Tuesday, 7 January 2014

I Write From the Land Down Under

I flew to Sydney from Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur and arrived in Sydney the morning of December 20th.  Just in time to enjoy some relaxing down time before Christmas with my Aunt Kathryn and Uncle Ron at their home in a suburb of Sydney.  I was able to enjoy some of the things I had been missing in Asia; toilets that you can flush toilet paper in, good thick yogurt, grocery shopping, TV (I even caught up and watched the final season of Breaking Bad), nights that cool off, family, and widely, well-spoken English...even if it does sound a little different than I'm used to.  I got to see my cousin, Jenny again who I haven't seen in about 18 years as well as meet her husband, David and their two cute little girls (my second cousins?) Hannah (nearly 4) and Olivia (nearly 2).  I was even invited to make gingerbread houses with Jenny and two of her good friends Sarah and Karen.  My other Cousin, Emma, who was travelling with me during the earthquake in the Philippines in mid October, also came out from Melbourne for Christmas.
David, Jenny, Hannah and Olivia
Jenny, Karen, and Sarah; GINGERBREAD HOUSE MAKING!
Christmas in Australia is strange for a Canadian used to flannel pyjamas, snow, a cozy fire, sub-zero temperatures outside, and a big turkey dinner in the evening.  Instead, we had rain and temperatures in the mid 20's.  I was thankful for the rain because it meant it was cool enough to sit outside under shelter instead of being cooped up inside reliant on air conditioning with temperatures outside reaching 40 degrees C.  David made pork and "chook" on the BBQ (he didn't call it a Barbie!) and we had cold cider and beer in the "esky" (cooler).  My Uncle David and his partner Carol came over for dinner and brought smoked trout and "heaps" (a lot) of prawns, served cooked but cold and whole so peeling is required.  We stuffed ourselves on the main course and then again on dessert which included Australian favourites such as "Pav" (pavlova), Trifle, Lemon slice, and Christmas pudding.  Next, my cousin (in-law?) David dressed up as Santa with shorts, a red jacket, hat, and "sunnies" (sunglasses) to hand out gifts, with lots of help from his cuties, Hannah and Olivia.  It was a really nice way to spend Christmas!

Putting the "AUS" back in Santa Klaus.
Part of Christmas Dinner - yummy prawns

On Boxing Day, Emma picked me up and took me out of the suburbs and right into the heart of Sydney.  We stayed at the condo of one of her friends (thanks!) and over the next few days we saw some of the iconic sights of Sydney.  On the 27th we met Uncle Ron and Aunt Kathryn at Circular Quay and took the ferry to Manly for Kathryn's annual birthday trip to see the shops, have some fish and chips and a drink, see the beautiful beach and enjoy the ferry ride back taking in views of the Sydney Harbour including the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.  Emma and I stuck around for a walk around Manly and a close look at the Opera House...I always thought it was made of smooth white fibreglass or some other smooth fabric or material but it is actually covered by thousands of off-white tiles...not what I was expecting!   We had a drink and some snacks (oysters!) at the Opera Bar with views of the bridge then we walked around to see the opera house from the other side before heading to The Rocks, an historic area of old stone houses and hilly roads.  We had a beer and a "Coat of Arms" pizza at The Australian Hotel which featured Kangaroo and Emu, just like the Australian Coat of Arms.  The next day (Dec 28) we went to Darling Harbour and met Uncle David and Carol at the Sydney fish markets for lunch (Delicious!) before heading to Tamarama beach for a quick swim before meeting another relative, Susan, for a lovely dinner and some very stimulating conversation at her beautiful home overlooking Tamarama beach.

Aunt Kathryn and me at Manly Beach

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House is tiled?!?!?

Sydney Opera House at dusk

Susan and me
The next day (Dec 29) Emma had to return to Melbourne so we went to brunch and then to see Maroubra beach where my mum used to swim when she was a kid and where my grandmother and grandfather's ashes were scattered.  Of all the beaches I saw in Sydney this is probably my favorite.  There is a wide surf area and on one side there is a rock pool where you can swim in calm waters surrounded by crashing surf and sheltered by a rock wall.  Beautiful.  After this, it was back to the suburbs to Uncle Ron and Aunt Kathryn's place.  We went for a damn good feed at the RSL (Returned Service League?... Basically like a veterans club similar to Canada's Legion Halls) and some surprisingly fun poker machines (I lost...or donated to the club as Ron puts it).  We took my little cousins to a beach south of Sydney Dec 30 and the following day I took the train into the Center of Sydney for New Years Eve.  
Emma by the rock pool at Maroubra beach

