Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Platypus Hotspot: Eungella National Park

After being in Australia for almost four years one of the animals that I still wanted to see in the wild was a platypus. When one of my birding friends heard me saying this, she immediately recommended that I visit Eungella National Park which is a rainforest up in the mountains 90 km west of Mackay and a ten to twelve hour drive north of Brisbane. Thus when planning Erik's sister's driving trip up to Port Douglas and back again over the new year holidays, I decided to include an overnight stop at Eungella National Park. One night was not nearly adequate to fully appreciate the region so I hope to make it back up there for a longer stay, but we did see some great things including several platypus.

The last section of the drive up to Eungella National Park involves a very twisty, steep mountain climb that can be quite exciting. We were happy that it wasn't raining or dark, but we had a bit of fog that kept it interesting anyway. It is a good idea to give yourself plenty of time and take it slowly.

I booked our night's lodging at Broken River Mountain Resort which was nice, but not fancy. We stayed in the "Echidna Lodge" room type which slept three and had adequate kitchen facilities for Erik to be able to prepare a decent dinner. I believe there was a hotplate, microwave, dishes, but no oven. However, there were BBQ facilities available as well. Erik's sister and I ate at the Platypus Lodge Restaurant at the resort which was nice. The room had a shower (no tub) and a log burning stove which would be quite nice in a cooler season. There was no air conditioning, but the nights were cool even at the height of summer.

Broken River is located literally across the street from the national park and along a stream with multiple resident platypus. You can either view platypus from the resort side of the stream or over on the National Park side. We happened to see them on the national park side, but I am confident they are also regularly seen from the resort property. We also saw a nice variety of bird life while looking for platypus including sulfur crested cockatoos, black faced monarch, and scarlet honeyeaters. There is even a Eungella honeyeater, but sadly I did not make a sighting of one.

After the thrill of seeing wild platypus for the first time, the second thrill of the visit was a complimentary night spotlighting walk. I always take any night spotlighting opportunities in Australia because 75% of Australian mammals are nocturnal so it is the only way to see many of Australia's amazing critters. The Broken River Resort spotlighting was one of the best that I have been on. We saw more platypus, sugar gliders, possums, native geckos, a tawny frogmouth, at least 4 different frog species, huntsmen spiders, luminescent fungi, and Cicadas that had just emerged from their shells and were still letting their wings dry. It was really cool! However, the guide was very enthusiastic so it also lasted a bit longer than several of the visitors' interest including Erik and his sister.

The park offers good hiking opportunities, and the resort had a service where they would drop you off in the morning along a trail so that you could hike back without having to hike both ways. Unfortunately, we did not have time to explore the trails other than right around the resort. As always in Australia make sure that you are well prepared for hiking with adequate water, insect/leech repellent, and first aid supplies.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fraser Island and Kingfisher Bay Resort

To date I have visited Fraser Island six times in the last three and a half years. Each time I have stayed in one of the accommodations offered by the Kingfisher Bay Resort. I have stayed in the hotel twice, the villas three times, and done the two day Cool Dingo Backpacker Tour once. So you could say I am a fan of both the island and the resort and think that Fraser Island is a must do if you are in the Queensland area on holiday. The resort is a full resort so the only thing I don't necessarily like about it is the price. However, the rates are not out of line for Australian resorts and the services that they offer, but it is still a significant amount of money to consider.

The island is located about 300 km north of Brisbane and is a four hour drive by car. It is the largest sand island in the world at around 75 miles long. While you may imagine a bare, desert island, it actually contains a very diverse set of ecosystems from dry eucalyptus forests to subtropical rainforests and unique coastal wallums. It is absolutely amazing to realize that absolutely everything including trees to rival some of the California Redwoods is growing in sand and sand alone.

The island has been World Heritage Listed so development is now restricted with Kingfisher Bay Resort being the most recent development on the island. The Kingfisher Bay Resort was developed at the same time the island was obtaining its World Heritage Listing in the 1990's so the resort has a very eco-tourism focus which is evident in its unique architecture that aims to blend into the surroundings and its education focus with a staff of rangers that lead a wide range of walks and talks on and about the island's unique environment, fauna, and flora. The island is particularly known for its very diverse bird life which attracts Twitchers to the island in large numbers during "Bird Week."

The island is also the home to the purest bloodline of dingos since they have not been able to mix with dogs as dingos have in most places on the mainland. It is a great treat to see a dingo on the island, but it is important to keep in mind that they are wild animals and not pets. There is a constant tension with dingos on the island since human feedings have lead some of them to become less wary of people which has then lead to several unfortunate attacks. It is important that visitors understand that feeding dingos is illegal and harmful since if they lose their fear of humans, it is likely they will have to be euthanized in the future. The EPA has a page on how to be dingo safe.

