Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Perils of Queensland

Queensland - Australia

Our little visitors (Mac and Maddie) have now headed back to Canada. Dean and I both had a great vacation showing them some of what Australia has to offer. I think it's safe to say they enjoyed themselves as it truly was a trip of a lifetime.

We spent a  few days touring Sydney then Dean and the kids headed to Alice Springs on a 3 day outback adventure complete with Uluru, Kings Canyon, The Olga's, a camel ride and camping under the stars in a good ol' Australian Swag (heavy sleeping bag) -   Dean will elaborate on their outback experience in another post, but here we talk about Queensland.

Our trip would take us from Cairns to Cooktown and in this journey we would see the oldest living rainforest,  platypus swimming in the wild, crocodiles basking on the shores of the Daintier river, a glimpse of aboriginal life and scuba dive the largest reef in the world.

I admit that I was a bit nervous to travel north to 'crazy Queensland' as there are enough things in Sydney alone that can seriously hurt you, I could only imagine what we would encounter up there. “There are more things that will kill you up here than anywhere else in Australia, and that’s saying a lot, believe me.” – Bill Bryson, Down under -

It was mid-day when we arrived in Cairns, pronounced with a lazy 'r' to sound more like “Caayns”. The weather was warm and sunny, finally we found tropical Australia!  Cairns is a great starting point for travellers and backpackers looking to head north into the jungly bits of Queensland otherwise known as the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation or further up the road to Cooktown where ye' all mighty Captain Cook touched ground to fix his ship "The Endeavour".  If jungle isn't your thing then Port Douglas will surely please with nice white beaches, plenty of restaurants and an excellent place to catch a boat out for snorkeling or diving the Great Barrier Reef.

We spent the day at Kuranda National park where we had our first glimpse of Australia's wet tropical rainforest. One of the oldest remaining rainforest in the world that inhabits creatures and plants millions of years old.

Kuranda National Park
At Kuranda a 45min cable car took us up over the tree tops of the forest to the top of the mountain stopping twice at rainforest stations for us to get out and explore the massive forest from below. We spent a few hours in the village of Kuranda where we had lunch and explored the small market, then we caught the Kuranda Scenic Railway back to Cairns.

Queensland Adventure - Day Two
We picked up our rental car and set out on our Queensland road trip. We headed South West towards the tablelands to a small town called Yungaburra. Why? To explore the waterfall circuit and see our first Platypus! Actually there were two of them frolicking in the murky river. Amazingly strange creatures. It's almost hard to believe they really exist.  In fact these animals are so different from any other on the planet that when the first English explorer returned to England with a Platypus specimen scientists thought it was a joke.  This animal has fur and produces milk like a mammal yet has a bill and webbed feet like a bird and lays eggs and produces venom like a reptile.  Odd, very odd.

      We spent the night at a backpacker hostile called 'On The Wallaby' and in the morning continued North towards Port Douglas for lunch and an afternoon hike through Mossman Gorge. We safely made it to our glamping (fancy camping) rainforest tent in Daintree Rainforest by late afternoon.

Australia was once completely blanketed with tropical rainforest before a great environmental phenomena took place and only the strongest flora and fauna survived.  Today 900 000 hectares is all that remains and within it some of the oldest living creatures and plants that exist NOWHERE else in the WORLD!! 

Understandably strict protective measures are in place and in 1988 it was deemed a UNESCO site and steps for preservation were enforced. "The site contains many unique features such as over 390 rare plant species, which includes 74 species that are threatened.. The endangered Southern Cassowary and rare Spotted-tailed Quoll are some of the many threatened species". - Wikipedia-

Cassowary Crossing Sign
Arriving in "The Daintree" feels like entering a living biology text book with moving pictures and touch (but certainly don't taste) specimens. In all our time there we didn't have the fortune of seeing a Cassowary (a large emu-like bird) that single handedly sustains the Daintree's eco-stystem with it's unique eating habits. The Cassowary eats certain fruits but does not fully digest the seeds/pits. These seeds cannot grow new plants without the semi-digested process that the Cassowary provides.

Then again, maybe it was our fortune not to encounter one of these birds. Evolved from a Velociraptor a Cassowary can be quite dangerous. Bill Bryson describes this bird well when he explains it as a “flightless, man-sized bird that lives in the rainforest, with a razor claw on each foot with which it can slice you open in a deft and appallingly expansive manner”.

