Thursday 31 March 2011

Heathrow Airport Post. King's Canyon

Another VERY early morning on Saturday, this time with our bags packed. We checked out of the hotel and were on the coach by 4am. After a breakfast stop at a roadhouse somewhere (neither of us can actually remember this happening), we arrived at King’s Canyon around 8 o-clock. We had an inspection by the water police, AKA Richard, our guide for the day. We needed to be carrying 3 litres each, which seems a lot, but as Richard explained, in a hot, dry atmosphere you don’t realise how much moisture you are losing, and although you probably won’t need all that water if everything goes to plan, in such a remote area taking less is plain stupid.

From the coach we followed the track to here.
There are roughly 500 steps going up to the rim of the canyon, everyone in our group managed it, and despite sounding like a couple of leaky steam engines, we felt wide awake at the top and the view back to the car park was magnificent.
The geology behind the formation of the canyon is fascinating; there are three sedimentary layers, rough, conglomerate sandstone, impervious shale and finer, absorbent sandstone on top. Or in Richard’s words “A sponge on top of cling-film on top of cube sugar “. All well and good. When it rains, the water soaks into the sponge, but the cling-film keeps the sugar safe. Then there is a big enough earthquake to make a crack right through all three layers. Water gets through to the sugar cubes, which dissolve and form chasms, and everything above collapses forming a canyon. Simple stuff, but the result makes you appreciate the kind of power that is unleashed when time and gravity get together. This is the most recent collapse, it happened 70 years ago.
The one before that was 140 years ago. At that rate another big lump should be falling off any time now! Luckily it wasn’t this one.
This is fossilised sea-bed,
1000m above sea level. Cool.

Further back, where the canyon narrows, there are steps down to the Garden of Eden;
a hidden valley full of vegetation and wildlife in an otherwise harsh, barren landscape.
The walk took around three hours, Richard was very informative and interesting all the way round; he made the place come alive for us, pointing out loads of things that we would never have noticed if we’d gone on our own. The whole group got back with a real sense of achievement. Good stuff.

We re-boarded the coach and set off to King’s Canyon Resort for lunch. We sat by the pool and ate our sandwiches with our new found English friends Diana and Jenny. We swapped coaches at the Lasseter highway junction,
and we were back in Alice Springs by 7.30 pm.

Although the drivers and tour guides have no doubt done these trips numerous times before, they were still passionate and informative and had a real in-depth knowledge of the area, the flora and fauna, and the indigenous inhabitants. They were always courteous and were happy to answer any questions we had, and gave us plenty of time to take photos and look around everywhere we went. The coach journeys were all comfortable and efficient with plenty of stops. In our book, ATT Kings are the business.

It was lovely to see Ann waiting for us when the coach pulled into Todd Street. She was happy to hear we’d had such a good time and that the skies had stayed clear for us. It was equally lovely to find that she’d made Dave’s favourite dinner of cauliflower cheese. It was just like coming home.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Changi Airport Post. Kata Tjuta and Uluru.

Wednesday was a relaxed affair; we did a bit of souvenir shopping in Alice, had a picnic at the Telegraph Station, and then went back to Ann’s in the afternoon.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday on the other hand, were busy, busy, busy. Part of our planned itinerary from Trailfinders was a three day tour to Ayres Rock Resort, visiting Uluru (Ayres Rock), Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), and Kings Canyon.
The coach picked us up at 7.30 am in Alice Springs and set off south along the Stuart Highway.
It goes on a bit,
quite a bit.
We stopped for half an hour at a camel farm and had our first taste of camel burger, they also have some rescued wildlife there, convalescing prior to their release, including an emu, a dingo and some roos.
We stopped again at Mount Ebenezer Roadhouse and for another leg stretch at Mount Connor Lookout with amazing views over Lake Amadeus salt lake to the west
and Mount Connor to the east.
The sand was so hot it was hard to keep still. Mount Connor is called “Fooluru” by the tour guides; there are stories of people getting this far, taking a picture and then going home again, thinking they’ve seen Uluru.

