Friday, August 10, 2012

Dusk and Dawn

Dusk and dawn are special times up here.  Night falls sharply and as it closes into deep blue tens of thousands of spectacled fruit bats rise up and circle above the coastal forest near our house.

"Those are going to Mr MacGregors farm.  Those are going to Mr Smith's farm.  Those are going to the rainforest." calls Mum, watching them as she swats the mosquitos wheeling about is.

The first bat rises in the air at dusk
Grass seeds catching the light as we wait for night to fall.

It happens suddenly.  At first they stretch their wings as the skies become the color of lemons.  Then a few lift off and flap heavily to a nearby tree, crashing back into the large leaves.  Then a few rise up together and cross in mid-flight before returning to roost.  This happens all around you into the middle distance.  Suddenly, one lifts up and flaps higher and does not return.  Then another, then another.  Stepping back 50 meters from the forest margin you realize that there are hundreds aloft, hundreds streaming out in long undulating streams towards the far horizons.

"Mr Smith's banana farm!" shouts Wren.  "They will BITE through the PLASTIC!"  Yesterday we passed a banana farm and saw the fruit wrapped in plastic to protect them and hasten ripening.

Soon a steady stream of bats flies out. 
You think they must be done but more and more rise up from the trees...

People stop to watch as they continue to stream out in all directions.

The next morning the sky was wide and blue.  Mum and I went for a walk / run down 4-mile beach.  Mum saw the sunrise but I was a bit later.  We are finally over the worst of jet lag and get up at 6.30am instead of 5am daily.

Sunrise at Port Douglas

The view from the South end of the bay at Port Douglas

Morning light on the coastal palms
Today we spent the whole day at the beach.  It was calm and almost waveless.  Wren became very brave entering the water up to his waist and Frost wallowed around for hours.  Mum and I lay under a beach umbrella alternatively reading, throwing a tennis ball for the kids and adjudicating their cyclical squabbling.

Here are some pictures of our day at the beach.

Arguing about who can break which castle and if you
can only break your own creation or someone else's IF its a game of
attacking and breaking a castle! 
Checking the morning beach conditions.  Calm.  Low risk of stingers.  Low
risk of crocodiles.  Jenny is the Lifeguard on Duty.

In the water.  Wearing a hat on sideways.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Land of Sobek Crocodile God


In North Qld there is a tension between the heat and refreshing watery vistas and the threat of crocodiles.  Even the main tourist beach in Port Douglas has signs about stingers and crocodiles (salties) and there was added signage on the day we arrived because a salty was seen off the beach last week.

The normal beach sign
Frost about to swim at the beach with the
RECENT CROCODILE SIGHTING sign in front of it.
We were reassured by the lifeguards that the salties seldom attack swimmers in the sea - its not like the rivers.  The salties go in both fresh and salt water but they seem to prefer to attack out of the real ocean.  Even so, a friend mentioned that one of the researchers working in the area had their foot bitten by a salty when they were on a paddleski in the surf.

Today, on the way to Daintree Village, we stopped to look across the river and saw two fat wild crocs lying on a sandy inlet on the other side.  As we drove over a small bridge past a tributary stream, Mum mentioned that on a previous visit to the area they learned that a man was killed by a crocodile swimming in that creek at night.

A freshwater croc at the Rainforest Habitat Center.  He is green
from algae in the water, not his usual color!

Warning by the Daintree River.
We saw this big information sign on a National Park walk.  Its all crocodiles and cassowary information everywhere.  Cassowaries = GOOD and Crocodiles = BAD. 

Crocodile information board
In an interesting synchronicity, Wren and Frost have been listening to a CD of Egyptian mythology and we learned about Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile-headed god who was an aggressive and troublesome fellow.   Perhaps crocodiles are the bane of all riverine people.  The hot weather, the tempting waters, the lurking jaws.  

Looking out across the Daintree river today at the beasts on the shore, I certainly felt the tension.

