Part 7. Australia, Brisbane to Townville
Saturday, 17 December, 2011
After breakfast and getting checked out of the hotel, we headed north, back on the road toward Townsville.
Along the way, we stopped at the Australia Zoo, where the late Steve Irwin was still a major influence.
We spent a few hours wandering around the zoo, but because we've been to several zoos in lots of places, we didn't really spend much time at any one place.
We hadn't planned to go to the big arena for the show, but it was very loud. The show was highly rehearsed and things went at a fast pace. Even the planned jokes and fake chaos were done at a Spongebob Squarepants-pace, meaning that it was intended for idiots and tiny children. Mostly for the tiny children, I admit. I found it to be mostly uninteresting.
They spent a minute or two feeding a large croc, but even the reptile seemed uninterested.
Really, the best part was when they got a series of birds to swoop around the stadium. One parrot was sent back and forth between the bird handler and a pretty gal they picked out of the audience. Even this part--although it was interesting--lasted only a couple of minutes.
In no time the show was over. What a disappointment. Good thing it was included with the entry fee.
The zoo was well organized, but some of the cages were so small that it was hard not to have sympathy for the animals. Of course, when they just lay around waiting for the next feeding time (like the Komodo Dragon, below), they don't need much room.
Some of the big crocs were one-to-a-cage, but several seemed to be mating pairs. Alison was all by herself.
This replica of a recorded giant croc was very detailed, and it was automatic for people to get their photos taken while on it.
Okay, miscellaneous photos from all around the zoo.
Snake, green in color.
Trainers having a freak-out moment when two of the tigers came together and started to snarl at each other. I'm not sure what they expected to do if the cats had a tussle...
...but as it turned out, there was peace between the felines. A mating pair, I think, so a few snits are to be expected.
The big male then wandered off for some peace and quite.
Koalas are always a popular animal, but I really don't see why. Due to their poisonous eucalyptus diet, they sleep over twenty hours a day, and they don't do anything more than eat when they are awake. They are not a part of any natural food chain, so really they are just hairy lumps in the trees. Cute, I suppose, but mostly only to kids (of all ages).
In a darkened house, Tasmanian Devils were cavorting. The five kids were quite active.
The cassowaries were behind heavy wire cages, and rightfully so. They can be very aggressive.
Emus, too, were caged, but they were not nearly so dangerous to people.
We saw two elephants, but they were far away and not participating today.
Very popular with everyone was the open park area where smaller kangaroos and a few other critters were allowed to wander about. If you had food, you were popular with them.
This guy (a type of wallaby, I think) was staying in the trees, where people had to leave them alone.
We left the zoo and drove north a while to Underwater World, but the cost was not attractive, so we skipped it.
As we drove through Childers, I was waved over by police in the roadway. It turned out to be a random DUI check. I blew into the tube and was wished a happy day by the friendly police officer. The penalties for DUI are very severe, and there is no tolerance.
Lots of orchards along the coast, and a lot of bland scenery. The highway was far from the actual coast, so you don't even get to enjoy the sight of the ocean. Lots of construction zones, too.
We went through Bundaberg, where the best ginger beer is made (we've enjoyed lots of it lately) and where Bundaberg Rum is made. Pre-mixed cans of Bundaberg and Coke can be found in New Zealand, too. Come to think of it, you can get several types of pre-mixed cocktails in cans here. Jack and Coke? Jim Beam and Coke? No problem. Very civilized.
At our fuel stop, I bought a pineapple and a melon. Both were excellent snacks at the hotel.
My computer mouse died, so doing photo management took a while longer. At least I got another segment of this report uploaded.
Sunday, 18 December, 2011
Laurie had the beginnings of a head cold, so that was very bad news for her hopes of scuba diving.
At one point of our northbound drive, a police car came up behind me with its emergency lights on. I thought that maybe he was pulling me over, since I was at the tail end of a group of cars that were all speeding a bit. Instead, when I pulled over the cop went past me and pulled over the car in front of me. Why that car and not me? I have no idea.
At some point, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, but there was no sign that we saw.
The scenery remained bland. It looked like this for a long time.
I could understand why there were so many signs warning drivers to take frequent breaks and avoid fatigue. The problem must be so bad that the government has put up a series of signs with trivia questions and answers.
We saw several fires, and I thought that it must be a bad forest fire. We later learned that they were planned ground-clearing fires that never got up into the trees.
