New Zealand: A pelagic bird trip

We went  to Kaikoura to go on a boat tour, not just any boat tour, we were going on an Albatross Encounter! In the morning we woke up at 5:00 and took our sea sickness pills. And then we went straight to the Albatross Encounter office. They took us to the boat dock, and there we went on to a pretty small boat and we took off. The swells were about 1.5 m tall! Soon the boat stopped and the skipper (the person who drives the boat) threw a chumball (a ball of frozen fish liver, which they traded for beer from the fishermen) in a net in to the ocean so the albatrosses could come and eat it. Soon there were two Wandering Albatrosses, two Salvin’s Albatross, two White-capped Albatross, and two Giant Petrels within a meter of us! IT WAS SO CRAZY!

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(Owen’s bird pictures he took from the boat:)

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Salvin’s Albatross

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Wandering Albatross

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Northern Giant-Petrel

Albatrosses have a 3.5 m wingspan, and they were right beside us, it was so cool. Giant Petrels have tubular nostrils that help get rid of salt. Salvin’s Albatrosses have orange stripes on either side of their bill that show when they’re excited because they are near food.

We went to two more stops and we saw a few more birds. Here are the birds we saw:  we saw six other Salvin’s Albatross, 1 more Wandering Albatross, 3 more White-capped Albatross, Cape Petrel, Westland Petrel, Grey-faced Petrel, Hutton’s Shearwater, Short-tailed Shearwater, Buller’s Shearwater, Australasian Gannet, Pied Shag, Kelp Gull, Red-billed Gull, and White-fronted tern.

On the way back there were dusky dolphins swimming right under the boat and they were jumping out of the water like crazy! There was even a mom and a baby. Then we saw a couple of new Zealand fur seals on small rocky islands. When we docked I was sad to leave because I had such a good time!

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Mom and baby Dusky Dolphin

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New Zealand Fur Seal

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Owen

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New Zealand: the South Island

Bucket List! I can’t believe we made it to the bottom of the world in New Zealand. We had a total of 5 weeks, both islands to cover, and 2 groups of friends to visit and hang out with along the way. Woohoo! I’ll start our story on the South Island; we actually flew into Auckland, hightailed it to Wellington, then caught the ferry to Picton after a few days visiting a friend.

The Interislander ferry was a smooth, sunny ride on gentle seas. We birded off the decks the whole 3.5 hours, and saw Fluttering Shearwaters, Fairy Prions, and our first Albatross (White-capped)! Sweeeeet. We even spotted a mola in the waters as we coasted on by. It was pretty magical entering Marlborough Sound, it felt like we were in a dream.

When we arrived, the Highway from Picton to Christchurch was still closed more than a year after the earthquake, so instead of a 2.5 drive to Kaikoura we took the long way around. That means over 8 hrs on winding roads with stop and go traffic, taking 2 full days – Yikes! But we enjoyed the drive, and stopped for a picnic at Lake Rotoiti, with amazing mountains, busloads of tourists, and a couple new birds: New Zealand scaup and Black-billed gulls. The gulls were banded, and the boys had fun reading the band combos, which we will send to the researcher (we’re such science geeks).

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We thoroughly enjoyed our night at a little campground along the river in Murchison, where we had an amiable host, free kayaks and fishing gear, and we saw New Zealand Fantails flycatching over the water, and had a close encounter with a Weka.

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A rainy drive to Kaikoura couldn’t dampen our spirits, since we were all pretty stoked to get there for our pelagic tour with Albatross Encounters in the morning. The weather cleared up overnight, which means there were post-storm swells out at sea – thank goodness for motion sickness tablets – but the sun peeked through and we had a terrific morning birding with a great guide. 14 species of birds, including 4 petrels ( Northern Giant-Petrel, Cape, Westland, Gray-faced), 3 Albatrosses (Salvin’s, Wandering, White-capped), 3 Shearwaters (Hutton’s, Short-tailed, Buller’s), plus gannets, cormorants, gulls, and terns. Owen has more to say about this in an upcoming post, I’ll let him fill in the details.

