Wednesday, July 30, 2014

In the airport

Our apartment is clean, and empty.  Keys returned.  A woman from church hauled away our old sheets and towels.  We donated all the school uniforms except two.  And then we fit all our souvenirs and clothes and memories from seven months into nine bags, which we hauled to the airport. 

Aside from a 14 hour flight, followed by five hours in LA and then two more hours in the sky, and jet lag, and final reports, and weeding a neglected garden, and all that other stuff we have to do when we arrive, the Australian adventure is over.

Here are Jonathan and Bunny, on my left, awaiting the true end of the adventure.
We leave at 9:10am here.  We arrive, the same day, at 6:30am in LA.  Fourteen hours of travel to gain three extra hours of life! 

Here, for your parting enjoyment, is a picture of misty Melbourne in the morning.  (Not this morning -- it was too dark when we left.  Last week morning.)
Bon voyage!

Last weekend in Melbourne

There is some expectation that the final weekend one spends in an exotic location should be magical and memorable.  Or one should pack.

Our flight wasn't until Wednesday, so we decided to leave the packing for Tuesday.  For our magical memorable final weekend, we took a couple of long walks.

On Saturday,we walked from our house to the Botanic Gardens again.

Jonathan and Tim in the gardens.

The gardens are different in winter than fall, and different in fall than summer.  But now that July is almost over, we could see signs of spring.  The first sign?


From there, we walked a few yards to the Shrine of Remembrance, and climbed to the balcony one last time, for an overlook of the city.
And then we walked up the St Kilda Road, across the Yarra river, for lunch.  We ate fast food.  But Australian fast food!

Later that evening, we returned to the city for a meal on the town to celebrate Tim's birthday, the week before.  Here is the birthday boy in China Town.
There was actually one thing I had wanted to do in Melbourne for some time.  In January, we were told that the flying foxes roost in the Yarra Bend Park.  I wanted to see them.  However, the Yarra Bend Park is very large, and I wasn't sure where to find them.  I had given up on that adventure, until Friday, when a colleague told me he had been the previous weekend.  They roost near the Bell Bird Picnic area.  We found it on the map, figured out how to get there by bus, and on foot, and back by train, and invited some friends.

Here we are on the bridge near the Studley Park Boat launch, near the spot where the bus dropped us off.
From there, we walked east and north along the river.  It was a pleasant walk.  The grass was green, the eucalypts evergreen, and the wattle trees have finally begun to flower.
Me and a flowering wattle tree.
One of the friends we brought along is a botanist, although his specialty is fungi.  He explained that the Australian wattle tree, or acacia, is unique from all other trees around the world.  After the continent split from Pangea, the wattles developed in hundreds of different ways.  The golden wattle is the flower on the Australian money.  In addition to seeing regular golden wattles, like the one in the picture above, there were flowering wattles that had needles instead of leaves, some whose leaves were like ferns, one with white flowers and long thin leaves, and one with small leaves and spines.  And actually, none of them have true leaves -- some other part of the plant has developed to look like a leaf, but it doesn't count.  The botanist tried to explain this to me a couple of times, but I'll let you look it up on your own if you'd like.

Meanwhile, the take home point is, wattle trees in bloom!  Spring is coming!

But not for us, because we're leaving.

After a half hour walk around the river, we reached the Bell Bird Picnic area.  And there, indeed, were the roosting bats.
There were hundreds of them, sleeping in the tree near the picnic site.  Remember that the flying foxes are fruit bats, the size of sea gulls.  They don't eat any insects, only fruit.  And they kind of stink. 

We tell our families apart by the shapes of their faces and their voices.  Apparently bats tell their families apart by their smell. 
As we walked up the path toward a bat overlook point, we realized there were not just hundreds of bats.  There were thousands of bats.
Or more accurately, tens of thousands of bats.  In 2003, the colony roosted in the botanic gardens, and it was 30,000 strong then.  I expect the population has only grown, if anything, since moving north to the Yarra Bend Park.
Here's a photo of the whole group, at the overlook area.
 We continued walking north, along the river, seeing the bats hanging in the trees on both sides.
Until eventually, the bats were gone, but the walk continued.  Green grass, eucalypts, and the blooming wattle trees.  To the north, after crossing a bridge, we exited the park right at the Mormon stake center, and then took the train home. Total time: two hours from bus to train. 

(Maybe we should have done that walk last June, instead of the two hour stake conference....)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Penultimate weekend: Quintessential Melbourne

Only two more weekends in Melbourne.  What to pack into the day?

How about a morning tram ride to Flinders Street Station?

Followed by a stop at the Melbourne Visitors Center, where we bought a couple of souvenirs at the gift shop.  Then, we hopped back onto a tram to Melbourne University, for a self-guided campus tour.

