11/15/2006 We have been getting around Sydney via public transit since we arrived – it has been slow, but gets us where we want to go. We took the train to the city, ferry to beach and buses to go shopping. But one of the main reasons why we are in Syndey is to line up a car for use during our two months in Australia. We considered buying an old used car off of another backpacker or getting a newer car from a dealer before our housemate Brad suggested getting a nice car from an auction. He put us in touch with his good friend, Ali , who could help us with the transaction. Ali proved to be far beyond just helpful – he sorted out the bidding, inspection, registration and insurance on the car – going way beyond the call of duty. The auction itself was quite entertaining.
We now own a 2004 Ford Futura (smaller than a Taurus, bigger than an Escort) bought at auction for a good price. We should be able to sell it for a minimal loss in a couple months when we leave. So now we need to adjust to driving on the wrong (left) side of the road. It is fairly stressful to learn this in Sydney – it is not the easiest town to navigate and drivers are fairly aggressive (by Oregon standards). We have managed our first trip into the city without incident (although with several wrong turns). Dave has done the driving until today when Meta took a try. We made it about a mile from the house before she missed a left turn. Dave suggested she pull over to regroup a bit. She pulled over in front of someone’s house and knocked over the garbage cans with the passenger side mirror (leaving a minor crack in the housing). Meta promptly decided that Dave would handle the driving – at least while we are in Sydney.
11/17/2006 On the way to the Thora Valley we stopped in Port Macquarie – 4 hours north of Sydney. There is a “Koala Breeding Center” there that looked to be fun for the kids. It certainly lived up to its promise – the kids got the chance to pet a koala and a baby Wallaby as well as observing all sorts of Aussie wildlife close up. Dave even got the chance to juggle for the spider monkeys which they really seemed to enjoy. There were other, more dangerous, creatures for petting as well.
11/23/2006 After 11 days in the urban sprawl of Sydney we were definitely ready for some time in the country. Thora is not really a town – – it is marked by a single country store but is near the larger town of Bellingen (20 km away). The Bellinger River runs through the whole Bellingen Shire and provides a beautiful setting to this lovely valley. We came to this out of the way place for two reasons – to work on an organic farm and enroll the kids in the local Waldorf/Steiner school.
11/23/06 We are staying on the Sunrise Farm – our hosts are Kathy, Bob and Darryl. They produce commercial organic garlic on the farm and we arrived right in the middle of the harvest. The garlic had already been pulled from the fields and we set to cleaning in preparation for drying. The garlic is beautiful and large Russian Garlic (also sold as Elephant Garlic in the States) and they process it by cutting the stalks and root and peeling the outer skin to get a beautiful white color. It is a time consuming process that is best done in a group – better for conversation and a production line approach. Anna liked to get up early and help Darryl peel. We worked in the shade with the entire group which made things go quite quickly. Our conversations revealed that Darryl was a native Australian while Bob and Kathy were both born in England. Bob and Kathy both have long Steiner backgrounds – Kathy is a Waldorf teacher and Bob has a lot of experience with biodynamic farming. They work the farm collectively and share cooking duties as well. We have been helping with preparing dinner (tacos, spaghetti and lentil burgers have been our contributions so far) as well as working on the farm. We put in 4-5 hours per day and have weekends off. We will probably stay here for another week or so and then move to another farm nearby for more work.
11/24/06 It is only three weeks from Summer vacation for Australian School kids – and ours now as well. We have enrolled the kids in the local Waldorf School – the Chrysalis Steiner School. It is just one mile from the farm where we are staying and the kids have enjoyed their first week of school. Caleb is attending 4th grade and learning about area and perimeter as well as practicing for the school play (“Iduna’s Apples”). Anna is in kindergarten (there is only one at the school) and goes for a full day (9:15-2:45) just like the grades. We pack them up in the morning and send them to school on the bus which passes right by the farm. Caleb’s class has swim lessons once a week (in the Bellinger River with the aid of a lifeguard) and Anna’s class swims in a rock pool on the school grounds. We work a bit during the day and then pick them up from the bus right at 3 PM.
Often we head down there to the river for a swim – sitting in the rapids is a favorite activity as well.
It has been hot here – typically between 85 and 95 degree F at it’s peak – so a swim in the river is a great break.
