Monday, April 30, 2012

Australia Zoo, Worth A Few Hundred Cups of Lemonade

I have to say, until we came to Australia I hadn't thought a whole lot about Steve Irwin.  Back home, I had watched the overeager Aussie in a couple of episodes of Crocodile Hunter at some point and I enjoyed him, but I enjoy most any nature show.  And yes, I thought was a shame that he was killed in such a freak accident with the stingray, but I mostly felt sorry for his children, who have to feel the incredible pain of losing a parent.  

Our apartment here has multiple DVDs of Crocodile Hunter shows, and one disc detailed Steve Irwin's journey to the man he became, including his childhood being immersed in his parents' reptile park in Beerwah, Queensland.  I got teary-eyed (surprise, surprise) along with Steve as he described the day his beloved dog was inadvertently shot during a filming with pigs in Africa, and I really appreciated his desire to get people interested and engaged with animals so that they would naturally see the importance of conservation.

The teeny 4-acre Beerwah Reptile Park is now the Australia Zoo, a 100-acre property and major tourist destination.  It's a place that my children had been looking forward to visiting since we first tossed around the words 'teacher exchange' and 'Australia' one night at dinner.  Our boys spent 5 or 6 weekend days last summer holding lemonade stands to earn some money because we heard the zoo offers opportunities to have an encounter with some of the animals.  The idea of an animal encounter was awesome, and I looked at the cost per person in terms of cups of the flavored lemonade, which sold for $2 since they were made with real ingredients like strawberries, mango, mint (and of course, the usual lemons, sugar and water).

A dingo?  20 cups.  Okay, that's doable.

A Tasmanian devil?  40 cups.

A cheetah?  75 cups, and since an adult must be present as well it jumped up to 150 cups.  Um that's a lotta lemonade.  I started wondering if they offered an earthworm encounter, or at most maybe a peacock?

Dreams of the Australia Zoo filled the boys' heads for nearly a year, so I was understandably a little nervous whether it would live up to the hype as we arrived that morning (for myself as well, because admission was a steep $189 [90 cups of lemonade] for our family and we've already seen a lot of animals at zoos, wildlife parks, and in the wild thus far in our year here).

We immediately headed to the elephant area because it was feeding time, something the zoo makes interactive for its guests.  On the way, we spotted this lizard wandering the grounds.

We were able to choose a fruit or vegetable from the large bucket and hold it out to the waiting elephant; the kids enjoyed it without being terribly impressed, but I loved being able to have a little moment with such a gorgeous creature.

This is a gorgeous zoo, with very lush, well-maintained grounds and the most beautiful open kangaroo enclosure I have ever seen (and again, we've seen our fair share of kangaroo enclosures).  Staying true to its roots, the focus is weighted towards reptiles.

There were multiple crocodile enclosures; to be honest, I feel like if you've seen one croc, you've seen them all, but it was interesting to read the history behind each animal.  We caught one of the zoo's wildlife shows, where a man got far too close to a crocodile for my comfort.
Nah, that's not too close.  But this is!

 Each animal had a nice, well-maintained habitat and we enjoyed seeing some of our Aussie animal favorites.

The kids were so excited about their encounters--because of limitations in cost and age, Alex and Kenyon both decided on the giant land tortoise.  Maybe not the most dynamic of creatures, but I figured it would be a good opportunity to get up close and personal with an interesting animal.
In reality?  Meh.  The tortoises weren't very cool, and the kids couldn't get all that close to them because of the danger of getting stepped on.  There were about 5 other people doing the encounter, so there was a lot of waiting around.  We got some pictures, but otherwise it was a disappointment.

Sam, on the other hand, got to spend some good one-on-one time with his animal of choice, the echidna.  We've seen a few up close in the wild during our camping travels, but Sam really enjoyed interacting with this unique little rugby ball-sized spiky guy.

Because I had already snuggled a wombat, I took one for the team (and our wallets) by foregoing the animal encounter.  And then it was Jackson's turn, and he had chosen the dingoes.  They are basically dogs, so they don't look all that exotic, but Jackson is a huge dog lover and he has been intrigued by them since we've been here.  The handlers spoke about the dingoes and their pack mentality, introduced the alpha to Jackson so she could sniff him, and then they settled in for some pictures.  One big difference between dingoes and regular dogs is that unlike a dog who is unfailingly excited to see its owner and interact, dingoes are initially curious but then can't be bothered with humans.

He was the only person signed up for the encounter, which made for an awesome experience.  The rest of us sat a little ways away, but after a bit they invited us all over to ask questions about the dingoes and working with animals in general, and to take some pictures with all three of the boys.  It lived up to every bit of Jackson's expectations, and was especially good since the other boys kind of had a lame tortoise encounter.

