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Again, thanks to Harliquinn for these:

Spinifex Pigeon at King's Canyon. These reminded me of winged hamsters; as soon as we got into their territory they came out to see whether we had any food to spare.

Holly bush in King's Canyon.

Rock face, King's Canyon.

More King's Canyon.

Kangaroo ennui.

Camel love! Rey rode a camel.

Old lighthouse at Lady Elliot.

Beach and sky at LEI. And another one.

Sun and clouds.

Zebra cone shell.

Broken-off end of cone shell.

And another one, from the inside.

"I Love LEI" done in red coral, blue starfish, and human bones. Or maybe coral. Tumbled staghorn coral tends to look a LOT like bones.

Fred, a buff-banded rail who hung around the dining area trying to steal food.

White-capped noddy. Some of these guys had missed their migration; they were standing around looking cold and trying to find patches of sun.

Giant clam. Every clam has a different colour and pattern to its mantle, but all of them are gorgeous. The biggest one I saw was about 2 feet across.

Velvet sea star and a different type of sea star.

LEI from the plane as we were leaving.
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Via Harliquinn, more holiday snaps up here: Kakadu, Arnhem Land, Nourlangie Rock, Uluru, Kata Tjuta, King's Canyon.

Witchetty grubs. They taste better than they look - I ate two, since a lot of our fellow tourists turned them down. BTW, the Central Australian part of the tour was with Wayoutback Tours and they were pretty good - our guide was friendly and very knowledgeable.

A sand compass - the wind blows one end of the grass around in a near-perfect circle.

Tracks in sand.

Sunrise at Kata Tjuta.

Rock wallabies at our hotel in Alice Springs.

Baaaaaby wallaby!

Air plants at Nourlangie Rock - we did about 1 1/2 hours (+ return) of a 6-hour full-circle hike here.

Mantis lurking in a waterfall, also at Nourlangie.

Lizard lurking in a rock.

Pandanus nuts.

Rock painting.

Black wallaby at Nourlangie. The brochure said these were very rarely seen, but this guy hadn't read the brochure, because he was hanging around right near the entrance and paid no attention as we stood there taking photos.

Sea eagle (and catfish) in a tree at Kakadu. His girlfriend was in the same tree.

The reason it's called the South Alligator River (nb: not an alligator).

Egrets... we saw a few...

Another crocodile.

Sunrise at Kakadu.

Jabiru in Arnhem Land. We saw another one caught up in a fence; we couldn't free it ourselves (big panicky bird + bunch of people with no experience dealing with big panicky birds = bad idea) but our guide called the rangers and it was gone when we drove back, so I hope it worked out.

Hand painting, Arnhem Land.

Seven Spears. This was a coming-of-age site in Arnhem Land (and still is on occasion). The big rock has a cubic-shaped gap underneath, with a narrow crack running down between the faces. Young men would make their own spear, and then throw it, aiming for the crack; they didn't get to choose a wife until they could hit the crack. I didn't get measurements, but it was a LONG and upwards throw.

Spearheads in the crack. Despite the name, we counted nine.

Rock painting (barramundi).

Eroded rocks, Arnhem land...

...and a little frog hiding up high in the same rock, away from crocodiles.

Whistling kite coming in for leftovers.

Our guides from the Animal Tracks tour making dinner.

The local princeling, enjoying the sun. Probably about 500kg and 3.5m. He'd love to meet you.

Lotus flowers. And pink ones.

We didn't get a lot of photos of Brisbane or Lady Elliot Island, but I took some while snorkeling - this was with an actual film camera, and I haven't yet seen how they came out. If they're any good I'll post them up later.

Home again

Jun. 27th, 2011 04:55 pm
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Have been spending the last three weeks travelling with Rey and Harliquinn. We met up in Darwin (so Rey and I have finally visited all 6 states and 2 major territories) and spent a couple of days there.

- Visited "Crocosaurus Rex", a reptile park in central Darwin which turned out to be less cheesy than it sounds. They had an assortment of large saltwater crocodiles, mostly bulls who'd been retired from stud duties when they took to attacking the lady crocs. The largest there was 5.5 metres long and 800 kg; I took a photo but without somebody alongside him for comparison it doesn't really convey just how Do Not Want that is. They also had a good snake show with a decent presenter, and some nifty fish displays.
- Caught up with a very old friend (my Grade 1/2 teacher). Darwin is suiting her well; every so often she talks about retiring, but she's still working 3-5 days a week, doing fly-in teaching etc for remote Aboriginal schools.
- Saw the Darwin gallery & museum - small but good!