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Kaikoura at dawn

The rain came down even harder, so we diverted to an Airbnb on a farm outside of Christchurch, where we got to meet the locals: a wonderful family with 2 boys who played board games with our kids all evening, and their animals: sheep, chickens, and angora rabbits. Great fun, all around.

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Farmstay Fun!

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The drive from Kaikoura to Christchurch

Heading inland towards the mountains I was SO EXCITED. I’ve seen so many images of the area on social media, and when we started encountering roadside lupines, and you could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance, and the blue lakes appeared, I was giddy with joy. We stopped at the Church of the Good Shepherd, and then at Lake Pukaki where we got our first views of Mt. Cook.

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Lupines!

There aren’t a lot of campgrounds for tenters around, so we found a spot in Twizel (we had to share the space with a bajillion sand flies, which are like black flies back home but their bite is worse!), and after a visit to the river to soak our toes (and where we saw Common Redpolls), we ate some dinner then went back to the lakeshore to await the sunset. It was stunning, with the fading pink sun shining on the glaciers of Mt. Cook. This area is a dark sky reserve, AND it was the peak of the geminoid meteor shower, so we waited until dark in the hopes of seeing stars and meteors. Unfortunately the clouds rolled in and obscured the sky, but we had a wonderful peaceful evening; a great memory.

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Mt. Cook at sunset, from the end of Lake Pukaki

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One of the great New Zealand walks is the Hooker Valley, which follows the river for 5 kms one way, over 3 suspension bridges, and ends up at the lake at the foot of Mt. Cook, with icebergs calving off the Cook glacier washing up at your feet. It was as good as it sounds – we were all in great spirits, and were in awe of the landscape around us.

By the time we arrived in Lake Wanaka, we realized how tired we were of the pace – hours each day in the car, with every night in a new place. We slowed down and had a couple nights here to plan, mixed in with a visit to Puzzling World (which we all loved – 3D pictures, sculptural illusions, and a giant maze which we solved brilliantly, without fighting!), some ice-cream at the lake, sunset at the Wanaka Tree, shopping in town, and lots of time on the trampoline. It felt good to ignore nature temporarily 🙂

 

It was here that we were forced to decide, and with heavy hearts we opted to skip Queensland, Te Anau, and Milford Sound: with limited days left on the South Island, the pace and hours of driving would be simply too much. We started out SO ambitious, wanting to see it ALL. Unfortunately, life catches up to you, and we had to make some hard decisions about what we could and could not accomplish. So we turned West instead of South, visiting the Blue Pools (that weren’t blue), Ship Creek (which had Hector’s Dolphins playing in the surf), skipping Fox Glacier (we couldn’t afford the heli flights anyway) and headed up the coast to Franz Josef.

The New Zealand summer holidays had begun, and campgrounds were filling up, prices were being raised for the week, and the trails were getting busier. But that didn’t stop us from loving it here. The west coast was like a mix between the Canadian Rockies and Hawaii, tropical but with glaciers. But what made it truly Kiwi was the alpine parrots flying around! We saw a few Kea here, way up high, and giggled with glee.

We wanted better looks at Kea, so drove up the winding mountain roads to Arthur’s Pass, but it was 8 degrees and raining sideways so we ate some hot pies (a national food here), and drove back down again…you win some, you lose some 🙂

A couple of nights in Punakaiki were bliss – we did a riverside walk amongst the tree ferns, visited the pancake rock formations, and watched the sea explode into surge pools, ate some Tip Top icecream (SO GOOD), and beachcombed at sunset. It helped that the weather was finally improving, with sunny days and not a drop of rain!