Scar Face
The only way to get to Daintree and Cape Tribulation is to cross the crocodile infested Daintree River by ferry.  We pulled up at the river side ferry dock and from the safety of our car I glared at the river waiting for a crocodile to come leaping out of the waters with an open jaw.  Needless to say this did not happen and I didn't see any sign of a croc in the river.

However, later that week we took a crocodile boat tour down the river and sure enough there they were basking on the muddy banks of the river.  We saw several crocodiles to confirm the danger, from large 12ft long male Scarface who could eat a horse to small one year old newbie only a foot long who preferred small fish and mice.  These dudes are another sign of the Jurassic days gone by. Crocodiles are so efficient in their design that they have barely evolved over millions of years. Smart, quick and predator-less these things are amazing and scary.

Australians have a funny sense of humor when it comes to the scale of danger that exists in their country.  One night on our way back from our diving adventure we spotted a large snake curled up at the car ferry dock.   Dean wanted a closer look to make sure it was a snake and not a curled up piece of wood so he got out of the car.
“What are you doing? Get back in the Car!! Don’t go close to it!!  I yelled. Clearly a bit of a snake phobia here.
“Yup, it’s a snake!” he confirmed.
I snapped a few picts from the window and once on the ferry showed it to the attendant.  “Do you know what kind of snake this is?”
“Oh that’s a night tiger, got lots of those around my place.. my wife got bit by one the other day.”
“Are they poisionous?”
“ Uh, well.... Ya. But only if they get you with their back fangs.”  He says with a full hearty laugh.

He left us with a word of advice,  “If you catch a snake and don’t know if it’s poisonous.. always point it at someone else.” Then the big bellowy laugh again.

Stretching more than 2000 km along the Queensland coastline and covering 35 million hectares, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef. More than 1500 species of fish, 4000 species of molluscs, 400 species of sponge and 300 species of hard corals live here.

It was a long rocky boat ride out to the reef. Both Maddie and I had queazy tummies and green faces for the entire ride. The dive master briefed us on the way, but with the roar of the boat motor and his strong Aussie accent, I understood very little of the safety brief. Good start to the day :)  I hoped my luck would soon change and I wouldn't become one of those fatality stories (ie. the couple forgotten on the reef while diving).

As we approached the reef we geared up and anchored at Agincourt Reef. One by one we jumped off the boat into the water like a bunch of ice cubes being plopped into a cocktail. It was a HUGE dive group, 18 of us in total but it was comforting to see they checked our name off a list as each person jumped in then took role call again before the boat set sail for home.

There it was the GBR in all it's glory, it definitely was one of the biggest reefs I've ever seen but I must admit I was a bit disappointed with the quality of the reef.  I have seen healthier aquatic ecosystems and it was a bit sad.  I would hazard to guess that Agincourt is the "every mans" reef where they take all tour groups and do their damage thus preserving the other reefs for more experienced divers who won't kick and poke them to death.

We saw a few nemos, various coral and lots of other tropical fish swimming around. I thought I saw a manta ray which was really exciting but it turned out to be a big rock. I didn't see any sharks on this dive, which honestly I was fine with for the time being. From below I watched the snorkelers flopping and splashing around at the surface and for the first time understood why sharks would want to pray on them.

Mac and Dean did a second dive on another part of Agincourt reef where they saw a reef shark, sea turtle and some other cool things.

The water was quite chilly and choppy so by the third stop we all had enough and just did a quick snorkel which was a bit unnerving after seeing the sharks view from below.. but fruitful in the end 'cause we saw a sea turtle so close I could have touched it!  And of course more nemos.

A long barfy ride back to shore and we were safe on solid land with some great memories.  An awesome day on the reef, we'll definitely be back (with sea sickness pills next time).

The Queensland adventure continues with a 4WD to Cooktown but this is where I'll close off for now.  I hope this post has enlightened you on more of what Australia has to offer.  It was definitely an educational and eye opening trip for me.

