The South Island

We had originally planned to spend well over a month in New Zealand (which Kiwis pronounce ‘New Zillund’).  The eclipse in Australia changed that, as did the timing and availability of home exchanges.  We spent a mere three weeks in New Zealand, and only nine days on the South Island – not nearly enough time.   Our South Island base was a gorgeous home perched on a hillside with a spectacular view of the South Pacific just south of Christchurch, roughly in the middle of the South Island.
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Our Home in Christchurch

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Our Deck — Breakfast with a View

This perch was a precarious one.  In February of 2011 a devastating earthquake centered in Christchurch destroyed many of the historic downtown buildings, including much of Christchurch’s historic cathedral.

IMG_9942Remains of Christchurch Cathedral

Devastation - Downtown Christchurch

Devastation – Downtown Christchurch

The quake had rippled and buckled roads throughout the region, and driving was at times slow and precarious.  Sections of many of the hillside homes surrounding the city are now dangling over the edges of cliffs newly created by the earthquake and its aftershocks.    The cliff-top home in which we stayed had narrowly avoided disaster.  Parts of the driveway just below the house had disintegrated, and cracks were evident in the walls of the home.  Despite the ravages of the earthquake Christchurch remains a delightful city that still maintains a very British flavor.  We spent part of an afternoon “punting” on the Avon River, which courses through the center of town.

Punting on the Avon

Punting on the Avon

 

Our idea was mainly to use the home in Christchurch as our base for exploring the lakes, mountains and coastlines of the South Island.  New Zealand looks tiny on a world map, but it would take fifteen hours to drive the length of the South Island alone.  We didn’t have enough time to visit some highly recommended parks on the northern and southern edges of the South Island; so we had to be very selective.   What we did see there was absolutely beautiful.  As we leave, it’s clear that we have a lot of unfinished business to do tramping about in New Zillund.

Our final foray away from Christchurch was a trip to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Major storms had battered the western half of the South Island during a good part of our stay there, causing tremendous flooding in the west and summer snowfalls in the mountains.  These were the remnants of the hurricane that had caused so much devastation in Fiji – our next destination.    It was only a few days before our departure from New Zealand when the weather finally cleared enough for us to attempt a trip to the Southern Alps.  They were distant enough from our place in Christchurch that we decided to make it a two-day camping trip, using equipment very graciously loaned to us by Nigel and Desiree, with whom we were doing our home exchange in Christchurch.   Our primary destination was Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, but Nigel mentioned that we might want to stop for a bit in Tekapo on the way to Mt. Cook.

Tekapo is on the southern shore of Lake Tekapo, and as we rounded a hillside and got our first view of the lake, the color was so vivid that it looked almost unnatural, as though the lake were a solid substance.  It simply compelled us to stay.

Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo

Although we were an hour away from Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, we found a campground at the edge of the lake and pitched our tent on a bluff overlooking the blue-green waters.

Lake Tekapo Camprground

Lake Tekapo Camprground

Lake Tekapo Camper

Lake Tekapo Camper

The Southern Alps were visible in the distance on the far end of the lake, and the snow level had been so low in the recent storms that even the smaller hills surrounding the lake had gotten a heavy dusting.  It was glorious.

View of Southern Alps from Lake Tekapo

View of Southern Alps from Lake Tekapo

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Lonely Planet had mentioned that there was a café with a ‘to-die-for’ 360-degree view atop nearby Mt. John; so we started the drive up.   Although the drive was less than ten miles, it took us the better part of an hour because we had to keep stopping to take photos of flower fields, the lake and the surrounding mountains.

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By the time we arrived at the top, gale-force winds were blowing, forcing all the visitors to cram into the tiny glass-walled café for shelter.  I tried to order us a light lunch, but, after an experience like that portrayed by John Cleese in the Monty Python “Cheese Shop” skit, I eventually discovered (after a good deal of fruitless guessing) that only two items on their menu were actually available – coffee and scones.  This eliminated my usual indecisiveness about ordering café fare.  As soon as our “lunch” arrived we were ordered off of the mountain because the winds were forcing the authorities to close the road that provides access to the Mt. John.  We gulped down the coffee and scones, rushed out and tried to take a few photos in the windstorm, and then again from the car windows as we negotiated the switchbacks down the mountain.

Lake Tekapo from the road to Mt. John

Lake Tekapo from the road to Mt. John

Returning to the campground, we went for a jog along the rim of Lake Tekapo, followed by a long soak in the adjacent hotsprings with a view of the snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake.

The next morning we made our way towards Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, but again the going was slow because the vistas we encountered along the way were utterly distracting, beginning with Lake Pukaki, which seemed even more vivid than Lake Tekapo, an intensity we hadn’ t seen since our visit to Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies.

Looking at Lake Pukaki

Looking at Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki is fed by waters from the glaciers of the southern Alps, which deposit the silt that suspends in the lake, turning it a stunning turquoise.

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki

From the southern end of the lake there was a view to the north end, which was dominated by the rather formidable, glacier-clad, Mt. Cook.  At over 12,000 feet Mt. Cook is the highest peak in New Zealand, rising to its full height from a plain that is only a few hundred meters above sea level.

Mt. Cook from Lake Pukaki

Mt. Cook from Lake Pukaki

Recent storm activity had been so intense that the dam and spillway at the southern end of Lake Pukaki were overflowing, and the beautiful turquoise water was pounding into a broad valley, creating a turquoise torrent, the Pukaki River, which plunged over falls and then disappeared around a bend, painting the landscape blue.

Spillway, Lake Pukaki

Spillway, Lake Pukaki

Pukaki River

Pukaki River

Despite the fact that this was the rainy season on the South Island, tourists had risked bad weather simply for the chance of catching a view of Mt. Cook and its sister mountains.  The mountain gods were with us, providing what New Zealanders call “fine weather”  with deep blue skies.