Our last South Island stop was in Kaiteriteri, the gateway to Abel Tasman park, another long-dreamed of destination that I’d heard about for years. There’s a multi-day coastal walk that sounds amazing, but we opted to give our feet a break and try something new, so we booked a day-long sea kayak tour! The four of us took two double sea kayaks, and had a guide along with us. The sun was bright, the swells were high (1.5 – 2 m), and we all had a marvelous time, checking out coves and lagoons, The parents’ arms were a bit more tired than the kids’ by the end *ahem*, but a couple of hours at sea followed by a picnic lunch and play time on the beach was just what the doctor ordered.

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This 2 nights/location thing was still a fast pace, but it worked out great for us as we were able to stretch our legs and explore longer and further, which was much more relaxing and definitely more fun. We weren’t getting many new birds, and were definitely noticing the lack of biodiversity overall – hardly any spiders or dragonflies, no snakes or frogs, but New Zealand is definitely known more for it’s incredible landscapes. And we thoroughly enjoyed getting out on hikes in forests and on mountains, into the ocean and onto the beach. We had to re-calibrate our expectations, and once we started to just see the beauty in the wild instead of simply in the wildlife, we understood the appeal of this glorious land. And the best part: we were only halfway done! Three weeks on the North Island were coming up, starting with Christmas in Wellington!

Theresa

 

 

 

Gripes

9 weeks in the glorious country of Australia! We have loved (almost) all of it, but we might have a few words of advice for the business owners, rule makers and general citizens.

*Note: the following list is not cheerful, happy traveller tales. It was written while stuck in traffic after 6 hrs on the road, and 3 more to go. Wheee!

  • 10 am checkouts. Who can eat, clean up, and pack up by 10? That’s not enough time to do anything.
  • Tailgating appears to be a a national pastime. What the heck? Back off already!
  • $3.50 for one, locally-grown avocado, is not a sale.
  • 200 MB is not free wifi. Get with the century already.
  • Toll roads that have no means of dealing with transient tourists does not encourage tourism. It does, however, encourage rants in online survey forms.
  • Your weather forecasters need to go back to meteorology school. Lesson #1: look out the window.
  • Hidden kid fees are not appreciated: $20/child linen fees at an apartment? Why, do they sweat more than adults? Or $15/child additional camping fees…why, do they use more TP than expected?
  • Raw pet food in the raw meat section of the grocery store, right beside the beef roasts, without obvious markings, is very confusing and can lead to all sorts of unexpected chagrin.
  • If you make auto insurance mandatory, maybe people won’t abandon their vehicles to rot on the side of the highway along with kangaroo carcasses, like in some post-apocalyptic world.
  • If you want to reduce traffic accidents and road mortality, don’t charge $7 for a gas station coffee.
  • Do something about the heat and the flies, will you?! (These are additions from the kids).

But, even with all these negatives stacked against her, Australia has a couple of redeeming features that more than make up for her sins.

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All is forgiven.

Theresa

Australia by the numbers

Kilometers driven: 12,113

Average daily expenses: $210 (surprisingly close to budget – how did we manage that?!)

Bird species seen: 336 (!)

Nights spent in a tent: 40/65

National parks visited: 17 (at least, plus a lot of reserves and state parks etc)

Warmest day: 43 C (in Kakadu National Park)

Coldest night: 9 C (in Washpool National Park)

Meals eaten out (i.e. not home cooked): 7. Yes, 7. Out of 195. We are CHEAP.

Kangaroo burgers eaten (per person): 3

Tim tams eaten (per person): waaaaay too many…like, 2 a day?

Platypuses seen: 5 (yay!)

Green sea turtles seen: 0 (boo!)

Leech bites: 3

Fights between the kids: Every. Frickin. Day.

Fights between adults: no comment.

Fun we had: too much!

Sydney to Melbourne, and beyond

The countdown was on…! Knowing we only had 2 weeks left in Australia, we had to make hard decisions about what we really wanted to see and do. We opted for a mix of inland and coast (as always), and hoped to find that balance where we could see a lot without exhausting ourselves.