Australia is really a wonder place but in some ways it really bites. Perhaps I should say most creatures in Australia bite. I noticed when we arrived here that our host Darryl (a native Australian) would answer our questions about the danger of various animals with “Oh, yeah, that might give you a bit of a rash”. After some cross checking against some Australian animal guide books I was able to decipher this Australian code language regarding the danger of creatures here:
“Yeah, that’ll bite” = Reminder that you are looking at an Aussie creature “A bit of a rash” = Will cause extreme swelling/bleeding and/or toxic reaction “A rash” = Debilitating pain and persistent flu-like symptoms. You will wish you were dead. May include the loss of a limb. “A nasty rash” = death
In the category of “That’ll bite” there is massive March fly (which you can find year round despite it’s name). If you swat a March Fly you will merely stun it briefly – you need to stomp it with your foot to really finish it off. There are smaller flies that bite as well, they are faster and more difficult to swat. Of course there are lots of mosquitoes – especially at night. Because of the number of small insects that bite I have noticed that I have taken a “swat first, ask questions later” approach to anything that tickles me during the night. Meta has been swatted several times. I recently discovered that the rains encourage small leeches that reside in the wet grass. I gave two of them a ride to the house after clearing some brush.
The bites don’t hurt but they bleed profusely because they inject an anti-coagulant when they bite. They are just as disgusting as you might imagine.
We were not bit by this giant centipede, but our host Bob almost was (I think it falls under the “nasty rash” category). He found it hanging on his shirt in the laundry bin and brushed it away because he thought it was a stick. It is the largest centipede they have every seen, and even the neighbor who works for the Fish and Wildlife Department was amazed at its size. The dollar coin in the photo can be used to judge its size, although it was actually payment to help appease the centipede. I am not convinced that they mosquitoes, march flies, biting ants, stinging nettle, bees and wasps really make it onto the “rash” scale. A Carpet Python, like the 6 foot specimen that found its way into the house through the antenna cable hole, will definitely give you a bit of a rash. Australians are quick to point out that the Carpet Python is not poisonous (it is a constrictor) and that it will run away from you if you come towards it. This is not particularly comforting because one wonders about the poisonous snakes that will actually chase after you. There are a few things around that are not at all dangerous – like the Cicada, a bug that often is bigger than a man’s thumb and has a call that is incredibly loud and piercing. They are not eve slightly cute and we almost crashed the car while removing one from Caleb’s foot (both kids were screaming bloody murder). The Duck-billed Platypus is quite cute and will mostly run away from you but has a stinger (causes “a rash”) that it will use if you corner it. Fruit bats (1000’s of them here, hanging in trees during the day) are harmless, although noisy and a bit spooky. Gallahs, Cockatoos, Bower Birds, Magpies, Whip Birds, Parrots, Lorikeets, Kookaburra’s and other local birds have lovely songs and really give you that tropical feel. The tree frogs are Anna’s favorites – she catches them almost every day. There is one that lives behind a picture in the house – when it croaks the picture moves back and forth on the wall. The Aussies actually think it is quite funny how freaked out we are about dangerous creatures (never mind that 10 out of the top 10 deadly snakes are in Australia). They point out that they don’t have any really big dangerous creatures (Kangaroos at up to 200 lbs, Wombats at 100 lbs and Emu’s at 150 lbs are all very docile) while we have things like Grizzly Bear (which will hunt you down) and Cougar (that attack hikers regularly) that have both size and ferocity. I guess you get used to whatever you have to deal with.
Every year (for the past 4 years) we have taken a “shirts-off” holiday picture around Thanksgiving. Most of the time this picture has to be taken indoors (having your shirt off in Portland in November is a bad idea, for several reasons) like last years picture: This year we have the backdrop of the Australian Bush in the Thora Valley where we are staying: Celebrating Christmas and the New Year in the Southern Hemisphere is bound to be a little strange. It is likely that Christmas will include hanging out by the river to avoid the heat. We are not sure where in Australia we will be come Christmas, but is almost guaranteed to be hot.