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

The trail up Hooker Valley took us past 10,300-foot Mt. Sefton.

Mt. Sefton

Mt. Sefton

Hooker Valley Tramper

Hooker Valley Tramper

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Then it meandered up the Hooker River all the way to the terminus of the Hook glacier and others that fed into it.  We crossed two long suspension bridges, under which the gray-white river thundered and boiled.

Suspension Bridge, Hooker River

Suspension Bridge, Hooker River

Staring down the valley, I shuddered to think of what it might be like to run a river raft or kayak down such a raging torrent.

After the second footbridge we were met with a full-on view of Mt. Cook, whose huge, commanding presence dominated the horizon.  Massive glaciers covered the mountainsides and spilled from the feet of Mt. Cook.  This was why we had come to New Zealand.

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

The trail was crowded – even after the going had become precarious, and sections of the trails had become stream beds channeling the run-off from the recent storms.  I was especially impressed by the tenacity of a middle-aged Asian woman who attempted the rocky, mucky three-hour trek dressed like Tina Turner in a red satin jacket and high-heeled boots.  I hadn’t realized that ankles could twist in so many directions before.

On our return trip to Christchurch, we realized how much of the South Island we would not be able to see on this trip, including Abel Tasman National Park in the north and Milford Sound in the south.  Our sample had been small, but exquisite.  New Zillund is a place to which we absolutely must return. 
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Middle Earth

 

We arrived in New Zealand not long after the world premiere showing of “The Hobbit” in Wellington’s Embassy Theatre.

Gandalf at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington

Gandalf at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington

Like the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit (which will also be stretched into a trilogy of 3-hour-long films….yikes!) was filmed in New Zealand.  Peter Jackson’s films have helped make New Zealand the new tourist destination, especially for nature buffs.  I have to admit that the scenery we saw in Lord of the Rings is one of the things that brought us to these islands.  When we arrived at Wellington’s airport, it was apparent that New Zealand has fully embraced the films.  Huge sculptures of characters from The Hobbit populate the Wellington airport.

Gollum, at Wellington Airport

Gollum, at Wellington Airport

Wellington’s most famous museum, Te Papa, displays gargantuan sculptures of the three trolls, who, because of their impeccable culinary knowledge of the proper herbs to use in cooking dwarves over a spit, turned out to be Lois’ favorite characters from The Hobbit.  I liked them too, but only because I thought the dwarves deserved to be eaten.

Troll, at Te Papa Museum

Troll, at Te Papa Museum

Signs throughout Wellington, including one in the “backpacker style” hotel/house of ill repute where we stayed our first night, proclaim:  “Welcome to the middle of Middle Earth.”  Since Wellington is at the south end of New Zealand’s North Island, it’s as close as one gets to the middle of New Zealand.  On our map of New Zealand, we found not only the names of cities, highways, and national parks, but also the locations where various scenes in the Lord of the Rings had been filmed.  We had arranged a home-exchange in a house about an hour north of Wellington in a beach town named Otaki, which can only be understood by Kiwis (i.e. New Zealanders) when pronounced “Oh Tacky.”

Sunset, Otaki Beach

Sunset, Otaki Beach

Not far outside of Otaki lies the Otaki River Gorge where, as indicated on our map, one could find the location of a scene featuring the outskirts of the Shire.  Apparently there are “Lord of the Rings/Hobbit” locale tours of New Zealand for the most serious Tolkien geeks (and I use this term with the utmost respect).   Since I’m now retired I was thinking of returning to New Zealand at some point to make a few extra bucks by setting up a company called “Geek Tramps and Tracks.”  If you think this would be a job pimping for nerd call girls on freight cars, you obviously aren’t familiar with Kiwi lingo.  “Tramp” is Kiwi for hiking/backpacking, and “track” means trail or footpath…..sorry to mislead or cause any undue excitement or interest.

One of the more surprising realizations that we have had in New Zealand is how similar Middle Earth is to Northern California, our home….if indeed we have such a thing at the moment.

Sonoma???  Not!  Waipara Valley, NZ

Sonoma County, California??? Not! Waipara Valley, NZ

Meadow in Otaki River GorgeMeadow in Otaki River Gorge

Actually there’s a bit of Ireland in New Zealand as well, given the brilliant green hillsides, the dragons, and the little halflings with furry feet and pointy ears…. not to mention the dead guys wielding swords.

View of Akaroa Harbor

View of Akaroa Harbor in New Zealand, looking downright Irish

Akaroa Harbor

Akaroa Harbor

Still, there are differences.  One does not find these hues in the coastal waters of Northern California and Ireland.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Beach at Kaikoura

Beach at Kaikoura

And although this river valley may have the general look of a river valley in Northern California,

Otaki River Gorge

Otaki River Gorge

the proliferation of tree ferns was a dead give away that we’re not home yet.

Tree Frern

Tree Fern

The forests may look familiar, but you just don’t find tree species with names like rimu, pukatea, kahikatea, and rewarewa in Ireland or California.

Rainforest Tree Ferns

Speaking of Kiwi lingo, many of the towns in New Zealand have Maori names — with which I’m having extreme difficulty.  In the greater Wellington area, we encountered towns with names like Paekakariki, Waikanae, Paraparaumu, and Wanganui.  The Kiwis were of little help here; we heard them pronounce Waikanae in three different ways, and they referred to Paraparaumu simply as Parapram. The Maoris were originally from Polynesia, and had begun settling the islands of New Zealand in the 13th Century….hence, the Polynesian names.  Nonetheless, New Zealand is as far south of the equator as the southern border of Oregon is north of the equator.  For me, having towns this far from the tropics with Polynesian names was like seeing Oregonian loggers wearing flowered sarongs with Tahitian Gardenias in their hair.