Our first stop was at Coledale Beach for some sun, where Owen managed to skype his class back home, which was really cool. Waking up to the ocean at our feet was amazing. Sharing the bathroom with a pack of teenagers wasn’t. Moving on…

Kevin led us to an inland campground next, in Budderoo National Park, with the hopes of seeing Southern Emu Wren, GangGang Cockatoo, and Ground Parrot. We didn’t see any. In fact, it was a super bummer, with a lot of effort with no reward. But we did to see some lovely plants, including a couple species of sundew, some cool unidentified beetles, a visit by a swamp wallaby, and we got to watch a Southern Boobook hunting around our camp at dark, with was pretty neat.

Up next: a free campground lovingly termed “Wombatville”. Yes, that’s right, we were about to camp with wombats wandering about in the dark. And it was as wild and wacky as you would expect. They emerged from their burrows in the riverbank around dinner, and walked in between our chairs, under our car, and brushed up against us as they marched to their favourite patch of grass and began chowing down. We counted 8 individuals before it got dark out, but there may have been even more – the sounds outside our tent at night, and the poop piles (square!) outside our tent in the morning gave signs as to what had occurred whilst we slept. Fun!

The kids could have stayed for days, as they loved engineering waterways on the riverbank in the sand/mud, and made some new friends to play with, but we were ready to leave after a night of teenage partiers whooping and swearing all night long – get off my lawn! (Can you tell we’re getting irritated by others?).

We loved our visit to Jervis Bay, with it’s incredibly clear (and cool) waters where the river flowed into the sea, and where the boys coasted on their boogie boards along with the current. The wind conditions here were great for kite surfers, and we feasted our eyes on the acrobatics before us. Plus, a campground with free trampoline, mini-golf, giant chess and splash park was a blast for all!

Hiding from the weather in Merimbula for a couple nights, we thoroughly enjoyed much-missed luxuries like puzzles, tv, bubble baths and french toast with (Real Canadian!) maple syrup (and a bit of birding, of course!).

The routine of rainforest and beach was getting a bit old, so to switch things up we opted for a farmstay for a night. It was such a cool experience, to feed apples to the pony, get a wild ride on an atv while touring the farm over the hills, meet the huge bull, fall asleep to the sound of bleating sheep, and gather eggs from the chooks in the morning. This place also had a ping pong table and a billiard table – score! We got a few new bird species here, too: European Goldfinch, Jacky Winter, Musk Lorikeet, and Little Lorikeet.

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Sunset at the Farm

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Dawn at the Farm

We pushed hard to get to the Great Ocean Road before a major storm descended upon the whole of South Australia. Long days in the car meant that we got to the bottom of Australia with a day and half before the weather turned. And it was an amazing day and a half. We played in the ocean, gathered seashells, took long walks along the shoreline, checked out a herd of kangaroos, and watched King Parrots and Crimson Rossellas, used to tourist handouts, land in our empty hands. Plus there were Superb Fairyrens all around us!

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Approaching storm on the Great Ocean Road

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Crimson Rossella

But the real draw here were the koalas, a different subspecies than what we had seen in Queensland. There were a *few* around (each of these is a different individual!):

After getting text messages from both the car rental company and the government warning about the imminent flooding, we opted against continuing on to see the Twelve Apostles, and booked an airbnb nearby, hunkering down for a couple nights. In between bouts of rain we made sporadic outings to the water to collect seaglass and sight Australasian gannets and Dusky dolphins in the bay.

It was time to wrap things up. A few days in Melbourne to explore the Yin Yang hills, wander down the pier in St. Kilda to say hello to the Little Penguins, return our car rental vehicle, and backup our cameras, and it was goodbye for now.

Little Penguin

We all had an unbelievable time in Australia, and were thrilled at the landscapes, the wildlife – both big and small – and met some really wonderful people. We all agreed that we could come back in a heartbeat to wander down the west coast, and see what treasures are there to be found. So it’s really not goodbye, it’s more of a see ya later.

