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Two Weeks in a Big Country


While Australia superficially feels familiar, European, and civilized to the distant observer, it doesn’t take long on the ground to see the essence of its difference – a fifties era frontier mentality long lost here, together with a penchant for extremes in weather and a mix of flora and fauna that together ooze a lethality completely foreign to European and North American visitors..  Traveling to Australia to reunite with our world traveling teenage daughter for two weeks, these differences struck us full force within minutes of stepping off the plane at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport.

The Big Prawn

First, the headlines of the infamous Australian tabloids – the country is, after all, the progenitor of Rupert Murdoch – screamed of the death of David Hookes, a former star and current coach of the country’s wildly popular form of rugby, known as Australian Rules Football. It wasn’t exactly the result of natural causes. Hookes was killed by a bouncer throwing him out of a pub at last call. If that wasn’t enough death and destruction for the nation’s sports system in a week, the next day’s news trumpeted a freakish lightning strike that killed a batsman in the midddle of a game of Cricket, the country’s other huge sport. Unnatural deaths, its turns out, are a central part of the national culture. Take the story of the man whose name is attached to the Airport, Charles Edward Kingsford Smith. A pioneer of commercial aviation in Australia, Smith was last seen trying to set an air speed record from England to Australia in 1935. He never showed up. Couple that with the Prime Minister of Australia, Harold Holt,  who in 1967 went for a little swim one day while serving his term as the country’s leader and was never seen again, and you’ve got a sense that there’s something a bit different about this place. All the outsized craziness aside, however, Australia proves a breathtaking experience, full of unimagined scenic beauty, hearty hospitality, and splendid kitcsh, all enhanced by the cultural sharp edges that keep reminding the North American traveler that they really are in a very different part of the world.

In planning for our two weeks down under, we at least had the presence of mind to consult a map and comprehend the shear enormity of the continent,  paring down our travel expectations to a single manageable portion – the eastern coastal area between Sydney in northern New South Wales and the southern most reaches of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of southern Queensland. We would begin in Sydney, end in Brisbane and rent a car (and later virtually rent an airplane) to see the sights in between.

Our timing was inadvertently flawless. We arrived in Sydney on the weekend preceding the national patriotic holiday, Australia Day, celebrated on January 26th. The holiday and the long weekend preceding it cap a month long Festival of the Arts in Sydney that feature a diverse collection of paid and free dance, music and theatrical performances. Then, on Australia Day itself, more than half a million Sydneysiders turn out along the harbor for the highlight of the day’s events – a goofy but high spirited ferry boat race through Sydney harbor, around a harbor island and back again, with passage under the monumental and iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge serving as the finish line. Later in the evening a huge fireworks display on the harbor ends the festivities.

For accommodations in Sydney, the visitor has two basic and contrasting choices – a room or self catering apartment in the Rocks section, the site of the first European prisoner constructed settlement on the continent, adjacent to the Ferry terminals on Circular Quay, the world famous Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, or a high flying hotel room in the redeveloped Darling Harbor area, a huge modern tourist focused playground of cafes, al fresco dining and nightclubs- think Universal Studios Citywalk on steroids. With both parents and a teen child in our party, and a desire for relaxation combined with some minimal level of privacy all around, we opted for the quainter and quieter Rocks alternative, securing a wonderfully calming modern, well designed balcony apartment with separate bedroom in the Rendezvous Stafford with a panoramic view of the harbor and Opera House. If you choose this alternative, whether at the Stafford or at another Rocks location advertising harbour views, question the room selection carefully to ensure that you get the view generically touted. Often the views only start on the upper floors, Absent close questioning, this fact is rarely disclosed. At the Stafford, the visual prize requires a room four floors high or higher and the same is true at many other locations. If traveling as a couple, without the need for additional rooms, the Old Sydney Holiday Inn a short walk down the street is another popular alternative. <!—page–>