While on the North Island, like Bilbo Baggins, we decided to have “an adventure.”  This consisted of a long drive to the Wanganui River, an evening’s camp-out, and a jetboat trip upriver, followed by a canoe trip downstream.  The Wanganui River gorge had been described as one of the most beautiful places on the North Island.  The drive up the canyon was breathtaking.

Wanganui River Canyon

Wanganui River Canyon

Wanganui River Canyon

Wanganui River Canyon

Although the idea of racing wildly upstream and disturbing the tranquility of pristine riparian habitat offended a number of my more naturalistic sensibilities, I got over it.  It was a blast.

In the Jetboat

In the Jetboat

Our driver, Thomas, is Maori and had been raised in the Wanganui River canyon where his family had farmed for generations.   As we slalomed upriver at breakneck speeds, he would occasionally bring the jetboat to a stop and treat us to some natural history, Maori lore, or family stories.  He also would give us encouragement about canoeing the rapids.  “Thees one heah we call Foofty-Foofty….cause you only got a foofty perceent  chance of comin’ through the rapid uproight…..No worries, though…you can always chicken aout, and drag the canoe through that shalla section ovah theah…..  If ya do troy ta run it…. well…. see that wayve theah with all the backwarsh?   Just mayke suah ta hit it stright and you’ll be foine.  No worries.”

The rapid was only a Class Two rapid, and I’d guided whitewater rafts on Class Four rivers.  There was no way Lois and I were going to drag the freakin’ canoe through the shallows in order to avoid running “Fifty-fifty.”

The jetboat took us as far upstream as the trailhead leading up a 2-mile pathway to the Bridge to Nowhere.

On the Trail to the Bridge to Nowhere

On the Path to Nowhere

The Bridge to Nowhere had been constructed in 1935 as part of a depression era program to encourage farming in the Wanganui River Valley.  The main transportation in the valley had consisted of river boats (including steamboats), and there had been plans to construct several roads connecting these farming communities to the river transportation network.  The bridge had been built in anticipation of the future construction of these roads.

In Front of the Bridge to Nowhere

In Front of the Bridge to Nowhere

It then became clear that the area was not especially suitable for farming, and the farmers began abandoning their farms, one by one.  By 1942 only three farms remained.  The government abandoned its plan to construct roads into the area, and the environment reverted back to rainforest.  Only the bridge remained, and still stands as a monument to poor planning.  We ate lunch on the bridge as Thomas filled us in on its history and pointed out the eels swirling in the currents of the Mangapurua Stream that flowed 125 feet below the bridge upon which we were standing, the bridge now known as the Bridge to Nowhere.

The jetboat dropped us off 10 miles upstream from our starting point on the Wanganui River.  We were looking forward to the canoe trip, which would enable us to get a closer look at the canyon and take some photos, a few of which appear below.

Waterfall, Wanganui RiverWaterfall, Wanganui River

Wanganui River Tributary

Wanganui River Tributary

Wanganui River Reflection

Wanganui River Reflection

If you do canoeing, kayaking or rafting, you’ll know that the fact that we were able to take the above photos from the canoe is an indication of the level of confidence we had that we would not experience any mishaps that might immerse our cameras.  For the most part, the Wanganui River was rapid free.  We paddled through miles of flatwater, and encountered only a riffle or two before we came upon Fifty-fifty.  By then, Lois and I knew that it would be no problem for us to hit the wave straight.  No worries.  The canoe slipped into the tongue of the rapid perfectly, and Lois and I were a well-oiled machine, hitting the wave perfectly straight…..at which point I heard a shriek from Lois as the front of the canoe (Lois included) disappeared under the wave.  Knowing that we had followed Thomas’ instructions to the letter, I had no doubt that the front of the canoe would re-emerge uneventfully from the waters.  It emerged, but not uneventfully.  Even though we’d hit the wave perfectly straight, the amount of water that had found its way into our canoe was beyond the capacity of this particular canoe to manage, and it began sloshing left and right until the canoe rather effortlessly capsized.   I was astonished.   After 15 minutes wrestling the canoe onto a midstream rock and dumping out the contents, we settled our moistened and bedraggled behinds back into the canoe and began assessing the damage.  Two cameras had experienced full immersion, and my prescription sunglasses were nowhere to be seen.  Lois described it as the price we paid for hubris.   I think from now on I’m sticking with white-water rafting.

Modern fashion technology is the only reason I was able to post the above photos of the Wanganui River.  I had never had good fortune with cameras while traveling, but thanks to an hour under Lois’ blow-dryer, my camera (and all the photos on it) survived. Lois’ camera survived as well.  Like Bilbo, we returned to our village bruised, but just a little wiser….and humbler.

Canoeing the WanganuiCanoeing the Wanganui

A Vulnerable Land

Lois and I have been amazed by the scale of things in Australia.  We spent our entire time in the state of Queensland on the eastern coast.  Although Queensland is one of Australia’s smaller states, if we had tried to drive from our place in Cairns to our next destination on the “Sunshine Coast” near Brisbane (both in the state of Queensland), it would have taken us twenty hours, longer than a drive from San Francisco to Denver.  Even after spending six weeks in Australia, the parts that we experienced did not even begin to give us a sense of the whole of the country.

We began our stay in Australia in the Tropic of Capricorn, just 17 degrees south of the equator.  When we  moved to Australia’s Sunshine Coast, we were 27 degrees south of the equator.  The ocean was still a beautiful turquoise color, framed by crescents of white-sand beach, but it was decidedly cooler, and unmenaced by the stingers and crocs of northern Queensland.

IMG_9628Rainbow beach, Sunshine Coast

Every other day Lois and I would run for 30 or 40 minutes along the beach promenade in Mooloolaba or Noosa (two wonderful Sunshine Coast beaches) in the late afternoon, and then cool off by swimming in the ocean as the sun set, showing those Aussie blokes a thing or two about California-style body surfing, which included spectacular tumbling exhibitions and face plants.