First stop, my office.
Yeah, the interior color choice is unusual.  Green walls, yellow doors, dark purple accents, and a lovely lilac wall that I'm not showing at the other end of the hall.  Different.  But a fine place to get work done.

Here is the outside of the building.  It's really quite a nice building, as you can see.
From there, we wandered over to the Arts Quad, where the famous camellias were in bloom.  But we didn't take any pictures of camellias.  Instead, here are Jonathan and I in the quad.

 We walked from the edge of campus over to the Queen Victoria Market, where we ate lunch and grabbed jam donuts from a truck.  Yummy.
And then, since we had some time, and happened to be right by the appropriate tram stop, we headed north to the Melbourne Zoo!  To see our last koalas.
And the family favorite wombats.
(We even saw live wombats, not just sculpture wombats.  And other animals, too.  I still love the platypus nearly the best, by the way, but since he is nocturnal, no photos for you.)

After a couple of hours in the zoo, we caught the tram back into the city, for Footy!
Freemantle was crushed by St Kilda.  Crushed!  And they thought Freemantle was a good team....

So there you go.  Can you think of anything -- anything -- more quintessentially Melbourne that we could have done in that single 12 hour period?  Anything? 

I thought not.

Cairns pictures, part III final

So I didn't realize until finishing the last post that we only had four more pictures from Cairns total.  We were there for a whole week, but apparently we stopped taking pictures.  But that's ok.  The photos we have pretty much cover everything.

The four remaining pictures that I have were taken on Monday.  Our snorkeling trip on Thursday was such a cool experience that we booked another snorkeling trip for Monday, on a different boat.  This time, we would do snorkeling only, at three different sites on the Great Barrier Reef.

The weather looked a little better that morning.  No rainbows off in the distance signaling storms.

Here I am with Jonathan in front of our boat and the blue sky.

It took about an hour to sail out to our destination, Flynn Reef.  The journey was much less bumpy than Thursday's journey.

This particular snorkel and dive company very strongly recommended wearing stinger suits, even though it wasn't stinger season, and the suits were included with the snorkel gear, along with mask, fins, life vest (optional), and pool noodle (also optional, but convenient for keeping the party together).  Not included was the option of renting a wetsuit, if you thought you'd be too chilly.  The water temperature was about 78 degrees, not bathtub warm, but not painful to jump into, so we decided we'd try it out first before renting the wetsuit.

Here is what Jonathan and I looked like in our stinger suits.

I didn't have my hood on yet, but Jonathan is modeling his for you.

And then we went snorkeling.  And it was awesome again!  And this time, we didn't buy any of the underwater pictures!  So you will just have to close your eyes and imagine awesomeness!

We saw parrot fish, clown fish, a white tipped shark, giant clams, and a whole bunch of other stuff whose names I don't know.  The ocean is alive!  (Are your eyes still closed?  Can you picture it?)

After our first snorkel trip, the boat was moved to another location on the same reef.  We listened to a talk about marine wildlife, which was interesting but not memorable enough for me to share with you.  We ate a buffet lunch.  And then we jumped in again.

The wind had picked up a little, and we had to pull that full body stinger suit back on, wet and cold.  But it was worth it! We swam around for another hour, seeing all the interesting sea life on the reef.  And then we came out and pulled off our suits, and the wind had picked up even more, and we were all shivering and blue as we hurried inside the boat. 

At our last stop, the sun was shining brightly, and we were in the warm tropics, but I was still wet and cold.

Jonathan and Tim got up and went to put on their cold, wet, stinger suits to jump in again.

But I was shivering.  Freezing.  I told them I needed to take a few minutes to warm up and they should go without me.

Just a few minutes.  And then a few more.  And a few more.

Every time the door opened to the snorkeling deck, and the wind blew in, I was cold all over again.

Finally I steeled myself.  I was on the Great Barrier Reef, and I was there to go snorkeling, and I would not be there again for a very long time.

Come on, J.  Snorkeling is worth a little bit of hypothermia.

So I went out, and pulled on the cold suit again, and jumped in, and swam vigorously!  And it was awesome!  And I'm very glad I did it.  But I was glad to come out and warm up and stay warm!

On the way back, we motored more quickly through the water, and the boat created large wings of water on either side, which washed over the windows and outside deck.

My final picture is an artsy one.  This is what Green Island looks like out a wave-soaked window.

So that's it for the pictures.

That's not it for our activities in Cairns.  We were indeed there for a week.  We only went on excursions three of the days.  The rest of the time we walked along the boardwalk, played in the hotel pools, went shopping in the city.  I bought a yellow rash guard shirt, which you saw me sporting in previous pictures, to prevent sunburn, because the sky is thin over Australia.  And they called it a "rashie."  As in, the "women's rashies are on that rack over there."  I was wearing a bright yellow rashie.