I saw more signs prohibiting the transport of bananas and sugar cane beyond local zones. Signs also warned about flooding on the roads, and there were posts with depth markings in these areas.
We drove to a turtle rookery, built where turtles regularly come to lay their eggs on the beach. At first, we had trouble finding the rookery, but we had no trouble finding a beach. It was only a few hundred yards from the parking lot.
To one side was a sandy beach (above), and to the other side was a lot of black volcanic rocks. The tide looked like it was coming back in.
No evidence of turtle activity here, but the tiny beach crabs had been busy that morning sifting through the sand and spitting it out in small balls.
As we drove away, I saw a tiny sign and we found the rookery. The visitor's center was rustic and informative. According to the chalkboard, two sea turtles had laid eggs the previous night. I wandered on the beach until I found one of the sites. The turtle's tracks had been trampled on by people, probably in an effort to disguise the tracks.
In Macay, we stopped for the night. The hotel was sophisticated enough to sell me a couple of bottles of beer right in the registration office. Yay!
As I worked on the computer that evening, the power kept cutting in and out. I tracked the problem to the power cord. It was the part of the cord that plugged into the wall outlet and led to the power transformer unit. Through trial and error, I found that the problem was something broken in the end of the cord that plugged into the transformer. I cut the plug open and found that one of the connectors had broken apart. With a small soldering iron, I could have fixed it right away, but with only a tiny pocket knife, my motorcycle tool kit, and some tape, I couldn't quite manage it. Managing the wires wasn't the hard part, it was the tiny tubular part of the plug. Aside from soldering it, there was no other fix.
Oh, well, I was done for the night anyway.
Monday, 19 December, 2011
We found a computer shop that sold me a power cord (with one of those huge Aussie plugs on it), so my problem was solved. At least I wouldn't have to keep using a plug adapter for the computer.
Laurie's cold was getting worse, so her problem was just getting started.
After a few hours, Laurie asked me it we were seeing the same scenery we had seen hours earlier. Yes, I told her, Yes we are...
More signs about moving sugar cane outside the regions where they were harvested.
We finally got to Townsville and found our Holiday Inn hotel. We discovered that they had no parking, and that "parking available" meant one of the nearby parking garages. Fortunately, the hotel provided a lower rate for parking (and a valet service for no extra charge).
We went back out into the hot, muggy afternoon to find that many restaurants didn't open until 17:30 or later. We killed some time in a sports bar that was almost depressing. One video screen showed music videos from the 1980's, while another showed a replay of a soccer game. Smaller TVs showed sports betting and lottery results. Two of the old-timers in the bar were interested in none of the above, but two younger guys were watching the game with interest.
After a drink, we decided to catch a movie and get dinner afterwards. The newest Mission: Impossible movie was okay but not great. Far too many chases. Chases are supposed to generate tension and excitement, but they mostly just allow the writers and director to use up a lot of screen time without having to make a better movie. There are what, four long chases in that movie? Bah.
Most of the restaurants near our hotel were either Indian or Thai--oh, and another Subway sandwich shop--but we settled for a Chinese seafood place. We each had a hot pot which was very good.
Laurie's cold was worse.
Tuesday, 20 December, 2011
We had breakfast in a cafe near the hotel and found several newspapers to read as we lingered. Kim Jong-Il died, huh? Well... that doesn't suck. Hopefully, there won't be a bunch of posturing chaos to follow.
At a tourist office, we booked a couple days of diving for me. Laurie would come along on Thursday to snorkel if she was feeling well enough by then.
Our plan for the day was to be local tourists, so we headed for the Billabong Wildlife Sanctuary. We'd been here fifteen years earlier, and I had fond memories of it.
Unlike most larger zoos, the Sanctuary is small and intimate. Much better for children.
Cyclone Yasi had come through almost a year ago, and the place was still recovering from all the damage. Since this isn't a high-attendance attraction, they are only slowly making progress with the rebuilding.
When we were here before, kangaroos and emus wandered around freely, being hand-fed by the tourists. The emus are no longer roaming free, but the roos are still there.
The birds are mostly wild, since the place does attract them. They are pretty accustomed to people.
Turtles and eels in the lake know when someone is standing nearby. We were there when a worker came to feed them, and he let people take scraps of fish to help out. The eels were very pushy.
There are several events planned throughout the day, and about every half hour, something is happening. We followed all the other tourists from one presentation to the next. Here, one of the Dingos was brought out to meet-and-greet. The dogs are a mixed-breed, introduced hundreds--perhaps thousands--of years ago. Those at the Sanctuary were semi-tame, behaving themselves with the tourists, since they knew they would be fed afterwards.