IMG_9306 Mooloolaba Beach

On the Sunshine Coast south of the tropics, there are still wonderful forests.  Our favorite was at Noosa Heads, where koalas snooze in forests that seem to run right into the sea.

Sleeping koala at Noosa National Park

Sleeping koala at Noosa Heads National Park

Noosa Heads Beach

Noosa Heads Beach

 

To an American, Australian forests are as exotic and unfamiliar as its animals.  Even to a person familiar with every native tree in America, few native Australian trees would be recognizable.   Although Australia is, culturally speaking, more like America than any other country we’ve visited, its natural environment is utterly unlike America’s environment.

Daintree Rainforest

Daintree Rainforest

 

Although the idea of national parks was actually born in America, I got the sense (in Queensland, at least) that Australia is currently more committed to maintaining and expanding its parks than America.  This is something of a surprise, given the politics of Queensland during the height of the American environmental movement.  From 1968-1987, Queensland was led (paradoxically) by a ruthless self-proclaimed pious Christian governor, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, who was described by the Australian prime minister in 1975 as a “Bible-bashing bastard.”  This was an episode in Australian politics that contemporary Americans would find distressingly familiar.  Bjelke-Petersen was fiercely anti-environmental, so much so that even when Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Site, he nonetheless opposed giving it national-park status, because he was still trying to find ways to drill for oil there.  Over the past 15 years, Lois and I have snorkeled in some of the world’s most famous coral beds, but the Great Barrier Reef is the most spectacular.  The corals are breathtaking and the diversity of sea life is absolutely astonishing.

Great Barrier Reef as it appears from the surface

Great Barrier Reef as it appears from the surface

In one day of snorkeling there, Lois and I spotted white-tipped reef sharks (harmless, they say, but still….crikey!), sea turtles, sting rays, and tropical fish of every description, as well as some that are simply beyond description.  Many divers consider the Great Barrier Reef the best dive location in the world.  It stretches for 1200 miles down the eastern coast of Australia, so huge that it’s visible from space.

Its northern tip is near Cape Tribulation (so named by Captain Cook because one of his ships ran aground there), where the amazing Daintree Rainforest National Park now connects with the Great Barrier Reef to form a huge protected region of land and sea.

Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation

Fortunately for the reef and for the Australian environment, Bjelke-Petersen became mired in scandal in the mid to late 1980’s, falling out of favor….and power.  Since that time, national parks have proliferated in Queensland; currently there are approximately 200 of them, five of these Unesco World Heritage Sites.  Unfortunately, however, the prospects for the Great Barrier Reef are dim, according to biologists.  As a result of the warming of the oceans, many are predicting that the Great Barrier Reef corals will die out by 2050.

Like America, Australia has struggled with the tension between economic development and environmental protection.  Australia currently has a stronger economy than America, strong enough that Lois and I have encountered a number of immigrants to Australia from Ireland and Italy who reported that Australia rather than America is the place with the job opportunities these days.   The unemployment rate in Australia has remained below 5.5% throughout 2012; whereas the U.S. unemployment rate has been above 8% for most of the year.  This has had a very tangible impact on Lois’ and my children, one of whom was laid off when his employer moved overseas (he remains unemployed) and two of whom left the U.S. for better job opportunities abroad.   Economists attribute Australia’s ability to avoid the most serious consequences of the world recession to a variety of causes, one of which is the strength of its mining industry, particularly its exports of iron, coal and natural gas to China.  Despite the proliferation of national parks in Australia, its mining and energy policies contribute to the problems that not only threaten the Great Barrier Reef, but that also make Australia one of the most environmentally vulnerable of all developed nations.  Although other developed nations, including the U.S., face similar problems, given the geological isolation of Australia and its unique evolutionary history, its life forms have much more of what environmental philosophers refer to as “scarcity value.”  Australia has some very difficult decisions to make.

My son would like to visit Australia.  As Lois and I hiked through her exotic and unique rainforests, encountered her delightfully strange animal life, and snorkeled her spectacular coral reefs, I wanted to encourage him not to wait for retirement before traveling there.

Christmas Boat Parade

In order to get in the Christmas spirit, we attended a local event on Australia’s Sunshine Coast called the Christmas Boat Parade. Local families gathered at the Mooloolaba Harbour at around 6 pm, decked out in their Christmas finery.Christmasy kids

Barbecues (and sparklers) were lit

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The boats began making their first rounds, even before the sun went down. Children waived frantically to every Santa that came by, even the plastic ones…

Plastic santa

Mother nature was the first to show off her lights…Sunset at Mooloolaba DSCF9330 DSCF9325

And then the boats began to light up the night. DSCF9340

These little ones were among my favorites.DSCF9339 DSCF9346 DSCF9352

This one had a mechanical device that allowed Santa (below) to send up a “match” to light the candle. When it reached the top, the flame came on and waved around. Amazing. DSCF9357

Lighted candle 

This one had a rock band on board that provided the soundtrack for the evening’s festivities.DSCF9354

The lights were inspiring and beautiful, and by night’s end I had a better feel for the unique possibilities offered by a summer Christmas.

Australia’s softer side

Of all the countries we have visited so far, Australia is most like America with its wide roads, big cars, huge shopping malls and the bombardment of advertising. Being a relatively “young” country, there aren’t cathedrals and castles to visit. Its primary attraction is the great outdoors. Before coming to Australia, I pictured it as an arid landscape with vast, harsh deserts on the interior and scrubby, dry areas nearer to the oceans. This might actually be true of parts of Australia, but not the parts we have visited. I have been delighted and surprised by the lush and gorgeous rain forests, the tropical plants, the stunning tropical birds and fish. I’ve always considered it my own little dirty secret that I love tropical plants, birds, and fish. In California, these things are exotics or invasives and to be avoided. But everything is native to somewhere and I’ve been completely “wowed” by the lush, verdant, and colorful world around me here in coastal Queensland.