We also tried to buy Jonathan some good sandals to wear in the wet by the pool and on the beach, but there seemed to be only flip-flops available, no equivalent of Tevas.  So Jonathan wore shoes and socks, with all the added frustration (to Dad) of putting them on with wet feet.  I know I said we were done with photos, but now I remember we had a picture of that, too.
Attempting to put on shoes with socks on Green Island Beach.
And that is really all.  It was a very lovely vacation, at a lovely destination.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pics from Cairns, Part II

On Saturday, 5 July, we traveled inland, to see the tropical rainforest in the hills west of Cairns.

One of the best ways to get there is by Skyrail.

The Skyrail takes you up over the canopy, with amazing views -

- and a couple of stops along the way to walk through the rainforest.

The final destination is the village of Kuranda, the "Village in the Rainforest".

Kuranda is a pretty touristy town.  But it did have a lot of really nice art, including aboriginal art.  There were a couple of paintings that I really liked in art shops.  If I had had more time, more space, and more money, I would have loved to purchase some pieces.  But I did not.

This mural was outside, and we took this photo for free.

We ate lunch in Kuranda in a small cafe, that had a selection of children's books to entertain the little ones while you waited.  Tim was more entertained than anyone by this book.

From Kuranda, we caught a coach to the Rainforestation, a station set up in the rainforest to showcase animals, native culture, and to give tours on an amphibious army duck!  Part truck, part boat, built for World War II.

Here is Jonathan with a kangaroo.

It appears we didn't take a picture of the crocodile.  But we did take a picture of the sign warning you that crocodiles should not be petted like kangaroos.

Here is our tour guide on the duck tour.  He was really great, and super knowledgeable about plants, animals, and local history -- especially recent history.  It sounded like he had lived in the area for many many years.

One thing he told us about was the stinging tree.  Like a stinging nettle, it has fibers on its tips that embed in your skin and cause pain.  Unlike the simple stinging nettle, the fibers of this tree are covered with neurotoxin.  Stings can cause excruciating pain for six months or more. How did he know?  He had been stung, twice, and hoped never to experience it again.

When the amphibious vehicle entered the water, we saw a tiny turtle and a few large blue butterflies, Ulysses buterflies.  But that was it.  Still, very educational....

Next stop, native dancing, and other native events.  Like throwing a boomerang.

Tim wanted to play the didgeridoo, but I guess they didn't want his mouth all over it.  So we got instructions on how it worked, but only the guide got to play it.

Back to Kuranda, to catch the train home.  The Kuranda Scenic Railway was built between 1882 and 1891, and runs over tunnels and bridges through the rainforest to Cairns.

It stopped once, and we climbed out for a view of Barron Falls.  Apparently during the wet season, the rocks of the falls are almost completely covered with water.  During the dry season, in July, it's still an impressive falls, but not as powerful.

Here is a view of the falls from the Skyrail, earlier. You can see that it has the potential to be quite ... wet.

And here is the whole family on the train.  See how happy we are?

Especially Jonathan.

And that is the end of part II.

Pics from Cairns, part I

To realize how nice our vacation to Cairns was, you need to know a little geography.

We live in Melbourne, in the far south of the country, in the state of Victoria.  Cairns is in the far north, in the north of the state of Queensland.  Here is a map showing Cairns, Melbourne, and the seven states of Australia.  (Only seven states!  You can memorize them all, and their capitals, in almost no time at all just by staring at the map.  States are in blue, capitals are in white.  Oh, and Australian Capital Territory is not exactly a state, kind of like Washington DC, but the country capital, Canberra, is also in white.)

(Did you memorize all the states and their capitals?  There is going to be a quiz.)

Notice the line down the center marking the Tropic of Capricorn.  Because Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, if you want to get warm, you go north, say to Cairns.

How far north?  Well, Australia is actually about the size of the Continental USA.  Here is another map comparing the two.

The above map gives you a pretty good idea of size, but the climate is upside down.  Remember, because Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, you go north to warm up.  Notice how far apart Melbourne and Cairns are.  Now imagine flipping the above map upside down, to understand the weather a little better.

In the middle of winter, we hopped on a plane and flew from Melbourne to Cairns.  That's kind of like hopping on a plane in the middle of winter from Toronto, Canada, and flying to Florida, USA, to spend a week on the beach.  Ah nice.  Now you understand.

So the beach in Cairns is not actually its best feature.  It turns out that the beach next to the city is actually a large mud flat.

Not just a mud flat, but a crocodile infested mud flat.