Next, we went with a couple of the workers to feed some crocodiles. Well, they didn't let us feed them. And for good reason.
The kids got to feed some stale bread to a buffalo. Not safe enough for the petting zoo, but safe enough behind heavy wire.
Lots of smaller critters were wandering around in the scrubby vegetation. Too shy to come out and bed for food.
Most of the larger birds were in cages. The large walk-through enclosure hasn't been repaired yet, so nothing was in it. Fifteen years ago, I got to play with a large fruit bat in that enclosure, but they no longer keep bats.
While we waited for the koala showing, we all sat around and threw the remainder of our feed to the ducks. A large goose-like bird showed up and was a total bully to the smaller birds. After it briefly grabbed one of the ducks by the head, the rest of them stayed away from it.
A cockatoo (or whatever it was) demanded the handler's attention, so he played with it for a while until it calmed down. It was a very old bird, and craved attention.
The koala encounter was typically dull, but the kids like to pet them.
The handler brought out a wombat that had been raised by the Sanctuary, so it had imprinted on humans since its birth. Apparently, when it doesn't get enough human interaction, it gets depressed and doesn't eat. It got plenty of human interaction from the kids.
Kids of all ages.
The handler brought out a large snake just to kill some time, but only a few people wanted anything to do with it. Laurie cranked her courage up to "High" and took the serpent for a while.
Her snake-sitting chores got extended when the animal handler got busy taking tourists photos with some animals, so Laurie stood around with the snake for quite a while. Long enough for the thrill to wear off.
We got some cold drinks at the snack shop. An Ibis kept coming around to see if I had dropped any food.
Before we left, I saw the cockatoo on its perch and went up to meet it. It was friendly enough at first.
When I stroked its head feathers and scratched its neck, it seemed to like it, but when I touched its wing, it snapped at me. Got me pretty good, too. They have very strong beaks.
Back at our hotel, I did some photo management and we cooled down from the heat for a while. I started having an "iffy" stomach feeling, and by bowels were rumbling a bit. Uh-oh. I didn't feel sick, per se, so I hoped that it was just something I had eaten.
We went out in the evening and checked out several of the bars and restaurants. A couple of Irish pubs were very busy, but after having a drink at one we decided it was too noisy and crowded for dinner. We found a small place that hadn't even looked like a restaurant when we had gone by it earlier. I had thought it was a salon, but as we returned past it, a gal was writing the day's specials on a chalkboard. They were offering a discount on a second meal and free cocktails. What a deal. A very nice meal.
A young cyclone was forming east of the Queensland coast, and another just north of Australia. Tomorrow might be the beginning of some bad weather.
Wednesday, 21 December, 2011
Since I wasn't too sure about the weather or the stability of my stomach yet, I skipped breakfast. I headed out for the marina at 05:45, and although it wasn't a long walk, I managed to get a bit lost. I ended up on the wrong side of the marina and had to hot-foot it back around to the other side in order to meet the dive boat at 06:30.
As it turned out, I got there on time and no one was there. Right at 06:30, several other people showed up and the boat pulled up to the dock. Right after that, the dive crew arrived in a truck full of gear. Very punctual.
When I had signed-up, I had given them my height and weight, so they had my gear (and everyone else's) with them. The crew loaded everything into the boat, we made sure that our wetsuits fit, and off we went.
As we started out, we hooked our vests and regulators to our tanks. Meters versus feet was an easy enough conversion, but I was used to the air gauge displaying in PSI, so the BAR reading was unfamiliar to me. Still, it's an analog method, so the relative reading is more important than the numbers. Don't rag on me, diving sticklers, I'm just saying...
We headed out for the Yongala wreck site, and we were warned right away that the seas would be rough, and that anyone had sea-sickness meds, we should take it now. (Actually, now was too late for it to take effect, and it should have been taken earlier.) The gal in the white t-shirt (in the above photo) managed to get her dive gear hooked up before she became horribly ill and spent the rest of the day throwing up and lying down.
I was okay for the first hour, but it was a three-hour trip into heavy wind and current out to the dive site. When I was younger and diving more often, rough boat rides never bothered me, but maybe that's changed. The last time I dove was also in rough seas, and I got very ill. The same thing happened here, but since I had nothing in my stomach, it was mostly dry heaves and small amounts of bitter, yellow bile. Ugh.