As George pointed out, all this beauty comes at the price of a little danger, but Australia has its softer side, too. Every bit as iconic as the saltwater crocodile is Australia’s indigenous teddy bear, the koala.

These furry little marsupials are as soft as they look.

These furry little marsupials are in no way related to bears and they are as soft as they look.

Today we spotted one in the wild. It was in a tree near the visitor’s center at Noosa National Park on the Sunshine Coast. Somehow, the fact that it was right near the parking lot felt a little cheap, but at least it wasn’t because it has become habituated to human food. Koalas eat only eucalyptus leaves which are very low in calories, and consequently they spend most of their day sleeping because they don’t have energy to do anything else. We were hoping this would mean we would see dozens of them snoozing away in the trees, but today we only saw the one.

Female cassowary, about 6 feet tall.

Female cassowary, about 6 feet tall.

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Wombat

We still haven’t seen a kangaroo or a cassowary (human sized bird found in the tropics – see George’s previous post) in the wild, but we did see them at the Australia Zoo the other day.

I’m usually not a fan of zoos, but I thought this one was quite well done. The zoo was begun by the parents of Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter) as a small wildlife park in the 1970s. Steve took over the park in the 1990s and changed the name to the Australia Zoo. When Steve began filming the Crocodile Hunter series, he and his wife, Terri, decided to put all the money from filming and merchandise back into the zoo and wildlife conservation. Many of the enclosures at the zoo aren’t really enclosed, like a lot of the bird habitat, so some of the animals are hard to spot. Staff regularly walk around with animals that you can meet and possibly even touch such as small freshwater crocodiles, wombats, and eagles.

Red kangaroo roaming through "roo heaven" at the Australia Zoo.

Red kangaroo roaming through “roo heaven” at the Australia Zoo.

You can pet a koala and feed a kangaroo. Rather than having kangaroos in cages, they have a huge walk-through kangaroo area where you can just wander around with over 14 different species of ‘roos and wallabies.

The zoo mostly focuses on Australian wildlife, but they also have an African and Asian section where you can see bengal tigers, rhinoceros, giraffes, elephants and zebras. The bengal tiger was the highlight of the day for me. I think they are perhaps the most gorgeous animals in the world.

 

A black-tipped reef shark floats above us in the tunnel at the aquarium.

A black-tipped reef shark floats above us in the tunnel at the aquarium.

We spent the next day at Underwater World, the Sunshine Coast Aquarium and Oceanarium. Definitely the highlight there was the enormous shark and stingray “tube” where you can walk through with beautiful sharks and rays swimming around and above you. We learned that out of the 360 shark species, there are only 4 species of shark that will attack humans unprovoked – great whites, tiger sharks, bull sharks and the oceanic white tip. Fatalities are rare. In fact, on average, fewer than 2 people per year dies from shark attack worldwide. If you go to the beach, you are far more likely to drown than to be attacked by a shark.  Over 100 million sharks are killed by people each year though, mostly to supply the shark fin product trade. Sometimes sharks fins are cut off and then the still living shark is dumped back in the water where it can no longer swim, so it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and drowns. While we were snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef we felt so incredibly privileged to see White Tip Reef sharks. These beauties were about 5 feet long and so graceful. They are a little shy, but we managed to enjoy watching them cruise slowly through their natural habitat. At the aquarium, we also learned that 30% of shark species lay eggs, while the other 70% give birth to live young. I did not know that before.

We don’t even have to go out to see great wildlife, though. The home exchange we are doing here on the Sunshine Coast has a beautiful deck overlooking a flora and fauna preserve. We get to see the most fantastic bird life. Between this spot and the back yard at our home in Cairns, we have seen so many gorgeous birds hanging out nearby and serenading us with their songs, calls, and whistles. Yesterday a flock of rainbow lorikeets flew by. We spotted some really large owls in a neighboring tree, and we’ve seen a few cockatoos. We recently spotted a kookaburra in a tree near the driveway, though, we have been hearing them “laughing” in the trees for a couple weeks now.

Kookaburra

Kookaburra. Their call really does sound like maniacal laughter.

At the house in Cairns, a playful pair of sunbirds darted all around our deck area, landing on any brightly colored thing and looking very much like hummingbirds as they hovered and checked it out. We’re still trying to identify some birds that we are hearing but not seeing, especially one that starts up in the early morning and sounds like someone cracking a whip. Maybe that’s just our neighbors getting a little feisty, though.

Green sea turtle with tropical fish (not my photo, but I wish it was!)

Green sea turtle with tropical fish (not my photo, but I wish it was!)

And then, of course, there are the stunningly beautiful and completely harmless tropical fish, coral, and other marine life that congregate along Australia’s shores. Six of the seven species of sea turtles in the world are found in Australia’s waters. These slow moving, peaceful amphibians move languidly through the water, practically asking you to follow along and enjoy the slower pace of life. All seven species are endangered, some of them critically so.

And lastly, there are the peaceful and fun-loving Aussies themselves. Their most frequent refrain seems to be, “No worries” and they really seem to mean it. George has enthusiastically picked up this turn of phrase and uses it at every opportunity. We have found them to be friendly and helpful, kind and generous.

Although we are only going to see a tiny little slice of this vast country (this time around), I have loved getting to know this area that feels a little like home, but in other ways still feels exotic and wild and enticing… in a very sweet way.