Ayres Rock Resort consists of several hotels, apartments, backpack hostels and a campground, as well as accommodation for around a thousand staff. It is a town in its own right with a shopping precinct, bars and restaurants. Despite this the buildings are very low key and the only thing you see as you approach is the communication tower. This is our hotel with the Rock in the background.
After we’d settled into our room, we were taken out to Kata Tjuta and went for a guided walk through the Valley of the Winds. Kata Tjuta was formed by the same phenomenon that produced Uluru, they differ by the former being composed of much coarser conglomerate material rather than finer sandstone, and they were tilted to a lesser extent when tectonic plate movement pushed them out of the earth’s crust. This has resulted in erosion wearing them away much faster, leaving 32 domes and lots of explorable valleys behind.
Ann-Marie found this fabulous rock face.
After the walk we were treated to sparkling wine and nibbles while we watched the sun set on Kata Tjuta.
As darkness fell we were taken out into the bush for a steak, kangaroo and sausage barbeque. When we’d all finished eating, we were told to shut our eyes, and on a count of three to open them again. All the lights had been turned out and the sky was glowing with more stars than we’d ever seen. With a total lack of light pollution and a crystal clear sky we had a fab half hour star gazing.

At silly o-clock in the morning on Friday we were back on the coach and out to watch the sun rise on Uluru.
This was followed by a cultural walk around the base, where we learnt about some of the stories the Ananyu people told their children, and how they would have used the caves and waterholes.
Anthropologists now believe that Aboriginal people have been in Australia for anything up to 60,000 years. They were completely at one with the environment they lived in. Europeans turned up 200 years ago and thought they could improve their lifestyle with western education and diet. The white man’s white flour, white sugar and white toilets very nearly destroyed a race of people that were around before the last ice age. Modern Australians from all backgrounds are now having to deal with the repercussions of European settlement; a monumental task, and one which is going to take time and tolerance to achieve. However, this is a Great Nation, in every sense, and nothing is beyond them.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Hello Alice

Early on Saturday morning our taxi took us to the airport
and we took off into thick cloud. Bye-bye east coast. After a couple of hours the sky below us cleared and we had a look at Australia away from the coast.
Big isn’t it.
And beautiful.
We landed in Alice Springs where we were met by Dave’s Auntie Ann. We overloaded her poor little car with all our stuff and went back to her lovely flat for lunch. In the afternoon we went out to look at the original Alice Springs which was a tiny community that built up around a Telegraph Repeater Station near a water-hole that isn’t really a spring at all.
The town that is now called Alice was originally named Stuart; it was re-christened when the telegraph station closed in 1933. On the way back we drove up Anzac Hill and looked out over the town.

On Sunday we went for lunch with Ann’s sons, Damian & Jeremy, along with their respective families. There are a lot of them; we took up two tables in the restaurant. Ann also has three daughters; we’re going to see Rachel when we fly up to Darwin, but unfortunately we missed Sarah in Adelaide and drove straight past Helen in Newcastle without realising she lived there. Oh well, we’ll just have to save up and come back.

On Monday Ann drove us to Alice Springs Desert Park. We were really impressed with this place; we were given an audio commentary device and learned about the desert environment and the fascinating creatures that have adapted to survive it.
We watched a display of free flying birds of prey,
walked through the reptile house
nocturnal animal house and the aviaries
then had lunch in the café.
After that we went to the Royal Flying Doctors Museum.  We hadn’t realised just how important a role this service had played in Australia’s history.

As sunset approached we went out alongside the MacDonnell Ranges and watched the red rocks. We are seeing Alice Springs at a time like no other; after a 20 year drought, this year has seen record breaking rainfall and the countryside, instead of being its usual dry red sand, is a vibrant green as dormant plants and grasses burst from everywhere.
The local people can’t quite believe it.

On Tuesday morning we went to see some more waterholes at Emily & Jessie Gaps.
These are gaps in the ranges where the subterranean rivers come to the surface. Because of all the rain they were alive with budgies,
water beetles and tadpoles, all making the most of the water.

The highlight of Tuesday was going for a camel ride in the afternoon.
Neither of us has ever done this before and it was amazing. They are so quiet and gentle. For an hour we gracefully swayed through the outback with red kangaroos and red mountains as our backdrop. Ann-Marie is now truly, madly deeply in love.
Goodness knows how we’re going to manage with a camel on a narrow-boat.

