Thursday, 31 May 2007

Hi ho Sylvia, away!

Did I say how hard it is to say goodbye to old friends?

Next step Johannesburg. See ya then.

P.S. To anyone who sees me driving my '87 woody wagon come September: expressions of sympathy are welcome. (Sylvia goes to a good home tomorrow)

P.S.S. Thanks for the headline, David.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Blessed is the land of Oz

Just a few days to go now and it'll be time to leave Australia to begin the last few chapters of this most excellent adventure. Everybody asks me if this time it's for good, but how could I say goodbye for good to a place that's been so good to me, and where I can gallop a horse through the surf on an ocean beach near our house (like I did last weekend with my friend Fiona)?

If anyone can truly have a second spiritual home, this is it. It'll be sad to leave my friends and this heavenly way of life but South Africa will be a most excellent compensation. See you there....

Friday, 25 May 2007

Reef fantasea

There's probably no definitive list of the so-called seven natural wonders of the world – one might include Niagara Falls while another credits Venezuela’s Angel Falls, for example - but if there were, surely Australia's Great Barrier Reef would appear every time.

Stretched over more than 2600 kilometres, the Reef is often referred to as the world’s largest living organism – it’s actually millions of tiny things that make up one huge thing spread out over 3000 reefs and 900 islands – and as such it is not only a phenomenal sight to see up close but the only living thing visible from outer space.

We're at the permanent pontoon on Hardy Reef, out in the open ocean about 50 minutes from the Whitsunday Islands. After we took this photo, we dropped over the side and into a completely new world where everywhere the colours of the rainbow are reflected in the tropical fish, coral and clams. A giant 1.4-metre Wrasse named Wally is a plus-sized one-fish welcoming committee, and the swirling bursts of angelfish, damselfish, blue fusiliers, parrot fish, yellow butterfly fish and clownfish (Nemo’s extended family, perhaps) are spectacular.

It's overwhelmingly beautiful, and all the more so because it's just not something you see every day.

I feel certain Annie and Molly will remember it forever.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Little queens of karaoke

Shamed into it by brave karaoke queens Annie, Molly and friend ‑ who got up to do Aqua’s I'm a Barbie Girl, in a Barbie World in front of hundreds of people at Long Island Resort - Doog and I and assorted new friends made a totally lame tribute to AC/DC shortly after this photo was taken. In the realm of bad karaoke, our Shook Me All Night Long was surely the very worst of all time. But on the upside, we will never see any of those people ever again.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Paradise by the Whitsunday light

“Civilization is an enormous improvement on the lack thereof.” – P.J. O’Rourke

Point me to the person who invented island resorts with kids’ clubs on them and I will worship at his or her feet ‑ nay, even kiss an ass or two in gratitude - because we're ripe for a bit of adult time and it’s now being served up to us on a very generous plate.

We have driven south along the Queensland coast for hours, through never-ending cane fields and unremarkable towns en route to Airlie Beach, home to hordes of horny 20-year-old travellers (think Banff or Whistler, but with a pleasant breeze) and gateway to the magnificent Whitsunday Islands. There are 74 islands - just eight of which are inhabited – cradled in the calm blue waters of the Coral Sea, and they offer what surely must be the quintessential Aussie experience of sun, sea and fine white sand.

A 20-minute ferry from the mainland brings us to Long Island Resort, which of all the Whitsunday Islands is the one where families really belong. It’s also a budget-conscious choice, unlike some of the other, busier islands such as Hamilton and Daydream, and suited to anyone who wants a lot of things to do: get drunk and sing karaoke, enter ping pong and belly-flop competitions, spin around on kayaks or jet skis, go for a tube ride.

There’s a lovely stretch of beach, of course, with hammocks nestled among the palm trees, pools, a swim-up bar, tennis, mini-golf – in short, all the little things you’d expect from a resort even if, like us, you don’t really know what to expect. The rooms aren’t exactly luxurious but we couldn’t care less because anything, save a cockroach-infested jail cell, is luxury after all those nights battling the elements in a swamped tent. Perhaps this Long Island reward is all that much sweeter for all that it took to get here.

The biggest novelty, though, is the kids’ club. Millions of parents before me have discovered the joys of such a thing. Where have we been? Three sessions a day, every day, and our girls want to attend every single one. Who are we to argue?! They are thrilled to make a few friends and see a few new faces, and who could blame them for being a bit sick of mom and dad after all this constant togetherness?

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

We are, like, SO sick of this food

Just after this pic was taken, Annie said with some authority: “Mom, I’ve got a screw loose in my butt. I think it's my pancreas.”

