and hiked it before our 8:00 breakfast delivery, then started to head west along the coast. We stopped by Rocky Cape National Park as we went along the coast. We were also glued to the radio for the rest of the trip, as reports had come out the previous day that there had been an earthquake and some miners were missing underground. This turned out to be a huge story, as two of the three miners who were trapped in the rockfall survived, and spent two weeks underground until they could be rescued. We would actually pass through Beaconsfield later that day, though at that point they did not know that any of the three missing miners were still alive.
We had another animal encounter at Narawntapu National Park. In addition to the numerous wallabies we saw along the roads of the park, we kept getting glimpses of something larger. After several near misses, we were able to figure out what it was – a wombat! The pictures of it aren’t that good unless you know what you’re looking at, but it was neat to see one in the wild. We headed south along the Tamar River to Launceston, stopping to check out Cataract Gorge with its steep, rocky terrain. We then pressed eastward to our hotel in Scamander, on the east coast.
We got up early (notice a pattern here?) because we were planning on a hike in Freycinet National Park later in the day. On the way to the park, we stopped in Bicheno to check out the Bicheno Blowhole. We watched the spectacular spouts for a little while, then headed for the park. Our destination was Wineglass Bay, a gorgeous sandy beach reached by an hour-long hike over a ridge, which provides a great view of the area. It wasn’t exactly beach weather, but we had a great time nonetheless. We were hoping to make it down to Port Arthur with a little daylight left so we could explore some of Tasmania’s convict history, but the short autumn days were not cooperating, so we’ll have to do that sometime later. We headed back to Hobart to find our hostel, which was the dodgiest place we had ever stayed, but we met some great guys in the pub downstairs who made us feel right at home. We caught our flight out the next morning, feeling that we had seen a lot of Tasmania in four days but also that there was a lot more to see. Realistically, we don’t know if we’ll ever return, but we enjoyed our time there and if we have the opportunity, we’ll be back!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Term 1 Break adventures, Part 1: Kangaroo Island