After that, we drove down to Cooinda/Gagudju and stayed there for four days. On the way we passed some huge termite mounds - one was at least 5 metres tall. (Rey and Harli had the good cameras, will post links when available.) The lodge at Cooinda was pretty good, though not much provision for people bringing their own food - evidently they wanted us to buy from the restaurant.

- Went out for a couple of two-hour cruises on the Yellow Water Billabong and the inaccurately-but-still-informatively-named South Alligator River. Most bodies of water in this region have warning notices to the effect of "this water is home to huge ambush predators that like eating people" and we saw quite a few crocodiles from the boat (including one small freshwater croc, spotted by Rey, who was doing his best not to be noticed by his bigger cousins). The scariest thing about them is not so much the size as the stealth; nuclear submarines have nothing on prowling crocs. We also saw countless birds, including brolgas and jabirus.

- Did a half-day "Animal Tracks" tour with an Aboriginal guide who still lives a largely hunter-gatherer lifestyle. She showed us several of the different types of bush tucker that can be collected in the area - palm hearts (kinda like bamboo shoots, but you have to get just the right palm tree), bush carrots, and green ants, among others. Green ants taste surprisingly nice, sort of lemon-y, and they're relatively easy to spot. Patsy mentioned that they're also good for headaches, but if you eat too many you stop breathing...

Her husband hunts feral buffalo with a .375; her father hunted them with a knife. She told us a hilarious story from her childhood about following her dad and a "cheeky puppy" and finding a buffalo - the puppy started chasing the buffalo, with her and her dad running after, and then the buffalo turned around and everybody started running in the other direction. Very Benny Hill... it was a very simply told story, but so much family love in that little tale. A big part of this trip for me was getting to see something of Aboriginal Australia.

At the end of the day we had dinner, with damper, (farmed) buffalo meat, barramundi that Patsy had caught for us, and the bush carrots we'd managed to dig up. Extremely tasty, although buffalo was quite chewy. If you go to Kakadu, I strongly recommend this tour; the money goes to good causes, keeping the local community self-sufficient.

- Full-day trip to Arnhem Land. We visited an Aboriginal art gallery and saw a lot of rock paintings. It was a pretty good tour, but hasn't stuck in my memory as much as Animal Tracks.

More about the later parts of the trip, another time...
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All good things come to an end, and we're back in Melbourne. Since my last post:

Rey and I went on a short heli-tour of Franz Josef/Fox Glacier/Mt Cook. Expensive, but worth it. As a kid growing up in Canberra I never really understood why authors made such a big fuss about mountains; visiting NZ helped clarify that in the rest of the world, 'mountain' means something beyond 'may have to walk slightly uphill for a bit'. In the afternoon, we hiked up to Franz Josef with a guide. This was also good - he knew his stuff and was able to tell us a lot about what we were seeing. Incidentally, about 50% of the people we met in South Island were from the UK.

The next day we drove to Queenstown via the Haast Pass (about a day before snow, yay!) At the risk of repeating myself, v. scenic. In the actual town of Haast, found a jewellery shop that has rather good bone and jade carvings. By this stage we'd seen a lot of places selling the same standard generic-jade-for-tourists designs, so it was nice to see something original with a bit more creativity & finesse. Queenstown looks like another place where we could've spent more time than we did.

Next on our agenda was a day-trip to Milford Sound, but by this stage bad weather had hit and the Milford Road was closed, so the people we'd booked with took us to Doubtful Sound instead. It was a long trip - about ten hours there and back, over land, water, and land again, which gave me enough time to read 'Order of the Phoenix' from end to end. I suck at landscape description, but Doubtful Sound is an intimidating place - huge silent mountains looming up from the fjord, no sign humans had ever walked the earth. This is where dinosaurs would live, if they could live on vertical cliff-faces.

The plan after that was to drive to Invercargill and spend our last night there, before driving on to Dunedin for our flight out on Sunday. The weather was getting worse, and when we got to Invercargill we found it covered in snow. We weren't sure if this was normal for the area, but realised it wasn't when we saw the locals taking the opportunity to build snowmen. One enterprising group had put on ski gear, built themselves a snowcouch, and were happily creating a 6-foot snowpenis to greet passers-by.