Kingfisher Bay Resort has a very serene setting that looks out over the Great Sandy Straights on the west side of the island. It is easily reached by ferry from Urangan Boat Harbour in Hervey Bay. There is almost no surf other than a the occasional boat wake. The tides are significant so the beach is alive with interesting sand critters at low tide including blue soldier crabs, bubbler crabs, sea worms, and snails. The only danger in the water is stepping on the small stingrays that like to lie across the sand in the shallow waters of high tide so kayaking, swimming, snorkeling, fishing, and sailing are all popular activities with resort guests. The resort is one of the few places on the east coast of Australia where you can see a sunset over water.

Since the island is very large and the points of interest are somewhat spread out, it is necessary to have a vehicle to go from point to point, but outside of Kingfisher Bay and Eurong there are no paved roads so I recommend a 4x4 bus tour like the Kingfisher Bay Beauty Spots Tour which covers most of the islands highlights in one day. It should be noted that any ride on the Fraser Island tracks can be very rough and bumpy so I would not recommend this to anyone with serious back pain or other mobility issues.

If you are a more adventurous person and an experienced 4x4 driver, you can also rent a 4x4 through Aussie Trax though this often results in people spending a lot of their day stuck in the sand. Generally, more experienced sand drivers will come along and help or if you get really stuck Aussie Trax is happy to send out someone. However, mobile service on the island is limited so first you have to get in touch with Aussie Trax. It is also possible to barge your own 4x4 to the island, but considering the extremely rough track conditions and risk of salt damage, I wouldn't recommend this unless you are a serious 4x4 enthusiast, camper, and don't mind possibly damaging your vehicle.

The Beauty Spots tour takes visitors to the highlights of the island though the exact itinerary depends on the tides which determine access to Seventy Five Mile Beach on the eastern side of the island. The ranger tour guides are very good and give a running commentary throughout the day of the history and highlights of each location.

The tour includes a stop at beautiful Lake Mackenzie where the almost pure silica sand can be used to clean jewelry and exfoliate skin. The lake itself is crystal clear and perfect for a relaxing swim on a hot summer day. Central Station was the nexus of logging prior to the World Heritage listing, and still has some huge trees that somehow avoided the ax. Plus there is a board walk along Wanggoolba Creek which is eerily silent because there are no rocks to create the typical babbling noise.
Seventy Five Mile Beach is beautiful with the large crashing surf that is characteristic of most of the Queensland coast south of the Town of 1770, but tiger sharks are known to breed just off the beach so there is no safe swimming or surfing. Along the beach there are a number of interesting stops. The coloured sands at The Pinnacles are quite impressive. Iron oxides and decomposing vegetation have dyed the sand a rainbow of oranges, yellows, reds, and browns that have all been exposed on a cliff face eroded away by the constant ocean winds.

The Maheno ship wreck is the rusted out hull of a early 20th century passenger liner that was also used as a hospital ship in WWI. She was sold to Japan for scraps in 1935, but a cyclone caused her to be beached on Fraser Island and the attempts to get her off the beach all failed. In the WWII the Maheno wreck was used for Australian military training both as bombing target practice and commando ship invasion maneuvers. The bus also stops at Eli Creek which is the largest creek on the island and can pour up to four million litres of fresh water into the ocean every hour. The creek is refreshingly cool and only about waist deep at its deepest point in normal conditions. There is a boardwalk that goes several hundred meters up the creek, and it is quite fun to then float back to the beach. The creek can be a hazard to unwary 4x4 drivers however, because its swift moving waters can create significant sand ledges that must be driven over carefully at low speed.

In good weather visitors are offered a supplemental plane fight in a 6 passenger plane that takes off directly from Seventy Five Mile Beach. Naturally, this costs extra but I thought the novelty of taking off and landing on sand was completely worth the price, never mind the fifteen minute flight around the island. If taking off on sand doesn't excite you that much, I would highly recommend the flight on a sunny, clear day just because it is probably the best way to get a real perspective of how big the island really is. Plus you can often see large animals in the ocean like tiger sharks, hump back whales, sea turtles, or large sting rays. On a cloudy day the plane flight is not at impressive because your visibility is impaired.

The best time to visit the island is from August through October which is Whale Season in Platypus Bay which is on the northern end of the western side of the island, a quick boat ride from Kingfisher Bay Resort. At this time of year the humpback whales are migrating south back towards the waters around Antarctica from their birthing grounds up in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef. It is unknown exactly why, but many of the whales stop in Platypus bay for a week or two along the way. There is a theory that it is a good resting stopover point for the newly born whales, but older males will stop in groups as well as the mothers and babies. Since the whales are basically just hanging out while in the bay, they are much more interactive than whales on most whale watches where the whales are busy doing important whale stuff. In Platypus Bay the whales are curious and the more ridiculous the people on the whale watching boat are acting, the more likely the whales are to come over and check you out, wave at you, and maybe even show off their breaching skills. However, if you run into a group of boring, non-interactive whales, it is generally only a few minutes until the captain can find a new pod because there are whales just about everywhere.

