Thursday, April 29, 2010

Moon, moon*

Got the moon sorted! Thanks to the Charleville Cosmos Centre, my rabbit interpretation has been officially verified for the southern hemisphere, Man in Moon for the northern, and whichever you see, it's always pretty much the same way up. And the rabbit's head is the Sea of Tranquillity.

And we saw Alpha Centauri (Danger, Will Smith, danger!) and the jewel box and Saturn with its rings almost edge-on. Excellent. Oh, plus the space station zipping past with the shuttle in hot pursuit.

Then a chocolate spring roll (melty chocolate inside thin, crispy deep fried pastry! with icecream! Genius!) from Tiger Thai to ensure a peaceful (?) night's sleep before another busy day with flying doctors, endangered bilbies, 3500 naked US soldiers and stories with scones.

*Pronounced 'moan, moan' - a quote from yet another Junior Request Session story from my distant youth, about a koala and the moon. The details escape me, naturally, but the accent endures.

Bigger than Texas

Twice as big, actually - Queensland, that is. It's certainly felt it today, with 5 hours' driving, from Barcaldine (Barcy) where we had a closer look at the grandiosly-named Tree of Knowledge under which the Labor Party began to twinkle in the eyes of striking shearers in 1891, though its actual conception came later. We were shown round the Australian Workers Heritage Centre by Bonnie, who's a true-blue Labor supporter, except that should be true-red. There was a lot to see but we had to hit the road to Blackall.

So had scores of roos, sadly - it was carnage out there, emphasis on the car. You really wouldn't want to hit one, they're so big (even unbloated by the heat) but the road trains would hardly notice, all 50 metres and 80-odd wheels of them.

Now it's another 3.5 hours to Charleville for the night, through a wide landscape of blue sky, golden Mitchell grass, cabbage-smelling gidgee trees and splendid solitary bottle trees.

PS The nasty smears in the photo are just that: ex-butterflies sadly smashed on the windscreen. As well as a plague of locusts, there's been a - what would it be? - benediction of butterflies since the drought broke.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pub with no beer? Worse!

I'm sitting in the Ironbark Inn's open-sided dining room at dusk with kookaburras chortling away in the gum tree above, a lizard chirping and no doubt a cloud of mozzies whining round my ankles if I could only hear them above those raucous 'burras.

Lots of driving today from Carisbrooke Station the other side of Winton, where we were shown around the farm with no stock. Eight years of drought have meant almost all the animals sold - and now the rains have come, there's nothing to eat all that grass, and no-one wanting to rent grazing because everyone has grass at the moment. I don't know how they make a living - apart from showing tourists over their very pretty property, that is. It's tough in the Outback.

They know how to shrug it off though, and in a couple of days' time there'll be a lot of fun down the road here in Barcaldine at the Tree of Knowledge Show, with goat racing a feature. The Tree is an old gum tree that was mysteriously poisoned a few years ago. Making the best of things again, they've erected an $8 million arty reincarnation of it over the gnarled and silver trunk, and visitors come for miles to see it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

How the west was won

All about history today - real life history, sweat and tears, grit and hope and humour. It started with sitting up front with Richard on a Cobb & Co coach on a gallop along an old trail past a billabong where Banjo Patterson would have boiled a billy, with young Lane shooting the occasional pebble up between the horses with his catapult to bounce off lazy Bess's rump - very Tom Sawyer.

Then to the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame to look at finely plaited bridles, battered hats and saddles, to read and hear drovers' stories, and to sit outside and watch Luke load a log on a wagon with his eight bullocks: easily said, but oh so laborious, slow and frustrating.

Across the road to the Qantas Founders' Museum for the Fysh and McGinnis story of vision, courage and determination, that made such a difference to outback life - and gave birth to a national airline in the process. Oh, and we poked all through a real 747-200 and walked along its wing - you can't do that anywhere else in the world.

And finally a cruise along the Thomson in a paddleboat to watch the sunset, then a campfire dinner watching locusts swoop over the flames, listening to country music and barefoot Scotty, a cowboy-hatted Pam Ayres, recite poems about outback life and tell a few good jokes.

Busy day full of interest and good humour - thanks, Longreach.



