Monday, May 7, 2012

Australian Family Vacation

"This is a country that is at once staggeringly empty and yet packed with stuff.  Interesting stuff, ancient stuff, stuff not readily explained.  Stuff yet to be found.  Trust me this is an interesting place."
Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

Ah Clark Griswold, one of my all time movie characters, I can totally sympathize with you.  We are nearing the end of a three week road trip that has taken us nearly 1,000 miles down the coast of Queensland in Northeastern Australia and like the Griswolds we have experienced and endured a lot of adventures along the way.  All that was missing was Christie Brinkley in a red Ferrari, a dead aunt riding on the roof, and me pointing a BB gun at John Candy while riding a roller coaster,  though the trip did end up at a theme park.  Like Clark, I realize that some of the best family experiences come with some sacrifice and misery though we don't necessarily plan for them.   

We arrived in Cairns 3 weeks ago with a road atlas, a Lonely Planet Guide book and a family willingness to experience some new adventures.  When the clerk at the Avis counter at the airport asked me if I would like to rent a GPS, I politely declined as we had a rough idea of where we wanted to go.  I also quite like looking at maps and part of me feels like route finding is part of the adventure.  Sometimes you need to get lost to discover a true gem of a place.  I also don't need a third female voice in the car telling me what to do but truth be told I am really just to cheap to cough up the extra $5 or $10 per day that they would have charged me for the thing.

Australia is truly amazing place.  I terms of area it is the 6th largest country in the world, roughly the size of the continental US though with only 22 million souls, about a 15th of the population.  It is the land of the unforgiving outback yet has very cosmopolitan cities that would be the rival of any in Europe or North America.  It is a relatively new country with the first white settlements happening in 1787, about 10 years after the American Revolution.  The Aborigines have been here for roughly 50,000 years which is quite astonishing seeing as no one really knows how they got here.  They do not look remotely related to other Asian or Polynesian groups so they are a big mystery to those who study this sort of thing.  It is a land of uniqueness, in fact 80% of what lives in Australia exists no where else. Kangaroos, Koalas, duck billed platypus, plants that date back to the cretaceous era and a zillion other critters call only Australia their home.   It also has more things that will kill you than anywhere else on the planet which was a bit disconcerting coming from New Zealand which has really nothing worse than a bee sting to worry about.  According to some sources Australia has the worlds 10 most poisonous snakes, the most poisonous spider (the Funnel Web), octopus (blue ringed), fish (stone fish), jelly fish (box jelly) and shell (cone).  We were warned of plants and other insects that can inject nasty toxins in to you if handled incorrectly.  We even saw signs warning of Electric Ants which are an invasive species from South America which are now thriving in Northern Queensland.  In addition, of course there is always the concern that you will be devoured by a salt water crocodile, which can grow to 20 feet and weigh 2 tons or a great white shark.

The Australians and particularly the Queenslanders are a remarkable people as well.  They are for the most part a fit active population and I find them very personable and helpful.  The most amazing statistic that I can give you about Australians is that in the last summer olympics, in Beijing,  with it's 22 million people Australia took home 46 metals.   That is half of what the 300 million Americans and 2 billion Chinese were able to earn.  When you see the number of people out every morning biking, running, swimming or surfing you get a sense that everyone here is in decent shape.

Not much happens in Australia, or NZ for that matter, that makes a splash in the international news, probably because it is so far removed in time and geography from the every where else.  For instance several years ago their Prime Minister at the time went for a swim at one of his favorite beaches only to be swept out to sea by a rip tide and not a single hair of him was ever found.  Imagine that happening to Obama or any European leader for that matter.  The current Prime Minister, Julia Gilliard, is an atheist living in sin with her partner and even though my impression is that Australia is a fairly conservative country, nobody gives a damn.  They do have vast reserves of untapped natural resources, actually have a shortage of skilled workers rather than high levels of unemployment and will likely have a fairly stable economy for many years.  While they have every reason to be boastful, I find most Australians to be exceptionally modest.  