A Home away from Home
When we were in Sydney and mentioned that we were headed up north to Bellingen, most folks said “where is that?”, so if you are reading this from the US you can be excused for not knowing where Bellingen is. For those of you living in Portland, Eugene, or in the Bay Area, then you are actually quite close to Bellingen, at least culturally speaking. We remember living in Springfield, Oregon (the inspiration for the Springfield in the Simpsons) which is right across the freeway from Eugene. Springfield is an old logging town, very conservative and Eugene is a crunchy granola University town. The freeway that divides the two (I-5) seemed like it was 400 miles wide given the cultural divide of the two towns. And by that measure, Bellingen is just around the corner from Eugene, Portland and the Bay Area.
The locals call the place “Bello” and it is a cute little town right next to the Bellinger river. It is the center of activity for this rural area, known as the Bellinger Shire (no Hobbits so far though). The whole area is very artsy with several galleries and plenty of little cafes. Parts of it are a little contrived, but the locals are very friendly and welcoming. And they have the best Gelato and Swiss pastry shop ever.
We have quickly found ourselves becoming part of the local scene – we share values with most of the people that we encounter here. Dave has been reading a book called “The Cultural Creatives” by Anderson and Ray about how there is a new subculture in the US that thrives on diversity, ecology and building relationships. From our experiences here in Bellingen it seems to exist in Australia as well. Although much of our activity has centered around the School, we have found most of the locals have the same open attitude that we have taken for granted back in Portland. It really is a home away from home.
A special thank you for our hosts here in Bellingen: Kathy, Bob, Darryl, Carol, Stephan, Christoff and Kimberlee. And of course, thank you so much to the staff at Chrysalis School, especially Caleb and Anna’s teachers: Pete, Gail and Carol.
Last weekend was the monthly Bellingen Community Market, where you really get to experience the local crafts in full. The market is huge – covering more than a football field with stalls and entertainment. You can get anything from meat pies to felt hats and everything in between (we are not actually sure what comes between a felt hat and a meat pie). The weather was fairly poor (it was raining in the morning) so the crowds were not as big as they usually are right before Christmas. We had planned to do some busking shows but it turned out that we would need 10 million in liability insurance to be able to do shows – although kids were allowed to busk without insurance. So that meant that Caleb would be doing some busking on his own for the first time. Caleb did not mind since that also meant that he would not have to split the take from the hat.
So what do you get when you combine an Aussie market with an incredibly cute American kid juggling and unicylcling? About $30 Australian – at least on a rainy day. We think that Caleb may be hooked on busking from now on and Dad may be out of the picture. After more than a month in Bellingen (we actually live in the nearby area of Thora) we are getting ready to get on the road again. Caleb and Anna finished up school on Friday. Caleb had his school play on Thursday, called “Iduna’s Apples” which is the Norse tale of how the God’s immortal power was taken from them. Caleb played the drums at the start of the play with some accompanying chorus dialog and did some juggling at the end.
Chrysalis Steiner School
Dave finished up his short teaching stint for the 4th grade at the school. About half of the class was able to learn to juggle in just over a week of lessons. Dave made juggling balls out of sand and balloons for the entire class so they have something to practice with over the summer. Dave also attended one of the school’s board meetings to compare with Cedarwood. Meta spent time visiting the school library and having conversations with the librarian about how they do things. She also expressed interest in what they called the Rainbow Tuckshop which provided a meal to the kids who sign up for it. So every Wednesday, Caleb brought his money to school ($4-$5) and signed up to receive the days meal of a pasta dish, stuffed potatoes, or nachos all with salad and fruit. It was so convenient to send him off to school without making the usual lunch knowing that a good meal would be provided for him. They even included an ice cream or icey on a couple of occasions. I think Portland Waldorf School does something like this which may be worth looking into for Cedarwood if there’s enough interest (and volunteer support). We attended the end of year celebration in Anna’s Kindy class and enjoyed singing some familiar songs including “It’s a Gift to be Simple” and “Kuake” the Native American song from Sacha’s class. Our time here has also been marked by Anna loosing her first two teeth. Caleb helped remove the first one and she managed the second on her own. It’s amazing how far those tooth fairies will travel!
So what’s next? We still have about one month left in Australia and so far we have mainly stuck to the Coast. We have considered heading to the Outback, but the heat this time of year will be oppresive and a drought for the last few years has made it less attractive. We will probably head down to Sydney via Dubbo which is inland and has the best Zoo in the Southern Hemisphere. We will also stop at a popular observatory and do some stargazing. We’ll head back to Sydney from there for our final 2 weeks and hopefully stay somewhere with a pool. Selling the car will also be on the agenda.