Feet of clay

So, it turns out even trains can have flatties.

According to the lady from the train, who was in the pool with us at the motel, the Spirit was running late out of Bundaberg, so the driver was pushing along - just a bit too quickly, so the automatic override thought he'd collapsed over the controls, and slammed on the brakes, sanding the wheels flat on the bottom and subjecting us all to rattles for the rest of the journey.

Odd though that the same thing didn't happen after the emergency stop on the Ghan last year.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

aNZac day

Not so much rocked to sleep on the Spirit of the Outback last night as shaken into submission and deafened by the squealing and scraping (due to flat wheels after an emergency stop just outside Bundy, apparently) but it's still always fun lying in bed on a train.

And here we are in Longreach, a metropolis of 4000 or so, having come through blips like Alpha, "a one-street, one-shop, one-pub town" where 'town' is a relative term, surrounded as it is by miles and miles of empty country.

Today is Anzac Day and the war memorial opposite the railway station is surrounded by bright red poppy wreaths - and two little NZRSA poppies, probably for the first time ever.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rocky for... a great steak

Started with a 3-hour tour of the wetlands attached to Capricorn Resort: birds, butterflies and dragonflies, and some interesting chat from Graham. "You could throw a swag over your shoulder and walk north for a week and not see another human," he said, waving his arm expansively over the landscape of rainforest, swamp and beach that stretches up to Mackay with nothing more than a few cattle-stations on the way.

There were more cattle at The Caves Show, the annual A&P event where we found the usual plates of 6 scones, displays of garden produce, photographs with crooked horizons and children's penmanship competitions. Outside, shiny horses flipped over jumps, people in cowboy hats clutched stubbies at the bar and, this being Australia, there were camel rides and souped-up utes to drool over. To be fair, there was as much drooling over at the cattle judging, where Angus - his real name?- explained over the microphone to his deeply interested audience, cowboy-hatted to a man (or child), that he'd placed this particular cow first because of her feminine shape and fine legs. She was a Brahman, the breed of choice up here it seems, though Angus cattle are popular too in Rocky for their excellent eating.

We actually lost count this afternoon of the giant plaster bulls around Rockhampton, Australia's beef capital: they're on business roofs all round town, with puns like Move-a-bull on top of a relocation firm, or Incredi-bull on the media place and so on. We ate part of one at the Heritage Hotel, in wagyu form, and it was perfect - and the service was excellent too.

There was a nasty cane toad on the river path on the way back to the hotel though - horrible things, and an environmental mistake even worse than our possums back home.

And tonight we catch the Spirit of the Outback train to Longreach, and will spend the ANZAC dawn tucked up in bunks, being rocked gently as we head away from this warm, humid, lizard-chirping, palm-fringed coastal life into the red heart of Queensland.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Sick of the parrot, Brian

A Dolittle day today - but not a do-little day, despite for once the itinerary instruction of Breakfast at Leisure not being followed by the next item '7.30am meet with resort CEO' or some such. Today the first appointment was 10.30 at Cooberie Wildlife Park, where I cuddled a koala (NOT a koala bear, please: they're marsupials) and saw that they have two opposable thumbs on each hand, so that's an advance on us - or would be, if we too wanted to spend 21 hours asleep in the crook of a gum tree conserving energy. Teddy was well-behaved, soft and furry, quite the poster-boy for koalas. Not so the eclectus parrot, a vision in green and red, who sucked me up close to the bars and, despite the warnings from pretty Frances at the entrance, seduced me into sticking my finger through the bars, whereupon he grabbed hold of it and squeezed so hard that it was several minutes after I'd got it back again before the bleeding started. Prime candidate for ex-parrotcy, I reckon.

Then it was Diddy Boy the dingo's turn: thick coat, big feet, solid ears. They don't bark, you know, just howl a bit, and purr like a cat. They jump like cats too. And despite appearing in ancient Aboriginal rock paintings, in Queensland they're not considered native and therefore not protected. He was very sweet (but of course I didn't have a baby with me).