Our first destination was the seaside town of Palm Cove about 30 minutes north of Cairns.  We woke up the first day in the steamy, humid hot tropics that northern Queensland is and marched down to the beach to be greeted by this sign.  Stinger (jelly fish) season runs from November through April and we were still in that window.  Most of the time though you can still swim in enclosed netted areas even during that time but this day the winds were a bit to high for them to put out the nets.  We were also informed by the life guard, whose only duty that day seemed to be making sure no one so much as put their toes in the water,  that just a few days ago a large salt water crocodile had become entangled in the nets.  I would have loved to see them sort that one out.  So, not wanting to die a horrendous death in the tranquil waters of the Coral Sea on our first day, we retreated to the friendly confines of the swimming pool.
"Really dad, a hike in the rainforest...   in the rain"
 The first few days we had pretty heavy rains and really nasty weather in general so in lieu of us all puking our guts out on a cruise to the Barrier Reef we spent some time exploring the Daintree National Park which is part of what is considered the Wet Tropics,  a UNESCO world heritage site recognized for it's amazing pockets of biodiversity.  It encompasses less than 1% of Australia's surface area but has 36% of it's mammal species, 50% of it's birds, 60% of it's butterflies and 65% of it's ferns.  Some of the plants that grow here are the same ones that were growing here 200 million years ago, well before dinosaurs lived.
Our second day started with Skyler reporting that she wasn't feeling very well, but in my interest to squeeze every possible experience out of our time I insisted she was fine so she stoically got in the car for a planned foray to Kuranda, a small market town nestled into the jungle above Cairns.  About half an hour into the journey Skyler hurled (vomited) all over the interior of our rented Camry.  So we again retreated to our apartment for a swim in the pool and a defumigation of the car.  She felt better later in the day so I was still able to take my family for a forced march on a trail through the Rain forest, and guess what happened in the middle of the hike.  It started raining, fairly torrentially actually.  Who would have figured.  At least we had rain coats and the trail to ourselves, right guys.

Sweet Nemo stinger suit Owen

Lindsey and Owen with a Humpheaded Maori Wrasse on Moore Reef

Soon the weather improved enough for a trip out to the reef.  Some claim the Great Barrier Reef to be the largest living organism on the planet.  I don't know about that but it does stretch a distance equivalent to the west coast of the US and encompasses an area greater than the size of Kansas.  Our first trip out was on a boat out of Cairns to a permanent pontoon floating over Moore reef.  The pontoon made it easier for the kids to feel comfortable with going in the water and they also had underwater viewing areas for non swimmers.   We all had to don stinger suits for protection against the Box Jellyfish.  The kids took to the snorkeling like pros.  Lindsey and Skyler were off on their own exploring and Owen swam further and further from the platform until he too was at ease swimming over the corals.  It was the Great Barrier reef and even though we were in a pretty heavily snorkeled area it was amazing.

Coast of Northern Queensland between Cairns and Port Douglas

Daintree Rainforest

Mossman Gorge in Daintree

Waiting for Ferry to cross Daintree River
 They are very serious about warning you of Crocodiles.  The salt water variety can grow to be very large and if you are in the water with it, it will eat you.  It slides under the water at high speeds though is able to cause no rippling on the surface of the water.  I have read many accounts of people washing a dish or wading up to their ankles in the water only to disappear in an instant never to be seen again.  So fast there was no time even to scream.   It can come at high speeds and has the strongest bite of any animal, one single bite has been known to crush the skull of a cow.   That being said if you stay out of the water, actually 3 meters from the shore, you will be safe.  Even a child walking backwards on land is faster than this beast and it will not chase you on land.  It is a perfect killing machine that has required no evolutionary changes since before the time of the dinosaurs.  It apparently was able to survive when the dinosaurs could not because it is able to go up to 1 year without eating.

Cassowary, large mean looking bird that has disemboweled people with its Sharp claw. 

Coming in to Port Douglas

They also take the Box Jellyfish seriously.  They are prevalent in the tropical waters of Australia and Papau New Guinea from around November through April every year.  According to multiple sources the Box Jelly fish is the most venomous animal in the world.  The venom comes from nematocysts in it's long tentacles and an exposure to these things is apparently overwhelmingly painful.  With a large enough exposure it's toxins attack the heart and nervous system and have been known to cause death in as little as 3 minutes.  There is no chance of survival unless treated immediately.  Ascetic acid in vinegar inactivates the nematocysts on your skin but does not stop the pain.  The rules are simple here.  Wear some protection such as a stinger suit which is really no thicker than panty hose or stay out of the water.   There are of course other less lethal jelly fish such as the Irukandji which at about the size of the tip of your pinkie finger and transparent to boot is no match for the nets.  While not usually lethal it does cause a condition known as Irukandji syndrome which among various other symptoms gives you a real sense of "impending doom", like you are certain you are dying, even though the initial encounter is not painful at all.  