Cheers for now,

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Coffee Culture & Canada Day

Sydney, Australia

Coffee Culture

Drinking coffee in Australia is very different than that of North America. It is generally treated as a more social event and there is much more attention to quality rather than quantity. Brewed/drip coffee is nowhere to be found in this country, and for good reason. Most Australians, like everyone else in the world aside from North Americans, feel brewed/drip coffee tastes bad. Kind of like dirty dishwater I am told. Being a patriotic Canadian, I have had my share of Timmy's coffee in my life, but I have to admit I am completely converted. No more of that stuff again...

Australia is home of the "flat white." This drink is something of a cross between a cappuccino and a latte. One or two shots espresso, and topped with steamed micro foam milk. Much less and finer foam than a cappuccino and much less milk than a latte. Served in a ceramic mug, it's a great coffee, and I have to admit, I'm hooked.

Nancy and I bought a proper coffee machine and grinder for home. Nice Italian make and 100% manual, no coffee pods going on here. Being a temperamental machine, we decided to learn to make proper coffee, so we enrolled ourselves in a barista course. An all day event that taught us the proper grind, how to do the perfect shot. And of course, how to make the perfect milk for flat whites. We also learned proper technique for cappuccino, latte, macchiato, and long/short blacks. By the end of the day we were accredited baristas and completely wired on caffeine. That's a lot of coffee!

Some other interesting notes on the coffee culture here. There are a couple small chains, but this is the land of the independent coffee shop, and most Australians will always choose them over the large chains. There was one giant chain that made an attempt here. You can guess the one... $tarbuck$.

Well they apparently opened about a 100 stores quite a few years back and probably thought it was a good start. Considering Canada has over 1000 outlets, and a similar sized market, what could go wrong? Well, they closed 75% of them just a few years ago. There are just 23 of the green and white left here in the entire of Australia, and really only to service the tourists. A nice story of how the little guy can sometimes win, and that people still do appreciate independent business.

Canada Day

Our first Canada Day away from home. A bit sad to be away from home on holidays like this, but it almost felt like home at a Canada Day party. Hundreds of Canadians and honorary Canadians piled into a bar in the Sydney CBD to celebrate the holiday. There was poutine, Canadian beer (Whistler lager, Moosehead, St. Ambrose), and an all Canadian music playlist. A bit like Halloween, everyone was dressed up in everything from hockey jerseys to furry hats and Roots shirts. My favourite was a shirt worn by an Aussie that said: "Poutine is just chips and gravy with cheese..."

Some other updates, Railey is settled in nice here. We think he is still a bit weirded out by all the new smells, it's a whole new continent after all. He had his first beach day today and first taste of salt water, I think we agree, he is loving it here.

Some examples of the whacked out costs of things here:

- Petrol: $1.50 /litre
- Bananas: $14.00 / Kg (Yes that's right, about 3-4 bananas are 14 bucks!)
- Watermelon: $0.85 / Kg (How does that make sense compared to the bananas?)
- Pint of blueberries: $8.00 (Not eating those anymore)
- Small skinny (low fat) flat white: $3.50

Next up, the Australian Hotel...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wine, "Roos", and Toronto?!?

 Hunter Valley, Australia

Wine is a big thing here in Australia, a really big thing!

A trip to the bottle shop (liquor/wine store) and you will find an amazing selection of wines from Australia and New Zealand, and usually, from nowhere else. Unbelievably, you can walk into a fair sized bottle shop, a Californian Cabernet? Nope. A French Bordeaux? Nope. A Canadian Pinot? Never! I am not saying you can't get any of these great imports here, but it's just that the average bottle shop mostly carries only Aussie and Kiwi wine. Why? Because they make some of the best wines in the world here. And we have discovered we are spoiled to live right amongst it :-)

There are so many diverse regions of wine here in Australia and New Zealand. But essentially, they can be divided between the cool climate wine regions and the warm climate wine regions. The cool climate regions include notables such as Barossa Valley in South Australia where the big bold reds are grown.  Think Penfolds Grange. Also for cool climate, Pinot Noir is amazing from New Zealand and Tasmania. New Zealand is famous for it's Sauvignon Blancs, which taste like no other I have had. But here in the warmer north (remember southern hemisphere), we have the Hunter Valley.

To see what all the talk was about, Nancy and I decided to spend a beautiful fall weekend up in "the Hunter" as it is affectionately known. About a 2.5 hour drive north from Sydney, the Hunter is an amazing mix of large and boutique wineries nestled between some very picturesque hills.