The next creature to be thrust at me was a big skink, which hung off my shirt like a very lifelike, if rather ugly, brooch; and then a large python called Sheila with beautiful black and cream scales, very smooth and shiny. Cool, literally. She'd been run over and left with a deformed oviduct and would die if she mated, so she can't be released.

It was a nice place, a bit scruffy and old-fashioned, but with its heart in the right place (they rescue all sorts of animals) and the staff young and enthusiastic.

Then it was off to Koorana Crocodile Farm where we arrived too late to try the croc kebabs, burger, steak or spare ribs (though we did have an award-winning pie later, croc meat in a creamy leek sauce. Croc-a-leekie? Very tasty anyway.) We saw salties being fed, heard stories about how dangerous they are and ended with the farm owner, John Lever, ignoring all the dire warnings that the guide had been giving us by getting into the pen with Buka, the biggest one of all, and feeding him tasty morsels by hand, Steve Irwin-style. I wasn't waiting to see him turned into a tasty morsel himself, honest.

It's a big operation, supplying leather to Gucci and other brands, meat to Asia and providing jobs for passing back-packers who want something adventurous to put on their Facebook page. If they can learn to skin a croc in the standard 6 minutes, now that really would be something to boast about.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Speleologists do it in the dark

Ok, so I spent this afternoon on my elbows and knees in the dark with a guy called Dan who was showing me the way to do something entirely new - which I'll be perfectly happy not to have to do again, thanks, though it was certainly a novelty I'm pleased to have tried.

I was at Capricorn Caves, north of Rockhampton (cattle town, with not just one, but four, count them, giant plaster bulls) where, after a sedate wander through and ending up in the inevitable Cathedral Cave where we listened to Enya in the dark, admiring the perfect accoustics, I got down and dirty with Dan. You wouldn't believe the holes we crawled through, up and down, on our stomachs, round corners, pushing and straining. Look, sorry about this unpleasantly extended metaphor, I can't seem to shake free of it. Anyway, it ended with a snake. (Damn! Sorry.)

There's a distinction, you know, between a venomous and a dangerous snake. The brown is the former, not the latter, I was pleased to hear. That made all the difference, of course. But in explaining that the brown will retreat, as this one did, led Dan on to explain how the taipan, which is both venomous and dangerous, will attack people, chase them, launch itself through the air three times its length (of up to 2 metres) to repeat strike. And do you have taipans here, I asked with interest. Pause. "No-one's ever seen them in the caves," Dan replied carefully.

Australia, eh. There's nothing like it. (PS: I didn't get a photo of the snake, so here's some equally repellent Queensland fauna.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Going bananas

How can you not love a state where the main crops are sugar, pineapples, mangoes and macadamia nuts? Oh, and rum. And that has the nickname The Sunshine State? And the tagline, Beautiful one day, perfect the next?

When it rains, that's how. And is windy, and your trip out to the Great Barrier Reef is cancelled because although the lagoon surrounding the coral cay you were going to spend the day on is still as turquoise and, well, still, as ever, the 90-minute trip out is a bit bumpy, so the cruise people can the whole expedition. Wusses.

We did do some snorkelling on Lady Elliot Island a bit further south, though, and it was excellent, fish everywhere, some of the prettiest literally in-your-face jobs - but all of them too quick for the digital display on the new underwater camera, so I have many tantalising photos of tails exiting the frame. (Rather like the photo I took of our daughter as a littlie posing with Goofy at Disneyland where she lost her nerve at the crucial moment, leaving us with a portrait of the figure (dog? hippo? who ever knew?) and, bottom right, the First Born's heel.)

So, today's reef substitute will be a roo-spotting tour on a mini-chopper, easy riding through the bush and finishing with wedges (so much more appealing than wedgies) and the sunset at 1770, which besides being the date of Cook's first landing in Queensland, is the name of a very lovely little settlement on a north-west-facing beach here on the east coast - hence the sunset over the water selling point.

Photos to come later, because wifi is hard to find and graspingly, greedily expensive when located, and this is coming to you from an internet cafe bustling with backpackers asking about surfing and cheap lodging and what to do about the Icelandic eruption. Small world.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The End of the Golden Weather

It had to happen, I suppose: grey skies, a bit of drizzle and the sparkle gone. Time to look ahead to the next dose of sunshine - for which I'm fortunate not to have to wait until spring.