Australian Armageddon


We’ve had several friends email us about Australia’s reputation for deadly life forms.  With the exception of certain television nature adventurers who have made a habit of pestering Australian critters into a frenzy to prove how aggressive they are, Australians don’t really make a big deal about the natural world that menaces them from all sides.  In my last post I mentioned the box jellyfish, the danger of which Australians downplay by referring to them as ‘stingers.’  It is true that Queenslanders avoid swimming in the northern beaches during stinger season, but unlike me, they don’t seem to see it as cosmically unfair that they can’t swim in the world’s most beautiful waters because of a damn jellyfish.

IMG_9085

Stinger net - Palm Cove Beach

Stinger net – Palm Cove Beach

Australia is well known for its array of weird and venomous reptiles.  I’ll begin with a few that pose relatively little threat to humans.  It’s not uncommon to see a five-foot-long monitor lizard slither across rainforest roads.  Lois and I have seen two or three.

Lace Monitor we saw near the beach at Mooloolaba

Small Lace Monitor We Saw Near the Beach at Mooloolaba

Although this isn't my photo, this is what they look like when they grow up

Not my photo, but this is what they look like when they grow up

We recently traveled 1000 miles south of Cairns down the Australian coast to a beautiful home where we are now staying in Buderim (to pronounce this, think of what you’d do to a stack of pancakes).  It’s about an hour north of Brisbane.  In a note about various features of the property, the owner informed us casually that a dragon roamed the front garden area of the house.  This is a two-foot long prehistoric looking creature that tends to lounge around on tree branches — a water dragon.  Although I’m informed that neither the monitor lizard nor the water dragon is venomous, neither is likely to be a popular attraction at a petting zoo either.

Eastern Water Dragon

Not our photo — we haven’t spotted him yet.

Another non-venomous reptile that inhabits the Australian rainforest is the tree python.  It frequently snoozes in basket ferns, which often encircle the trunks high up in palm trees.  Experts insist that, although it is a constrictor, it’s not large enough to pose a danger to humans.  Of course that’s not considering the number of heart attack deaths suffered by coconut harvesters who ascend a tree and unexpectedly discover a tree python draped around their throats.  By the way, the home where we are staying in Buderim comes with an adorable little Pomeranian, and when we asked the owners whether the dog should be allowed out to roam around the grounds at night, they advised us to look carefully in the branches of the trees on the property.  We did; and we found two snakeskins draped over the branches of a tree near the pool, one of them over six-feet long.  We’re thinking about using them in place of tinsel on our Christmas tree.

Snakeskin

Snakeskin in a tree at our place in Buderim

Of course, then there is the highly publicized matter of Australia’s venomous snakes.  The majority of Australia’s snake species are poisonous.  In fact, the six species of snake with the most deadly venom in the world are all found in Australia.  We were at Daintree National Park in northern Queensland, the world’s oldest rainforest, when the person at the desk mentioned casually that a venomous snake had just honored them by coiling up just outside the entryway to the Visitor Center.  She offered to show us.  We took her up on her offer, and sure enough a deadly red-bellied black snake was coiled tranquilly in the flowerbed.  Having worked for a few years as a park ranger, I found this astonishing.  In the U.S., park administrators would find this absolutely unacceptable.  Every day thousands of people walk within six feet of this poisonous reptile, which could easily spring from its lair among the peace lillies and fasten its fangs on the jugular of an innocent, paying park visitor. Not that park administrators would worry too much about the victim; it’s the lawsuits that would concern them.  When I asked the Daintree park employee whether she was at all bothered by the proximity of the deadly snake to so many park visitors, she said, “Nobody would ever look to see that it’s there.  Besides it’s only the 20th most venomous snake in the world……no worries.”

Red-bellied Black Snake

Again, not my photo

Speaking of poisonous venom, in Australia it’s not confined to the animal kingdom.  In many Queensland rainforest parks there are signs posted warning about the “stinging tree” whose leaves look very much like our stinging nettle; it’s just that they deliver an excruciating venom which has caused fatalities for humans and even horses, and for which there is no known antidote.  Like so many Australian species names, the name ‘stinging tree’ simply does not do this organism justice.  Contact with this tree doesn’t simply ‘sting.’  It delivers a neuro-toxin that can convert the affected area into a red, swollen mass that remains intensely painful for months, if you’re fortunate enough to live that long.  Some of Australia’s plants seem downright evil.  Take, for example, the strangler fig.  A fig seed is dropped by some creature onto a branch of, let’s say, a beautiful mahogany tree.  The fig seed then sends long roots down to the ground to root itself.  The roots eventually proliferate until the mahogany tree is completely covered with the fig roots, which show their gratitude to the gracious host mahogany tree by choking it out, depriving its leaves of sunlight.  The host tree for the strangler fig in this photo is long dead and disintegrated.  All that remains is the strangler fig.

Strangler Fig Tree

Strangler Fig Tree

Then of course there are the carnivorous plants; Australia has nearly 200 species of them.  There’s the cheerily named ‘sundew’ whose tiny tentacles secrete a sticky goo that traps insects, which are then slowly digested.  The elegant Australian pitcher plant features a slippery flower spout leading to a deep pocket with a pool of water that drowns the insect. Fun.

Sundew(not my photo)

Sundew
(not my photo)

Australia has such unique life forms because it is an island that has been separated from the other continents for so long (geologically speaking) that in many ways it has taken its own evolutionary path.  The platypus is a good example of this.  A bizarre creature that looks like a combination of a beaver and a duck, it’s one of the few animals that lays eggs and suckles its young.