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Well, I suppose now that two months have gone by and we are planning for the next break (only a week and a half away) I should tell you all about the last term break. :) We had a great time touring around, and saw lots of animals and some amazing scenery. We started out at home in Adelaide, where my brother Kris, my sister-in-law Deana, and my niece Autumn came to visit from the Detroit area. We picked them up from the airport and spent a day in Adelaide before packing up and heading south to Cape Jervis. There isn’t much actually in Cape Jervis, but it’s where the ferry to Kangaroo Island departs.
Apparently, the ferry crossing is pretty smooth, but not this time! I had a great time trying to walk around the rocking boat, bouncing off the walls as I tried to walk down the hall. We made the 40-minute crossing and unloaded the rental car, then headed to the house we had rented in the town of American River. It was a neat little place, and we were surprised to discover that around dusk there were several wallabies in the backyard!
Our first stop was Seal Bay, where there is a resident colony of seals (and a few sea lions, if I remember correctly) have a protected spot to rest and breed. You are only allowed on the beach in the company of a guide, who let us know what to do in case they came close. The aim is to protect the seals from human interference as much as possible. The boardwalks provided some great views of them, and we had a bit of a “close encounter” on the walk back, as one had decided that the middle of the boardwalk would be a good place for a nap. He lumbered off into the bushes as we quietly filed past, but then started making all sorts of noise from there!
The next morning, we headed a couple hours down to the other end of the island to visit Flinders Chase National Park. Our first stop was Remarkable Rocks. These wind and water sculpted rocks sit out on the end of a point, and are “remarkably” out of place, like someone dropped them out of the sky. It was unbelievably windy, which showed us just how these rocks had formed! We then went over to Admiral’s Arch, where the wind was just as fierce. We bundled Autumn in her stroller and raced her down so she could see the seals. We had been warned that we would smell the seals before we saw them, and that was about right! There are a lot of seals there, and you know what that means – lots of seal poop! Phew! The waves were incredible – just pounding the shore and an island off the coast. We were admiring how the seals played (even body surfing the waves!) in seas that would be hard for a human to survive.
Melissa and I got up early one morning to check out the eucalyptus distillery. Eucalyptus is a native tree (of which there are many varieties), and at the distillery they get the strong-smelling oil out of the leaves. They do this by cutting down clumps of eucalyptus and packing them into a huge pot that holds about 2000 pounds of leaves. They light a fire underneath the pot, and the heat makes the oil come out of the leaves. It is collected, heated again to rid it of any other impurities, and bottled. The oil has so many different uses, people put them into a book! Most often, it is used as a cleaner or to provide fragrance to other products.
Our next stop was Kelly Hill Caves, which had some fascinating formations. It was neat to discover that we were viewing only a tiny portion of this cave, and we had a great tour guide. On our way back from the caves we stopped at a place called Little Sahara. These are some surprisingly large sand dunes that are hidden in the bush. It was neat to see all of the animal tracks in the sand from wallabies and kangaroos!
On one of our trips from one place to another, we passed something in the road. I thought at first that it was a dead animal, but as we passed it raised its head and looked at us! We quickly realized that it was a koala and turned the car around. Koalas are excellent climbers, but their legs aren’t too good for moving fast on the ground, and cars often hit them because they can’t get out of the way fast enough. We didn’t want this little guy to meet an early end, so along with some other passersby we managed to get him out of the road. It was neat to get to see one up close – we had seen a few sleeping in trees, but this was a neat experience. If you have never seen one, they are every bit as cute as you would imagine!
Our last stop before we had to head back to the mainland was a place I had fond memories of from my time in Australia in 1995 – Paul’s Place. It was called Paul’s Animal Farm then, but Paul is still very much Paul! He is quite a character, and loves to tease the tourists, so we were frequent targets! If you take a look at the pictures and are wondering what Melissa is doing with an oversize beard and hairdo, that is Paul’s idea of what best to do with a freshly sheared fleece! It was neat to see how fast a sheep can be sheared, although Autumn was left wondering what happened to the sheep, as it disappeared down a chute in the floor after it was sheared so it could head back outside.
Honestly, a visit to Paul’s is like animal overload! In just a couple hours, we were able to see, hold, feed, pet, and nearly get knocked over by an amazing array of animals, including kangaroos, koalas, emus, snakes, echidnas, deer, lorikeets, sheep, horses, goats, and probably a few things I forgot! A couple of my favorite parts were feeding the kangaroos (yes, they’re kangaroos, not wallabies – they are the Kangaroo Island kangaroos which are a bit smaller than mainland kangaroos) and emus from a bucket (they get really greedy!), holding a koala, and when Paul put Kris up against the fence and put seed all over his head – we didn’t know what was going to come over the fence! You’ll have to check out the pictures to really see what Paul’s Place is all about.
We were all a bit worn out after all of that animal action, but we had to head home. We loaded back onto the ferry for a much smoother crossing, then headed back to Adelaide to rest for a couple days before Kris, Deana and Autumn headed in one direction while Melissa and I headed in another. It was great to see family and spend some time with Autumn, who is a constant source of entertainment! Here is the link to the pictures we took in the first part of this trip – I’ll tell you about our Tasmania adventures in a separate post. I hope you are all doing well!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Grab a drink and settle in, this is a long one...


Wow, better late than never, but I will get better at updating this! I have FINALLY named, organized, and uploaded to the web the 300+ pictures we took in New Zealand and Australia since we have been here. I’ll put a link at the beginning of each section of this post to the pictures (on Shutterfly.com) that correspond to that part of our trip. They should be in the order I took them, so you can open a new window to view the pictures and check them out as you read if you want, or use the slideshow feature to look at them all at once.

There is a lot to cover, so I have divided this post into three sections for the major sections of the trip so far – one for New Zealand’s North Island, one for the South Island, and one for our excursions so far in and around Adelaide. This is very long, so go grab a drink and settle in. Read it when you have time or interest, or just skip to the pictures if you want. :)


CALIFORNIA AND NEW ZEALAND’S NORTH ISLAND

Pictures: http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=9AauGrlo3bsJI

I’ll pick up where I left off in New Zealand, on the Coromandel Peninsula. This is just south of Auckland (the largest city in New Zealand) on the North Island. We had rented a car because we realized that there was no way we were going to see as much of New Zealand as we wanted to if we didn’t have our own transportation. Most of you probably know that New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road, so the steering wheel is on the right side. It was a bit tricky to shift with my left hand, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly. Driving on the left side takes a little getting used to as well, but you’ll be glad to know I only goofed that up twice (with Melissa yelling, “Keep left! Keep left!” the whole time), and luckily no one was coming the other way. We took some beautiful, narrow, winding roads across the Coromandel, stopping to check out the huge Kauri trees, which are nearly all gone because they were logged nearly to extinction. The pictures I took are of some moderately sized ones – apparently there are much larger ones in the area north of Auckland that we didn’t get to see. We picked up our bags that we had left in Auckland and headed south to Waitomo to check out the glowworms.