On Sunday I'll be getting up at ungodly o'clock to catch the plane to Brisbane (not currently my favourite Australian city) to begin two weeks in Queensland which will include the Great Barrier Reef (the 2,397 kilometres left of it after a Chinese oil tanker ran aground on it last week), the rainforest and the Outback. It will be lovely - hot and sunny and interesting. I can hardly wait for the Waltzing Matilda Centre and the Stockman's Hall of Fame - seriously. I love that stuff.

There'll be dinosaurs, crocodiles, abseiling into caves (I can feel the wedgie already), trains, boats and planes, including a big Qantas one to wing-walk on. And good food and nice hotels and miles and miles of empty road. It's going to be fun.

The reef will be a highlight and a chance to give the underwater camera another whirl - perhaps somehow I'll sort out how to reconcile disposable lenses that give distance vision with the necessity to see what's on the camera screen close up. And perhaps not.

The last time I was there, underwater cameras were not a consideration, and I was delighted to discover that the company I went with had snorkelling masks with built-in magnification:

>>> ... A glasses-wearer, I was thrilled with my optical face mask and didn't care that everyone I glanced at recoiled in shock from my saucer-sized eyes.

I slipped into the bath-warm water, right through a ball of tiny silver bait fish that instantly split and swirled back together a metre away with astonishing precision, the sunlight splintering off them like lightning. Suspended on the interface between air and water, I was captivated. There were cartoon-coloured fish everywhere. It was like the school playground at the beginning of term: full of colour and movement, the littlies swarming in big groups, bigger ones in carefully-chosen colourful outfits busy in twos and threes, the seniors in sombre blacks and blues, cruising on the edges or just hanging, too cool to join in; and each of them as neatly turned out as the proudest new entrant.

I could have spent hours watching them all: the parrot fish, sensational in pastels, rasping at the coral with a sound like Velcro, the yellow and blue angel fish playing chase through the fluorescent staghorn coral, the little green damselfish, the pink coral trout with daringly bright blue spangles, the bait fish swirling around as uniformly as iron filings drawn by a magnet...

[Pub. Marlborough Express 18/12/06]

Monday, April 12, 2010

Falling softly

More autumn thoughts as this beautiful weather continues. In New Zealand the air is so clear (those words, incidentally, a perfect rhyme in Newzuld) that, while it's brilliant to be able to see for miles and miles, colours don't come out so well in photos, I think. There's a hard glitter of sunshine off foliage especially that makes the range of greens less easy to appreciate - so the photographer's favourite Golden Hour is that much more valuable here. But in autumn, as the sun lowers, it's as if the dawn/dusk period is extended much further throughout the day.

Even so, it's probably because of our harsh light that we’ll all get skin cancer I so appreciated autumn colours in England, both New and old - especially the drive across Massachusetts into the Berkshires, when the oranges, reds and yellows got more intense the further north we went. It was Columbus Day while we were there, so I got on the yellow school bus in Adams and joined the annual Greylock Ramble:

>>>...Mt Greylock is the highest point of the Berkshires at just over 1000 metres and every Columbus Day (the second Monday in October) several thousand people hike to the top for a picnic. Many are family groups with dogs and children in tow or aboard – “You’re not ready for a break yet?” gasped one red-faced man to the sturdy and protesting toddler on his back, as he looked longingly at an inviting log. Teenagers ambled upwards, busily texting, chubby ladies panted “There’s food at the top, right?” and serious walkers with collapsible sticks and GPS receivers announced elevation and average walking speed at regular intervals. Since the starting point was 488 metres, this was never going to be a marathon climb, which was just as well as it left plenty of opportunity to admire the tapestry of colours above and underfoot, and time to stop and stare when a breeze passed through the trees with a rattle of branches and a rustle of falling leaves.

At the top there was an unexpected pawn-shaped lighthouse, a lodge where organisers gave out certificates and collected data to decide the youngest and oldest walkers, plus the one who had come the furthest (I’m expecting my acknowledgement in the mail any day now), and a long view over five states. The most remarkable thing was that the woods were virtually unbroken by towns or farmland: they stretched to the horizon in a swathe of warm colours, almost completely deciduous: birch, beech, oak, chestnut, hickory, rowan and many others, but the stars of the show were the sugar maples, points of day-glo yellow and orange scattered through the rest...