As this is a warm climate region, the grapes were picked way back in February. The growing season is hot, so the vines grown have to be chosen carefully. The vines the Hunter is famous for are the white Semillon, and the red Shiraz. Semillon is a wine more flavourful than a Riesling, but dryer than a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. A great easy drinking white wine, perfect for the hot summers here. 

Shiraz, well I think everyone knows Australian Shiraz. Australia is one of the world's largest producers of it aside from France where the grape is called Syrah. Shiraz falls between a bold Cabernet/Merlot and the lighter Pinot. Here are a couple samples of what we tried.

Now, there are some other aspects of the Hunter being a warm climate, interesting things grow in abundance here. For example, we went to Pepper Tree winery which is named after the many black pepper trees growing along the property. Also the Hunter has many olive groves. Fresh pressed olive oil with any infused flavour you can imagine can be easily found everywhere. The other somewhat interesting novelty is that there are Kangaroos hopping around it. 

Roos, which is the local nickname, and very common here in the wild. Still new to Australia, we get excited every time we see one. The locals look at us oddly because Roos are as common as deer In Canada and generally thought of as a nuisance. Wonder what a group of Roos are called? A flock? No way! Herd? Maybe...

They are actually called a mob of Roos. Yes a mob - weird. And here is a mob of Roos by a vineyard that Nancy chased.

Being informed new locals, we signed ourselves up for an all day wine tour. 5 wineries, 35 tastings, and case of wine to take home, we were happy campers by the time we got back to the bed and breakfast.

On the way back to Sydney, we took the scenic drive home, and decided to drive through where every Ontario native should, Toronto! Yes, that is Toronto, New South Wales.

There actually is a Toronto, NSW. How odd it was to see a street sign to both Toronto and Sydney. It's a small little town on the western shores of not Lake Ontario, but Lake Macquarie. Lake Macquarie is a large salt water lake just in from the ocean. It's a great little lake side town, but not much like the Toronto I know.

Here is Toronto's waterfront, wow palm trees along Lakeshore Road!

And downtown Toronto, where's the street cars?

And finally me just being a tourist in Australia's "tidy town."

Quick Railey news update. He is out of solitary confinement and in general doggy population in quarantine. He passed his tests. Guess we don't need to bring him the cake we baked with the file in it after all. Just over two more weeks and he will be out on good behaviour. We can't wait!

Next up, coffee in Australia, stay tuned...

Monday, May 16, 2011

Railey's Inter-continental Adventure

Sydney Australia

For those of you who have been following my almost daily facebook posts this week, you'll know that our little dog Railey has finally arrived in Australia! It's been a stressful and long process and still 25+ days to go before I can safely say he is a free dog.

This is worth a read for any of you who are thinking of importing an animal or just want to know how it all went down.

When deciding to move to Australia we were faced with the serious question of what to do with Railey? For me frankly there was never a question and thankfully Dean has been very supportive with the decision. Initially the process seemed daunting and at times impossible but after many weeks of research with government consulates, airlines and vets we figured out the process (a long, elaborate and expensive process at that.)

The conclusion:  If it’s possible than it will be done. There is no price that can be put on Railey, he’s a part of this family. Come on, look at those eyes.. how can you not love this dog?

So I started the long and involved process of importing an animal into Australia. Thankfully the quarantine rules had relaxed a few years ago from 6 months to min. 30 days (HUGE difference) and Railey was a young and healthy animal so the risk of sickness or complications on the flight was minimal.  

It began way back in December 2010 tackling one obstacle after another from government paperwork applications, finding a trustworthy pet exporting company to expensive vaccinations and blood tests. Gratefully Railey passed each stage with ease.

I left for Australia in mid-march leaving Railey in the care of my Mom. There is no place Railey loves more than my mom’s. With her huge backyard, long walks at Clair Ville ranch, her constant love and his big bro Turner the golden lab to harass, he couldn’t be happier staying at Grandma’s.  The day I left she stood on the driveway with Railey in her arms and made his paw wave goodbye to me as I drove away. I cried the entire way to the airport knowing it will be two months ‘till I see him again and three months ‘till he’s safe here in his new home.