Now, this is quite possibly the coolest thing I have ever done. For most people, the prospect of climbing into a soggy, smelly, freezing cold wetsuit at 7:00 am is not the start of anything that could be the coolest thing you’ve ever done. But hey, you all know me; sometimes I’m weird like that. Anyway, our guide at the Blackwater Rafting Company and the hilarious French people that were on the tour with us made it even better with lots of comic relief. After we had our wetsuits, helmets, and headlamps on, we grabbed some inner tubes and headed underground. We spent the next hour hiking, climbing, floating, and jumping from waterfalls, following an underground river. Once in a while we turned off our headlamps to experience the absolute blackness of being in a cave 100 feet below the surface. Then we came to the glowworm grottoes – larger caves where glowworms cover the ceiling. Glowworms are actually the larval stage of the fungus gnat. They are fascinating insects who live most of their lives in the larval stage (the only stage at which they eat, as adults have no mouth and live only a day or so - enough time to mate and lay eggs). They are bioluminescent, producing a blue-green glow that attracts other insects, which promptly get stuck in “fishing lines” that they hang beneath them. They then haul up their catch for dinner! Seeing thousands of glowworms all over the cave ceiling while floating underneath was amazing. It had to end sometime, though, and we were out in the bright light of day in what seemed like no time.

We then headed south to Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. We got a campsite in nearby Upper Hutt and prepared to catch the ferry in the morning across to the South Island. We didn’t get to see much of Wellington, but it looked like a nice place! We returned our rental car and boarded the Kaitaki for the three hour trip (no Gilligan action, fortunately) to Picton on the South Island.


NEW ZEALAND’S SOUTH ISLAND

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We arrived in Picton, picked up our rental car (which was slightly damaged so we had to exchange it in Nelson), and headed to Abel Tasman National Park. This is a beautiful area, and we enjoyed hiking a stretch of the famous Abel Tasman Track (we didn’t have the three to four days needed to hike the whole thing) which started near our campsite. Melissa surprised me by giving me an interesting shell to check out which promptly spit water at me! I guess the hermit crab living inside didn’t like being picked up and passed around! We also hiked to Split Apple Rock, an interesting rock formation a short drive down the road. We packed up camp and drove to Cape Foulwind, where we arrived just in time to hike a short section of coastal track in the wonderful fading light. We got up the next morning to hike the rest of the track and see the seals basking in the sun on the rocks below. There were some flightless birds called Wekas wandering around – they looked like a chicken with tiny wings.

Heading down the west coast, we stopped at Punakaiki (Pancake Rocks), some interesting limestone rock formations that look like stacked up pancakes. We camped for the night at Okarito Bay, just north of the Franz Josef Glacier. This is a serious glacier, and I’m not sure the pictures can convey the size of this thing. It is simply huge! We hiked up to the terminal wall (the lower end of the glacier) and got a sense of how glaciers can shape the land. The wall of ice was easily 150 feet high and stretched across the whole valley. This glacier is known as an especially fast-moving one, sometimes advancing two feet per day! The weather was getting worse as we hiked back down, and we drove south to the Fox Glacier in a cold rain. We decided to hike up to the terminal wall of this glacier too, and were surprised to see a river flowing out from beneath the wall! We watched with envy as some kayakers carried their boats up to the terminal wall and rode the river back down. It looked like quite a ride! I took a couple pictures of this, but we haven’t developed the film in the waterproof camera yet.

Pushing on through some heavy rain, we arrived in Queenstown that evening. Setting up camp in the dark and the rain was really not appealing at that point, so we treated ourselves to a room at the Queenstown Lodge. Let me tell you, after two weeks of sleeping on the ground in a tent, a long, hot shower and a soft, warm, dry bed was absolutely magical. Queenstown is a beautiful place, with Lake Wakatipu on one side and the Remarkables (rugged mountains with golden grass) on the other. We were thinking that it would be a pretty good place to live – unbelievable scenery and every outdoor activity you can imagine within arm’s reach! Though we didn’t want to leave, we knew that we were headed for another beautiful spot – Milford Sound. On the way there, we were treated to some heavy rains which produced an abundance of waterfalls along the road. Some of them even splashed right over the road!

