We left Los Angeles last night, Dec. 26th, the day before yesterday. The 14 hour flight on an Air New Zealand 747-400 was about as good as it could be in steerage. The seat pitch is adequate, quite generous compared to the space provided by U.S. domestic air lines. Both the food and service were OK. I had requested special meals, low fat for Donna, Jodie, and me; fish for Beth; and kids meals for Natalie and Nathan. As a result of this, Beth was "treated" to fish for breakfast! There were quite a few screaming babies on the flight, probably due to travel in the holiday season.
The arrival in Sydney and passage through Immigration and Customs was uneventful. We were able to recheck baggage just outside of I&C and then boarded an Ansett shuttle bus to the domestic terminal. Had to pass through a security check point before boarding the bus since we drove across the airport. Never viewed an airport from that point before.
The Ansett Airbus A320 was quite the opposite from the 747. Seat pitch was quite narrow and uncomfortable. Arrived in Carins 3Ĺ later and found our driver waiting for us, along with a representative from ATS, the travel service Joy worked with in LA.
The rep presented us with a revised itinerary plus our vouchers. One of the changes was that a tour to Kuranda we had scheduled to fill the morning we returned to Carins from the cruise was moved to now! Since we have been traveling for something like 24 hours without much sleep, this was unpleasant news. It was even worse when the tour bus arrived at the Colonial Club Resort the same time we were registering. We persuaded the driver to give us a little time to change clothes and go potty.
It was a rather short trip up through a spectacular rain forest to the tourist-trap town of Kuranda. Since this was Sunday, the town was quite crowded. A light rain was falling and the hoards were attired in colorful plastic cover-ups emblazoned with various commercial product names. We spent our entire visit to Kuranda getting something to eat from one of the numerous take-away restaurants there.
At the appointed time we reboarded the bus and drove a short distance to the Rainforeststation for an amphibious "duck" ride in the rainforest. (Of course, you all know that the duck is actually a DUKW, a WWII amphibious vehicle.) The ride travels through a plantation and then down into the rain forest. In the highlight of the trip, the duck enters a small lake and cruises about. This lake was originally built to provide irrigation water for the plantation. Some members of our group felt that the duck driver was the highlight of the trip.
The bus picked us up after the ride and took us to the train station for the ride back to town. The short bus ride up turned into a 1Ĺ hour ride, twisting around the contours of the hills with many different views of spectacular waterfalls. The bus picked us up again at the station and returned us to the resort. Some of our group swam in the rain; others collapsed. We met again for dinner which was unremarkable, perhaps due to our general fatigue.
After our extended travel "day" from Los Angeles, we enjoyed lazing around the Colonial Club until 11 am when we caught the courtesy shuttle to town and the Captain Cook Cruises office and dock. We had a couple of hours to kill before we could board so we wandered around the central business district which was near by. Our primary goal was to "scope out" the souvenir bargains prior to the cruise.
We boarded the Reef Endeavour around 2:30 and, after finding our cabins, enjoyed a buffet lunch and a delightful cool beer on deck while the ship sailed. The almost constant drizzle/rain we have experienced comes from the remnants of Cyclone Sidney which swept through the area prior to our arrival. There is also another tropical storm forming 300 miles East of here.
Our cabin is typical of ships, adequate closets, long, narrow twin beds, micro bathroom with shower stall. The cabin has one feature which we were to find all over Australia. Each key is fitted with a paddle which must be shoved into a fixture by the door so that the lights and air conditioning will operate. The room was also extremely humid and the air conditioning incapable of correcting the situation. In fact, the wall opposite the bathroom door was slimy and the carpet wet. (After two days our next door neighbors moved out of their cabin since their shower leaked all over their floor. This had been an ongoing problem leading up to the final failure. The drying out of their room also solved our problem.)
Our first stop was the small island of Fitzroy where we were offered a tour of a clam farm, a beach walk, or just wander around. We were advised that swimming and snorkeling werenít worthwhile except to check out your equipment. So our group wandered around and found some lizards, a rhinoceros beatle, a green vine snake, and some shells which we had to leave. For our first dinner on the ship we were allowed to wait well over an hour until everyone else in the dining room had received their meals before ours arrived. In fact, Natalie and Nathan fell asleep before their meals arrived. When the meals finally arrived they had obviously been prepared in great haste. We had a bit of a discussion with the cruise director about it.