Homeless again

Australia Zoo was fab.
We were there first thing in the morning and managed to see pretty much everything. They have a big emphasis on protecting endangered species and educating people about how to care for the wildlife around them. We watched a couple of shows in the big arenas; they spend a lot of time explaining animal behaviour so that when you come across a croc or a snake you know what to do in order that both parties might survive the encounter. Of course they also have the big dramatics when the 12’ long crocodile hurtles out of the water to grab the chicken being dangled in front of him,
and although you know they do it every day it’s still edge of your seat stuff.
The kangaroos and wallabies that roam about the park area are as tame as anything;
they’ll eat food out of your hand and put up with being patted by enthusiastic toddlers. We got to tick off a few of Australia’s more elusive creatures, such as Cassowaries & wombats.
Outside the zoo there is a wildlife hospital that is open 24/7, and takes in any sick or injured animals. The facilities are amazing given that the whole thing is operated by donations. There was a baby koala being examined on the operating table while we were there and a bird that was having a flight feather transplant.

Friday was our van hand-over day, so we had a lovely walk through the Glasshouse Mountains in the morning. Beautiful, peaceful countryside with these unlikely looking monolithic outcrops towering up from the forest floor.
25 million years ago lava erupted through the surrounding sandstone; the sandstone has been eroded away by the sea and when the sea levels dropped again these volcanic plugs were left behind.

After lunch we drove back into Brisbane, booked into a Formula 1, dumped all our stuff in the room and cleaned out the van. Maui was only a half hour walk from the hotel so we dropped the van off and walked back. It took a bit longer ‘cos we forgot to find an ATM while we still had wheels and then had our dinner in a café on the way back. Back at the Formula 1 we once again packed all our worldly belongings into our bags, booked a taxi to the airport in the morning and went to bed.

Friday 18 March 2011

Final days in the east.

We’ve only got 2 nights left in this little van. We’ve been quite impressed at how much we haven’t wanted to kill each other over the last 8 months. Before we stopped work, Dave was on nights and Ann-Marie was on days and we only saw each other at weekends. It was a major concern when we embarked on this trip that being together 24/7 was going to put too much strain on our relationship. We think we’ve done OK. We still love each other, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s been how to get over disagreements and move on. There really is no room for frosty silences when you’re living in something that’s smaller than your average bathroom. A 57’ long narrow-boat with 3 or 4 rooms is going to seem palatial compared to this. Heck, Ken is going to seem palatial compared to this!

We are seriously looking at boats on the web now. There are quite a few in our budget range that we’re interested in and we’ve made a few enquiries and asked to go and see a couple when we get back. We think that taking on something that needs a bit of work would be the best way to go, that way it won’t be too hard to make small changes to suit ourselves. They’re all a bit spread out though, so far we’re looking in Yorkshire, Oxford, Herts, Lancs and Staffordshire, so Ken’s going to have a bit of a trek. (We have had an idea about putting the Acadiane back on the road to do the boat hunting, less fuel and a bit quicker.)

We had a fabulous night in a beach front camp site at 1770 after we got back from the reef
lovely hot showers and a view out over the bay through the back door in the morning.
When we left we went to Bundaberg where we took on the might of the Ausie health care system. Dave’s tooth abscess was threatening a re-appearance so we wanted to get it sorted before it went all lumpy again. We’ll have to get him registered with a dentist when we get back. By the time we’d got a temporary Medicare card, seen a doctor and got some antibiotics it was 5pm. We were not that far from Hervey Bay, and it would have been rude to go past without saying hello, so we sent Mary a text and were soon parked for the night outside the house with the fabulous veranda.

After a lovely evening with Mary and the kids and a peaceful night, we spent Wednesday travelling slowly south to a rest stop just up the road from Australia Zoo. We thought a visit there would be a good way to spend our last day in Queensland before we say goodbye to the east coast and fly into the hot, red bit in the middle.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Finding Nemo. By Accident.

Our serendipitous life continues.