Two months later on Friday May 6th his inter-continental adventure began. 10:30am Petflight (the pet exporting company) collected him from the safety of my Mom’s home and brought him to an Etobicoke dog kennel where he was kept for four long days. My mom says he was reluctant to go with them, which makes me sad as I can only imagine the confusion he felt. At this point I was really concerned about his wellbeing during the next stages of the process as he’s used to constant companionship and care and has never experienced kennels or plane rides.

Tuesday May 10th, 8pm EST– Departure Day.  We were able to track Railey's flight on the Aircanda website with the airway bill number they provided.  It was a anxious 24 hours, with texts back and forth between Dean and I whenever the site was updated "Railey landed in Vancouver, step 1 done.", "Mr. R is en route to Sydney!!", Then Thursday morning "Little r has landed in Sydney. He's finally here!"

It took most of the morning for the quarantine representatives to collect all the animals from other arriving flights and get the dogs checked into the station at Eastern Creek Quarantine in Sydney. Once Railey had arrived I was able to make an appointment to visit him the following day.

Friday morning we were allowed a short 1/2 hour visit. The Quarantine Station is like a high security penitentiary for criminals with barbed wire fencing around the entire premises. Each dog is given their own cage but not allowed contact with the other dogs. It was quite funny actually as we walked through the grounds all the other dogs, big and small, came running to their gate, pressing their faces or paws up against the fence like prisiors waiting to be released.

I was worried that Railey wouldn't remember me after so much time apart but he was ecstatic to see us! He jumped around uncontrollably for about 10 full minutes then rolled over on his tummy for a belly rub.  This was a great relief as it showed us that he was not traumatized by the flight.

Happy and relieved to have our dog in the same country as us we left for home feeling that the final stretch was in sight.  But it couldn't be this easy could it? ...

Saturday evening, we get an email from the on-sight vet saying there are some questions about Railey's blood work. Apparently he was NOT eligible to be exported and required another blood test in Toronto.  Emails start flying around to our vet and the transport company in Toronto.... How was this missed? Explain?  I'm still waiting for an explanation but there is nothing I can do about it now.

Railey was moved to the isolation section of the quarantine and scheduled for yet more blood work on Monday.  We are told Railey must stay in isolation until the blood results are back.. this could take anywhere from 10 - 14 days.  SIGH.. so once again we are left waiting in angst to hear the fait of our dog.

Tomorrow I will visit him in Quarantine (isolation ward) but will have to wear a martian jumpsuit and cannot take him for his bath or walks as previously planned. What happens next will have to wait and see.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Races

Sydney Australia

Australians love the competitive thrill of racing animals or crustaceans and there are some pretty weird sporting events found across Australia. Anything from Alice Spring’s Camel Cup (camel races), sheep races to cockroach, crab, and toad races. Then of course the more normal horse and greyhound racing.

Looking for something interesting to do on a Friday night, we decided to take part in the very Auzzie tradition of Greyhound dog racing. We met up with our new neighbors (also new residents to Australia from France) and headed to Wentworth Racing Track just walking distance from our home.  None of us had ever bet on animal races before so we were hoping beginners luck would be on our side. We scanned the stats and the ticket teller kindly explained the system.  Place a dollar on #2 to win, a dollar on #8 to place.. and let’s go!

What a thrill, those dogs are FAST! I tried to take photos but they are so fast they just appear like blurs and are not even visible in the photos. Amazing!  

Now, with our newly developed betting skills we plan to take part in CRAB RACES on Wednesday night a local pub. I don't imagine they will be as fast so I'm sure to get some good shots of that!

Wentworth Park also hosts a Pet Race event in October where residents can bring their household dog and race them for fun. I can’t wait to bring Railey to this he’ll kick butt!

Speaking of Railey… we've entered the home stretch. He departs for Australia on Tuesday night.  I worry a lot about what's ahead for him with the long flight and his 30 days in quarantine. This is going to be a tough month. Once he's here safe and sound I’ll write about Railey’s big adventure.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Weekend Notes

Sydney Australia

Dean and I subscribe to a newsletter called 'Weekend Notes' which highlights cool things to do and see in and around Sydney. I've titled this blog post Weekend Notes 'cause I'm going to write a few short posts about some of the events we've attended.