I think she's just had enough of these backwoods camp breakfasts.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Beautiful beach, deadly creatures

“Out on the patio we’d sit, And the humidity we’d breathe, We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields, Laugh and think, this is Australia.” - Gangajang’s ’80s hit, This Is Australia

Most of northern Queensland, including Mission Beach, is off limits for swimming at this time of year because of the marine stingers – the most dangerous of which are the box jellyfish, which can be fatal, and the Irukandji jellyfish, which aren't necessarily deadly but which will make their victims wish in the worst possible way that they'd stayed out of the water. We don't need to be warned twice, and Annie is just as happy to go beachcombing - her new favourite thing.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Now we're on a Mission

After the utter beating the Ford has taken – all those river crossings, all that mud, all those rocks – I’m not particularly surprised when something very large and probably quite important falls out from underneath us as we’re zipping south along Queensland’s coastal highway. On the upside, we bottom out just as the funky little town of Mission Beach comes into view up ahead, so I guess if you absolutely must limp in somewhere with your axel (or, like, whatever the hell that thing is) hanging at a 90-degree angle and making a very bad noise, Mission Beach is as good a place as any to do so.

Surprisingly, we come out of the whole ill-thought-out 19th river-crossing debacle unscathed, with the Hertz guy simply bringing a new car down to us from Cairns and leaving our campsite, no questions asked. Which is SO good 'cause I didn’t want to lie and say that, you know, woopsy-daisy sir, that axel sure did fall off our car but not because we drove it on the 4WD track or anything like that. Ironically, this new car is also a Ford Territory and, now that we don’t need it, the four-wheel drive version.

So all’s well that ends well, it seems. I sense a turning point here. We’re kicking back on this amazing beach, and it’s not raining and we’re sitting outside a dry tent, with cold beer and a warm wind and all these gorgeous stars in a southern sky and I wonder: Could this be the beginning of a proper tropical holiday?

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Thank heaven for little girls

In a world that churns out JonBenet Ramsay wannabes faster than you can say “MOTHERRRRR, where’s my tiara?!!!” it is so refreshing to meet a gorgeous young girl who’d rather ride her horses and chase rats around the barn than play with make-up and go to the mall. So it’s here in the Atherton Tablelands, on a little dairy farm bursting with love and promise and natural beauty, that Annie and Molly learn one of the most valuable lessons they’ll learn on this year-long adventure.

I can tell them till I’m blue in the face that being outdoors and having fun is all they really need right now. I can tell them that they can be girls ‑ fun, happy, smart, fit and, yes, pretty girls ‑ and still do kid things and goof around and stay young and give no thought to hairstyle or body image or outfits.

But I leave it to the wonderful Rebecca, the farmer’s only daughter, who is literally the COOLEST 10-year-old I’ve ever met, to teach them these lessons just by being who she is and showing them how it’s done.

When we meet Rebecca she’s been feeding her horses and has come back down from the paddock on her 4WD motorbike.

She takes my girls under her wing immediately, and they spend the day chasing down rats (yes, that’s a rat in Molly’s hand) and milking cows and feeding ponies.

She is gorgeous, yes, but she is smart, funny, sporty, compassionate and friendly. There’s not a trace of attitude. If she was a grown-up she’d be something right out of McLeod’s Daughters, the beloved Australian TV series about strong women running an Aussie outback farm. In short, she’s a proper farm kid, complete with Wellington boots and mucky jeans, and she’s exactly the kind of kid I want my own girls to look up to, which they do. In fact, they are in awe, and this has been just the very best day.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Bombs away

This croc-free swimming hole in Lion's Den, Queensland, was our best camp spot yet - no other bugger around (heavenly), plus all the sunshine you could want and not a drop of rain.

Just out of this picture frame we also had a buck-naked Doog doing bombs into the river ... but I can't show you that 'cause Grandma fell off her chair the last time I put a naked picture of my husband on this blog. Go figure!

Monday, 14 May 2007

Stuck in the middle with you

Some say the narrow, bumpy, impossibly steep, potholed, muddy coastal track from Cooktown to Cape Tribulation is the worst road in Australia ‑ but for some dumb reason we’re sure they don’t really mean it, and even though all the signs say a four-wheel drive is recommended we figure we’ll be fine because, you know, “recommended” isn’t exactly “mandatory”and the Ford Territory rental at least looks a 4WD.

If only the fellas from Hertz could have seen us five minutes before this picture was taken. Customers of the month we most certainly are not.

The 19th river crossing of the day was to prove our undoing. Mired in the rocks and mud - with the water starting to flow in through the right-hand-side doors and the girls looking ashen in the back seat (“Mom! Mom! Our teddies are getting wet!”) – it took me just a moment to size up the situation, whereupon I immediately realised that taking a fancy-shmancy 2WD rental car on this road was about as smart as driving 5000km from Ontario to Vancouver without a spare tire. Which would be something we might do. Err, did actually do, if truth be told.

The moral of this story, though, is that everyone needs a Doog. Mothers who throw their hands up in the air and start freaking out (that would be mothers like me) are most definitely a hindrance.

SuperDad managed to wade across the river, flagged down a 4WD guy, ran back to us with a sturdy rope, donned Molly’s mask and snorkel, dove under the car and attached it to something sturdy, and then came up for air to give the guy on the other side the thumbs-up.
Smug Spouse he may be at times, but where would I be without?