I met up with a travelling friend, Luis, again.  I originally met him on the "travellers loop" in Saigon on the bus to the Chu Chi Tunnels and then met him again in Chiang Mai.  Luis (from Adelaide) was visiting his brother, (ridiculously also named Luis! For the purposes of this blog: Luis2) who lives in Sydney.  Luis2 lives in a house with something like 16 flatmates.  Some of them staked out a rock star viewing spot on the Sydney foreshore on the north side of the harbour right beside the bridge and across the harbour from the opera house at 6am (thanks Christina and others!).  We had a fun and friendly group of about 20 made up of mostly folks on working holidays from Germany, Holland, the UK, USA, and even a few locals.  I met them at around 2pm, took up a spot, and we bided our time playing cards, visiting, eating, and people watching, we even made group expeditions to the toilets (atrocious).  Despite the horrible toilet and crowd situation, New Years Eve on the Sydney Harbour is not to be missed.  Boats strung with Christmas lights cruise up and down the harbour, a firefighting boat sprayed huge jets of water, planes did amazing aerial acrobatics, and the FIREWORKS!!!  This year was the 40th anniversary of the building of the Sydney Harbour bridge and to celebrate they shot fireworks off of it.  Fireworks were launched off of a number of buildings downtown, the opera house, barges up and down the harbour from the bridge, and, of course, off of the bridge itself.  The most intense part was at the end when the entire base of the bridge formed a waterfall made of sparkly fireworks that poured out of it forming a wall of light between the bridge base and the water of the harbour below.  It was an amazing experience to be surrounded by people, light, smoke, and the boom and crackle of fireworks to ring in 2014.  After the fireworks a procession of lighted boats streamed past the opera house heading home, this was an amazing sight.
Part of the New YEars gang; Luis1 is in the upper right
Some more of the New Years crew

left to right; Luis2, Will, Luis1.  The Luises are brothers... not twins.  remarkable resemblance!

Procession of beautifully lit boats moving back up the harbor after the New Years Eve festivities 
On Jan 2 Ron and Kathryn took me to the Blue Mountains to see the three sisters, to do a little hike and to ride the scenic railway (the worlds steepest railway!).  Jan 3 I picked up my rental van complete with a fold out double bed, small gas range, dishes, cutlery, pots and pans, esky, and camp chairs.  I started my trip by picking up Mary, a Canadian working in Sydney who I met in Saigon.  We went to the iconic Bondi beach for lunch, a swim, a visit, and a lie in the sun.  I dropped her off and headed north out of town towards Canton Beach, my first stop.  .  
Me and Uncle Ron obscuring the view of the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains
Short forest walking trail down from the Three Sisters

Lyrebird - fancy tail, dull head
Bondi Beach
Me and Aunt Kathryn and my Jucy campervan

everything you need - cookstove and cutlery on the left, spot for an Esky in the middle, water and dishes on the right, sink on the upper right, workspace countertop along the top.
My bed

I stayed in a "Holiday Park" that first night...yuck.  Steer clear of these unless you want to pay too much to camp Iin what looks like a well mnicured trailer park with a tent town.  I have since found that the National Parka, State forests (free) are much nicer.  Jan 4 I backtracked to Terrigal to walk up the Skillion to see a recommended coastal view which did not disappoint before heading northward again stopping at Forrester beach for a swim, some sun and a "Sanga" (sandwich).  I stopped at the Entrance to see Pelican Feeding and then drove a little further north to Munmorrah National Park where I got the second last campsite (phew) in the Freeman's Campground near Birdie Beach.  I met two great girls from Sydney there; Amanda and Nicole.  Nicole is a fellow Divemaster and Amanda is a wealth of information about campervanning around Australia (where to stay, what to see and do, what book to use to find free camping and maps).    Freeman's campsite had an amazing location with a beautiful beach just a short walk over sand dunes away.  Nicole, Amanda, and I ended up having a swim, sharing dinner, discussing the etiquette of unclad swimming (part of the beach was nude), and I decided to join them the following day on two dives they had signed up for back at Terrigal

Pelican feeding time at The Entrance
Nicole showing off "Big Red" Amanda's campervan