Generally during Whale Season Kingfisher Bay Resort has a special whale package offer. I have done the Kingfisher tour twice and have been extremely happy each time with the number of whales seen and the quality of the interaction. However, even if you can't get over to Fraser Island, you can take a wide range of whale tours from Hervey Bay and I suspect most of them are just as good. On my last visit outside of whale season I sailed on Shayla for a dolphin cruise and I am seriously considering booking her for my next cruise because she only takes around 25 guests out of Hervey Bay.

Even if Kingfisher Bay Resort is not appealing or too cost prohibitive for you, I highly recommend a trip to Fraser Island. There are 4x4 day trips that are quite popular though I would not recommend the one that leaves and returns out of Brisbane as I have heard it is too long of a day (8 hours of driving on Queensland roads in addition to the bumpy sand driving). Camping is extremely popular on the island in the summer months and there are a number of camp grounds with different levels of facilities. Because of the World Heritage status other accommodations are somewhat limited. There are two groups of accommodation on Seventy Five Mile Beach on the eastern side: Happy Valley and Eurong Resort. I am not very familiar with Happy Valley, but I believe that it is one of the older holiday areas of the island with an assortment of cottages available to rent. Eurong resort was the first proper resort on the island, and it has a bit of a 1970's feel to it though it has recently been acquired by Kingfisher Bay and is undergoing some modernizations.

Kingfisher also offers the Cool Dingo Tours which are designed for backpackers but are able to cover more of the islands attractions in one of the 4x4 buses since they are two or three day tours.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cooktown and the Surrounding Area

Over the Christmas holidays 2008 Erik, my American friend L, and I drove up to Cooktown, Queensland. Cooktown is 2000 km north of Brisbane and about 300 km north of Cairns. It is closer to the Great Barrier Reef than Cairns, and thus it has the potential to become a large tourist destination. However, currently it is still a remote small town of around 2,000 residents.

Many people fly into Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef as it is a medium city with a international airport and full services. It is also the most convenient access point to Cooktown for most visitors. To access Cooktown from Cairns you can either rent a car and drive 300 km around the mountains or fly up in a small plane. If you have a good 4WD vehicle in the dry season, you can drive up the Bloomfield Track which follows the coast up from Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield and is a bit shorter.

As it was the beginning of the wet season and our car is our only car, we decided to take the longer route around the mountains. I wasn't expecting too much exciting from this drive, but it was actually quite exciting. First we went over the rainforest mountains and down into a drier cattle country with giant termite mounds. The cattle weren't exactly fenced so we had to be on the constant lookout for cattle in the road which was a new experience for us. In addition to cattle there were a large number of wallabies all along the road, and sadly a number of dead ones on the road. I had never seen so many wild wallabies previously.

Cooktown itself was a small town with a single IGA grocery. We stayed at the The Sovereign Resort which was a nice hotel with a large swimming pool, restaurant, bar, and bottle shop or liquor store. Rooms offered AC, but as with much of Australia the rest of the resort was a tropical open plan.

We soon discovered that many of the town's attractions were closed for the holiday season. The hotel restaurant was closed, though the bar was serving food along with a few restaurants in town. The restaurant looked quite nice so I was disappointed that we did not get to try it out. The Nature's Power House which is a information center connected to the Botanical Gardens was closed which was disappointing since I had heard they have interesting books on the local flora and fauna that I wanted to see.

I had discovered before we arrived that the two reef operators in town were closed as well. I can't tell you too much about them except they operate on a much smaller scale than the reef operators in Port Douglas that I have been on previously. I suspect that this means you leave some of the luxuries behind, but get the opportunity for a more individualized tour. Cooktown Catch a Crab and Ahoy Plane Sailing Sea Planes were recommended to me by the resort and looked like a lot of fun. I hope to get back up to Cooktown to try them out later this year.

However, we still had a great couple of days exploring the region. We took a customized all day tour of the local area by Bart's Bush Adventures. Bart was an enjoyable tour guide with lots of good local knowledge. He showed us rainforest, cattle country, waterfalls, and the amazing coloured sands on Elim Beach which is part of the Hope Vale Aboriginal Lands.

The next day we did an very enjoyable 4 hour walking tour with Willie of Guurrbi Tours to see local cave paintings and to learn some of the storied behind them. Willie was an amazing tour guide who was able to explain some of local aboriginal cultural spirituality as well as discussing modern concerns such as painting preservation for the future. I think Willie's tour was one of the most enjoyable tours I have ever taken.