Mossman Gorge

This morning rain rolled off the sea over the coastal rainforest.  There was a small area of alternating clear and overcast sky over Port Douglas but inland and up north low skies hung over the green hills and the sugar cane fields.

An early morning walk along 4-mile beach under grey skies.
Frost still had a swim.

After an early morning walk, we took a drive up to Mossman Gorge in the Daintree National Park - a beautiful rainforest area in the hills above Mossman where a few crystal creeks roll into the jade green Mossman River.

On June 22nd , 2012, a new visitor center opened and you now park your car at the Mossman Gorge Center, pay for an 'eco-shuttle' ride and wait for the bus.  There is a lovely cafe - Mayi Cafe - at the visitors center and you can watch birds from under the wide eaves of the open air cafe seating.

The boys, Mum and I walked the 3km circuit through the rainforest looking at huge buttressed trees, lawyer vines and odd tropical fruit.  There were few birds visible in the rainforest - Mervyn saw more on the forest margins - and although Frost considered swimming on the way in he decided not to on the way out!

Frost overlooking the Mossman river.  Large fish loitered by the beach
expecting treats from tourists.

Wren, wearing his new koala hat, at the Mossman Swimming pool.
We drove North as far as the Daintree River ferry to Cape Tribulation but had had long enough in the car and returned home.  We bought a ripe black sopote from a farm store and will have it for desert.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sailaway to Low Isle

Tuesday 7th August 2012
You can't swim to the Great Barrier reef from the beach at Port Douglas.  It is about 72 km to the outer Agincourt Reef (90 minutes in a high speed catamaran) or an hour sailing to the inner reef island of Low Isles which is about 15 km off shore.

We decided to head to Low Isles because there is an actual beach to land on and the calm reef in the lee of the wind is more low key for the Frost to practice snorkeling.  

We left at 8am, meeting at the Port Douglas Marina along with many other tourists and buses.  Some of the big outer reef catamarans can take 400 people but our sailing catamaran (Sailaway) had 31 on board.

Mum and Frost in the early sunshine.  We have had sun and warm weather all week.

On the boat at the marina, with fresh muffins and coffee.

We motored out of port into the swell of the Pacific and the captain raised the sails while the staff gave out fins and masks to everyone who was planning to swim and then we wallowed in the waves for an hour on the way to the Low Isles islands. 

When we arrived, the Captain pulled up alongside the catamaran in a glass-bottomed boat and ferried us to the beach.  As we drifted above the coral Wren peered into the glass box and saw a shark.  Later, on a glass bottom boat tour he saw "a giant clam, that was the best thing I saw!  And A SHARK!  And a  SHARK!"  He also saw a glimpse of a turtle swimming away.

Frost and I went on the advanced snorkel tour of the rim of the surrounding reef.  Frost poked his head up at one point and said "This is blowing my mind!"

We were at the Island for about 3 hours and Frost was snorkeling for 2 of them!  He described his snorkels:
"We saw vibrantly colored corals, many different types of fish included wrasses and large angelfish and cool looking zebra fish.  The biggest fish I saw were a pair of really big bat fish and I also saw a huge shoal of baitfish that you would swim towards them and some would swim away and some would go aside and some would swim behind you."

On the beach at Low Isles with Wren.   
A Starfish on the beach at the tide came in.

Wren says "I was lying in the sand to get the water off and then I was going
to jump in water again to get the sand off and do it again."

The lighthouse has been staffed for over a hundred years.
There was a lunch buffet on the beach followed by some snorkeling off the boat.   Some large batfish and remora hung around the boat hoping to be fed and Frost and Mum swam out to some coral bommies 50m from the boat.  

Wren couldn't be left on the boat alone so I snorkeled by the boat in the deep deep blue water - watching the huge batfish while he dabbled his feet in the water from the bottom step of the dive platform.  At one point, while snorkeling about 5 m from the boat, a 4 foot reef shark passed near me with two ramora on it!  I confess, I left the water for a moment.