Alright, I know what people are thinking.  Why in the hell would I go to Northern Queensland?  In reality there are way more people that are killed by falling in their own bathrooms than that are mauled by crocs or killed by jellyfish.  I believe it has been several years since the last fatal box jellyfish encounter and crocodile attacks are rare as well.  If you have any reservations just stay out of the water and you will be fine.  Queensland is too beautiful to not visit.  

We went on a second reef tour out of Port Douglas to the Agincourt Reef on the outer Great Barrier Reef.  It was a bit longer ride to get there and the boat we were on made a trip to several different spots on the reef rather than going to a fixed pontoon.  Being further out and with a smaller group was a better experience.  The colors of the coral and the fish again were incredible and the girls and I saw a small shark while we were snorkeling.  Lindsey dived down to try and touch it and Skyler climbed right on my back.  It was a great day and we ended up having dinner in Port Douglas which seemed to us a nicer place to stay than Cairns, less built up, less touristy and I believe better tours to the reef on smaller boats with less people.
Ferry over the Daintree River

Protective swimming enclosure at Palm Cove

Palm Cove

Fruit stand somewhere on the way from Cairns to Townsville

Hanging with the locals

Wooroonooran National Park

After a week in North Queensland we began our trek south.  We had 1900 kms to go to the Gold Coast south of Brisbane where I was going to be attending an ultrasound course 10 days later.  Along the way we stopped at many places to eat, spend the night or just explore.  The little gem above was in a seldom visited park off the highway between Cairns and Townsville.  We were assured there were no crocodiles.
Lorikeets at our place in Airlie Beach
We stopped for a few nights in Airlie Beach as we heard that the Whitsunday Islands right off shore were not to be missed.  A boat ride that took in some hiking, some snorkeling and some hanging out on beaches with the whitest of sand that I have ever seen was a nice way to spend the day.
Guana, actually not too dangerous but mouthful of germs could cause a nasty infection if you were bit by one
Cruise to Whitsunday Islands from Airlie Beach

Sand here is such a pure silica that it was used for lens of the Hubble Space Telescope

Feeding the fish
Whitehaven beach

After 2 nights in Airlie we took our longest drive, about 10 hours, to a little town on the coast called Agnes Water.  In Agnes you are far enough south that the Box Jelly fish are no longer a problem so we could swim freely. It is also the first real surf beach coming down the coast as north of here the swells are blocked by the reef.  Agnes was one of those gems, low key not touristy, great surf beach so we decided to stay put here for a couple of days.  After all of the driving it was a treat to relax and get in a little surfing.  There is a lovely little point break here with gentle waves that go a long way, perfect for the novice surfer.

Surfing a nice point break in Agnes

Beautiful Caravan Park we stayed at for 3 days, right on the beach

Jenny catching some waves on our inflatable SUP which fits into a duffel bag.

I like the reflection in the sand
Our tent, a little cozy for 5, good family bonding

Hervey Bay was a short drive from Agnes and we came here because we heard about a great sand island off the coast here that would be worth exploring.  Hervey bay is also known for humpback whales that migrate through starting in July in what is apparently one of the worlds best whale watching experiences.  Fraser Island is the worlds largest all sand island created over a long period of time by sands that have blown up here from New South Wales.  It apparently is also the only place in the world where a tropical rainforest grows on sand and is on the UNESCO world heritage list as well.  There is no pavement here so the best way to explore it is by renting a 4x4.  Hervey Bay is also a nice town with beautiful Esplanade by the shore.  Jenny tortured me with a long run along the shore here but I survived.