The next day we headed back south. I would have liked more time to explore the York Peninsula, but without a hard core 4WD or a guide there was not that much more that we could have seen.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Qantas Flight: Tips and What to Expect

I have a couple of friends coming to Brisbane from New York later this week which has me thinking about the Qantas flight. A lot of folks don't know what to expect on their first transpacific flight so I thought I would put down some of my thoughts and recommendations. Most of this is Qantas and Australia specific, but some of it applies to other airlines and destinations. It does assume you are flying coach class. If you are flying business or first, good on you, but this list is not for you.

What do you *need* to take with you on the plane:

1) Passport: This is kind of obvious, but it is necessary to travel overseas. Since you clear passport control before you get your luggage, it must be on your person. It is actually never a good idea to let one's passport stray far when traveling abroad.

2) Australian Vacation Visa or ETA: This should be an electronic visa that is tied to your passport number, but it is always a good idea to carry the confirmation details with you in case there are any questions.

3) The address of where you are staying in Australia: This is required to fill out the Incoming Passenger Card which will be presented to you to complete during the flight.

4) 14 Pounds or Less Carry-on Weight: Qantas does not allow carry-ons of more than 14 pounds. From the US you can check two bags of up to 70 pounds each, but you may not carry on more than 14 pounds. This means almost all of the large roller bags are over the weight limit. Keep your carry-ons limited to thinks you expect to need during the flight or valuables, and pack them in a small carry-on bag. A giant bag is much more likely to attract attention and be weighed than a small bag.

What other things might make the flight more enjoyable:

1) Comfortable, loose clothing for the flight: One finds that most clothing is not at all comfortable when sitting in a small seat for 12-14 hours. Sweat pants and large t-shirts are generally a good choice. Some passengers bring comfortable clothes, and change into them once the flight is under way. Shoes that can easily be slipped on and off are also a good choice.

2) Books, sudoku, magazines, etc. Qantas actually has an excellent inflight entertainment system with a selection of on demand movies, TV, music, and basic video games of the Tetris type so I actually don't generally delve into my books much, but the entertainment system can go down so it is always good to have a backup plan.

3) A small flash light or torch: This isn't strictly necessary, but once the main lights go off, it is quite dark. You can always turn your reading light on, but in a 747 the ceiling is quite high so your reading lamp will be very bright and may disturb your sleeping neighbors so I like to have a little light that so I can search my things or read without waking up the entire section of the plane. Headlamps are great for reading. It is of course, a good idea to put the lamp somewhere where you can easily find it _before_ the lights go off.

4) A water bottle: Dehydration is a huge component of jet lag so it is important to stay as hydrated as possible on the long flight. Qantas in flight staff are good about offering passengers water, but it is always good to have your own bottle. This is tricky with the no liquids through security restriction, but you can take an empty water bottle through security and fill it on the other side or buy a new bottle at a gift stand past security.

5) Ipod or DVD player: Some people like these on the long flights, but generally I don't bother with them as their battery life is not long enough for the flight and the Qantas entertainment system offers ample entertainment. However, if you have particular entertainment requirements, they may be a good choice.

6) An extra blanket: Qantas provided everyone with a small blanket and pillow so it is not necessary, but I tend to get cold on the long flights no matter what the season so I pack and extra blanket. A sweater or comfortable jacket would also serve a similar purpose.

7) Noise Canceling Headphones: These can be pricey, but I think there are some cheaper alternatives now available. I have one of the earlier Bose full headphone models, and I highly recommend them. I wear mine to watch movies on the entertainment system and when I try to sleep. They just take away a lot of the airplane noise which is exhausting hour after hour.

Random other thoughts and tips:

1) If at all possible, get your luggage checked through to Australia from where you begin your journey. Even if you booked tickets separately, if you can show Brisbane as your finally destination, most airlines can book your luggage straight through which makes your time in LA or San Francisco less stressful. If you are on a purely Qantas or Qantas/ American flight this should be automatic, but it is always good to check.

2) 747 planes take an hour to board so boarding starts an hour prior to takeoff which means you often have a lot less time to get tickets/ go through security/ eat/ etc than you think you do. I like to have at least three hours in LA to transfer from a domestic flight to the Qantas flight and get a bite to eat.

3) If you end up with a very long layover anywhere, most of the airline clubs offer one day passes for around $50. This can offer you a quiet retreat from the noisy airport, a drink, internet access, a shower, etc. Amenities vary between clubs and locations, but when you have a ten hour layover, you have plenty of time to ask what is available at your location. I have used to American Airlines club at LAX and would do it again.