This area of the South Island was where many parts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy were filmed, and it is even more amazing in real life. The drive to Milford Sound seemed to take forever because we had to constantly stop for pictures. Every turn seemed to reveal an even more dramatic panorama than we had just left – words simply cannot describe it. If ever you have the opportunity, go. It’s as simple as that. Once we arrived in Milford Sound, we jumped on a harbor cruise and ran into some people from Denver whom we had camped next to in Okarito a few days before. This reminded us (as did the time we ran into a man from Loveland on the ferry from Wellington) that the world can be both huge and tiny at the same time. Milford Sound is hard to describe properly. “Sheer mountain walls plunging thousands of feet into the sea” hardly conveys the sense of how spectacular it is. We had great weather for the cruise, and were sad when we had to leave. We vowed to return and dedicate some more time to explore this area properly!

We camped next to Gunn Lake that night and got up early to hike a section of one of the South Island’s most famous hiking trails, the Routeburn Track. We only hiked about a mile in to Key Summit, but it provided some amazing views of the surrounding mountains and we learned a bit about some of the plants that manage to survive in this harsh alpine environment. We jumped into the car once more and headed around the southern tip of the island, stopping at Curio Bay to check out the petrified logs on the coast. We also got a chance to see some yellow-eyed penguins which live in the area.

We got up early the next morning (seem to be doing a lot of that, don’t we?) to get to Cathedral Caves, which are only accessible at low tide. We hiked down the beach, enjoying the dazzling morning sun. The caves are cut into the cliff walls at the edge of the sea, and some only go a few feet in, while others go several hundred feet into the cliff. Melissa and I were exploring one of the deeper ones, which got very dark very quickly. We carefully moved our way forward while our eyes were trying to adjust from the bright light outside to the near total black of the caves. The small LED flashlight I had brought along was not doing much to illuminate anything besides the ceiling which was steadily getting lower and lower and the thousands of cockroaches that were crawling all over our feet as we inched our way back into the cave. Suddenly, from somewhere in the back of the cave, beyond the reach of the flashlight, came this guttural, growling bark that got louder and louder. Needing no further warning, we turned tail and sprinted out of the cave, trying not to knock ourselves out by hitting our heads on the rock just above us. Safely out on the beach, we had the best laugh ever at our reaction to what was probably just a penguin who was trying to scare us away from his nest. Needless to say, it worked!

We then worked our way up the east coast, stopping at Nugget Point to take in the scenery and check out the local seal and sea lion population. We also stopped at the Moeraki Boulders, these huge spherical rocks that have formed along a particular section of beach. They look amazingly man-made, but are a naturally occurring formation. Passing through Dunedin, we took a trip up Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world. Melissa didn't think the car would make it, but it was no problem! The next day (our last full day in NZ) we headed west to Arthur’s Pass. This was another great drive through spectacular mountains, and this is where many of the South Island’s ski areas are located. We hiked a couple short trails in Arthur’s Pass National Park, and drove further on to check out the Otira Gorge viaduct, an amazing piece of engineering which allows waterfalls and rock slides to be diverted over the road instead of onto it. We also checked out Cathedral Rocks, some strange rock formations that you may have noticed in the movie The Chronicles of Narnia.

After that, we headed toward Christchurch where we camped and repacked to get our bags within the weight limits for our flight. We decided to wander around the botanic gardens and had a relaxing lunch nearby. We were sad to leave, but were looking forward to seeing Adelaide too! We had seen a lot in the last 19 days and knew there was a lot more to see. It was the trip of a lifetime and while we know we’ll be back to New Zealand, we were ready for the next phase of our adventure!