Warning: Crocodile infested waters.
Not a problem.  The city has a beautiful, free public pool they have built on the side of the beach, with its own imported white sand.  That's the place to hang out in the water in town.

Me and Jonathan at the Lagoon: Cairns' public pool on the beach.
 Of course, the best place near Cairns to go swimming is along the Great Barrier Reef, just off the coast.  You can book a spot on one of many tour boats to go out to the reef and snorkel.  Snorkeling equipment included.

Me and Jonathan at the Cairns Harbor.
On Thursday, the 3rd of July, we booked a trip to Green Island, an island out on the reef, followed by a journey further out to Norman Reef for snorkeling.

Here is a photo of Green Island from the jetty where the boat stopped.  Pretty, isn't it?  The water was turquoise blue, and those dark things are coral, part of the coral reef. 

The wind was blowing pretty hard, and it was actually a little chilly.  We decided not to get all cold by going snorkeling during that first stop, but to wander around exploring the island instead so that we could better enjoy the snorkeling on the outer reef. 

It took about 20-40 minutes to walk all the way around the island.  Here are Tim and Jonathan on one of the beaches.  Notice the rain clouds in the background.  Storms at sea make for rougher snorkeling later -- but we won't get to that yet.

One thing you have to be wary of on the Great Barrier Reef are jellyfish.  Stingers.  Lucky for us, stinger danger was relatively low that day.

The island is made up of beaches around the outside, rainforest on the inside.  Here is a picture of one of the tour boats from a position on the island, under the trees.  Those guys in the dark shadows belong to me.

After a little over an hour of walking around Green Island, and exploring the beach, we headed back to take our boat out to Norman Reef, for some snorkeling and other reef experiences.

Because it was a bit stormy and windy, the boat ride was pretty choppy.  Lots of sea sick tourists.  We stopped at a pontoon out in the middle of the ocean.  Upon arrival, we could take our pick of activities: buffet lunch, semi-sub, for underwater viewing, and snorkeling!  We opted for a ride on the semi-sub first.  Here we are in front of it, ready to get on.

From inside, we could see some of the fishes and coral that make up the reef, and even take underwater photos using our basic camera!

Of course, the photos didn't turn out that great.  But still....

So I had been fine with the choppy water up until this point, but now, packed into the tiny sub, rocking around up and down and back and forth, I was starting to feel ill.  It was with great relief that we climbed out.

After a light lunch (still feeling a little queasy), we gathered our snorkeling gear and jumped in.  The tour ship had a professional photographer in scuba gear taking photos to sell to us afterwards at exorbitant prices.  Whatever.  We'll never come back, so we bought them.  Suckers.

Here are Tim and Jonathan.

Tim with a big fish.  This is called a Maori Wrasse.  The tour groups are allowed to feed these big guys, so they hang around to get their photos taken with the snorkelers.  

We learned that wrasses all start out female, but some of them change into males when there is a need.  Too bad for them -- Wikipedia says females live around 50 years, but males only 45.  I wonder how eternal marriage and eternal gender will work for wrasses in heaven?

Here is one with me and Jonathan and the wrasse.  And another friend. 

Here's another one of me and Jonathan from underwater. We paid a lot for that photo, so bog darn it, I'm going to post it!

The waves were pretty high still.  It was much harder to swim away from the boat, toward the reef, than to swim back.  The water was also pretty deep there by the boat -- about 50 feet?  Enough to scuba dive in, if you were certified.  And if you were just a kid, who hadn't had swimming lessons for a year?  Easily enough to drown in, and let your body be carried off to Papua New Guinea....  I was glad Jonathan had a life vest, and I hung onto it tightly.

But Jonathan?  He wasn't afraid at all.  He Loved it!  After swimming to the reef and back a couple of times, he declared it was so cool!  And he was right.  There is nothing as amazing as swimming around a coral reef.  The reef is so full of color!  Colored fish, colored coral, and so much life, in so much color!  Swimming color.  Moving, living, feeding color.  All going down 50 feet in some places.  Truly amazing. 

And Tim?  He liked it too, but he never quite got over the queasiness.  That and his mask leaked, because it turns out that snorkel gear doesn't fit so tightly around a mustache.  So Tim had had enough sooner than Jonathan and I, and he hopped out  and took photos of us from the top.

This is us from the top.  Our view from here was way cooler than Tim's view. 

And here we are getting out of the water. But only temporarily.

After a long time snorkeling, we packed up the boat, and headed back to Cairns.

And that is the end of part I.

(See the pretty rainbow in that picture?  Technically, it was taken in the morning, before we boarded the boat, and the one with the harbor was taken in the evening, after we got off.  But swapping the two worked better for the narrative.  Historical accuracy schmaccuracy.  You know you love it the way I tell it, right?)