Theresa

Sydney and Surrounds

I have to say, we were kinda dreading Sydney. We had many discussions leading up to it on whether or not we should actually skip it altogether. But we figured that at the very least, we needed to get a picture of the Opera House, and then we can get back to the wilderness.

So we booked 3 nights in an Airbnb apartment, which would allow us 2 full days of exploring. Of course, it was raining when we arrived, so we ordered some pizza and watched Harry Potter on our laptop – ya, I know, you’re jealous.

The next morning after some belly-filling eggs and toast, we packed our bag with raincoats, water and snacks, and set off to get our Opal cards, which allowed us to use the public transportation. Once topped up, we hopped on the train towards Central Quay. Trains are always a hoot, and friendly locals who direct the confused tourists towards the right platform are always appreciated.

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Trains = Fun

And then we arrived. There were swarms of people, with a wine festival and a massive cruise ship docked, but that couldn’t take away the majesty of the heart of Sydney. It really is beautiful – the old port, the harbour bridge, the opera house, and the Botanic gardens create a lovely spot for wandering, mixed in with artisanal markets, buskers, bistros and boutiques. We took pictures of the Opera House, marveling at it’s architecture and design, strolled through the gardens, bought some souvenirs, ate some lunch, and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

The next day started rainy, so a low-key morning hanging around the apartment in our pjs was on the agenda, and just what the doctor ordered. After lunch we decided to take the train to Central Quay again, and then catch the ferry to Manly. It was really scenic, passing through the harbour towards the peninsula on the north end of the city. After disembarking, we grabbed some McSpiders – McDonald’s version of a screamer, for a mere $1 each! – and wandered to the beach down the quaint main street, sat and watched the surfers getting tossed by the waves, with the sun on our faces and sea breeze in our hair.

We walked along the foreshore to Shelly beach, then up the trails to the viewpoints, ending up on Blue Fish Trail in North Head National Park. A scrubby forest with New Holland Honeyeaters calling around us, some WW2 gun pits, and the highlight of the day: a close encounter with an echidna. We’d been actively looking for one, so to have a long and close look was awesome!

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An echidna!

We ended up having fish and chips on the beach before catching the ferry back to Sydney at sunset, and the train back to the Airbnb afterwards. A full and fabulous day.

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In the morning we headed up into the Blue Mountains, which is a national park within Sydney’s city limits. We ventured out to stunning viewpoints over the valley, and hiked down to the waterfalls scattered along the trails. It was gorgeous, but busy, so not a whole lot of wildlife around. The weather had turned quite chilly, so we appreciated the indoor camp kitchen at dinnertime, then bundled up in layers to sleep.

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The cold was a bit hard to take, so we headed back down to the coast, stopping for some birding in Royal National Park – and got completely skunked for the first time on any hike. Not one bird! But there were some big ants, pretty trees, and a lizard, so it was ok. Honestly, it’s great to be naturalists, there’s usually something alive out there that can capture our attention and help us appreciate the diversity and beauty of nature. If there’s no charismatic megafauna, even a bug or a fern can be a joy to behold.

[Clockwise from top left: a lizard, a really big ant, shadows on a tree, beetle larvae patterns on a tree]

Heading towards our last leg of Australia, hoping for a few more experiences and sightings to round out this Oz adventure!

Theresa

The East Coast, Cairns to Sydney: Beaches

Every beach we visited was a unique and fabulous experience. Sometimes it was an afternoon playing in the water, or maybe it was a sunset stroll, or a beachcombing visit, or we’d pop in for a picnic lunch as we were driving to the next destination. Some beaches had wildlife, or dunes, or pebbles, or shells, or miles of white sand. The only consistent thing was how soft the sand was: on every beach, it’s fine as flour, and was like walking on pillows. Glorious.