Platypus(Not my photo- these guys are difficult to spot)

Platypus
(Not my photo- these guys are difficult to spot)

Given that it’s an Australian life form, it goes without saying that it has venomous stingers on its hind feet that can cause humans extreme pain.  In fact, it’s one of the few venomous mammals in the world.  It is such an odd creature that in the late 18th Century, even after an Australian governor sent a platypus carcass to England, British zoologists still considered it a hoax.  Of course, fun-loving Australians have been known to capitalize on the reputation of their country for weird and dangerous critters by perpetrating hoaxes.  Currently a myth is circulating about bloodthirsty koalas (called ‘drop bears’) that leap out of eucalyptus trees devouring unsuspecting American tourists.  Even the Australian Museum seems to be complicit in perpetuating this hoax, proving that scientists can actually have a sense of humor.

For these reasons, I had doubts when I started seeing signs in the Daintree rainforest warning of the presence of a creature I’d never heard of — the cassowary, allegedly a flightless, human-sized bird that regularly crossed rainforest roads.  As a young boy scout I’d been duped into participating in snipe hunts, and besides, the road signs made the cassowary look suspiciously like Big Bird.

Cassowary sign

Cassowary sign

So I wasn’t having any of it – until Lois and I hiked a very overgrown trail to see some particularly large rainforest trees, and returned to the car with a kilo or so of cassowary dung dripping from the soles of our shoes.  We still haven’t seen one of these giant birds, despite looking carefully along rainforest creek beds, but now I realize that the spiritualists are right.  Sometimes you just have to have faith in that which you can’t see – especially if you’ve had an excremental experience.

Sculpture of the elusive cassowary

Sculpture of the elusive cassowary

By the way, we learned that female cassowaries are quite a bit larger than the males, and after laying the eggs they abandon the nest, leaving the males to nurture the chicks while the females go off to seek new sexual adventures.  Lois delights in this example of gender role reversal just enough to make me a tad uncomfortable.  So from now on she gets to kill the giant tropical cockroaches in the bathroom at night.

As the sun sets on the Cairns Harbor each evening, a cacaphony of piercing shrieks erupts from several of the larger trees flanking the harbor promenade.  The sound is made by a swarm of black flying foxes.  Although when they take to the air, they are thought by most people strolling along the boardwalk to be a flock of large ravens, they are actually a form of “megabat” whose closest relative is a species scientists call pteropus vampyrus.  (See below for a photo of this bat that appeared in my post on Bali.)  I’m convinced that if word got out that these winged creatures swooping overhead were actually bats with a wingspan of over four feet, the Cairns Harbor promenade would be pretty much tourist free by 5 p.m.

Black Flying Fox(Also called "Fruit Bat")

Black Flying Fox
(Also called “Fruit Bat”)

The animal we most associate with Australia is, of course, the kangaroo.  There are actually many types of kangaroo in Australia, even one type that, believe it or not, inhabits trees in the rainforests we visited.  Still, Lois and I have seen only one species of kangaroo – wallabies.  They congregate by the hundreds in a field near Cairns. Technically I should say we’ve seen a mob of wallabies.  The official term for any group of kangaroos is “mob,” although you won’t find gangs of kangaroos bounding through the Australian hood roughing up humans.  Like koalas, kangaroos seems to be among the few Australian creatures that lack venomous defense powers. They do, however seem to have a good deal of animosity for Australian SUV’s, into which they hop headlong so frequently that most Australians outfit their SUVs with ‘roo bars.’

Roo Bars

Roo Bars

To return to water creatures for a moment, there’s something I didn’t mention about why Australians are reluctant to go into the water at the beach.  It turns out that it’s not just the stingers.  There is also the matter of the saltwater crocodiles that prowl around the mouths of rivers and in nearby ocean waters.  (By the way, Aussies fondly refer to the twenty-foot long beasts as “salties.”)   This means that even if you don a “stinger suit” and are successful warding off the box jellyfish, you could still be snatched off of your surfboard whilst hanging ten and be torn limb from limb by a prehistoric-sized amphibian.  Something about this just seems excessive to me.

Waiting for Dinner(Not my photo)

Waiting for Dinner
(Not my photo)

For a moment I was tempted into thinking that maybe it’s safer just to swim in rivers where you have only one deadly creature to menace you.  This thought was put right out of my mind, however, when we went on a guided boat tour of the Daintree River, where we spotted two small adult crocodiles (10-12 feet long) as well as a number of their offspring.  (Sorry but the adults didn’t want to be photographed.)

You just know there have got to be crocodiles here.

Tributary of the Daintree River — swimming not advised here.
Baby croc on a tributary of the Daintree River

Baby croc on a tributary of the Daintree River

I was stunned when our guide told us,  “Yeeah, but if ya fell into these watahs, the crocs aren’t even the worst of yuh problems, mite.”

I took the bait.  “OK, what is the worst of your problems, then?”

“It’s the bull shahhks.  They attack in packs…..teah ya to shreds.”

“Bull sharks!!  You’re kidding!  In rivers?  But sharks are ocean dwellers.”

“Naa, not bull shahhks.  They do foine in fresh watah.  They’ll come quoite a waiys up this rivah.”

“How big are they?”

“Aah, in these pahhts, they get to around three, neahly faw meetahs .”

“Four meters….that’s 12 feet long!”

“Yeeah, the bull shahhk is the most aggrissive of all the shahhks.  They saiy it was the inspiraytion for movie Jawrs.”

Bull Shark

Bull Shark — (Not my Photo)

Something seems deeply wrong about all of this, in a biblical sense.  Monstrous, scaly, freshwater creatures invading saltwater habitats; terrifying, toothy saltwater creatures wreaking havoc in freshwater rivers; beavers growing duckbills and laying eggs; gigantic jellyfish herding swimmers on beaches into netted enclosures; megabats the size of eagles taking over the harbors; docile, vegetarian koalas turning into carnivorous man-eaters; plants strangling each other; mobs of kangaroos hurling themselves into oncoming traffic.  I even noticed the other day that the water is going down the drain backwards.  Figuring it was time to schedule a flight out of this place, I checked the cool calendar on the personal digital organizer I found a few years back in our travels through the ancient city of Tulum in southern Mexico, but the calendar seems to end two weeks from Friday.