We left the zoo happy, tired, and with a few hours' drive ahead of us to our next campsite.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fraser Island Continues: Maheno Wreck, Eli Creek, and a Hike

One of Fraser Island's most famous landmarks is not a natural one--it's the Maheno Wreck.  Built in 1905, the SS Maheno was used as both a luxury passenger ship and a hospital ship during World War I.  In 1935,  the ship began a journey towards Japan to be used for scrap metal when it was caught in a cyclone and washed up on Seventy-Five Mile Beach, the eastern shore of Fraser Island.

I could have sat there all day, watching the waves rush through the hulking shell of rusted metal.

As we drove along the beach at 70kph with the windows open, I heard a recurring series of popping noises.  It was quite some time before I realized that we were driving over hundreds of Portugese Man O' War (also known as blue bottles) that were washed up along the beach.  Their bodies have a air-packed bubble that were no match for our Land Rover tires, and after I pointed out what was happening to the boys, they were decidedly gleeful each time we heard a string of the popping sounds.
Blue bottles on the beach (source)
We ventured along and saw some rock formations with gradations of color.  While it's certainly no Bryce Canyon National Park, the reddish tones in the sand were beautiful.

Eli Creek, the longest creek on the eastern beach that pours a couple million liters of fresh water into the ocean every hour, was a fun place for the boys to boogie board and wade.
I will remember Eli Creek as the place where the clouds parted, and I'm pretty sure I heard angels singing, when  a kind family we were camping near offered to charge my iPhone with their car charger.  I am forever indebted, as it allowed to me continue to photograph our experience on the island.

For our last day on Fraser, we left the 4x4 sitting idle and hiked from Central Station to Basin Lake.  At 5.6km return, we just upped Kenyon's longest hike by a couple kilometers and he did great; I love being able to cover longer distances as the kids get older.  Of course, there are days where I can't coax Kenyon to walk to the corner without him collapsing limply on the ground, sobbing--but on this day, 5.6 km was a breeze.
It didn't hurt that the hike was awesome, with mangled strangler figs, palms and ferns aplenty.

Alex the Buddha

As we packed up camp and said prepared to say farewell to Fraser Island, Jackson spotted this little guy on his tent and scooped it onto a stick for a picture.  He only had 6 legs but seemed to do just fine.  The boys also futilely attempted to grab a goanna; Sam encouraged them as I mentally calculated how many hours away we were from a hospital.  Luckily, they didn't even get close before it darted further up the tree.

We got back to the mainland, more than eager for a night at a hotel.  We bathed, washed clothes, ordered room service, watched a movie, and Sam and I sat in the bar and had a drink (yes, friends back home--Sam actually had a drink, too!).

Fraser was awesome, and now we had to start making our way back home with our stores of books on tape (and my patience for car noise) growing thin.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Wild Dingo Children and Lake McKenzie

The main point of camping our way up the coast was so we could explore the environmental wonderland of Fraser Island, which is noted for its rainforest ecosystem somehow growing out of the sand.  It also houses the purest strain of dingoes on the east coast, which is why many of the campgrounds on this island national park are fenced.  I initially figured that since we've camped in bear territory in northern California just fine we could handle this as well without the fences, but since the park service advises that parents be in close proximity of children under the age of fourteen, not merely toddlers, we'd better heed the advice and go with the fences.

The other logistical factor involved with visiting Fraser Island is the driving--only 4x4 vehicles are allowed, so we left our trusty Ferdinand the Minivan at Fraser Magic 4wd Hire and got acquainted with the very industrial Land Rover Defender.  After watching a video explaining all the potential horrors, dismemberments, and deaths that accompany 4-wheeling and beach driving--and signing our lives away--we set off for the ferry.

Is there some universal boy gene that expresses itself when multiple boys are placed into one row of seats in a Land Rover?  Our children transformed into a wild pack of wrestling dingoes.  And I know you're thinking that I should give them a break, because of course bumpy, 4-wheel tracks are going to rile them up.  Jeez, why can't I cut them some slack on their first 4-wheel drive experience.  I'll tell you why--
We were on the effing ferry, and the car was parked.  PARKED.  With the boys a frenzied heap of twisting limbs and noggins inside the vehicle, I stood at the edge of the ferry and gazed out at the waterway, breathed in the salty air, took a sip of my cappuccino, and tried to muster up patience for the next four days of driving.  I also noted the sign indicating that we were currently in a waterway which was home to saltwater crocodiles ('salties') and wondered if I could possibly jump in and swim back to shore in one piece, free for a spa weekend and far, far away from my family.  I quickly calculated that being a prehistoric beast's breakfast would prevent me from spending time at beautiful beaches like this one, so I resigned myself to four days of the inevitable automobile-related frenzy.

At precisely this moment, I realized that our camera--the one that we needed to document and remember our family's experience in this amazing environment when they were not torturing me in the car--was in Ferdinand the Minivan's glove compartment.

In the rental car place's parking lot.

Across a salty croc-filled waterway.


Never have I been so happy to own an iPhone, as it was all I could desperately cling to in hopes of photographing our time.  But of course, I didn't bring the car charger for the iPhone so I had a day and a half of battery, tops.