4) 747 seating is 3-4-3 which means that window seats are the most difficult to get into and out of. I love window seats for shorter flights, but I always ask for an aisle for a long haul. You will need to go to the restroom several times in 12 hours, and if you don't you aren't drinking nearly enough water.

5) Qantas carries plenty of drinking water, and they are always happy to give you some. The flight attendants normally offer water regularly, but they can become scarce when it is dark and most passengers are asleep. Do not be shy about sticking your head in the closest kitchen and asking for more water or a piece of fruit. They are happy to help you in any way that they can, and staying hydrated will help the jet lag later.

6) Generally, you leave California around midnight. In your seat you should find a blanket, pillow, and a care pouch with socks, eye mask, and toothbrush. The first three hours of the trip are taken up with takeoff, duty free sales pitches, dinner (with complimentary alcohol), arrival cards being handed out, coffee/ tea, and ice cream or hot chocolate. Once all that is done they turn the lights out with the expectation that most passengers will go to sleep or settle in with a good movie on the entertainment system. The next 6-8 hours are pretty dark and quiet though a snack packet is handed out at some point during the night. 3 hours before arrival they wake you up for breakfast and a reminder to fill out your arrival card. You generally arrive in Brisbane around 7. You lose one day going across the date line when flying west, but gain it back again when flying east.

7) The alcohol is free and you can have a reasonable amount, but alcohol is very dehydrating in a very dry environment so I don't recommend drinking too much. I generally only have one glass with dinner to relax.

8) The Qantas seats have wings on the headrests that you can bend to give your head more support. You can bend them however is most comfortable. I typically bend mine in so that my head is kind of blocked in and can't flop around.

9) If you are visiting someone in Australia, liquor is rather expensive over here so we are always happy to accept gifts of liquor from duty free :) Particularly for us Americans down under, Crown Royal, Patron, and Grey Goose are all either unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Paronella Park near the Atherton Tablelands and Cairns

One of the most unique tourist attractions that we stopped at on our recent trip from Brisbane to Cooktown and back again was Paronella Park which is near the Atherton Tablelands and Cairns in northern Queensland. This is a tourist attraction of a tourist attraction that is only old by Queensland standards though it is certainly in ruins.

I would highly recommend this attraction except that it is a bit out of the way for most visitors of the area and I found the price to be a bit high though the money is obviously going towards preserving and restoring some of the property. I did not feel that we had been ripped off, but I would have felt more comfortable about freely recommending the experience if the admission had been a bit lower. In December 2008, it was $30 AUD per person which allows 12 months re-entry though that is not particularly useful unless you live locally.

As it is, I will describe a bit of history and my experience in the park and let readers decide for themselves if it sounds interesting. In the early 1900's Jose Paronella came to Australia to seek his fortune which he did buying and refurbishing sugar cane processing plants since his specialty was construction. During this time he came across the Paronella Park 13 acre property with a beautiful tropical waterfall and fell in love with it. He bought the property with the intention of creating a unique tourist attraction in the guise of a Spanish Castle in the Australian rainforest.

He built a small English cottage for his new Spanish wife and children, and then began working on the "castle" which was actually a series of function rooms to host parties, dances, and watch movies. Plus there were cafe facilities, tennis courts, gardens, picnic facilities and swimming change areas. Apparently there was a reasonable fee structure depending on which activities you were attending, and the whole business was quite profitable.

However, some building flaws, natural disasters, and possibly arson have left most of the main buildings in ruins and the gardens completely overgrown though the current owners are trying to halt and reverse some of the damage. Currently the property is a beautiful gothic ruin that would be the perfect set for a Vampyre Movie or two. We were there on a dreary rainy afternoon with the river swollen to the point of overlapping the railings just a bit.

There were no crocodiles at the bottom of the waterfall, but the waters were squirming with large eels that generally only come out at night or when the waters are darkened by silt in the rainy season. They seemed fond of fish food instead of human flesh, but I was no hurry to jump into the murky waters. I suspect this was a seasonal condition though as splashing under the falls is still listed as an optional activity.

The Tunnel of Love which was at one time going to be an aquarium exhibit is now the favorite daytime hideaway for the local microbat population. I found the microbats very interesting, but I have always been a bit of a bat person. The gardens are overgrown, but contain some absolutely stunning tropical flowers.

We took the regular day tour of the property, and our French guide was very entertaining and informative. There is also a night walk of the property where they light up the ruins that I suspect would be very creepy and enjoyable. The property is supposed to have some beautiful bird life, but as it was raining, all we saw was a common brush turkey.

