Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Face to face

In three days on Kangaroo Island, we've spied on penguins, pet koalas, fed kangaroos, talked to cockatoos, spotted echidnas, held falcons, communed with seals, and fed pelicans. We've seen rocky coasts, smooth beaches, rolling farmland, and eucalypt bushland. What's left? Crystal caves, of course.

C. has thought about caves for many years thanks to a vivid episode of Danger Rangers. Happily her first experience of a real one was positive.

If only we could conclude our visit to the island with some iconic encounters that would sum up what this week has meant? Okay, if you insist.

The rainbow over the road reminded us of our honeymoon in Ireland 12 years ago, where there was a rainbow every day. This trip hasn't exactly been a honeymoon, but the memories will surely last as long.

And it's not over yet. In the morning, we fly to Melbourne!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Raptor domains, sea lion cities and pelican hordes

We started strong this morning with a visit to Raptor Domain, the birds of prey show!

The off-season advantage continues to pay dividends, as the 250-seat amphitheater was under capacity (with exactly six). Thus when the presenter sought a volunteer from the audience to hold a falcon, the competition was less than cutthroat.

The bird keepers were even able to produce a smaller glove and let T. have a go with an owl.

And because C. had gotten so many of the birds of prey trivia answers correct, they accommodated her dream request: a peregrine falcon, who doesn't usually do the shows.

After such a climax, we unwound with a walk down to the beach. Except that this was a walk down to the beach with a naturalist to watch the sea lions returning to their warrens in the dunes after three days at sea.

By the afternoon we had crashed from overstimulation, along with irritation from the electronic squawking of the inevitable stuffed peregrine falcon toy from the backseat.

The perfect evening pick-me-up on Kangaroo Island, it turns out, is the nightly pelican feeding on the dock. These things are much bigger than you think, and deeply strange looking. When they all move their giant scoop-shaped heads at exactly the same time toward the fish in the amiable man's hand, well, it takes your mind off things.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Earth, air, water, fun

The second, epic day with our expert Kangaroo Island guide began at an old farm that was donated to the national parkland. We strolled among the rusting Model Ts and tried not to spook the--oh, kangaroos.

After morning tea we spotted an echidna waddling around, listening for ants. Echidna: the Other Egg-Laying Mammal.

Guess what T. found? A cello.

We left T. in the car napping with Tim (told ya he was good) to walk down a boardwalk to the windy, rocky coastline and visit with the colony of New Zealand fur-seals that lives there.

This is called Admiral's Arch.

But the A-list geological formation is Remarkable Rocks, which is like an awesome piece of public art out on a promontory.

Normally this would be crowded with busloads of tourists, but it was just us and the wind and the orange algae.

We closed our day at the visitors center for the big wildlife preserve, which sounds lame until you learn it has an interactive exhibit on the geological, paleontological and anthropological history of the island. Plus some trees to climb in the parking lot, a gift shop to pick up some t-shirts, and a place to change a poopy diaper.

Still not enough? How about a sand pit where kids can dig for simulated fossils?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

It's a wild, wild life

We now entered the care of one Tim Harris of Extraordinary Kangaroo Island, a luxury outfit that provides guided drives to as much wildlife and notable sights as you can cram into two days. Plus gourmet lunches, history and anecdotes, and great company for two harried parents and two good-humored kids.

The first stop was a bee farm which was novel but not yet extraordinary. Next was lunch, cooked on the spot, in a secluded tent in the bush.

Not only can Tim spot wildlife, make Australian farming history interesting, drive on dirt roads, play 20 questions with a 6-year-old and crack up a 2-year-old, he can cook too. Not that anyone but Jess appreciated it.

T. was just happy to have a limitless supply of sticks he could turn into guitars.

After lunch things got rather giddy. With our VIP access to the wildlife park in the center of the island, we were suddenly feeding kangaroos...

Petting koalas...

And conversing with cockatoos. That's literal, more or less: this bird says "hello!" in an Australian accent. It had Colin doubled over laughing--and T. beaming and saying "hello" right back.

Also on site were wombats, black swans and their goslings, the rare cassowary, a white peacock, and an emu.

Okay, we give in: this is extraordinary.

Friday, August 26, 2011

When in Adelaide

Kangaroo Island, our next major stop, is 8 miles off Adelaide. The planes leave at 9am and 6pm. But the plane from Cairns to Adelaide lands at 10am. So, we have an afternoon in scenic Adelaide, whether we wanted it or not.

Everyone tells us to go to the zoo, which is expensive, old hat, and it's raining. No, for us Ivy Leaguers it's the free Musuem of South Australia, a recently renovated natural history extravaganza. They have real scientists in the front lobby sorting the contents of owl stomachs, a huge survey of Aboriginal history and art, lots of stuffed animals, and of course dinosaurs.