While talking about a meal, Iíll discuss the general philosophy for meals. Seating is assigned in the dining room with a single sitting. Breakfast and lunch are typical buffet-served meals. A wide selection of cold cereals & Muesli, yogurt, freshly baked rolls, and cooked items such as eggs, bacon, spaghetti, creamed mushrooms, and baked beans comprise the breakfast offerings. Lunch varies and includes cold cuts, hot food, etc. Sodas, mixed drinks, and wine by the glass are available in the dining room and also the bar but a small servings and rather expensive. There is also a surprisingly poor selection of Australian bottled wine available.
Our next stop was Cooktown, so named because the famous Capt. Cook spent some time here repairing his ship after a close encounter with the Great Barrier Reef. There are a few monuments and museums, however the town is quite small with a very limited number of businesses. The most interesting, for me, was the hardware store. As is true throughout Australia, the Post Office also sells souvenirs and office supplies. It also displayed a dead stone fish, a deadly poisonous fish. One thing we just missed in Cooktown was a 12 ft. Crocodile that appeared the previous week.
After the excitement of Cooktown, we needed to decompress by visiting the uninhabited Two Isles which are sort-of one with a submerged isthmus connecting the two halves. Access to the island is restricted to the beach; the interior is a bird sanctuary. We walked around the perimeter, in a light mist, in less than an hour. Whenever we strayed too close to the brush, the resident crested terns raised quite a protest.
When we showered upon returning to the ship, we flooded the bathroom, probably part of the overall drain problem mentioned above. The inadequate air conditioning was incapable of removing the moisture from the air so we left the door open whenever we were in the room. Lunch was a seafood buffet This evening was Island Night so the dining room was festively decorated, the staff all in flowered shirts, etc, and the passengers received leis. The "entertainment" was a limbo contest. We were served first at dinner tonight!
The last day of 1997. What a place to celebrate, Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef! This was our first real opportunity to snorkel. Some practiced at Two Isles however there wasnít much to see.
Rain and heavy overcast continues. We caught the first boat ashore and snorkeled until 10 when we stopped to take the glass-bottom boat tour. There were the usual profusion of colorful reef fish and quite a large variety of soft coral waving in the tide. There were also some rays or skates and many giant clams. Saw a green sea turtle and two remora while on the glass bottom boat.
After lunch we walked across the island to Emerald Bay, a beautiful crescent with the traditional white sand beach. We hoped to see monitor lizards, for which the island is named, however none appeared. Part of the path is along a Quantas asphalt air strip built to service the exclusive resort on the island. Two planes took off while we were beside the strip. We headed back with the intention of snorkeling however the tide had gone out a long way so I sat on the beach in the intermittent rain while Jodie and Beth snorkeled. They said it was better than in the morning because it wasnít as deep. On the negative side, it was easier to inadvertently hit the coral.
I need to mention the method of boarding the glass bottomed boat and the two tenders from the ship. There is a hydraulicly lifted platform across the stern. The boats are driven over it and held in place as they are lifted out of the water. Passengers are then able to board by simply stepping in, no contending with a boat bouncing in the waves. The process on shore is also quite nice. The boats have ramps in the bows that ease entry and exit, often with dry feet. After several trips where we have had to hop into and out of Zodiacs, this was quite a treat.
Quite a celebration! Of course, Iím referring to the 1997 Hogmanay Celebration, not New Yearís Eve. Since Capt. Robert Buchanan is quite Scottish, the Hogmanay Dinner featured Haggis. For the (fortunately) unaware, haggis consists of sheep or lamb, minced with suet, onions, oatmeal, seasoning, and boiled in the stomach of the same animal. For reasons best understood after tasting, it is traditionally served with a small glass of Scotch whiskey. Four people at our table ordered haggis; they all sampled theirs however I got to consume all of the Scotch!