Flooding is still a annual problem for the property and floods are measured by how high they reach on the grand staircase. Although flooding this year was extensive, there was no major damage to the property.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Mungalli Creek Dairy: Great Lunch in the Atherton Tablelands

If you are in Northern Queensland, I highly recommend stopping for lunch at the Mungalli Creek Dairy outside Millaa Millaa in the Atherton Tablelands region. We received several recommendations for the dairy while we were up in Cooktown so we decided to check it out on our way back to southern Queensland. The dairy and cafe was a bit smaller than I had imagined, but the food was excellent. They offer an array of delicious choices featuring their dairy products that is definitely worth a drive off the beaten path. Be sure to start with a free sampler cheese plate!

The Atherton Tablelands are worth a visit even without the dairy. It is a beautiful, lush green region of farmland and rainforests not far from Cairns known for a large number of beautiful waterfalls. The Tablelands elevation also offer visitors to northern Queensland a bit of relief from the tropical balminess of the coast as the weather is typically a few degrees cooler.

On all my previous trips to the area I had heard that the Atherton Tablelands were worth a visit, but I like so many visitors was so focused on the Great Barrier Reef and going up to the Daintree Rainforest that I never took the time to visit the Tablelands until this past December. Even on that trip I just budgeted enough time to drive through the region and have lunch at the dairy. Now I definitely want to go back and explore the Tablelands further. I would definitely recommend the Atherton Tablelands as a good daytrip from Cairns or even for a night or two.

On my next visit I would like to check out The Canopy Rainforest Treehouses and Wildlife Sanctuary for a couple of nights. I have only seen brochures and their website, but it looks like an excellent place to stay!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

I went to Sydney when Erik had a conference this past July the week before World Youth Day and the Pope's arrival. It was a bit more crowded than I believe it would have regularly been, but I still had a great time. We stayed at the Meriton Apartments Kent Street which were well located and reasonably priced. The building is a tall tower so we had a great view of Darling Harbour from our windows. The apartment was one open room, but included full kitchen facilities and laundry. The laundry machine was a bit loud, but washed and dried clothes. From the room I was able to walk to all the major downtown attractions though public transport was also available if I had preferred.

As part of the conference we had a sunset cruise on a sailing catamaran (which didn't actually sail) from Darling Harbour which was quite beautiful and allowed for great pictures of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

I visited the Australia National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour. The museum has a free basic admission, but I recommend getting the "Big Ticket" which allows access to some of the museums boats which are located outside including a reproduction of Captain Cook's Endeavor, a submarine, and the Barque James Craig which was rebuilt by local volunteers using historically accurate methods like hot rivets. I thoroughly enjoyed the museum, but I have a boat thing.

I also visited the Sydney Aquarium which I would definitely recommend if you are not planning to get out snorkeling on the Reef, but which could probably be skipped if you have Reef plans unless you are particularly interested in aquariums. My opinions may have been colored by the fact that I happened to go during school holidays when it was swamped with screaming children. I did feel that it was a good aquarium, children aside, but once you have been out on the Reef nothing can compare.

The Australian Museum was interesting in that it is a combination of a very old style Victorian museum and a more modern museum with interactive displays. It probably is not impressive on the grand scale of museums of the world, but I found it very interesting. There is a modern interactive exhibit which covers aboriginal culture both historic and modern. I actually really enjoyed the Victorian skeleton room which is literally just a room full of different animal skeletons from around the world. There was also a very good but old exhibit of stuffed Australian birds that I found interesting since Australian birds are so colorful and unique.

One afternoon I enjoyed just walking around downtown. I went from our hotel over to Hyde Park through to St. James and then on to the Royal Botanical Gardens. I only saw a fraction of the gardens, but they were lovely. I continued on to the Opera House through the park. Then I walked around Sydney Cove and briefly through the Rocks before heading back to the hotel up George Street. The Rocks are down near the harbour and are the oldest portion of Sydney. I wish I had spent more time as this is the area which the most historical significance in downtown Sydney. George Street is one of the best known shopping districts including the brand new Apple Store which was quite a treat.

Erik and I did the Syndey Opera House Back Stage Tour early one morning which was quite a treat. We we able to stand on both the main stages as well as see dressing rooms, orchestra pits, passageways, the green room, staging areas, and more with a small group of only 9 other guests. It is a bit of an expensive tour and does require being at the Opera House at 6:45 am, but is quite a treat that I would recommend for anyone who is very interested in the performing arts or architecture.

We also did a day sail on the Barque James Craig which I thought was amazing because it was my first sail on a barque. I would only recommend this for dedicated historic sailing vessel enthusiasts like me, but I had a blast. The barque only sails every fortnight by a volunteer crew, but you can tour the barque most other days by going to the National Maritime Museum. We simply sailed out the harbour into the Pacific, turned around, and came back, but it was a special day for me. The James Craig has been painstakingly restored using all historically accurate methods from a badly deteriorated hull that was found in a harbour in Tasmania. The Sydney Heritage Fleet is a very dedicated group of boat loving volunteers.