Using the tiny head (toilet room) was a hurtful hell on the thrashing boat. I think everyone came out of there with a fresh wound.
I never got too ill to function, fortunately. As we neared the dive site, the dive leader gave us the history of the Yongala, briefed us on the dive site, told us what to watch and look out for, and reminded everyone of safe diving practices. This is typical for all dives, so it was a familiar routine.
There were a couple other dive boats at the site, each tied up to a floating buoy. We joined them and struggled to get into our gear on the bouncing boat. The divers had been split into two groups, and I was in the first group.
The first dive was pretty mundane, but it sure felt good to get off the boat. Once in the water, the heaving on the surface was bad, but at least it was better than being slammed around on the boat. My assigned dive buddy and I exchanged our signals and dropped down and it was finally calm.
Our group was led to the ocean floor, and we followed the Yongala's hull around in the sandy bottom. Because it was a cloudy day, the light wasn't penetrating very well. Everything looked brown and gray. Lots of fish, and the wreck's hull was almost totally covered with hard and soft corals, but I've seen lots of better diving elsewhere. We clustered on the buoy's anchor line for our safety stop, just deep enough that the surface movement of the ocean wasn't bothering us much. Looking up at the roiling surface, it seemed like one of the cyclones had already arrived. The exit was going to be rough.
Getting back on the boat was a bitch. The swells would either heave you up onto the boat's small exit deck or kill you with it, depending on how good your timing was. Some divers were having a hard time with it, and a couple seemed afraid of the boat slamming up and down. Once we were all back aboard, I was exhausted, since I waited to be one of the last to get out of the water.
When the boat crew asked for my relevant dive readings (max depth, dive time, returning BAR), I could barely read them due to the scratched gauges (they had been easier to read underwater). Rental gear. It was all in good shape, but it had been around for a while.
The dive boat remained where it was, since our second dive was to be in the same place. Lunch was served, but I decided to get ill again and turn green. Several others did, too, I noticed. Eventually, I managed to eat a few pieces of fruit. I should have brought some ginger candies, since they help settle the stomach.
After our surface interval, we managed to get back into the water without anyone dying. The second dive was along the upper portion of the Yongala. The light was better, so the colors were brighter. I saw the largest ray that I have ever seen, gliding along the wreck. Since other divers were near it, there was a sense of scale. An eagle ray, maybe ten feet long, including tail. (Back on the boat later, some had thought they had seen a manta ray, but they were corrected by the dive guides.) A few very large barracudas, too.
Again, getting back on the boat was a life-or-death scenario. No one died, but there were a few injuries.
The 90-minute ride back to Townsville was much better than the ride out. The wind and current were now with us, so it was much smoother. I managed to eat a few snacks and drink something. The gal who had been too sick to dive, was looking almost human again, but she was still too sick to talk much or eat anything.
As we neared shore, I went up to the pilot's cabin and chatted with him for the last twenty minutes or so.
Laurie's cold was still bad, and I didn't feel like going out. Fortunately, the hotel's room service came at no extra charge, so we ate in the room and I did some writing.
The next day's weather was not expected to be any better, so we made the painful (and expensive) decision to abandon our paid-for dive trip and stay on shore. No refunds for illness or late cancellation. Oh, well.
We need to do some diving soon on calmer waters, and when we are feeling well.
From Lauire: When the alarm went off, I wished Marty a good time diving, and rolled over to grab some more ZZZs. Ahhh ...
When I got up later, I first went off to find the Post Office (I'd been lugging around some post cards since New Zealand) and then to the chemist for various cold remedies. I was hoping my head would at least be clear enough to handle snorkeling the following day. I also hit the nearest Internet Cafe to do email, and received a pleasant surprise - as I was staring at the payment machine in confusion, a very nice stranger offered to let me use her unused credits (for free), since she had finished her browsing and still half an hour left on her access code. It worked out great!
After finishing the administrivia, I wandered down around the marina area where we were to meet our boat the next morning, and wound up in the ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) memorial park. We've seen such memorial parks all over the place in both NZ and Australia - they obviously take this seriously.
Then it was on to the Reef HQ Aquarium and the Cultural Center next door.
The Cultural Center celebrated the arts of many of the indigenous groups of people found in New South Wales (there are hundreds of different groups all over the country) and it had some lovely paintings, pottery and woodworking on display (no photos allowed). Their caretaker was very willing to describe the struggles and the discrimination that had gone on in the past, and how things had changed and were still changing today.