Meta and I have decided that we will probably come home in the Spring in the US, likely returning the first week of April during the kids spring break. Five and half months on the road will be enough for this trip and the kids will enjoy seeing their friends back at school before the Summer. This will mean leaving out Europe from our travels this time around. Our current itinerary is Thailand on January 15th for a month or more. Then we will head to Egypt (probably in February/March) for a time. From Egypt we will fly on to London for a few days before flying back to New York at the end of March.
Ophidiophobics Don’t Belong in Australia
One of the neat things at the Bellingen Market was a presentation on Australian Snakes by Steve McEwan, a local “reptologist” (or something). He showed various snakes (including the deadly Taipan and a 6′ long venomous Brown Snake) and described the ways to deal with them. He demonstrated that if you stand still a snake will pretty much ignore you (they can only really track moving things). He also said that although he often hears stories of people being chased by snakes in Australia, he had never seen it happen (even though he catches snakes for a living). He showed what you should do when bitten by a venomous snake (wrap the injury with elastic bandage to slow the movement of the venom through the lymph). We found his demonstration very interesting and ended up buying a small book that is used to identify snakes in the wild. The big lesson was not to get too close to any snakes in the wilds of Australia – almost all of them will bite and many of them are venomous. If you back away slowly you are probably fine.
On Tuesday we went up north a bit to a little retreat in the country. Dave went walking with Anna and a local kid, Sam, to the nearby Orara River to have a look around. The river is smaller than the Bellinger that we are staying near, but very nice. As we were walking along the bank we encountered a HUGE snake – at least 7′ long.
It was under some roots on the bank and it struck in the direction of Dave’s leg as he was walking by, coming short by at least a foot. Sam and Anna had already stepped past and Dave went back on the path. The snake was not immediately satisfied with how far Dave had backed up and it came towards him a few feet to warn him back. Dave took the hint and backed up and then got some video and photos of the snake.
The snake remained on the path because we essentially had it cornered – it could not go up the hill and we were on the path both before and after it. In addition, one part of the snake was bulging from either a big meal or pregnancy, so it was probably hard for it to move fast.
It stayed, ready to strike, on the path and eventually Dave went down into the river to get around it. The snake was almost certainly a Carpet Python – not venomous although it will bite with razor sharp teeth if threatened (which would leave, in Aussie terms “a rash”). Dave definitely understood why people sometimes think that they are being chased by snakes – it moved several feet towards him when he did not back away fast enough. Once he was far enough away it stopped and just held its ground, but if he had turned at that pont and run it would have appeared that the snake had chased him (when your back is to the thing you never know).
Wishing everyone a safe and wonderful holiday filled with light, laughter, and song.
We first thought that a trip to the Outback should be part of our return to Sydney, but when we considered the 2000+ kilometer round-trip to Broken Hill (“The Gateway to the Outback”) we changed our minds. We decided to go as far west as Dubbo, home of the famous Western Plains Zoo. It would still mean several days of driving (since doing more than 4 or 5 hours a day for our family is pushing the limit). The road to Dubbo saw several changes in climate. Armindale, about 100 K in from the coast was very cold – maybe 50 degrees F and rainy. By the time we got to Tamworth we were at a much lower elevation and the temperature was much more pleasant. It seems that every town in Australia has some claim to fame: Tamworth, for example, is the “Country Music Capital of Australia”
We arrived there on Christmas Day and had dinner at an Indian Restaurant (thankfully multiculturalism in Australia means that some restaurants are open on Christmas Day). The next day was 400 K of driving to Dubbo. We passed through Coonabarabran (“Astronomy Capital of Australia”) and Gunnedah (“Koala Capital of the World”). We took several family portraits on the way:
Although the signs warn of kangaroos (that can cause severe damage to your car) they only come out at dusk and we made sure to drive during the day. The Koalas are another matter. The sign in the picture was taken just past Gunnedah – with its boast of Koala premiership we figured we should keep an eye out for the little critters. In reality the likelihood of spotting a koala was rather slim: Most Aussies have never seen a koala in the wild and cruising along at 100 Kph during the day is not considered ideal for spotting them. They tend to stick to trees back in the bush and sit very still during the day. Nonetheless we kept staring off at trees like the one below, hoping to spot a Koala in the wild:
Wait a second. If you click on that picture it will give you a larger version. Perhaps you can spot the Koala family in that tree? Having trouble? Look straight up from Meta’s head in this one – towards the top of the tree is a mother and baby Koala!