Welcomed by a T-Rex
Night at the Museum
Have you ever wanted to pull a Ben Stiller and hang out with the dinosaurs at night in the museum? Well we thought that sounded cool, so off to the Sydney Australian Museum we went. From the looks of it many other people had the same desire, the line up to get in was about half an hour long but so worth the wait.
The Jurassic Lounge where the band played with a backdrop of skeletons.
For a few nights only the museum opened it's doors after hours with an exhibit called Jurassic Lounge offering performances, live music (a wicked local indie-rock band) and booze! All set against a prehistoric backdrop with dinosaur skeletons and random stuffed dead Australian animals.  We've never had so much fun at a museum in our lives. Amazing what a drink and some good music can do to improve the vibe.

There were lots of interactive exhibits to try ie. archaeological dig site, silent dance party (not sure what that had to do with dinosaurs but looked interesting) basically everyone dancing had head phones on listening to a DJ but to an outsider we could only see them dancing but heard no music.. weird. There was even a life size brontosaurus walking around scaring people. lol.

Good times at the museum.

Billabong Launch Party
Thanks to a few purchases I made at the new Billabong store in Pitt Street Mall, we were cordially invited to their new store launch party. The event was called "Trade in your Trunks" and all we had to do was drop an old swimsuit or "swimmers" they call them here and we'd get a free entry pass.  FUN!  Not exactly sure what they are going to do with our old swimmers but I was excited for the $1000 shopping spree draw and to see the rock band Van She play live. So take my saggy swimmers I say.

So like the fashion Deva's we are.. Dean and I show up fashionably late and enter the already hoppin' party.  Free food, free beer.. not bad for a free event. We mingle the party not knowing a single soul apparently brushing shoulders with famous surfers that we would never recognize 'cause neither of us knows a thing about surfers. It was a great people watching event, we quickly became amazed by the extremity of short skirts and high shoes worn in this city. It's almost not even possible. We checked out the new store which is three levels featuring a section for their Bob Marley line.

We quickly lost interest once Van She came on stage.. they really blew.. I'll give them the benefit of a poor sound venue.

Living in Australia 101 (Lesson #2 - SPIDERS)
On April 16th Dean and I hosted our first Australian house party!!  Out in the back patio Dean is BBQ'ing up a storm like usual and I'm chatting with a friend when his eyes open large gazing above my head and he mouth's "oh my ..."  Immediately I know something is not right.. swing around to find a giant spider webbed only inches from my head.  For those of you who don't know me I'm seriously not cool with spiders.  Our friend Austin whisked the spidey away with a broom into the back ally but I still fear the day he returns.  This incident motivated me to research Australian Spiders. Which brings me to

Lesson #2 of living in Australia- Know Your Spiders.

Redback Spider
The infamous redback spider belongs to the same family as the American Black Widow Spider.

Size: female 12mm, male 3mm. Pea size body.
Habitat: Found all over Australia in dry sheltered areas around homes, gardens and parks.
Afraid factor: The redback is dangerous and venomous, but not aggressive as it spends most of it's time in the web. The bite is not painful initially but intense pain develops after about 5 minutes. Symptoms include localized sweating at the site of the bite, muscular weakness and even paralysis.

Funnel-Web Spider
This guy is SCARY! The funnel-web spider is very aggressive and it's venom is deadly (one of the deadliest spiders in the world)

Size: Male 20mm, female 30mm
Habitat: The funnel-web is found in rainforest and wet eucalypt forests but can also be found in damp shady areas of private gardens in Sydney.. YIKES! (but according to a friend only north sydney- I'll believe that) They burrow in the ground under rocks or logs not in webs.
Afraid Factor: HIGH! BE AFRAID! The bite of this spider is one of the most dangerous in the world. Bites can be fatal if not treated. An anti-venom is available. Seek treatment if bitten.

Mouse Spider

This spider got it's name because similar to the funnel-web they dig deep burrows (like a mouse) Probably also 'cause they have furry little bodies.. eww look at this one's furry back-side.

Size: male 15mm, female 30mm
Habitat: Burrowing spiders found in the east coastal and highland regions of Australia (Yay! this one's not in Sydney!) Burrows in creek banks and sometimes in suburban gardens.
Afraid Factor: This one is toxic and it's bite is potentially life threatening. However, the mouse spider is less aggressive than the Sydney Funnel-web and doesn't always inject venom when it bites.