Driving on the island is a four-wheeling driver's dream, with sandy, rutted inland tracks and 50-odd kilometers of beach driving with streams, washouts, and rock bypasses.
inland tracks

beach driving (and making room for an oncoming plane)
But despite the kids' initial excitement over the experience, we determined that the Tunheims are simply not a four-wheeling family.  We endured the slow, jostled driving as a means to an end and it was worth it to access the unique beauty of the area, but we certainly didn't happen upon a new family hobby.

One of the reasons I had chosen Central Station campground (apart from safety) was that its rainforest made it a destination even for those who weren't camping there.  And the greenery didn't disappoint--our own campsite was edged by this gorgeous massive, mossy fallen log, and its friends were scattered amongst the grounds, with countless others towering above us.  The weather seemingly changed in 12-minute intervals from rain that dripped lightly after being filtered through the leaves above to sunshine barely glimpsed through the canopy.

I went on a much-needed solo hike along a small portion of the 90km of hiking trails along Fraser Island's Great Walk.  As someone whose favorite color is green, I marveled at all the shades and textures; a feast for the eyes.

solo-hike self-portrait
When I get home, I want to print a bunch of Australian leafy greens photos and hang them up in my bedroom so I can have a piece of that beauty in Colorado.  I'll leave that unshowered, sans makeup photo for the blog; it's bad enough that Sam has to wake up and see it each morning!

Back home in the States before we left on this exchange year, I asked the New Zealander that co-owns the awesome Curtis Park Deli what some of the must-sees were in Australia.  Fraser Island's Lake McKenzie was top on his list, so off we went.  As we walked down the path from the carpark, I caught my first glimpse of water:

And then in full view:
The lake is perched, which means it contains only rainwater, and the soft, white, pure silica sand is so incredibly fine that I used it as a scrub on my face.  The water is so pure from being filtered through the sand that it supports very little life--but you can drink it as you swim and it tastes better than anything coming out of a faucet.

The recent high rains meant that much of the white sandy beach was underwater so the lake was less gorgeous than usual, but really, I wasn't about to complain--lowering the description from stupendously gorgeous to incredibly gorgeous means it's still a pretty damn beautiful place to spend time.

We visited the lake twice, since our first late-afternoon visit got a little chilly as the sun fell behind the trees, and I took as many pictures as I could with my waning iPhone battery.

Kenyon is going to remember little to none of this trip since he's so young, so I try and take as many pictures as I can of him to help us talk about it for years to come.  Plus, I just can't get enough of his face.

I love this one that Kenyon took of us.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Beach Perfection at Yuraygir National Park

No trip up the north coast is complete without stopping in Coffs Harbour and having a picture taken at the Big Banana.

And no tourist trap is complete without the requisite lolly shop—to be honest, the only redeeming feature about this particularly underwhelming stop on our journey was the lolly shop’s candy-making demonstration.  I spent a couple of years crafting candies at Wythe Candy in Williamsburg, VA while in college, and I can make a mean chocolate-dipped caramel apple.  While I didn’t get to appreciate the nuances of the Australian caramel apple technique because this shop focused on hard candies, we all watched with delight as they pulled, twisted and layered the candy while it was still pliable and then deftly chopped it and handed it out as samples.  

And then back in the car.  All I can say is, thank god for Ferdinand the Minivan's three rows of seating, because my tolerance of car craziness is not where it needs to be for being a mother of three boys.  You'd think these long road trips would break me in a bit, but really my noise threshold keeps getting lower and lower.  I could go on about this, but even writing about it is annoying and I'd rather to get to the good stuff--the beach.

If I could live on a beach for the rest of my life, I just might pick the beach at the Sandon River campground in Yuraygir National Park.  I was giddy as we pulled in there--with the Easter holidays over, the huge crowds had gone and we had our pick of sites.

Our campsite, surrounded by mangroves that formed a built-in playground for the boys, was a mere 30 paces from the beach... and oh, that beach. Be still my heart.

Warm, clear water? Check.

Cool sculptures? Check.

Amazing private island that you can wade to at low tide? Check.

self-timer family portrait

One side of the island boasted a rocky playground with clear streams running through, or in other words, boy heaven.

I had heard that one of the wonderful things about the NSW north coast was the empty beaches, but it still surprised me that the whole time we explored the beach and island that day, we never saw another soul.   

And there's not much better than homemade hot cocoa after a long afternoon on the beach.  
When we camp, I do some work on the front end to make our life easier and more enjoyable on the road--a homemade hot cocoa mix is easy and so much better than what you can get in a package.  If you're interested, here's what I mix together in a food processor and toss in a Tupperware:
1.5 c. powdered milk
1 c. powdered sugar
1.25 c. dutch processed cocoa 
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cinnamon

When it's time for cocoa, mix equal portions of mix and hot water together--I'm a bit of a cocoa snob and ordinarily would scoff at powdered milk, so it's not perfect.  But everything tastes better when you're camping, right?  

After two nights, I glumly helped pack up.  We had to keep moving to get to our real destination, but I could have stayed forever the week here and been very happy.