Still not seeing it? How about this closer view (if you go to this large version you can even see the koala’s face):
And don’t forget Papa Bear:
That’s right, we spotted a whole family of Koala Bears in this lone tree right next to the highway. We pulled off the road and got photos from various angles. There is a video of the tree as well.
They barely woke up long enough to look down on us – they quickly realized we were tourists and did not want to encourage us. It was thrilling to see this rare and reclusive animal in the wild.
If you have not already figured it out, wildlife has been the big highlight of our trip to Australia. We are particularly fond of the birds of Australia. Some have beautiful plumage, like this small parrot feeding outside of Kathy and Bob’s place in Thora:
Some have lovely calls, like this Butcher Bird:
Some are just silly, either in appearance, like this Bush Turkey that often hung out near the place we stayed in Thora: or in their calls, like these Kookaburras in a tree: (video of their calls):
Some make good pets, like these cockatoos: And some make great entertainment for the kids, like these Rainbow Lorikeets that gather daily on our balcony in Sydney: Some are familiar back home, like this black swan with cygnets in tow at the zoo: and some are from places long ago and far away like this Ibis: And some are native to Australia, like this Emu at the Pet Porpoise Pool: And some can pull off truly amazing feats, like the Bower Bird that builds an incredible little bower to attract a mate (note all the blue bits that it collects and places around the bower): The bower looks quite similar to the fairy house that Anna built near it: Birds in the City Since we arrived back in Sydney we made a wonderful discovery at the apartment we are renting here. Rainbow Lorikeets and Cockatoos arrive daily on our balcony (on the 7th floor) and the kids are able to feed them seeds and sugar water (for the Lori’s) and they gather in large numbers: Once there are enough of them they will climb on the kids to eat: Sometimes they get a little over the top when they are going for the food: The Cockatoos are amazing – they are really big and generally well mannered (they don’t squak as much as the Lorikeets). They don’t like the sugar water – they prefer straight sunflower seeds. They will line up on the rail – sometimes quite a few at a time: The kids can just hold up their hands and they will eat right out of them: If the kids hold the seeds too far for them to reach from the balcony, they will jump off: and land on their arms: They are comfortable enough to let us right up close for photos:
Although the Lorikeets and Cockatoos are quite harmless, like most things in Australia there are some birds that are a hazard. We purchased a s “Dangerous Creatures of Australia” a while back and one of the first dangerous animals it mentions is the Australian Magpie. The following is directly out of the guide and is just to hilarious not to pass along:
Why Do Magpies Attack?
Probably the most common bird attacks come from Australian Magpies. Every Spring, while they are nesting, these maggies develop and unpredictable and aggressive behaviour towards perceived invaders. they undertake aerial attacks on passers-by, often children on their way to school. Swooping from behind and clacking their beaks, their attacks can be startling, especially to those with a heart condition. Cyclists under attack may swerve and have an accident. Just occasionally a rogue magpie pecks someone deeply enough to draw blood and every year several people end up in hospital. Magpies seem to pick on certain types of people. It may be people with red hair, postal workers or a schoolchild. Recent studies show that when both sexes of magpies attack, it is a one of birds regarding people as nest predators. In attacks by male magpies only, however, it seems more a matter of proving to his mate what a good nest defender he is. The easiest defence is to take another route until the nesting season is over. Alternatively, try holding a leafy branch above your head, as magpies aim for the tallest part of their victim. Small children can protect themselves by wearing an ice-cream container as a helmet. This can be particularly effective if you draw false eyes, or even glue sunglasses onto the back of the hat”
The entry includes a picture of a kid being dive-bombed by a magpie and another photo of kids wearing special “Peck-off” hats that include eyes on the back and a face on the top of the hat. If you are wondering about the ice cream containers – they are 1/2 gallon plastic containers here – and they make very nice hats (if you are a total dweeb).