Next, I headed into the IMAX theater to see "Under the Sea" narrated by Jim Carrey. Hey, I figured it might be as close as I'd get to seeing the reef and the fish up close and personal, so why not? They did a good job showing some of the incredible beauty you find both in the Great Barrier Reef and in Papua New Guinean waters.
From the movie I went into the Reef HQ Aquarium itself, which I learned is the world's largest living coral reef aquarium. They have the obligatory tunnel where you are surrounded by the water and the reef and the inhabitants, and you take the obligatory mediocre photos of whatever you see. We've been to many aquariums, so this was pretty familiar territory - except for the visit to the turtle hospital. They are very proud of all of the turtles they have rescued, rehabbed and released, and they had at least half a dozen residents when I was there.
I wound up back at the hotel before Marty, so I went and lazed by the rooftop pool in a lounge chair - tough job I know, but someone has to do it, right?
Thursday, 22 December, 2011
Since we had blown off our dive day, we slept in. That, alone, was almost worth the expense.
The hotel's buffet breakfast was pretty good, but too costly, as usual.
We walked to Townsville's Maritime Museum. It seemed more like a volunteer-run operation than a commercial one. It was only a few dollars to wander around the site, the buildings of which were arranged in the shape of a long ship.
Lots of miniatures and models of famous Australian ships. Most were warships, but some were not.
The Yongala was there, but we didn't get a photo of the model. The wreck of the Yongala was the worst local maritime disaster.
Other Naval and Marine military memorabilia were displayed. Much was from private collections.
One of the small buildings was the model shop. Many models were being build or repaired. No one was around at all while we were there (aside from the guy at the entrance and one other local tourist couple).
Although quaint, the museum was a bit dissatisfying. Most of the time we were there, we had spent watching a video documentary. It was about the Krait, a small Japanese fishing boat that had been seized during WWII by the British near Singapore. A small crew of Australian sailors had later used the Krait to sneak in and attack Japanese naval ships at port in Singapore. (We later saw the Krait itself in Sydney.)
Next was the Museum of Tropical Queensland. It was mostly aimed at kids, but parts of it were interesting. Most of the space was dedicated to a display of the HMS Pandora, the vessel that had been sent in search of the mutineers from the HMS Bounty. Maybe it was only famous for that partly-failed effort, but it was famous nonetheless.
The real-size mock-up was interesting. Half of the bow section had been re-created, and the other half was a cut-out.
I found myself spending a lot of time in the relic room. I think much of it had been recovered from the wreck of the Pandora, but some of it was generally representative of naval technology of the times.
A cannon and part of a ship's hull were off to one side, and we later stayed to watch the demonstration of how a crew would load and fire the cannon.
As it turned out, Laurie and I were the entire audience, so we got to act the parts of the cannon crew for our own amusement. The museum guide had only done this demo a couple times, so he wasn't too smooth. One special effect that surprised me was when the deck started moving up and down under our feet--a nice touch that would have made small children squeal.
Some of the museum was dedicated to dinosaurs and other fossils.
Another room displayed the geological history of the region. A few other displays. Having been in a lot of museums over the years, maybe I'm a bit jaded. Laurie had gone to the Great Barrier Reef Aquarium yesterday while I was diving, so we didn't go again.
Later in the day, we lounged in a pub and watched some of a cricket match. Now that I know a little about the game, I have a better appreciation for why I still find it boring and ridiculous.
Dinner was a couple of Subway sandwiches back in the hotel room. We had decided to be frugal, since we were still cringing a bit over the lost money spent on the dive trip that we skipped.
Local news included Cyclone Fina (it now had a name) off the Queensland coast, and Cyclone Grant, which was expected to hit Darwin on Christmas Eve.
Oh, and Papua New Guinea somehow had two Prime Ministers bickering over who was actually in charge. Hey, we have a similar problem in the U.S.-- too many politicians who think their sole job is to bicker endlessly with the "other guys" and get nothing done. I can sympathize.
Friday, 23 December, 2011
We got packed and out of the hotel, breakfasted at a cafe, dropped off a box of stuff that we sent home (souvenirs, mostly, that we didn't want to tote around with us), and headed for the airport.
We learned that Jet Star charges $15 per kilo over 40 kilos of luggage. Holy Shit! Had we known this, we could have pre-purchased luggage credit. That was yet another expensive lesson.
Our plane to Sydney was delayed over three hours due to a tech problem.
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