IN AND AROUND ADELAIDE

Adelaide pictures: http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=9AauGrlo3bsIM

Fleurieu Peninsula pictures: http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=9AauGrlo3bsIu

As I mentioned earlier, we arrived in Adelaide to the worst heat wave in 60 years, with six straight days over 42 degrees Centigrade (108 degrees Fahrenheit). We survived that, and the weather since then has been much more tolerable. Since the seasons here are opposite that of the northern hemisphere, we have just come off of daylight savings time, and are currently fifteen and a half hours ahead of Mountain Standard Time (thirteen and a half hours ahead of you east coasters). We are really enjoying all that Adelaide has to offer, and especially at this time of year, that is a lot! I should have been tipped off by the South Australia license plates which declare it “The Festival State.” They’re not kidding! It seems like every weekend we have been here has been filled with some sort of arts or cultural event, and we have been doing our best to take it all in (hence the lack of blog updates!). Here are a few of the things we have been checking out, mostly in the order they appear in the pictures.

We live in North Adelaide, which is a wonderful spot to be (especially if you don’t have a car!). North Adelaide Primary School, where I am teaching a Year 1 & 2 class, is a two minute walk from home, and Melissa has a ten minute walk to her job at the Women and Children’s Hospital. We can walk into central Adelaide in 20-30 minutes, depending on where we are going. From the center of Adelaide, a tram runs down to Glenelg, a cute seaside town where we usually hit the beach. Between North Adelaide and the city is a strip of parkland surrounding the Torrens River, which is used for many events. It is also home to the Governor’s House, a historic building where the Governor (a symbolic position with little political power) resides. The current Governor, Marjorie Jackson-Nelson, is a former Olympic gold medalist. We were able to tour the Governor’s house and grounds and check out the numerous medals she won.

We have attended several events put on by SAETL (the South Australian Exchange Teacher’s League), including a welcome picnic, an Australia Day (celebrated somewhat like our 4th of July) cookout, a hike to Mt. Lofty’s Waterfall Gully, and meeting up for events such as the Symphony Under the Stars, where the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra played outside at Elder Park, next to the Torrens River. We checked out the Jacob’s Creek Tour Down Under, a world-class road cycling race that took place in and around Adelaide shortly after we arrived. We attended many different events connected to the Festival of Arts and the Fringe Festival, two concurrent performing arts festivals. These included The Dancing Sky, an aerial performance by the same company that was involved in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games (remember the people dangling from the lighted orbs?), the Fringe Parade, a comedy performance, a one-actress presentation of The Good Body by Eve Ensler, and some other odds and ends.

We checked out the Clipsal 500, a car race that takes place on the streets of Adelaide every year. They did some flyovers in an F1-11 fighter jet that were amazingly loud, like painfully loud. It was really fast, though, and I thought it was cool. Speaking of flyovers, we are getting used to being in the flight path for airplanes landing at the Adelaide airport! I think I’m getting better at reading lips on the TV, as you can’t hear anything for about ten seconds as they go overhead. Adelaide is right near several major wine making regions, and they love their wine here! There are local food and wine festivals pretty frequently, and we have sampled many of the local wines. While they are wonderful, I have to say that I’m really missing the wonderful Colorado microbrews! Oh well, they’ll be there when I get back, right? The staff at school has been very welcoming, and we have enjoyed many dinner invitations for great food and conversation. They have also been really helpful as I learn how and where to track down the teaching resources I need.

We got a chance to rent a car and head out of town for a long weekend in mid-March. We headed south from Adelaide to the Fleurieu Peninsula. There are some beautiful coastal towns there, and some neat wilderness areas. We camped on the Coorong, which is where the Murray River meets the sea. The mouth of the river is very silted up and the Coorong is the brackish area where the fresh and salt water mixes in the protection of the Younghusband Peninsula. While it is a beautiful area, it is also a very good area for breeding bugs of all kinds! We enjoyed our time there and look forward to exploring parts of this area more over the coming months. We meandered around the Adelaide hills a bit on our way back, and had to stop in the town of Houghton! It was funny to see all the signs for the post office, primary school, and many other things.

I think you are probably getting the idea why I haven’t written much since our arrival! Things have settled down a lot now, though, and I should have time to update this more regularly. I will let you know when I have uploaded more pictures to any of the albums or have new ones to share. I hope you are all doing well wherever you are! Drop me a line if you get a chance – my new email is jeepmankyle@gmail.com. For now, it’s off to get ready for the next trip. My brother Kris and his family will be coming to Adelaide on Monday and we’re all going to take off to Kangaroo Island for a few days. It will be great to see them and share some of the wonderful things we have discovered about Adelaide. Melissa and I are heading to Tasmania for a few days as well, so we’ve got some planning to do. We’ll catch you all later!