Watching fish off the back of the boat

Wren sits over the deep blue sea watching batfish and small shark. 

On the way back into Port Douglas in the late afternoon we saw a small pod of whales - a pair with a small baby whale they were holding up.  The captain pulled up and we watched them for a while.  It was the closest I have ever been to a whale.  You could see the warty bumps on the whales faces.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Day 3: Whileaway Bookstore Port Douglas.

We are still all mixed up timewise.  I told Frost we were going out to a coffee shop before dinner.
"Dinner?" he squawked.  "We already HAD dinnner."
"No, that was lunch."
"LUNCH?  But if felt like dinner.  What time is it?"
"Its four pm."
"Argh.  I hate jet lag!"

He is happy now.  He and I are sitting down hooked up to the internet for the first time in ages.  The password for the $4 an hour wifi was "lamington".  Frost is watching yogscast for the first time in 3 days.

Today Mum and I did morning yoga at the beach at 8am but the day began three hours earlier when Frost got up to see if it was morning yet.  Going back to bed woke Wren who cried because he had lost "baby dog".  That woke me. I woke Mum.  We were all up by 5.15am.

At 6.30am we watched the Olympic Track coverage of Usain Bolt winning the 100 m.  It was LIVE.  The Olympic coverage here puts the NBC coverage to shame.  At all times during UK Daylight, there are 6 channels providing LIVE coverage and replayed highlights of daily events.  At one moment I could flick between table tennis highlights, women's archery finals, the women's marathon, equestrian qualifiers, basketball and something else.  Incredible!

Before we stepped out, we were watching live 400 m hurdles qualifiers and steeplechase.

It is utterly different to watch live.  It makes me keep coming back for more in an active way while the NBC highlights is more like a packaged entertainment where you just sit and stare.

Swimming with a Big Tire
Frost has been loving boogie boarding in the small waves.  The CROCODILE and STINGER RISK signs continue to concern me and I sit on the beach alternating between reading my book, responding to Wren's urgent demands that I jump over waves and scanning the water for saltwater crocodiles or Salties as they are known here.

According to a local whom we met today, they are much more of a problem in recent years because they are not culled and numbers are increasing.

We rented a big inner tractor tube to play on today and Mum and Frost floated over the waves and toppled and splashed a lot.  Another swimmer said to Mum "You get an A for effort."

Wren sulked because he didn't want to come in the deep water but it looked as if we were having fun!

Ordering Burgers
I have been having an awful time trying to order food.  I failed to order the coffee I wanted and then had to get help ordering Burgers for lunch.  Apparently my years in the States have ruined me for Australian Fast Food.

Here are some hints for ordering a burger.  I knew this stuff, I had just forgotten and stumbled in my delivery:

1) Ketchup = Tomato Sauce
2) Fries = Chips
3) Pickle = Gerkin
4) Chips do not come with tomato sauce, you have to order it.
5) Relish is not
6) Root beer is not.  Sarsparilla is close.
7) There is no tax.
8) You do not have to tip everyone.

We have found a very nice Burger Joint called The Bull and another great pie joint.  Urbanspoon is sadly out of date around here.  I shall have to try and catch them up.

Wren says fruit bats have faces like Beezle.  What do you think?
Tomorrow we are taking a boat out to an inner island on the Great Barrier Reef to snorkel and look at fish through the glass bottom of a boat.  Wren, Frost and I are going with Mum.  Mervyn has a sore leg and is going to stay home.  Frost is very excited.  Wren is mostly excited about bats.  He says that Fruit Bats have faces like Beezle.  We are going to watch them fly out tonight at dusk.

It is now an hour from dusk and I must leave this cafe and head back to the house where we left Mum showering, Mervyn watching Olympics and Wren drawing.

We are going to watch birds and have a drink by the harbor.

Till tomorrow.  I hope to hook up the pictures soon.

Day 2: Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia

Day Two Vacation.

Port Douglas, Queensland.