[Pub. Inspire Summer 2007]

Friday, April 9, 2010

Mellow

The Baby's birthday today: one more year as a teenager, and turning out well, I'm proud to say. We had brunch at the Takapuna Cafe, right by the sparkling blue sea on this sparkling blue day, before she headed off down to Rotorua for the Xterra run there tomorrow.

Autumn is such a beautiful time of year, most places I've been or lived, and perfect for travelling because the scenery perks up for one last burst before winter: the grass greens again after summer's drought, deciduous foliage blows trumpets, and the crisp mornings and bright sunshine seem that much more precious in the knowledge that winter's leaden skies and sogginess are right around the corner.

I've walked in the woods in Sequoia National Park where blue smoke from a burn-off drifted through the trees, lizards basked on Moro Rock, unmoved by its glorious views, and chipmunks rustled in the leaves and made me think of bears. Further north, Lake Tahoe's incredible blue waters looked even more intense against the pure, clear yellow of the aspens, and the red stripes of the gathered kokanee salmon in the feeder streams glowed through the clear water. Massachusetts and Vermont are almost cliches in this context, but deservedly so: the trees there are superstars.

Last September in the UK and Ireland the leaves were turning, the blackberries were ripe in the hedgerows and the sedums in flower. It was always my favourite time of year when I lived in England, not just because the countryside became particularly beautiful, but also because the purple tint to the evening sky and the chill in the air were a reminder and a promise that hunting would soon be starting.

People who disapprove of fox-hunting may as well stop reading now, because I know your minds are unchangeable, but those of us who understand that fox-hunting is both necessary and humane, and an enriching part of country life, know well that feeling of excitement as the days shorten, the leaves fall and the fields bristle with stubble. For 17 years I followed the hunt, mounted and on foot, and red coats and shining horses, the clatter of hooves on the road, and the soul-stirring sound of the horn and hounds' voices echoing through a bare wood are an essential part of my fondest memories of England.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wombat combat

Story on the news today about a man in Victoria who was attacked by a wombat and so badly hurt that he had to be taken to hospital. It's hard to believe, but apparently he trod on it in the dark outside his caravan, and it not only retaliated, but carried on mauling him for 20 minutes until he was rescued by a neighbour with an axe.

Now I've seen lots of wombats, I'm pleased to say: some in zoos, some like this one at Bonarong Park near Hobart, and many wild ones in north-east Tasmania - some of them alive. Tasmania's the most amazing place for road-kill, unfortunately: but it does make driving interesting. The First-Born and I went out with Craig, of Pepperbush Adventures for an evening bbq and lots of wild-life spotting:

>>> Though the driving is fun (mainland Aussies come for the novelty of turning corners), the roads good and the scenery beautiful, road kill is an under-advertised attraction of touring holidays in the state. A dismal fact of any car trip, in New Zealand the chief interest is in whether the next ex-possum will be round or flat. In Tassie, the next victim may be an improbable-sounding quoll or a bettong, a bandicoot, wombat or even a Tasmanian devil.

Craig, of course, prefers his wildlife three-dimensional. The son and grandson of bush rangers, he caught his first snake when he was five (simultaneously with a flea in the ear from his unimpressed mother) and is comfortable with Crocodile Dundee comparisons, although he has long been contemptuous of Steve Irwin. ‘He interferes with the animals,’ he explained, clearly categorising him with Michael Jackson even before Irwin’s own notorious baby-dangling episode. ‘He sets a bad example.’ For Craig, the thing is to show his clients wildlife in its natural surroundings, behaving naturally – apart, that is, from the selected individuals thrown onto the barbecue in a dusting of bush spices and served with pepper berry and crab apple wine sauce.

Most Australian creatures are nocturnal, so there was ample time to loll by the campfire sipping a crisp Ninth Island chardonnay as Craig packed away the picnic and the surrounding hills became silhouettes against the fading glow of the sunset. When the stars began to prick out their patterns in the velvety black of the sky, we bundled back into the 4WD and set off on our safari.