Directions to where the smugglers release their budgies

Birdie Beach at sunrise

So, the following day, Jan 5, we backtracked to Terrigal to dive the HMAS Adelaide.  This wreck was only sunk two years ago and it has some maturing to do, there wasn't much life there outside of an impressive school of kingfish around the towers.  There is a lot of freedom to penetrate this wreck but I prefer to see more critters.  I opted to do a reef dive for my second dive which we had to do from shore since high winds made it impossible for the boat to get an anchor down to the second site we tried to dive at from the boat.  The shore dive was mediocre with not much going on.  A bit of a let down for my first couple dives in Australia.  After the dives I said goodbye to Nicole and Amanda and drove inland to The Hunter Valley.
Amanda and Nicole at the surface prior to our last dive at Terrigal

I finally saw some Kangaroos!  There was a big group of them grazing in a field beside the road in the orange sunset glow as I reached my destination, the Hunter Valley Resort, near Pokolbin.  I stayed two nights at this resort parked in their motor home parking lot where no one else was staying.  The resort is a hotel, vinyard, brewery, and has a restaurant, cafe, vinyard tours, and beer and wine tasting.  It is also an easy walk to at least two other vinyards.  I had access to a shower, laundry, bathroom, and swimming pool for $30/night (cheap for Australia) and I could leave my van parked while I sampled some wine.  On Jan 6 I did the vinyard tour (Shiraz grapes) at the Hunter Valley Resort and then I got picked up by at shuttle bus to do a wine tour.  We went to 6 wineries, 1 distillery, a cheese shop and a chocolate shop and sampled at least 6 wines at each stop and all sorts of flavoured vodkas and liqueurs at the distillery (chili-ginger, chocolate-mint, chocolate-orange, moch, butterscotch, coffee, chili, ginger, strawberry, lemon, etc.).  The driver, Gary, and the whole group was really fun and sociable and we got a little education along the way.  The Hunter Valley region is known for its white wines primarily (Semillon, Verdelho) as well as some Shiraz.  I'm usually more interested in "big" red wines but I still found some I liked and it was a fun day out.
Very educational stop at Rothsvale Winery

Wynwood Winery


Many flavors of liqueur at the distillery

Coffee vodka sample at the distillery

winery tour shuttle

Gary, our shuttle driver who said charming things like "ok, out of the bus my lovelies".  Adorable.

Chocolate Wombats

Sunset over the Hunter Valley

Sampling the Beer Paddle at Hunter Valley Resort
Jan 7 I headed to Barrington Tops National Park which included a very scenic drive through green hilly fields full of dairy cows, sheep, and Kangaroos with eucalyptus trees in groves beside the road.  Barrington Tops park itself is a shady, misty, cool area with huge trees classified as a temperate rainforest.  I did a short hike here which did a loop through the forest near a crystal clear creek and small waterfall.  I saw a few Lyrebirds scratching in the leaf litter and heard a lot of different bird calls.   I spent the night in Chichester State Forest, free camping in a pull-out area away from the road about 50m.  It was complete solitude, I didn't see or hear another soul from 8pm until I left at around 9am.  I had dinner sitting outside and listening to the bell birds (which sound like a sonar ping) and rustling noises from the woods beside my van...I think it was wallabies because I would hear a loud rustle, pause, then another loud rustle, as though the creature was hopping.  

Scenic drive to Barrington Tops National Park from Hunter Valley

Driving through the state forest near Barrington Tops National Park
Hike in Barrington Tops National Park

Hike in Barrington Tops National Park

Hike in Barrington Tops National Park - I think this is the bark of a ribbon gum

Very beautiful countryside near Barrington Tops National Park

The next morning I drove to Forster, I went to Forster Dive, a scuba dive shop, and signed up to dive the following morning and then went to one mile beach to do the coastal walk.  The walk is a few km long, traverses the length of one mile beach, then climbs some huge sand dunes to a lookout point where I was able to watch dolphins playing in the white surf around the rocks.  I took out my binoculars and even saw a baby dolphin diving in and out of the surf right beside mom.  The walk continued along the top of a rocky coast with awesome lookout points and shady vine covered tunnels all along.   I returned to one mile beach and decided to spend the night in the parking lot by the surf club there since I had an early dive the next morning and it was already sunset.  I had a sunset swim and rinsed in the outdoor beach shower, had some dinner and a cup of tea and turned in for the night.  I rose bright and early to go diving but when I reached the dive shop, they had cancelled the dives due to low visibility.  Oh well, that have me an early start on the day so I got some groceries and headed north.
This fisherman made some adoring fans when he cleaned his catch

Seal Rocks, near Forster

One Mile Beach in Forster
lovely coastal walk in Forster with trees overgrowing the trail to create a green, shady tunnel