Mr. Houghton

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Yes, that is a picture of me...


Don't worry, I have since shaved and am no longer Mr. Houghton, International Teacher of Mystery (yeah, baby!). Shaving and camping just don't seem to go together, so I sort of gave it up while we were in New Zealand. I apologize for the long break between updates! We have been REALLY busy getting settled in and starting school and work. As I have time over the next few weeks, I will post up some more detailed reports of our time in New Zealand. It is an incredibly beautiful place, and I really want to do it justice. Let's just say that glaciers, waterfalls, and blackwater cave tubing (complete with glowworms) are some of the highlights I'll report on later!

Things are settling into a routine now, and I can't believe that I have already finished three weeks of school here! We have been busy learning all sorts of things about Adelaide and learning our way around. We don't have a car, so we are either walking or taking the bus system, which is very easy to use. I think I'm going to need some new shoes soon, though, as I have put a lot of miles on the old ones!

We arrived to greet the worst heat wave in 60 years, with six days of temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, most days getting to 42 or 43 degrees. If you're not up on your metric system, 43 Celsius is about 110 degrees Fahrenheit! Needless to say, we learned how to catch the tram to the beach very quickly and also found a movie theater nearby with good A/C! After the heat passed, it was time to get ready for school to start. It took a while to get things set up and learn where different things were kept, but I'm getting used to it a bit more now. The school day is quite a bit different from Longmont Estates, as all 250 students (years Reception to Seven) have recess and lunch at the same time! It can be a bit confusing at times, but it's surprisingly manageable. The staff here have been wonderful, and we are planning some wonderful things. One of the things I am looking forward to is an overnight field trip to Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary, where native animals thrive in re-established habitat.

I hope everyone at home is doing well, and that my former students are behaving themselves! I'll get more pictures uploaded and more stories to you soon, but the Olympics wait for no one - ski jumping is calling! :)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Greetings from New Zealand!


Before our flight left Los Angeles on December 26th, we spent the day in Hollywood, California. We saw the Hollywood sign (and got in trouble for taking a picture of it from a place we weren't supposed to), and went on a great hike in the Hollywood Hills. We hit Rodeo Drive and Beverly Hills, then headed to Venice Beach for dinner. It was surprisingly cool there - actually Denver was a lot warmer!

We left for New Zealand (with a stop in Nadi, Fiji on the way) on Dec. 26th at 10:30pm. Since the flight to Fiji was about 9 hours and we crossed the International Date Line, we arrived at 5:30am on Dec. 28th! We did see a bit of Dec. 27th, but then crossed the Date Line and it turned into the 28th.

We made it to New Zealand with minimal troubles. We stayed the first two nights at a nice little hostel in Ponsonby - a suburb of Auckland. We went up the Sky Tower, the Southern Hemisphere's tallest building. Then we visited Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Encounter, where we got to see penguins, sharks and more.

We then left some of our bags behind and caught a bus to the Northland area, Bay of Islands region, where we celebrated New Years. It was quite beautiful there. We spent time at the beach, hiking to Haruru Falls, and then visiting the Waitangi Treaty Center, where a famous treaty was signed by the Maori (the indigenous NZ people) and the British. It was pretty neat, as we got to see the largest war canoe in the world.

From there we hopped back on the bus to Rotorua, where there are some of the world's largest hot springs, along with many other things. We currently are on the Coromandel Peninsula just south of Auckland. We decided to rent a car, as the bus fares were adding up to the cost of having our own car. We got the car in Rotorua, and then drove here. We got to Hot Water Beach at the perfect time - low tide. It is during this time, when the water recedes, that you are able to dig a hole in the sand, which then fills with hot water from below due to the volcanic activity. We were thinking that hot meant warm, but we were very wrong. It is scalding, burning hot! It was a great experience, and a great work out digging with our rented spade. The weather has been a bit rainy, but not preventing us from doing lots of fun stuff. This morning we got up around 6am and hiked to Cathedral Cove. We are heading back to Auckland to pick up the remainder of our 250 plus pounds of luggage, then will head to Waitomo Caves, then cross to the South Island on the 8th. I'll update this again when I have the chance!