By the time we got to Kangaroo Island it was bedtime, but Jess took C. out anyway for something special--the evening walk of the penguins.

While naturalists pointed red flashlights at them, we watched the moms walk the little fuzz balls out of their boxy burrows down to the water for a swim.

It was the first taste of the epic wildlife experience we were about to have.

Aboriginal gangstas

Rented a car to get to Cairns, where the airport is. Driving on the left is easy, but remembering which rod is for the turn signal and which is for the wipers is totally impossible.

We spent the morning at Tjapukai, the Aboriginal Cultural Center, which is meant to be a kind of theme park but in the off-season is basically a master class. The team of young Aboriginal interpreters gave us personal tutorials on didgeridoo playing (C. was the only one who made the correct deep sound instead of an elephantine howl)...

boomerang throwing...

and Aboriginal dancing.

We also saw a show on mythology featuring computer graphics that interacted with the performers, got to paint our own rocks that we now have to carry around in our luggage, and had ourselves decorated pretty awesomely.

It was like Plimoth Plantation as redone by Disney. Ever since, T. has been occasionally refusing to put on a shirt or shoes on the grounds that he is an Aborigine.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Acrocalypse now

Port Douglas is also uniquely positioned for a travel into the rainforest. So we took advantage of that with a boat ride down the Daintree River, known for its crocodiles.

We were fully prepared for the hunt.

But it didn't require any effort, since our handsome boat operator and guide was able to spot the discreet beasts with eyes squinted shut. He was almost smug as he aimed his little mirror light at a log or leaf and identified it for us as Gary or Beatrice the croc--or a hatchling or black crab or green tree snake or frog-mouthed bird--and suddenly there it was.

After lunch we were driven to a gorgeous gorge where we could step over grub turkeys, admire the exotic foliage, and wade onto some very big rocks.

We ate seafood in town as the sun set over the water, next to our table.

And just to prove that the kids are now officially over America, here's C. with her menu...she's taken the time to cross out, rather than color, SpongeBob and friends.

Monday, August 22, 2011


The reason we were in Port Douglas was its accessibility to the Great Barrier Reef, via a 2-hour ride out on a big tourist-packed boat to a specially purposed pontoon.

They efficiently process all the people through their choices of lunch, an underwater viewing tunnel, scuba lessons, a submersible excursion, and of course snorkeling. C. bravely gave it a go.

Jess got substantial time underwater, which we can prove thanks to the aforementioned underwater viewing tunnel.

She reports that, Great though it may be, the experience is no match for Hanauma Bay. And T., too young to have any idea where we were, wandered the pontoon with a swim noodle, pretending it was a vacuum cleaner. And a trumpet.

So for Colin, the experience was equivalent to a normal day of childcare. With a bonus of last-minute seasickness!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The resort of last resort

Stokestralia would like to thank our sponsor, Ernst & Young LLP, for sending Jess on so many trips to Brazil that she could use frequent flier miles to put us up at the Sheraton Mirage in Port Douglas, on the northeast tip of the continent. Though a little ragged, the resort did provide the shallow water required for C. to amuse herself for hours.

It also provided easy access to the splendid coast at sunset.

The children used the beach time just how you'd expect. C. assembled a hut from fallen palm leaves...

And T. found a coconut and--well, what do you think?

The age for aquaria

Activities for our final day in Sydney were hard to pick. The ferry to Manley? The walk across the Harbor Bridge? A stroll around the Rocks to look in the lobby of Cate Blanchett's theatre company? In the end, we succumbed to the most extreme wing of the party and saw more animals.

Not different at heart from the two thousand other aquariums we've visited together, although this time C. had a toy platypus, the manatees were called "dugongs" and swam over us, and it was T.'s turn to commune with a diver.

And of course we had great company in the form of old friend Karin, whom we met up with on her way to a holiday in Fiji.

Darling Harbour is one more lovely public space, and its restaurants maintain the essential custom of providing crayons.

Cate Blanchett, and so much else, will have to wait till next time. Tomorrow we head north.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

An unexpected thrill ride

To go down into the eucalyptus rainforest below the Three Sisters, you take a train that the coal miners used to take. We all thought that sounded neat. Well, almost all of us.

Turns out it's the steepest train in the world--a 52 degree slope. Sitting down in it feels like tipping forward, because it is. Plus, in the middle it plunges through a tunnel into total darkness. Also, there are no seat belts. We were a little rattled when we got off. How steep was that?

That steep, huh.

We reenacted our ride down in the old train car they have set up at the bottom. It was therapeutic.

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the rainforest from beautiful boardwalks they've installed to keep us off the thorny, viney ground. Colin was reminded of the old Bradbury story about the time travelers who hunt dinosaurs from a raised path, lest their footsteps trample a bug and change the course of history.

T. kept asking with a worried look if there were going to be any more steep trains. The ride back up via cable car was a great view, and did not require blood pressure medication afterwards.