Sunrise on One Mile Beach after spending the night parked at the surf club
Camel rides being offered at one of the beaches between Forster and Trial Bay
I arrived at Arakoon National Park, Trial Bay Gaol (pronounced Jail) in the early afternoon on Jan 9 and I found a nice sheltered campsite in the overflow area (still cost $42/night! But the main campsite was full and there were luxurious coin-op hot showers).  The overflow camping was gorgeous with sites overlooking the ocean on a rocky bit of coast.  I enjoyed the day with a swim, some beach time and getting some photos of the Kangaroos at the campground.  One of them even had a tiny Joey in her pouch.  I had an evening guided tour of the jail by a knowledgeable park staff.  The Trial Bay Gaol was built between 1877-1886 to house prison inmates whose laboir could be used to build a breakwater out of hand hewn granite blocks off Laggers Point to make Trial Bay a harbour of refuge for ships too big to cross river mouths.  The breakwater was supposed to reach 1500 metres out into the bay but heavy gales caused damage as it progressed over the years. In 1898 and 1899 new wings were built on the prison, suggesting work was intending to continue, but in 1903 it was abandoned. The prison was costly to run, the breakwater wasn't making much progress (only 300m was ever built and only 50m remains today) after 17 years of construction, and in the meantime ships had become sturdier and no longer needed the harbour of refuge as much.  In 1915 the gaol was reopened to hold German wartime internees. Most were single men of some education and included officers of the German Army Reserve.  This was the last use made of the prison and it was stripped of roof, metalwork, and fixtures which were sold off in 1922.  
Mama kangaroo with a joey in her pouch
watch out or a kangaroo might kick you square in the nuts or shove you in the stomach!

Trial Bay Gaol

The next morning I went to South West Rocks Dive Center at 7am to gear up and go do two boat dives at Fish Rock Cave.  I cannot recommend this dive shop or the dive site enough.  It was one of my top ten dives of all time and the staff at South West Rocks Dive Center run a really tight operation with free Nitrox for all divers, clean equipment shop, nice boats, friendly staff, no time limit on dives (aside from no decompression diving), small groups (I dove with a guide and only 2 others), a well appointed washing and drying area for gear, a big retail area, and a great shower to use after a dive.  The dive site, Fish Rock Cave, was incredible!  We descended through blue water with 20m+ visibility, 21C lowest temperature, and cruised a short distance to a gully with sand and shell debris on the bottom and granite rocks forming the sides! at least 10-15 Grey Nurse Sharks (these are called Sand Tigers or Ragged Tooth Sharks in North America) were circling in the gully, many of them were 5-6' long.  We watched the sharks for a while then entered the cave.  The cave was created by a fault in the island, and it runs from the deeper seaward entrance at 24 metres, 125 metres through the rock (including a chimney you need to swim up through) and at the end you emerge into a blue, fish filled, silhouetted shallower entrance at 12 metres.  Inside the cave there are enormous lobsters living in cracks in the rocks and huge Wobbegong sharks up to 8' long as well as large Black Groupers.  At the cave exit there were so many Wobbegong sharks lying on the rocks that you couldn't look in any direction without seeing one or two.  I also saw a moray eel, large friendly Blue Gropers who like to be tickled and stroked like a dog, a turtle that approaches divers to be hand fed, curious Batfish, big Bull Rays, and many colorful wrasses.  The divers I was with were good on air so we got 65 minute dives each time.  Fish Rock Cave Dive Site delivered on every front and I would go dive there again in a heartbeat if anyone wants to go!  
Fish Rok cave
South West Rocks Dive Center boat beside dive site

Wobbegong shark - this one is about 6' long

Petting a Blue Groper
Friendly Blue Groper


Grey Nurse Sharks swimming in a school of fish with our guide Cain for scale

More Grey Nurse Sharks with Cain for scale

Big, beautiful Grey Nurse Sharks; up to 9' long

Grey Nurse Shark, from this angle you can see why they are also called Ragged Tooth Sharks

hand feeding a Hawskbill Turtle

After my dives I refuelled, put more ice in the Esky, bought a 6-pack of beer to cool and drove the Waterfall Way between Urunga and Cathedral Rock Narional Park.  It was a longish drive so I only did a short reconnaissance stop at Dorrigo National Park where there are beautiful rainforest walks and skywalk lookouts over the canopy and continued driving to arrive at Cathedral Rock National Park in the remote and secluded Barokee Campsite.  I saw a Brushtail Possum on my way to the toilet last night and saw 2 wallabies and 5 kangaroos cross the road on my way to the campsite and some spectacular red parrots.  
Skywalk at Dorigo National Park
 Campsite at Cathedral Rock National Park
Brush Tail Possom at Cathedral Rock National Park



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