Its 6.36 am and the boys are sitting at the bar in their pajamas eating Milo breakfast cereal.  Due to jet lag, both were asleep by 7pm and so we did quite well to sleep through till 5.37am

We arrived here in the early afternoon and enjoyed a visit to the beach and a swim at the main swimming area on the Port Douglas end of 4 mile beach.  The beach had the usual red and yellow lifeguard flags flying with big warnings posted about LOW RISK of stingers and the advice that crocodiles had been seen.

Crocodiles and stingers are big news up here.  At the pie shop where we had lunch you could buy crocodile pie alongside your beef, chicken vegetable and corn asparagus pies.  At the Sunday Market a store holder told me her friends had fled the river yesterday after a crocodile came after a fish they caught while out on the water in their tinny.

I asked "was it a very big crocodile?" thinking that it was a bit much to flee.

She answered "I didn't get a real idea how big it was but crocodiles are mean things that just want to eat you so they thought they'd get out of there." 

When Mum inquired about the beach warnings, the lifeguards said that while crocodiles are regularly seen swimming up and down this stretch of beach they were not  big problem to swimmers as they 'seldom' attacked people.  The theory is that saltwater crocodiles come into the ocean but feel a bit out of their element and prefer to catch fish and people in rivers and estuaries.  They have the warning up all the time.

Mum told Frost "always make sure there is one swimmer further out than you" on the theory that the crocodile or shark will eat the further out swimmer first.

Frost wore a yellow and black wetsuit and loved swimming.  He was not concerned about crocodile risk.  

Wren was very worried about crocodiles and stingers but forgot as he focused on jumping waves.  He kept up a constant dialogue about jumping a ONE wave or a TWO wave or doing his Keyhole move.

This morning, Sunday, after a walk along the beach in the early early morning, we came home for second breakfast.   Frost swam in the early light while Wren fought imaginary ogres with his wooden axe.   Cyclist peddled up the long flat beach at low tide and Frost pondered whether he could climb a palm tree if he really needed to and how he would get the coconut loose if he could.  Both collected coconuts and checked if they floated.

On the walk home we saw a giant butterfly.

Heading to Australia

Waiting to board our first flight in Seattle

Day One
Our flights from Seattle to Cairns have been spectacularly normal.  No delays, clear skies, civilized co-travelers and standard Qantas civility.  If I was tweeting I would use my 240 characters to say "it all went well."

But the devil is in the details.

More particularly, the Little Devil aka Wren who has been driving Frost and I crazy unless he has the iPad or iPhone and Candy.  At all other times he is invasively bored.  Booooooooored as in:

Putting a water bottle on top of the iPad when Frost is using it.
Kicking the seat in front.
whining loudly "IS IT HALF AN HOUR YET?"
Doing loud mental arithmetic on a loop for 15 minutes "It is 3 hours plus 14 hours it is 17 hours and how many hours it is 3 hours plus the Boss Flight for 14 hours it is 17 hours.. [Me: and the flight from Brisbane to Cairns:] I have DONE THAT… how many hours is it?  20.  BUT I HAVE DONE THAT.. it is 3 hours plus 14 hours…"

Wren did sleep well last night - from about midnight till 7am PST - snuggled with two pillows and a neck pillow (each boy bought one in LAX - I actually bought one for myself first and they both fought over it so I bought another and had none).  Frost slept well too - about the same hours.  The difference was that Wren does not find watching a screen particularly entertaining.  He likes to play with a game - interacting.  He had the iPad for about 3 hours interspersed with epic adventures to the plane bathroom and meals.

The Meals
Frost and I were vegetarians and sadly, there is no kid vegetarian, he did not find the food to his liking.  It was mainly sautéed vegetables in tomato sauce - the same thing for breakfast and dinner but breakfast came with beans and spinach in tomato sauce while dinner was zucchini beans and rice.  Wren liked his but couldn't really eat at midnight and only wanted chips and chocolate for breakfast.

I ate meals about every 4 hours around the clock and enjoyed everything,

Wren now has to pee urgently.