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Close encounters

At last, the authentic slice of Australiana I’ve been yearning for. Overgrown with mangroves and pandanas, Cooktown’s Endeavour River and its maze of lagoons ooze an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere - so twisted is the network of tributaries that it would be easy for the uninitiated to get lost and simply disappear forever.

It reminds me of the scene in Crocodile Dundee when the hopelessly out-of-her depth, innocent but dumb Linda Kozlowski sets off to show Mick she can go walkabout on her own. She’s a New Yorker after all. She can handle it. A dubious Mick tracks her – close enough to save a damsel in distress but far enough away that she can’t see him – and we know just what he’s thinking as she bends over the billabong (duhh!) in her dumb ’80s butt-floss bodysuit before he jumps out of nowhere to put a knife through the skull of a croc that’s suddenly hanging off the end of her water bottle.

There’s no '80s butt-floss bodysuits out here, of course, but the place reminds me, just the same.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

I hear ya, Captain Cook

“I climbed one of the highest hills that overlooked the harbour, which afforded by no means a comfortable prospect.” - British explorer James Cook, on discovering Cooktown, in far north Queensland, in June 1770.

Surprise! It’s raining again! But I dig Captain Cook. He had the coolest way with words. I discovered this phrase on the sign beside Molly, on the very spot Cook himself had climbed to on that day in 1770. It's my new favourite saying. I’ll be sure to try it out when we get home:

Friends: “So, how was the camping?” “
Me: “Well, you know, it afforded by no means a comfortable prospect.”
Friends: “What about the weather?”
Me: “Again with the no comfortable prospect.”
Friends: “Oh get over yourself. My God, you bitch a lot. You could’ve been eaten by a croc.”
Me: “That may well have afforded me a more comfortable prospect, and a mercifully quick end to this soggy holiday.”

Of the many things said about Captain Cook, here's one that would also apply to my annoying husband: “He left nothing unattempted”. (Especially if it afforded me by no means a comfortable prospect.)

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Courting the kangaroos

Surrounded by wild wee wallabies at the botanic gardens in Cooktown in Far North Queensland, Molly and Annie get plenty close enough to look, but never to touch, before their furry friends hop, skip and jump away.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Northern reflections

As the sun sets on our final day in the Territory, I reflect on what's been at times a "challenging" triip (read: BRUTAL!) but one that I'll look back on with fondness all the same. I may have failed Climate 101 - some might say this climate has failed me - but as Doog says, it’s more of a "man’s palace" up here and he's probably right. Queensland here we come....

Where the real Holiday begins

Now I know why they call it the Holiday Inn. Yessiree, folks, because it’s an actual H-O-L-I-D-A-Y! Not a tropical steamy boot camp! And it’s not raining in our room! There’s banquet breakfasts! 24/7 air con! And, God bless ’em, there’s this pool too.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

To Kakadu or not to Kakadu ... I say Kakadon't

The Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park is not only World Heritage-listed on two fronts - it’s considered both culturally and naturally significant – but it attracts tourists in droves. Not so much in the wet season, mind, but you wouldn’t be able to move out here in the dry season what with all the tour buses jockeying for position and the camera shutters going clickety-click.

With a landscape shaped by the Aborigines’ spiritual ancestors during the time of Creation, Kakadu is today jointly managed by its traditional Aboriginal owners and directors from Australia’s national parks. I give those folks full credit for keeping their wilderness pristine; I also give their marketing department full marks for overstating Kakadu’s case just a teensy-weensy bit.

It’s billed as a paradise for crocs and birdlife but on our two-hour cruise up the Yellow Water Billabong at the end of Jim Jim Creek – a wetlands area of channels, floodplains and backwater swamps – we spy exactly two sea eagles and a few assorted birds. Nor is there a croc to be seen because the water is so high - in fact, at one point we are actually boating around in the parking lot, with the water lapping at the top of the traffic signs. It's not easy keeping a six- and an eight-year-old interested at the best of times, but when there's not much of anything to look it, well, hell, yeah, Annie and Molly, those traffic signs sure are exciting, aren't they?!

Don’t get me wrong, though, I still blame no one but myself for coming up here at the wrong time of year. But at risk of being caught complaining about the rain yet again (ARGHHH!) the truth is I left Kakadu in a decidedly Kakadon’t state of mind.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

That's a whole lotta handbags

The unpleasant truth about luxury brands is that magnificent animals like these have to be killed so that fancy and fashionable ladies can carry their crocodile-skin bags 'round town.

Doog took this picture at the Darwin Crocodile Farm which, just like a beef operation, concentrates on breeding, babies, fattening up and killing. There are 36,000 saltwater crocociles housed here and if they don’t become breeders, they end up as meat or handbags.

So after they failed to catch even a glimpse of one in the wild, the girls were thrilled to see the animals in what was sort of their natural environment, albeit in a fenced-in billabong, and even “patted” a five-metre croc through the fence. Me? A farm's a farm, I suppose, but I stayed away.