I did not get out to the famous Bondi Beach or see some of the other Sydney area attractions that are outside the CBD (Central Business District). We took a ferry to Manly which I would recommend and may cover in another post. The harbor ferries are a great way to see more of the area from the water. I did not climb the Harbour Bridge though that is another popular activity for tourist. I thought it too expensive, but you can find out more information from Harbour Bridge Climb

Sydney is a beautiful, clean city, and I was glad to finally visit it. If you like touring cities, I highly recommend it. If you are interested in visiting the more natural places of Australia, I would recommend that you use it as a jumping off place to see the beautiful Blue Mountains or some of the other natural areas surrounding the big city that I find far more interesting.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Uluru / Ayer's Rock (Oz)

Uluru or Ayer's Rock is one of Australia's best known natural wonders. It is a massive, red sandstone rock erupting from the flat desert floor in the middle of the Northern Territory. Its color subtly changes throughout the day with different sun angles and is most dramatic at sunset. It is also one of the most important sacred places of the local aboriginal tribes and is currently under joint care of the Australian National Parks and the Anangu people. The park website is a good place to find additional information.

Getting to Uluru in most cases will be by plane as it is very remote. There is an airport at Uluru which most people use though if you are considering touring more of the central Outback, you may want to consider flying into Alice Springs and out of Uluru or vice versa. To travel to Uluru directly from Alice Springs is a 5 hour drive so it is not wise to try to do Uluru as a daytrip. I flew into and out of the Uluru airport on a 3 night trip in November 2006. The next time I visit I would like to do a week long trip in the winter (June through August) and drive from Alice Springs to Uluru so that I can see some of the less well known attractions of the desert.

If you fly into Uluru there is a complimentary bus that will take you to the Voyager's Resort. Voyager's has a monopoly on accommodation in the area, but they offer six different standardtypes of accommodation from a campground to a premium hotel. Plus there is a five star luxury option that is not given on the main page called Longitude 131 if you are looking for a truly unique experience (and have deep pockets).

I did not have deep pockets so I spent 3 nights at the hostel section of the Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge. This was the most basic of accommodation, but it included air conditioning and is the most economical aside from the campground. Uluru is very isolated which leads high pricing since everything must be trucked in to the resort from far away. The closest city is Alice Springs which is a 5 hour drive and is itself pretty isolated. The resort offers a little shopping plaza in the middle of all the standard accommodations, but options are limited. Meals are also pricier than you will find in other parts of Australia.

The resort sits several miles from Uluru so one must either rent a car or take a tour to actually visit the rock. The park has a $25 fee for a 3 day pass which must be paid whether you are self driving or on a tour. On my visit we went for the tours option since I had not been out to the Northern Territory previously. A list of tour options can be found here.

Almost all tours are at sunrise or sunset as for most of the year, it is not advisable to be out in the sun anywhere near the middle of the day. This means in the summer you are waking up every morning around 3 am. Even if you do not take a tour, it is strongly advised to pay attention to their schedules and plan a similar one for yourself.

I did a tour that walked around the base of the rock which is around 9 km, but very flat. I thought the tour was well guided, and I learned things I probably wouldn't have otherwise. However, I mostly took this tour because we had not rented a car, and I was somewhat intimidated by the Australian Outback. In the future I would not do this tour again since the path around Uluru is very well defined and safe. The desert floor has sparse vegetation, but visibility is good so you should not suddenly happen upon any snakes or other undesirable critters. The greatest danger is from dehydration which is a constant problem. In the summer time no matter how much water you have been drinking, drink more. Also, this is an environment where Powerade and Gatorade are very useful because you are sweating much much more than you realize. My traveling companion ended up dehydrated after this walk even though it was at a relaxed pace and I watched her drink several liters of water.

I also did the award winning Sounds of Silence Dinner which really did not meet my expectations. I am not sure if I caught it on an off night or what, but while it was a nice experience, I did not feel that it was worth the cost. It was an opportunity to try dishes with Australian kangaroo, crocodile, and emu, however. The tour/dinner includes drinks on a small rise that gives a good view of the sun setting behind the Olgas which are another interesting desert formation. Next dinner is served on the open desert floor. There is entertainment in the form of digeridoo playing and an astronomical talk. There is also supposed to be a minute of silence to enjoy the desert sounds, but we were next to a Spanish table that either didn't understand the request for silence or didn't care since they talked the entire time which was disappointing. Another aspect that disappointed myself and my traveling companion was that part of the dinner includes an astronomical talk, but because of the time of year, the sky was full of familiar constellations that can be seen in the northern hemisphere instead of exotic southern ones. Luckily, I was able to point out the southern cross to her then next morning while we were waiting for our tour bus.

One morning we took a camel ride which was fun and unique. I determined that about an hour is all I ever want to spend on a camel at one time.