A peaceful moment.  A RARE moment.

On long haul flights you have to strike a balance between hydration and urination or ins and outs as they say in hospital.  Supermodels and celebrities asked for their international travel tips invariable go on about the need to drink a lot.  Let me tell you people, they are not traveling in economy class.  They are not seeing economy class bathrooms.

When you are in economy class you are sharing a tiny bathroom with about 50 people.  At the outset of the flight the bathroom is fine.  Its like eating a meal from a tupperware.  Its not luxury but it works fine.  Five hours in its like eating lunch from a tupperware you found in a downtown dumpster.  There are strange damp spots all over, the bowl is smeared like the maw of a well-used Porta-Potty, the sink won't drain so someone else's phlegm and toothpaste froth rises up towards you as you wash your hands (which you feel compelled to do rather vigorously).  The mysterious hole that is supposed to take the used hand-drying serviettes is constipated with the silver flap jammed open so you have to push hard to make it take one more and you keep telling yourself that the wet floor is from people splashing while hand washing at the sink.

And your kids go in barefoot.

The thing is, I don't understand why I have to pee so much if I am really so dehydrated by the cabin pressure and low humidity?  If my body has been leached of liquid, surely my drinking is just topping up?  Why do I have to pee more?  Its just nonsensical.  On the decent into Brisbane I told the kids to hold it, we can go to a real bathroom on the ground.

"Great" Said Frost.

Interview with Frost about airplane toilets:  They are small.  The toilets are too loud.  The cold water won't stay on.  Etcetera.  I don't rank them too highly.

Interview with Wren about airplane toilet. "They are okay."

The Qantas Club
When we arrived in Brisbane, we had an hour to wait in the Domestic Terminal so we went to the Qantas Club where Mum had given us a guest pass.  The haughty lady at the front counter wanted to say "No" we couldn't come in and then said "I guess, even though it is expired" and then realized it was NOT.  She said we could.

For those who don't know, The Qantas Club is an airline club frequented by very frequent flyers, rich people and business people.  It is somewhat hushed, has free newspapers and buffet, internet, posh bathrooms and lots of leather lounge chairs set up for extended waiting in comfort.

Its not a child friendly place, culturally, although the amenities - a toaster that spits out delicious raisin toast, an automated pancake machine, fresh fruit yogurts, biscuits and unlimited juices - keep the kids happy.

Wren is fascinated by the Olympics.  Since he learned about the medals and the winners and the pathos of the losers something has gripped him.  Qantas is one of the Australian Team's Olympic Partners so the lounge was set up with a fake running track around the white 'marble' bar.  

he proceeded to start running laps around the painted track where people were staring at the hi-def live feed from the Velodrome.

I managed to corral him and Frost in a booth and go and retrieve food from the buffet but Wren kept chasing me, perhaps wondering whether I was going to run out on them and leave them in this foreign place to live in vegemite, greek yogurt and biscuits.

Frost started reading the Weekend Australian Olympic Supplement and informed us (loudly) that "CHINA IS WINNING THE OLYMPICS.  THEY ARE BEATING AMERICA"

(Why do my children have to talk so loudly?  Is the ability to whisper some kind of frontal brain development not acquired till later teens?)

I tried to explain that the Olympics were about individual excellence as much as national pride but he was sure its all about the medal tally and spent some time theorizing about how the medal count (of gold, silver, bronze) was used to rank nations.

Wren was jealous of Frost's focus and tried to kick the newspaper out of his hands but kicked the crockery instead and made a great discordant clatter followed by a melodramatic guilty look and "Uh oh!"

We have now been called to the final flight from Brisbane to Cairns.

"I wish there was sugar cane!" said Wren, looking out the window at the ocean below.
"That was in Hawaii" said Frost.

A woman in a seat ahead turned round.  "I live in Cairns" she said. "There are fields of sugar cane.  There is a sugar mill."

"YAY!!! WE CAN GET SUGAR CANE!" shouted Wren to Frost, me and the whole plane.