This is almost making me barf just writing and googling these spiders so I hope you appreciate my efforts to educate you on Australian spiders. This will likely give me nightmares tonight.

Huntsman Spider
This is a large spider with crab-like legs and is fast moving. He hunts his prey instead of catching it in a web.

We saw one of these in our room in Bali. Thank goodness I did my spider 101 lesson before we saw this monstrosity. Yet, still a scary site.

Size: up to 15cm across the legs
Habitat: Houses, gardens, under rocks, logs.
Afraid Factor: Non toxic and doesn't usually strike humans. Bites only cause mild local pain.

Garden Orb Spider

This is the crazy dude that we found in the back court yard at our party. Just inches away from my head!

Size: female 2-3 cm, male 1.5 - 2cm
Habitat: Gardens
Afraid Factor: Orb weavers are afraid to bite. Symptoms include mild local pain, numbness and swelling.

Wolf Spider

The wolf spider has a distinct Union Jack impression on it's back.
Size: 15mm to 30mm
Habitat: Found Austraila-wide this is a ground dwelling spider that hunts it's prey instead of catching it in a web. Found around homes and garden areas.
Afraid Factor: The bite is poisonous but not leathal. They are non-aggressive but this doesn't mean poke them they will bite if aggrivated.

CONCLUSION:  Be careful around gardens, wooded areas and forests. General rule of thumb;  brown spiders BE AFRAID but black spiders be VERY AFRAID. And never mess with a funnel-web.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bali's Crazy Scooter Driving

Bali, Indonesia

Sorry, we have been lazy with our blog lately. For those who think this blog is interesting, we apologize but there has been a lot going on here.  We hope to update more often.

We just returned from a nice long weekend in Bali. Easter weekend here in Australia was a 5 day holiday this year with ANZAC day (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) falling on Easter Monday. Nancy and I decided to take the opportunity and head to Bali for some wedding planning.

It was a jam packed weekend visiting potential hotel locations. We arrived late Thursday night in Denpasar, the capital of Bali. A friend arranged a "rental" car for us which was a local's mini van. We were advised it had no insurance and if pulled over by police to state that we owned it. That's just the way things run around Indonesia. It was also my first go with a manual transmission vehicle with right hand drive. It is really odd switching gears with your left hand.

We headed off to our first resort to check out, which was in an area called Seraberata. It is about 55km from Denpasar up the west coast of Bali in a beautiful remote location. The drive was a bit hair raising, driving in Bali is a bit like playing a video game. Roads are very narrow, very windy, and full of pot holes. To add to the excitement there are dogs running around, scooters riding the wrong way and almost no street signs. You have to be incredibly alert and never, ever take your eyes off the road. The 55km trip took us 2 hours of driving. It was a long drive with never a dull moment, we saw one bus half over a cliff and had to navigate coconuts falling to the road from a truck while driving.

The effort was rewarding, we ended up at a beautiful small resort on a peninsula. The beaches in this area are dark black volcanic sand with glittery gold bits, the feeling on your feet is really different. The sea was powerful and awe inspiring and except for the few fishermen, not a person in sight for as far as we could see.

We enjoyed a 90 minute massage in a hut on a point high on cliffs above the ocean for only 200,000 Rupiah (about $20). The hut on the right is the massage villa, the building on the left is a honeymoon guest house.

We spent the next few days in Ubud, which is a small town in the centre of Bali. Ubud is known for its arts, culture and craftwork. It is also known (for good or bad) as where the book/movie Eat, Pray, Love was set. So yes we did eat great food, and pray, but only when on the scooters. And love - that should be obvious shouldn't it?? Ubud is a town that can be hot, steamy, chaotic and busy. Frequently there are scooter traffic jams around town, it can be faster to go on foot than by car or scooter.

Have you ever seen a parking lot like this?

The other side of Ubud can be very different. It can be very peaceful, calming, and has many hidden treasures. The dingiest looking restaurants from the street can open up into the most beautiful patio backing onto a rice paddy in the middle of the city - a balinese oasis. The perfect place to enjoy local ice cold Bintang (Indonesian for star) which comes in my favourite "Big Bintang" 620ml size.

Rice paddy in middle of town...