The dinner courses were presented at a stately pace so as to stretch out the evening until the fateful moment of midnight. The balloons fell and all sang Auld Lang Syne. The crew also presented a bunch of skits for entertainment. Then dancing... The following day we celebrated in succession and at the appropriate times, the arrival of the new year in New Jersey, Colorado, and California.
We anchored the morning of New Yearís Day at Ribbon Reef #5. Our constant companion, rain, has been joined by waves and strong surge. The morning snorkeling and glass bottomed boat trips have been canceled, partly because the boats canít be easily launched and also because it would be unsafe in the water.
As a fill in, we had a tour of the bridge. The bridge is rather small but adequate since the ship, including the engines, is designed to be operated by one person. Speaking of the engines, there are two 1,600 hp diesel engines provided with 3:1 reduction gear. On the bridge there are two radars of different frequencies, one with a collision prediction capability. There are two GPS receivers and a GPS course plotter. Since the Reef Endeavour follows the same course every trip, the way points are set into the plotter and left.
During the tour, the captain stated that the surge would abate as the tide went down. The reef could provide a better barrier at a lower water level. We were anchored at a depth of around 30 m. On the other side of the reef, the depth dropped off to 3,000 m.
Sure enough, as the captain predicted, the sea settled down in the afternoon and the water activities commenced. We first did the glass bottomed boat tour and saw quite a variety of life, including a white tipped reef shark. Then it was our turn out to snorkel. The two tenders took us out to an area where the reef is close to the surface. This was the best snorkeling Iíve ever experienced. Since the reef was so close the fish and coral were quite close. Again I am frustrated in my inability to describe the brilliant fish and coral. Jodie and I were the last back to the tender.
That night was the gala farewell dinner. Donna and Randall were the family representatives at Karoke.
Bright and early Tuesday morning we returned to Trinity Wharf in Carins. We left our luggage, and Chris and Natalie, in the company office while the rest of us shopped the morning away. Our airport shuttle picked us up at 12:30 for our 3:15 flight to Darwin. We checked in and had to go through a passport check and immigration just like we were leaving the country. Our Qantas flight continued on to Singapore after Darwin so it was like we were leaving the country. Of course, when we arrived in Darwin we had to pass through immigration again, even though the flight had just come from Carins. One advantage of this is that, since it was an international flight, the booze and wine were free and the food was better than offered on domestic flights.
Our driver was waiting for us as we arrived at baggage pickup and took us to the Rydges Plaza Darwin Hotel. We flew through some heavy rain on the way to Darwin, however it was not raining when we arrived. Beth and Randall went off in search of some wine for happy hour before dinner. The rains arrived while they were out and they got soaked. They did, however, find a good selection at the local Woolworthís store. In addition to the usual "dime store" stuff, these stores are also complete grocery stores. They also picked up a set of fly nets which proved to be invaluable the next day. After cocktails and a mediocre dinner we retired after repacking for our overnight stay at Kakadu.
We checked our bags into the hotel luggage room when we checked out at 5:30 am. Eventually the Keetleys driver, Mad Max, showed up, asking for some other people. Chris asked if he was there for us and he decided that maybe he was. Since he had picked up the wrong list we had to drive back to the garage to get the right one, then back to town to pick up one other person and then finally on the road to Kakadu.
The itinerary ATS gave us on arrival in Carins is radically different from the one we received in LA. for Kakadu We are doing none of the things previously listed. In fact our overnight trip was really a one day round trip; we just spent the night in Kakadu. The other person on the tour was, in fact, a day-tripper, whom the driver took back to Darwin after dropping us off at the hotel. In spite of all that, it was an enjoyable day.
Our first stop was the Windows on the Wetlands Nature Center. It is perched on a hill overlooking the wetlands. Displays inside described various animal and aboriginal stuff. The next stop was some termite mounds. "Mound" is not really a good term; these things are about 15 feet high and 6 to 8 feet across. The whole area is covered with them. We unfortunately arrived at the same time as a bus of German tourists who didnít seem to feel like sharing the place with us.