Mission Beach
This is where we discovered the kids love of sandcastle building. Hours on end, they barely looked up.

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Alva Beach
A shallow estuary when the tide went out, where we found one big defensive crab, and hundreds of small round crabs that would scurry away as we approached.

Sunshine Beach, Noosa Heads
A sunset walk, with washed up Bluebottles (Portuguese man-o-wars), and wet sand that you’d sink in!

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Mooloolaba Beach
We bought the kids $10 boogie boards at the local Kmart, and the kids spent hours in the ocean, riding the waves. Best investment ever.

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Seven Mile Beach, Lennox Head
More boogie boarding! There was lifeguard training and surfers out in the waves to entertain us as the kids played in the water.

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Blue Lagoon, Angourie Reserve
Tidal pools full of anemones, snails, and seaweed! Surge channels that fill with the tide. Lagoons to swim in (although we only soaked our feet). Super fun to explore.

Digger’s Beach, Coff’s Harbour
A rainbow of pebbles littering the beach, every colour under the sun, all smooth and round and polished by the surf. Not another soul around.

Booti Booti beach, the Lakes Way
Small dunes that are way too much fun to jump off of, sand for miles and miles, utter serenity.

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The shell of an Eastern Smooth Boxfish, found on the beach

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Stockton Beach, Port Stephen’s
40-m high slopes of shifting singing dunes, where we ran up and ran down until there was sand in every orifice.

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Along the way, we visited a few towns and cities (we aren’t totally wildlife-obsessed, just mostly wildlife-focused). Airlie Beach has a great public lagoon, where we swam and chilled, safe from crocs and stingers. Outside of Noosaville is the village of Eumundi, with it’s incredible artisanal markets – a wonderful way do some shopping, eat some gourmet food, and support local and handmade – can you say mango sorbet and Toblerone fudge? We spent a couple rainy days in Brisbane; a shout-out for this amazing city, that has grouped together The Gallery of Modern Art, the State Library of Queensland, the Queensland Art Gallery, and the Queensland Museum – all downtown along the picturesque river, and all free! Amazing artwork, including the Obliteration room by Yayoi Kusama, beautiful aboriginal paintings, fabric and woven sculptures and more – a nice change of pace that we all needed. Plus, we had a visit by a brush-tailed possum at night, super neat.

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Obliterate!

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A painting at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane

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Brush-tailed possum

At Byron Bay, we walked up to the lighthouse, giving us great views of the shore, and where we could say we were at the most Eastern point of Australia!

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Beaches and cities to round out all our rainforests and wildlife, but now we were ready for the biggest city of all: Sydney!

Theresa

 

The East Coast, Cairns to Sydney: Parks

The East coast of Australia is where most travellers end up. It’s definitely the main thoroughfare in the country, linking major cities to the best beaches by a major highway. We spent a few weeks travelling south from Cairns on our way to Sydney. We decided to take a more indirect route, however, in the hopes of seeing as much wildlife as possible. So we zigged and we zagged, going up into the hinterland where there are lush rainforests and waterfalls, and heading back to the coast where the ocean was always waiting to embrace us with her wild beauty. We had some incredible days, and some miserable ones too – the rain was hard to escape, and was at times demoralizing. But we were keen to see wildlife, so onwards we pushed.

Most of the trips up into the mountains meant switchbacks and steep climbs for an hour or two off the highway until we arrived at our campsite in a national park. Here we had high hopes of seeing amazing wildlife of all sorts. We weren’t’ disappointed. The mountain parks we visited were incredible, and from north to south, were:

Kuranda National Park
We birded up and down the Black Mountain road, and managed to see Victoria’s Riflebird here – our first member of the Birds of Paradise family.

The Boulders
Not a National Park, but a river with a crystal clear pool full of cold crisp water, where we enjoyed a refreshing swim, jumping off the rocks. Awesome mid-afternoon spontaneous break to escape the heat.