Ubud has great variety of foods to suit all tastes. It is a quirky town of locals and expats. Accommodations can range from the simple guest house, to ultra luxurious resorts. In the same week, you can take a cooking class, go white water rafting, hire a scooter for a tour, shop for bargains, or enjoy some great live music. All of this is within reach of beaches, diving, volcanoes and temples. 

We visited Monkey Forest in Ubud which is a sacred site, but as expected, full of wild monkeys. A bit unnerving as they crowd around you, kind of like going to a deer feeding park - but monkeys! Here is a monkey terrorizing a tourist for his bananas, complete with a baby in tow.

The last few nights we stayed in some really cool places around Ubud that were great value for what they were. We had everything from jungle valley views, to thatched roof huts, to outdoor showers.

But in Bali, it's all about the infinity pools...

We finished off our weekend with a scooter ride back from Ubud to Denpasar where the airport is, about a 25km ride. We only had one scooter, so it was me, Nancy, and two large backpacks on a 50cc scooter through crazy Denpasar traffic. Navigating can be tough, a local SIM card in the iPhone for service and Google Maps got us around without issue.

For those that will hopefully come here for our wedding, never fear, we will have a real car for you (and will get you at the airport).

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Being Tourists

Sydney Australia

As new residents to Sydney we decided it's important to get all the touristy stuff out of our system asap. This way we'll know where to take visitors when they come to visit and have a better understanding of the area. Maybe these photos will help entice you to come visit us!!

Oprah House & Harbour Bridge
One evening Dean and I decided to go for a picnic at the Botanical Gardens. We rode our bikes through the city which has an amazing bike system complete with designated lanes and signal lights to the park entrance (passing Russell Crow's house on the way)

We set up on the grass with a perfect view of the Oprah House and Harbour Bridge. Here I taught Dean a short yoga class and then we popped a bottle of wine and picnicked until the sun went down. And a beautiful sun set it was.

The Blue Mountains
Last weekend we took a road trip out to the famous Blue Mountains (aprox. 1 1/2 hour drive from Sydney). We had a quick stop along the way at a farm shop to pick up duck food for a friend (who obviously has pet ducks) a bit random but gave us the opportunity to see a bit of the country side.

Once we hit the city of Katoomba we took a lunch break at this really cool Cafe called the 'Common Ground Cafe' which had a warm and welcoming vibe, very unique decor and excellent home made organic food. The setting is hard to describe but had this lord of the rings kind of feel. It felt a bit like being in a fantasy world tree house with it's squiggly wooden booths, stools made of old wheels, hand paintings on the actual wall itself, wooden barrels for sinks in the washroom and apple baskets lamp shades.

Next, headed on to the trails..
The Three Sisters
The infamous Three Sister Mountains. Each standing over 900 meters tall (3000 feet).

Legend: As the Aboriginal legend goes - three sisters 'Meehni, Wimiah and Gunnedoo' lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe. These beautiful young ladies had fallen in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe yet tribal law forbade them to marry (this sounds like an Aboriginal's version of Romeo and Juliet) The brothers were not happy to accept this law and decided to capture the three sisters causing a major tribal battle (well duh.. holding hostages rarely leads to eternal happiness)

As the lives of the three sisters were seriously in danger, a witchdoctor from the Katoomba tribe took it upon himself to turn the three sisters into stone to protect them from any harm. While he had intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, the witchdoctor himself was killed (would have been smart to have an understudy maybe?). Only he could reverse the spell to return the ladies to their former beauty, the sisters remain in their magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle for generations to come (and reminder to always have a plan B)
And here they are, the lovely Three Sisters in rock formation.
Next we ventured down the Giant Stairway which is literally over 900 steep steps down into the lush forest below. Excellent workout for those glutes!

The steps varied from stone to wood to wire of random sizes and steepness. It took us about 40 min to go up and down and definitely got our hearts pumping.

Kangaroo Scrotum "a genuine Australian Souvenir"

Like a true tourist onto the gift shop we go!  Postcards, books, hats, toys, candy and other australian paraphernalia. What is this? Kangaroo Scrotum on a key chain or if you prefer a bottle opener!?!  A "Genuine Australian Souvenir" yes I suppose it is but oh that is wrong in so many ways.

Aboriginal man playing the didgeridoo
And his lovely boomerangs for sale