After a rest stop at the Bark Hut we did the aboriginal bit by stopping at Nourlangie Rock and the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre. Nourlangie Rock features several aboriginal Dream Time figures. Most are fading away and will continue to do so since tradition requires their complete removal and repainting rather than touching up. Repainting must be done before a group while the painter recites the story while painting. Apparently there are no painters left. The brightest of the group was redone by a man, Baramundi Charlie, whom has since died. The figures are almost grotesque with exaggerated genitalia however the style and primitive nature are quite enchanting. There are two types, normal and x-ray, where the bones inside the body are also depicted.
Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre presents the aboriginal way of life along with many of the Dream Time legends. It was a very worthwhile stop. The circular design of the center represents a warradjan, a pig-nosed turtle.
After a buffet lunch and a welcome beer at the Gagudju Cooinda Lodge we took a boat ride in the Yellow Waters Wetlands. This is part of the Alligator River flood plain. Since this is the "Wet" there is a lot of flooding. Three solid months of rain will do that. It is also very hot and humid, being in the tropics, however we have had no rain here. The shuttle that took us from the parking lot to the boat drove through water on the road that was about a foot deep. (We didnít go to all the places scheduled for the bus trip because of flooding.)
We donned our fly nets and set out for what turned out to be a great trip. In the course of a couple of hours we saw several alligators, a pair of white chested sea eagles, thousands of little red flying foxes, and some gorgeous water lilies. One problem with fly nets is that they interfere with camera focusing. The annoying flies make the nets quite worthwhile.
The boat ride was our last activity at Kakadu. After dropping us at the Gagudju Crocodile Hotel the driver took the other passenger back to Darwin. We could have done that if we had known what was going on and not had to check out of the hotel. However, if we had done that we would have missed the Gagudju which is shaped like a giant crocodile. The entrance and reception, naturally enough, is in the mouth. This 110-room hotel features all the amenities, restaurant, tavern, swimming pool, and guest laundry. Although the $35 dinner at the Escarpment Restaurant was buffet-style, it was quite good, especially since the cost was included in the tour.
After a night-long serenade from the birds, bugs and bats, we were picked up at 7:45 the next morning and driven back to the Darwin area. Along the way we saw some Jabiru storks, a frilled lizard, and some WWII fighter air strips built right next to the road. We stopped at some lesser resort to pick up some box lunches and then pressed on the Territory Wildlife Park. It is situated on 400 hectares of bushland and features only native animals at 11 different sites, with the exception of one display of introduced animals. The bush is undisturbed within the park, except for the necessary buildings, paths, and road. A free shuttle is available to carry you from site to site if you donít feel like hiking.
Our first stop was the aquarium since it was feeding time. Rather than looking at the native fish through the wall, you view from a tunnel that passes through the tank. Shortly after we arrived, a diver entered that tank and fed the fish. Our final stop was the Eagle Flight Deck which was actually an open field with bleachers on one side. The staff presented a flying display of several raptors, an osprey, a brown kite, and an egg-eating vulture.
We got back to Darwin about 5 PM, bid farewell to Max, and checked back into the hotel. Our luggage was already in our rooms. Dinner that night was at a nearby Italian restaurant run by an Italian man, his Vietnamese wife, and named for their two daughters. The wife was also the chef. Both girls were there but, rather than helping, were visiting with friends who were also customers. It was one of the better meals we had on the trip.
Our airport pickup was scheduled for 11 am so this gave us time for shopping. Some of the aboriginal items are "crafted in Indonesia and decorated in Australia." One difference from our last visit to Australia is that there is a greater array of Australian made souvenir available. In Darwin, there are many shops selling things attributed to aborigines, staffed by Caucasians, while the aboriginals beg on the streets.
The flight from Darwin to Gladstone, via Brisbane, was uneventful. Gladstone was the only place where there was no airport pick-up scheduled. When we entered the small terminal, we noticed a van from our hotel parked in front. It was there to pick up the flight crew. We were able to ride along.