My favorite tour while in the desert was a sunset walk offered by Anangu Tours. This set of tours are guided by members of the Anangu people, and give a much better appreciation of the local aboriginal perspective and relationship of the land. In retrospect I wish we had taken more of their tours. When I get out to Uluru again, I am definitely going to do another tour by Anangu Tours.

While at Uluru, it is also good to go out to see the Olgas or Kata Tjuta which is another rock formation 40 km away from Uluru. From a distance the Olgas resemble a series of giant heads. Once again you can take a tour or self drive. There are numerous hiking tracks through the Olgas which are covered at the park website, but they are a bit more challenging than the hike around Uluru as they go up and down. I chose to take a tour lead hike on my visit, but on a repeat visit, I think I would self drive and chose my own hike.

Historically, a lot of visitors liked climb to the top of Uluru, and it is still allowed some of the time when weather conditions are mild, there have been no recent deaths, and there are no traditional ceremonies being performed. However, climbing is now discouraged as it is a sacred place to the local tribes that was forbidden to climb so it is disrespectful. Additionally, it is not safe and even with the precautions and frequent closing of the climb, people die every year in the attempt. To climb or not to climb is a personal decision, but going to Uluru intent on climbing could be disappointing since the climb is often closed.


To see the Uluru and Kata Tjuta, I would recommend 2 nights stay at one of the Voyager's Accommodations. We were a bit bored by the third night.

Be very careful of dehydration while in the central desert. If you aren't feeling well, it is important to keep drinking water or a Powerade.

If possible, visit during the cooler part of the year from June to August.

If it is summer, make sure you have some plans of what you want to do during the day from around 10 am until 4 pm which it is not advisable to be outside.

Be prepared that this could be one of the more expensive parts of an Australian Tour because it is so remote.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Red Mill House- Daintree Accomodation (Oz)

In March 2007 I did a two week tour with my father around parts of Australia that included two nights at the charming, eco-tourist certified Red Mill House Bed & Breakfast in Daintree Village. The Daintree Village is two hours drive north of Cairns in the rainforest. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the Red Mill House and would recommend it to anyone interested in exploring the region further.

Our host was very friendly, informative, and capable of assisting with itinerary plans and tour bookings. Breakfast each day was wonderful with an exotic selection of tropical fruit. The property was full of gardens which attract many native bird and butterfly species. We wished that we had booked an extra day just to relax and enjoy the gardens around the Red Mill House. The common area contained informative books on the birds and the local area and even a native frog during his daily rest.

The Red Mill House was economically priced for the region and provided simple, uniquely decorated rooms with ceiling fans, screens, and AC. The Red Mill House is very close to the center of the village so the small selection of shops, restaurants, and river cruises are just a short walk away.

More Regional Information:

The Daintree Village is the perfect location to stay to be able to explore the Daintree River, the Daintre Rainforest, and Mossman Gorge. It is on the Daintree River 35 km north west of the Mossman River on the Cairns/ Port Douglas side (the southern side of the river).The Daintree River flows right through town and river boat tour can be found in Daintree Village as well as further downstream towards the ferry that will take you across to the Daintree Rainforest. River boat tours offer views of wild salt water crocodile as well as a wide array of rainforest fauna and flora including frogs, fish, birds, snakes, and flying foxes. Night river boat tours offer the unique opportunity to see sleeping birds and the creatures of the night, but take lots of bug spray!

The Daintree Rainforest is a World Heritage listed area across the Daintree River from the Cairns and Port Douglas region (the north side of the river). It is less than a half an hour drive back downstream from the Daintree Village to the ferry. After crossing on the ferry, the road north follows the coast where the rainforest comes all the way down to the beach. There are a series of nice boardwalks with informative signs about the flora of each region for visitors interested in self guided walks. Alternatively, there is the Daintree Discovery Centre which offers a more walks and an observation tower for an entry fee. There are also guided tours that leave daily for the Daintree Rainforest. See the Daintree Rainforest website for more information on the region.

Mossman Gorge is a beautiful natural gorge with several nice hiking tracks. It was also an important aboriginal area, and they offer guides rainforest walks daily. For more information see Kuku Yalanji Dreamtime.

A Beginning

Well, for a while now people have been telling me I should write more. I am not sure what I should write about exactly, but I thought I might try a travel blog since I seem to do a lot of traveling. I am new to this whole blogging thing so I am not sure how it is going to go, but what the hell. As this is a blog, it will be more opinion based. For more objective travel information (on Australia at least) I have a website that is in great need of being updated (but what else is new on the internet).

If you are interested in Australian travel tips, please visit:

Okay, at the moment I am editing pictures from some of my travels so that may inspire me to do a few more entries, but this is at least a beginning