Lake Mckenzie on Fraser

outdoor kitchen at accomodations on Fraser 

Ferry to Fraser

Fraser island is also home to the most genetically pure strain of Dingo in Australia.  They look like they could be someones family pet though have been known to attack people and were even been responsible for the death of a young girl here a few years back.  We did see several from our vehicle and had to physically restrain Lindsey who wanted to get out and approach one.
A nice little creek that runs into the sea

The shipwreck of the Maheno, a WWI era hospital ship, later passenger liner that broke loose from a ship towing it to Japan for scrap metal in the 1930s.  subsequently used for bombing practice during WWII

Dingo protective posture.  You should not run as they will chase you

Skyler and Owen checking the depth of a stream we are about to cross


After 3 days in Hervey Bay / Fraser Island we had the last leg of our journey to the Gold Coast ahead of us.  I was a bit sad that we were coming to the end of the road trip portion of our vacation but Jenny found one last "not to be missed" site in the guide book.  The Australia Zoo is fantastic, a living memorial to Steve Erwin the crocodile hunter who made this place famous.  Steve, I believe is a wonderful role model to kids in the sense that he is the perfect example of if you follow your passions in life, success will follow.  The guy loved nothing more than wrestling giant crocodiles into small boats to study, protect and often relocate these animals.  He parlayed that into a wildly successful career doing shows on Animal Planet and he single handedly is responsible for the preservation of many of the world's most dangerous animals.  He taught us that we don't need to fear and eradicate every animal that poses a threat to us.  While he was probably a bit extreme in his approach to dangerous animals he surely inspired an entire generation of children worldwide.
The Australia zoo is a wonderful place, unlike any zoo I have ever been to.
A Wombat

The Cassowary, a prehistoric looking flightless bird

The main theme of this zoo is of course crocodiles and they have dozens of large ones.  Each has it's own enclosure with lots of room to roam.  Several times a day they will pick out one for the type of show that the Crocodile Hunter made famous.
More locals. Kangaroos are like deer in the states.  We saw several of them on our drives, many of them road kill. 

While the focus here is crocs and other Australian creatures , they do also have some  other animals.

The Crocoseum

I pointed out to all the kids that every picture of Steve shows him smiling from ear to ear while doing his work.   That is something we should encourage our kids to pursue in life. 

After 17 days of exploring Queensland, many miles, many "are we there yets", and many great memories we arrived in the Gold Coast.  Boasting of some 35 white sand beaches, 300 days of sunshine a year, several theme parks and all the casinos, night life and shopping you could ever need the Gold Coast attracts some 4 million visitors per year.  I have to confess that as we drove in here late at night after the day at the zoo, seeing all the high rises, casinos and people I was a bit disappointed. It was as if we had left this amazingly beautiful place and were arriving in Las Vegas, Miami Beach and Orlando all wrapped up in one.  Upon arising the next day to a beautiful sunny day and a short walk down to the beach we realised that all theses people come here for a reason.  The beaches are stunning, the weather is great and it is not as in your face as I was anticipating.  For me the real part of the vacation was over as I was to be spending my time 0900 to 1700 every day doing a course in ultrasound but Jenny and the Kids made the most of being here.  Jenny and I did get in some nice runs and walks on the beaches and boardwalks so don't feel too sorry for me, but the rest of my family really enjoyed days at the amusement parks, water parks and on the beach.  They would pick me up from my course in the evening with huge grins on their faces and wanted to tell me of all their favorite rides.  There is also some great looking hills, canyons and national parks just inland from the Gold Coast but we never got a chance to explore there.
Surfer's Paradise


I think Jenny found her ideal home

This is Burleigh Heads, home of one the most famous surf breaks  in the world.

Check out the waves in the background

The skyline was surreal, from the distance it looked like some sort  futurstic city from a movie.

Sorry for the length and volume of pictures in this entry, we did see so much and this really serves as our family photo album as well.  All in all an exceptional trip with many lasting memories.  The kids all report that their favorite thing to do was the snorkeling on the reef but I think the theme parks were a close second.  They all kept a journal of the trip which I know they will read sometime in the future to rekindle the memories.  We tried to do as much as we could however if we repeated the trip we could find different places to go and different things to do every day that we didn't do on this trip.  Australia is full of interesting things to see.
We are now safely back in NZ where we can go in the water and hike in the forest without fear of some horrible venomous creature.  The kiddos were fired up to get back to school and see all their buddies as they had missed two weeks of school.  It is the beginning of winter here in New Zealand so the nights are a bit cooler than when we left.

Kia Ora (cheers) to all.