After the activities of the last few days, we were feeling rather spent and not like searching for a place to eat. (Perhaps the two meals we had on the flights had something to do with our lack of appetite.) Chris went out for wine while Donna called a pizza place. Chris returned with the wine and shortly thereafter the two pizzas arrived. It was a very pleasant dinner with pleasant companions. It was also pleasant to leave the oppressing humidity and temperatures of northern Australia. Also, we have left the rains!
The Country Plaza International is located in the heart of town. Its entrance is on a shopping mall-like street. We strolled it next morning and found ordinary shops, no souvenir shops. Gladstone seems to be a very pleasant town, however we spent no significant time there for at 10:45 the hotel van took us to the Gladstone Marina to board the catamaran to Heron Island.
It was a very rough ride to the island. Through the grace of chemicals, concentrating on the horizon, or going outside, none of our group got sick, but they did get sunburned.
Heron Island has changed quite a bit since our last visit. There are many more accommodations and the quaint raised wooden houses have been replaced with cement block structures. There seem to be more people than the place can support. Our table in the dining room was jammed in between other tables, making access difficult. Since all meals are fully or partly buffet, you must have easy access to your seat. It finally became so bad that I complained and they were able to correct the problem. At one meal there wasnít enough silverware to fully set our table. The staff, however, was helpful and pleasant, surprising since they are given no leave. They must work seven days a week and remain on the island until they quit. The usual tenure seems to be about a month.
The reef also seems to be suffering from overuse. The are lots of patches of white (dead) coral. On our reef walks, we didnít see the variety of creatures that we saw last time. However, the noddy terns are still nesting there and the shearwaters come in to their borrows at night. The island is constantly patrolled by herons and a variety of rails.
In spite of my complaints, it was an enjoyable, restful three nights. The members of our little group went their separate ways, doing what they pleased. The resort provides group activities for kids, which Natalie enjoyed. Nathan played chess and pool and swam with some other kids he met. Frequently the only times we were together were at meals.
Everyone but Natalie and I snorkeled a couple of times. They saw rays, reef sharks, turtles, and a tremendous variety of large and small fish. The coral, however, wasnít as nice as the other places we have been on this trip. In addition, the water was colder and less clear. Some jelly fish put in an appearance the last day. The sea turtles are still nesting there. We saw some come ashore to lay and also caught the tail end of a hatch.
All to soon it was time to leave. Because of the rough ride over, Beth, Donna, Natalie, and Nathan took the helicopter back to Gladstone. The rest rode the catamaran back to Gladstone, along with the luggage. The ride back was much smoother than the ride over. We arrived at the dock at the same time the flight to Brisbane was due to leave. The luggage quickly showed up and it and we boarded the shuttle to the airport. Anxious helicopter riders awaited us at the airport. We quickly checked in and boarded the flight which left immediately. Most of the passengers were from the island so the flight really couldnít leave until we got there.
On to Brisbane, claim the luggage from Qantas, check in to Annset, on to Sydney. And again, all our luggage arrived and the driver met us as scheduled. Our luggage has grown by three pieces, due to dirty clothes and purchases. (This is the first time I have traveled independently and arranged to be met at the airports and hotels. This is a luxury to which I could become accustomed. The drivers were present at every place as scheduled. We did this because of the size of the group.)
The van dropped us at the Old Sydney Parkroyal, right in the heart of The Rocks, the site of the original settlement and right next to the Circular Quay, across from the Opera House. Donna, Chris, and the kids rode the Sydney Explorer the next day. This is a shuttle that hits all the significant places around town. Passengers may exit and reboard as they please. The rest of us shopped and walked. There is an open-air market in the area every week end that features an eclectic array of stuff.
The hotel has a roof-top recreational area that features a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, tables, and a great view of the harbor and famous Opera House. We enjoyed our last happy hour there, having drinks and hors díoeuvres delivered by room service.
Dinner was an unspectacular German meal. We did observe an apparent Australian bridal custom. The bride-to-be, dressed in a net vail and skirt worn over her regular clothes, dines with a group of her friends.
Sunday, and after more shopping, and a 2Ĺ hour Capt. Cook tour of the Sydney harbor, we boarded the van at the hotel for the final ride to the airport. Another 14 hours to get home. This time, we arrived in Los Angeles before we left Sydney.