On Sunday, having abandoned our plans to go to Cairns and our hopes of snorkelling on the reef, changed our flights and travelled 650kms south to Gladstone, we went into the information centre and were greeted by a very enthusiastic lady who thrust lots of literature into our hands about the Town of 1770 and Agnes Water. We were especially interested in a trip out to Lady Musgrave Island, maybe we could get out to the reef after all. Ann-Marie’s family had given us some money for Christmas and spending it on a Great Barrier Reef trip had been something we’d been really looking forward to, so we phoned up and booked two seats for Monday morning.
We arrived in Agnes Water in the dark in the rain and were up and parked at the 1770 wharf by 7am. It was still raining with an on-shore 20 – 30 knot wind; we weren’t sure they were going to sail but the captain and crew didn’t look at all flustered and cheerfully welcomed us aboard.
The Spirit of 1770 is a very capable high speed cat and skipper Dave did a sterling job avoiding the worst of the swells, but even so, the hour-and-a-half trip out to the island was about as rough as it gets. Over half the passengers got sea-sick and the remainder were not looking that good when we finally sailed into the lagoon.
From that moment on though, it became one of the most memorable days either of us will ever have. The water inside the lagoon is a crystal clear turquoise and, compared to the swell outside, flat and calm.
With the cat moored to the pontoon,
and tea and cake dished out to anyone feeling up to it, skipper Dave gave the residents some free food.
The pontoon has an underwater viewing area, so we got a taste of things to come.
(We bought a little underwater 35mm camera, so when we get the pictures back from that we’ll add some more) From the pontoon we went in a glass bottomed boat to the coral shore where we were given a guided walk round the island.
We were told what the trees were and all about the resident birds. We got to hold a sea cucumber, which is soft and warm,
and we saw some black finned reef sharks rounding up their dinner of bait fish. Then an amazing thing happened; a true once-in-a-lifetime moment. It was pouring with warm tropical rain and our little group was walking back along the beach to where the glass bottomed boat was moored. Suddenly someone saw a baby turtle heading for the sea. Then another. Then there were hundreds, all going like billy-o to the water
They usually emerge at night but it was overcast and raining so they must have thought it was time to go. Three nests were erupting like little wriggling volcanoes in the sand, spilling out tiny green turtles, all climbing over each other. We spent a delirious half hour watching their frantic race to the sea and scaring off the seagulls who also thought it was fabulous, but for entirely different reasons. Because it was raining so hard we didn’t get much on camera, but we have got a few seconds video that we’ll put on you-tube when we get a fast enough connection. We were willing each one of them on, wishing them well when they took their first flap and glided off onto the sea; bobbing their heads up for breath every few seconds. It was if they'd been waiting for an audience; half an hour either way and we wouldn't have seen them. It is incredible how something so small and new can be so determined and know not only which way to go, but how to climb over things and how to swim and breath underwater.

When the last one was safely out to sea we went back to the boat for a delicious lunch after which we got fitted out with fins, masks and snorkels and took to the water ourselves. We were both completely blown away by everything. Coral, clams, turtles, fish – so many fish! And so big! Ann-Marie has never been in tropical water before, Dave did a bit of reef snorkelling in Belize 25 years ago, but it wasn’t a patch on this. Hopefully the little camera will show some of what we saw; the highlight for both of us must be the giant green turtles. They swam alongside us before gliding down into the depths. After two sessions and several cups of hot chocolate it was time to return to the mainland. The trip back was a lot quicker and a lot calmer; going with the waves instead of trying to climb them, and we got back to Town of 1770 with big grins despite everything we were wearing being wet through.

Why serendipitous? Well, before we sailed, we switched on the radio; the first thing we heard was that the road from Townsville to Cairns had reopened. Some official was babbling on about how they hadn’t been scare-mongering and the water had receded much quicker than they’d expected, blah, blah. If we’d gone to Townsville from Bowen instead of turning round we would have got through. We would have gone on a reef trip from Cairns and thought we were luckiest people on earth.

But we wouldn’t have seen those little baby turtles scurrying down that beach, and for that, we are the luckiest people on earth.

New Haw Lock to Boveney. River Wey. River Thames.

After pulling the pins at New Haw we dropped down the last four locks on the Wey... Cox's Mill Lock Town Lock The final stretch of the W...