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Eungella National Park
I think this was our absolute favourite park. Two nights in the rustic Fern Flat campground, with pademelons and potoroos hopping through the woods, and fireflies surrounding us at dusk. By day we saw Lace’s monitor and Blue-tongued lizard, Saw-shelled turtles and Freshwater snakes, Noisy Pitta and Regent Bowerbird; by night massive spiders, crickets, a scorpion, toads and frogs, and a Koumala leaf-tailed gecko. This is also one of the best spots to see Platypus, and we were lucky enough to see 5 of them! A morning walk down to the river from the camp, or an evening look from the viewing platform, and there they were diving and surfacing, so small and acrobatic. A highlight of our entire trip so far.

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Fireflies!

Noosa National Park
A crazy busy spot, with tons of tourists and traffic, but it was all worth it to see the beautiful post-burn eucalyptus forest, jumper ants, Brush Wattlebird, and our first koala! Soooo cool.

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Burned Eucalyptus forest

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I want to hug him, like he’s hugging that branch.

Wollumbin National Park
Walking the trails in an absolute downpour means we didn’t summit Mt. Warning, but we did see a female Satin Bowerbird and hear an Albert’s Lyrebird singing in the rain! Plus a cicada, a huge pillbug, and some kind of mini hammerhead snake?

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Washpool National Park
We walked through the rainforest along the river and up the hills, listening to the Bell Miners tinkling all around us, and watching Crimson Rossellas and King Parrots zip through the trees. There was a lot of rain here, and a few ticks that had to be extracted from various body parts, but toasting marshmallows at the campfire with Southern Boobooks calling in the distance was wonderful. We stumbled upon a red-bellied black snake, and Bellbird campground gave us an unforgettable encounter with a Superb Lyrebird. He perched and preened 5 m behind our tents, singing his songs of mimicry for 10 mins, with all of us watching agape.

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Red-bellied Black Snake

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Superb Lyrebird

Dorrigo National Park
A lovely view over the pastures from our campsite, a walk to a waterfall, and more rainforest trails. Red wattlebirds, Green Catbird, and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters. More rain and cold nights though, which was getting to be a bummer.

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Room with a view

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Nature’s playground!

We didn’t expect this much cold and wet weather, and when we’re camping in tents, it was hard to take day after day. The coast always seemed warmer and drier, so our beach interludes were so welcome! And thank goodness for caravan parks with shelters and kitchens, and for booking.com and airbnb, where we could book a last minute place to hide from the weather, do laundry, warm up, and chill out when needed.

Theresa

 

 

 

 

The Great Barrier Reef

Bucket List item #9. Yes, this wonder of nature is actually on my top 10. And we got to experience it, and share it with our kids. But let me backup a bit…

It was actually a struggle to decide how to visit the GBR: there are a few launch points (Cape Tribulation, Port Douglas, and Cairns are the main ones), there’s the inner and outer reef, there are numerous locations which are marketed as being the best spots to see wildlife, some boats are small some are big, some are sailboats some are catamarans…but the thing they all have in common is that they’re all pricey. I mean, Kevin and I are cheap – how else could we have saved up for this trip? – and we’re not used to doing anything that costs money – so it’s possible we’re just out of touch with what experiences actually cost. But we were surprised that one of the lowest prices we found was for $600 for the 4 of us, for a day (8:30 to 4:30). But there’s no way we were willing to miss out on seeing the reef, so we swallowed our shock, forked over the money, slathered ourselves in sunscreen, and hopped on board.

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We booked with Ocean Freedom – on a catamaran, visiting 2 snorkel spots, with 75 other tourists. It was about 1 hr of smooth waters to reach the outer reef, and along the way we were lucky enough to see a flying fish and a sea snake! We arrived at the first anchor spot where we had a couple hours to explore, so after gearing up we jumped right in, excited by the underwater treasures awaiting us.