In Craig’s secret valley, it was ridiculously easy to spot the animals. Quolls, a type of spotted marsupial cat found only in Tasmania, had already been bounding through the long grass hunting moths and other insects as we sat by the fire, and we saw dozens more, their eyes reflecting bright green in the headlights. Swerving this way and that across the grassy valley bottom, we counted scores of wallabies and pademelons, dozens of possums, a handful of kangaroos, several bandicoots and, marvellously, over thirty wombats, or ‘ground bears’, trundling imperturbably about their business...

[Pub. Sunday Star-Times 18/1/04]

And the wombats were the cutest of all - bulky, certainly, and you really wouldn't want to drive into one, but so furry and sweet and unthreatening. I saw one up close at Cradle Mountain Lodge in Tasmania on another visit: he was calmly chewing at the wiry grass only metres away as I walked through the grounds. I crouched down and watched as he worked his way towards me, apparently quite undisturbed by my presence. At last he was right alongside, still chewing busily, and I couldn’t resist reaching out and touching his soft thick fur. He scuttled off at once, of course, but it had been an Attenborough moment.

I didn't realise I had been lucky to escape with my life...

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Egg heads? Maybe just eggs.

Whereas in other houses this morning, children were running merrily around shrieking with delight as they found Easter eggs under cushions and perched on picture frames, at our place it was silence punctuated by agonised groans as people* tried to decipher cryptic clues such as 'Perverse kind of jam', 'Regimental Sergeant-Major's stock-in-trade' and 'It's easy, Jack!'

(*Including one who was attempting to operate the machinery while handicapped by last night's being Saturday night, despite having been laughed out of the party when announcing an early departure because of needing to be up in time for the Easter Egg Hunt next morning.)

I see that England is under snow again, winter reluctant to let go despite the clocks having gone forward several weeks ago. Amazing. I remember an Easter when we went to Woodstock near Oxford and it was brilliantly hot weather, like high summer. We stayed with friends and had a picnic in the grounds of Blenheim Palace near the lake with the half-sunken bridge that was one of Capability Brown's rare hiccups.

We didn't go over the house then - Woodstock's twelve pubs were more a focus in those days - but we did last year when we stayed at Oxford. The Churchill family has lived there since the land was given by Queen Anne to John, first Duke of Marlborough ("there was a man" - brilliant, brave and handsome too) and I enjoyed the Winston exhibition which included his letters home from boarding school and military college: "Papa, I will take your advice about the cigars and don't think I shall often smoke more than one or two a day", plus the auburn ringlets that were cut off his head when he turned five, and his maroon velvet siren suit from the war. But there was a man, too.

It's a fabulous place, the house and the grounds: it's a World Heritage site, it's got American connections (Vanderbilt and Hallmark!) and Harry Potter too. It's a must-see.

And afterwards, revive yourself at The Trout, which we found by muscle memory alone - a perfect stone pub by a weir with a calendar view across the meadows towards Oxford's spires.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A small lunacy

This morning I showered in moonlight. Actually, by moonlight, but the first sounds more romantic.

Our bathroom is white and too dazzling these darker mornings for the halogen lights, so I manage with what light comes through the window and this morning, for the first time ever, it was from a big, perfectly full moon in a clear sky. Now, the moon's phases are an almost total mystery to me. I know about the waning and waxing, of course, even if it always seems that the cycle is far less than 28 days - but it always takes me by surprise, popping up unexpectedly in different parts of the sky at apparently random times of the day. Yes, I know there's a pattern, I've just never got a handle on it, which is why this morning amazed me.

I've never seen a full moon setting in the west before (which is amazing enough in itself, I think); and it seems especially weird to see it there in the early morning. Even more disconcerting, I thought I saw the Man in the Moon, not the rabbit, so I've clearly been wrong about that too - I thought it was a hemisphere thing, like Easter being a spring festival, and I've referred to that more than once, in stories. Which is a a bit embarrassing; especially having been to Ollaytantambo and Machu Picchu and seen evidence that the Incas had the whole business completely sorted - despite having no writing and not even the wheel. I expect they were just paying better attention.

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