The swimming pool that rocked my world

How have I not been swimming here every day since we arrived? 

This pool in downtown Cairns is amazing. This photo really doesn’t capture its size or location or special features. First of all, it is huge – 4800 sq meters (almost 52,000 sq ft or 1.2 acres) and it is slightly saltwater with white sand “beaches” at the edge that come right out into the water. It is located on the Esplanade (3 miles or so of waterfront in the downtown area) so it has magnificent views of the sea.

My favorite thing about this pool? No crocodiles and no box jellyfish (see George’s post on stingers.) I know it’s so much more hip and cool to swim in the ocean, but the salt water is very salty and I’m constantly worried about bumping into something larger and scarier than myself. The beach right down the street from here not only has stinger warnings, it also says, “crocodiles are known to inhabit these waters”. The biggest thing I have to worry about is bumping into in this pool is another person who will laugh and we will both excuse ourselves and carry on. No problem. No hospital visit or missing limb. And have I mentioned the temperature? I think it was custom made for my comfort zone. I have always said that I like 80° water, but I’m revising that down to about 78°. The water temperature in this area at this time of year is about 83° which is actually warm enough to not feel refreshing.

Today we decided to run along the Esplanade and then get in the pool to cool off. On a whim, I decided to try to keep up with George on our run today. I managed to stay at his pace for 2.5 miles and then dropped back to my own comfort zone. I ran 6k, which means he ran closer to 6.5k or maybe even more. We are slowly getting stronger and I am beginning to see a 10k in our futures. Although George consistently runs farther and faster than I do, we are both seeing the results. George now weighs less than I did when we left Sonoma County! (Take that in for a moment.) He’s lost nearly 25 pounds and I’ve lost about 12. I’m actually beginning to worry that he will come back weighing less than I do.

In any case, I hope to spend some portion of each of our 5 remaining days in Cairns enjoying the urban plunge into waters not too salty, not too chlorine-y, not too warm, not too cold, not too dangerous – but juuuuusssst right!

Stingers

The northeastern coastline of Australia in Queensland is stunning, the beautiful blue-green Coral Sea lapping gently onto curving white-sand beaches shaded by graceful palms bordering dense rainforests that climb the mountains as they rise above the sea.  The water here at 18 degrees south of the equator is 83°F, and it absolutely begs you to plunge in….. well, not so fast.

Lois and I had encountered an Australian couple in Assisi (Italy) who had mentioned that on the beaches of northern Queensland, one does have to be careful to avoid “stingers.”  Gradually we realized that these were neither bees, scorpions, nor scam artists, but rather jellyfish, and not just any jellyfish, but a special species called box jellyfish that inhabits these waters.  I’d already received a pair of four-inch-long vertical jellyfish tattoos on my torso while snorkeling near Menjangan Island off of the northwest coast of Bali.

Jellyfish Food

So, shortly after our arrival in Australia, we drove to the tourist information office to get advice about the location of the best and safest swimming beaches. The tourist office was near a beautiful promenade on the Cairns Harbor.

At Cairns Harbor — There are some really beautiful women in Australia.

Outside of the office a man was giving advice to inquiring tourists.  When we asked him about stingers, he said that sections of most public beaches have stinger nets that keep the jellyfish out.  Then he looked us over carefully and said, “No worries…..the loikes of you should be ible to swim anywheah.  Yer in foine shipe.  Yeea, it moight be the most excruciatin’ paine yuv evah felt, and occayysionally some overwight, retired bloke gets nicked by one of the buggahs and drops dead of cahdiac arrest on the spot, but the two of you should be foine.”

Our confidence renewed, we drove to a beach about an hour north of Cairns in Port Douglas called Four Mile Beach, a long, gorgeous crescent of white-sand paradise.

Four Mile Beach

The approach to the beach was posted with stinger warning signs showing a crude depiction of a jellyfish the size of a giant squid wrapping its tentacles around the thighs of a suitably horrified, unsuspecting bather.  One helpful guidebook advises what to do if attacked by one of these creatures: “Do not attempt to remove the tentacles.”  So I guess they leave the tentacles (which are up to 10 feet long) dangling from your sorry ass as a sort of souvenir of your visit.  Underneath each stinger-warning sign at the beach was a bottle of vinegar.  Apparently even severed stinger tentacles will continue injecting agonizing toxins into your nervous system unless you pickle the damn things.  What to do if you can’t find a handy container of vinegar?  Locals suggest that you have a buddy urinate on the affected area.  The only drawback to this is that scientific studies show that urination has absolutely no beneficial effect on the victim of box jellyfish stings and may actually exacerbate the pain, in which case you suffer not only greater agony from the sting, but also the humiliation of having been pissed on.

Although Four Mile Beach is nearly as long as its name suggests, not a soul entered the water anywhere except for the 50 x 50 meter area bordered by the stinger net.  I have to admit, I was disappointed.  This is the land of Crocodile Dundee and Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.  You’d think that there must be at least someone out there with the gumption to do a little stinger wrasslin’….. especially after a few beers.  By the way, I forgot to mention that box jellyfish are transparent and therefore pretty much invisible.  OK, so maybe more than just a few beers.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas?

It is summer in the tropical area of Australia. Temperatures are in the low 90s and beaches are   bustling. We wandered in to the mall (me still in my bathing suit top) to find a notice that Santa will be available for photos next week. Aussies are busily discussing their plans for the summer “hols” (holidays). For them, Christmas means barbecues and watermelon and sweet corn and playing with your new frisbee on the beach. I’m finding it a little disconcerting to be browsing through shorts and flip flops while listening to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” on the in-store entertainment system. Maybe this is my big chance to pick up a Santa themed bikini… and actually get to wear it.