 

There were starfish, sea cucumbers, anemones, urchins, and the most diverse coral we’ve ever seen. The fish, too, were abundant and diverse – you’d look down, and there would be a dozen species surrounding one brain coral. Angelfish, batfish, boxfish, pufferfish, groupers, wrasse, clownfish, and more. We’ve never seen so many different species of parrotfish ever! We watched cleaner fish doing their thing, and giant clams opening and closing.

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The highlight was a massive barracuda that was hanging out under the boat, who had scary-looking teeth, but was apparently a gentle giant.

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Barry the Barracuda

We did a 20-minute glass-bottom boat tour, and were impressed by the environmental slant of the talk. Our guide gave statistics on the biodiversity contained in the reef, and how many species were threatened, he talked about the impact of water temperature changes which lead to coral bleaching, and how turtles eat plastic bags since they look so much like their primary food source, jellyfish. It was educational, and hopefully most of us on board will think twice about the effects of our actions.

Tired and cold, we headed back on board for a great lunch spread. The crew were amazing, giving the kids extra attention – they even filled up a giant bowl with hot water and dunked it over their heads to warm them up. We drove over to the second site, but there was some difficulty anchoring, as the wind had picked up, and a strong current was causing problems. We all got in, and were being guided by a knowledgable and friendly crew member, but alas, swimming with all our might, all the tourists had to bail within 30 minutes, unable to fight the overwhelming current. There was a huge Queensland grouper, along with a massive school of Spangled Emperors all hanging out under the boat, which was neat to see as we exited the water. But other than that, the second snorkel was a bit of a bust.

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A school of Spangled Emperors hiding under the boat

The boys were quite disappointed to miss out on some promised megafauna: sea turtles, sharks, and manta rays were nowhere to be seen. It was actually a good life lesson: you can’t always get what you want, you have to learn how to deal with disppointment; wildlife cannot be controlled, and if it is, it’s most likely not truly wild; and when you DO manage to see that sought after target oh, how sweet it will be. We’re lucky in that we still have a few more months of snorkeling adventures in many countries ahead in hopes of seeing more, and we truly hope that the boys understand what an incredible gift it is to have such an opportunity, at such a young age, to see wildlife in the wild.

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Would you look at the colour of that water?!

We are grateful to have had a wonderful excursion at sea together, seeing this UNESCO world heritage sight. After a day at the reef, and some time to absorb what’s important to us, we’ve decided NOT to visit Fraser Island or the Whitsundays (each of these would be over $2000 for the day, I KNOW RIGHT?!), but instead we’ll save our money and spend it in New Zealand, as there are a few experiences there we are really looking forward to (glow worm caves, pelagic sea cruise, Milford Sound cruise, and Tiritiri Island, to name a few). I know, life is rough, eh? It took a lot of sacrifices to get us here, but I am painfully aware of how lucky we are, and pinch myself almost daily…is this all real?! If it’s not, don’t wake me – I’m enjoying the dream.

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Theresa

Cassowary Encounter

We were on a walk in the rainforests of Daintree National Park and we had thought it was a good idea to go on a little trail that leads to nowhere with our flip-flops on in hopes of seeing a southern cassowary. Cassowaries are giant dinosaur-like birds that can grow to 1.8 m in height! But they’re so big they can’t fly. Cassowaries are dangerous because they’re aggressive and they can kick you with their 12 cm dagger-like claws.

Southern Cassowary

This is what they look like.

We had just seen a Wompoo Fruit Dove and were coming around a bend when all of a sudden a couple walked up to us and said “be careful there’s a Cassowary up ahead”. So we walked slowly and quietly down the trail and when we came around the corner my dad said “there!” and pointed. It was a Cassowary! It was crossing the trail about 20m in front of us so we followed it.We watched it forage until it walked away. We were so happy and excited that we had seen a Cassowary. I think Cassowaries are super cool creatures.

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This is the one we saw!

Callum