We decided to keep driving to Dunedin to avoid the risk of getting snowed in and missing our flight. Found a nice B&B with a spa, which was much appreciated by then. In the morning we did the Cadbury's factory tour, and then visited the aquarium - small, but worth a look all the same. I spent 20 minutes staring at one tank before I managed to find the octopus (if I hadn't, we might still be there) and then off to the airport to fly home, where Dog-Or jumped all over us and demanded extended cuddles.

All in all, we had a lovely time in NZ. The landscape was amazingly pretty, the people were nice, and we managed to avoid earthquakes and tornadoes. Would do again!

Tomorrow, back to work...
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So, we parted from our host at Lake Taupo and caught the bus down to Wellington. We spent the following day doing a LotR bus tour of the area. Lots of locations (Rivendell, Orthanc, Minas Tirith/Helm's Deep, Anduin, the road to Buckleberry Ferry), with lots of "if you look at this still from the movie, you can recognise THIS TREE!" moments.

Which isn't something I go crazy about, but the locations are pretty and the guide really knew her stuff. At one point she mentioned that she'd watched Viggo's nude scenes from Eastern Promises repeatedly in order to see where his Fellowship tattoo was and certainly not for any other reason. Sort of like a red-headed walking commentary track! The tour buses are named "Tiki", "Aragorn", and "Figwit", which latter might give some idea of the levels of concentrated geekiness involved.

There was also a photo-op, but I am not going to talk about that and if Rey has ANY DECENCY she will not post the results. If she does, I ask you all to remember that I was FORCED INTO THAT GET-UP.

We also visited Weta Workshops (apparently a script exists for a Dr. Grordbort movie!) and the Weta Cave (where we exchanged money for shinies), and our guide pointed out Peter Jackson's house as we drove past. Rey spotted him at the kitchen window, washing the dishes, and much squeeing ensued.

Sadly we'd only allowed one day in Wellington - definitely an oversight, will have to come back some time, it looks lovely. Next day we got on the ferry and sailed to Picton, where we checked out the aquarium (rehab penguin! Awwww!) and then drove on to Charleston. Today, we did a very good cave tour with glow-worms and our first live weta, and then drove on to Franz Joseph.

Rainy days so far: 11/11. V. damp.

BTW, is long hair on men less common in NZ? I'm getting "ma'am"-ed about twice a day, which is well above my usual average.
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Quick update before dinner:

- Went to the Hobbiton set. First tourist attraction I've been to that requires visitors to sign a NDA... which is why I can't post pictures or comment on what was there. But there were "squee!" noises.

- Went to White Island, which is the first tourist attraction I've been to that requires visitors to wear a gas mask. If there was a NZ version of this song, I think White Island would get a prominent mention.

The area where we disembarked was stratified thusly:

* Pyroclastic bombs from the 2000 eruption. (They look a lot like Violet Crumble on the inside, but are less delicious and more likely to kill you.)
* Lots of ash.
* Remains of an old sulfur factory, abandoned in 1933.
* Mud, gravel, etc. from the 1914 lahar that wiped out the previous sulfur-mining effort, killing every last man. Except for the cat (who made it back) and some guy called Donald, who had already vanished under mysterious circumstances the previous year, leaving only his boots on the edge of a crater.

Apparently the 1914 'rescue' team never even managed to find the buildings, let alone the crew, so I guess they were still under there somewhere.

We put on our hard-hats and tromped uphill towards the crater. Along the way we passed lots of hot mud and sulfur vents. There was a steady roaring noise that sounded like a very loud blowtorch; it turned out to be a big steam vent, somewhere around 200C.

Tromped further uphill. The air was noticeably acidic (sulfur dioxide) and I put on my gas mask, which helped but didn't entirely stop the coughing. I was also feeling quite short of breath; I'd guess this was high CO2 levels. And then we got to a mud ridge overlooking the crater lake...

Bright green, when we could see it through the acidic steam. The green was dissolved minerals and extremophilic bacteria; accordingly to our guide, the water was somewhere around 60-70C, and pH -0.5. (At this point, guide had to discourage one of the tourists from wandering past the hopefully-safe path towards the cliff edge overhanging the lake. SRSLY WHAT.)

And then we headed back to the boat. It was a fascinating place, and I'm glad I went, but... brr. On the way back the guide explained to us that you couldn't run this sort of tour in most countries because liability laws wouldn't allow it.

Will post photos at some later date! Also went to lots of mud pools, museum, and various other things, but dinner calls.


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