We spent our first evening wandering the harbor area. From the Rocks, it is a short and pleasant walk around Circular Quay and the Ferry Docks, to the Opera Quays, the Opera House and beyond it the expansive Royal Botanical Gardens which continue for several kilometers along the harbor front. This entire area is full of regionally famous and famously expensive harbor view “Modern Australian” restaurants, including Rockpool, often mentioned as the country’s premier culinary treat,  Doyle’s – a nouvelle seafood restaurant, and several other well known venues housed within the Opera House complex itself. Recoiling at the prices and gathering from the menu that Modern Australian appeared to be a pretentious moniker for Asian spiced lamb, poultry and above all seafood – featuring barramundi, a local grouper, and “bugs,” lobster variants that look like our local lobsters but with the shellfish equivalent of locomotive cowcatchers where their mouths should be – we opted instead for pub grub – fish and chips and bangers and mash from one of the ubiquitous old style British pubs found through the city. Some of the most atmospheric are right in the Rocks and serve a very credible meal with the mandatory and ever present Victoria Bitter, the REAL Australian for beer.

Returning to our room to savor the harbor sunset from our porch, we had our first experience with the overwhelming weirdness of Australian wildlife. Slowly at first, and then in massive swarms, what at first appeared to be crows flapped toward us from the direction of the Botanical Gardens. As they came nearer, however, it became clearer that neither their wings nor their snouts were at all birdlike. Rather, they were bats, but bats the size of small dogs, and looking more like small dogs than birds as they passed close overhead. We later learned their common name is the flying fox, and an entirely apt name it is. The image that kept flashing through my mind as I watched hundreds wing overhead, was that of the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore. And this was the city wildlife. How much weirder would it get later in the week as we traveled to the rainforest and Barrier Reef?.

After a day of sightseeing, a rendezvous with out daughter at the Airport and a ride on the city’s cheesy commercial tourist monorail we spent our next evening in search of one of the free outdoor festival performances, one that we had eyed the night before but which, at the last moment, had been unceremoniously rained out. It was advertised in the free programs available throughout the city as a dance interpreting the relationship between the country’s earliest residents, the various Aboriginal cultures that the archeological record suggests emerged some 30,000 years ago, and the dominant white British culture that lanned much later, initially to use the country as a prison colony. The performance was to be staged in and around the  beautiful Museum of New South Wales. We audience members took over the streets and intersection in front of the museum. Both the performance and our experiences with our fellow spectators told a dramatic story about one of Australia’s real liabilities, the quite open and often vile racism and discrimination that infects Australian society, a society that seemed to us to be somewhere in the realm of the American 50’s when it comes to race relations and general racial civility. While we waited for the performance to start, one of our fellow curb dwellers, hearing our yankee accents, struck up a conversation about baseball. Within a matter of minutes of our first introductions, and in front of his wife and children, our new friend launched into a vilely racist screed deploring the lack of success of Australian player in US Major League Baseball and comparing the fitness of these mates, favorably of course,  to the players produced by various Latin American baseball hotspots. You’ll have to use your imagination to construct your own sense of precisely what was said because I would not be able in good conscience to repeat it. Most unsettling about the speech was the speaker’s apparent complete lack of awareness that there could have been anything even remotely inappropriate about it. It was delivered not with anger but with a cheery homespun flavor, as if delivering virulently racist remarks was as neighborly and innocent an interaction with a foreign traveler as a hearty handshake. This startling experience was a profound introduction to the performance that followed it, a stark and powerful combination of dance and acrobatics performed by a multi-racial troupe to the backing sounds of the digeridoo, a trademark aboriginal wind instrument made from a hollowed out tree branch that when properly mouthed produces an otherworldly harmonic drone. The performance, involving dancers in wire harnesses dancing on the sheer vertical walls of the building, on its roof, and in its interior, told a chilling story of aboriginal struggle and white colonial oppression. Why our racist friend had made the effort to attend this particular performance only he can imagine.

A part of any Sydney visit should be a trip to one of the suburban beaches. We chose to see Manley beach on the northern shore  in large part to savor what is generally regarded as the best harbor ferry ride. Around the docks at Circular Quay a wide range of tour boats are available to choose from for a harbor tour, but the advice most tourists receive is to forget the expensive tours and do as the local’s do, book passage on a public harbor ferry and enjoy a cheap and spectacularly scenic ride with the added advantage of winding up somewhere new to explore.

Surf life boats at Manly Beach

Given the holiday weekend, our ferry was packed with jubilant locals raring for a watery holiday. After a half hour cruise, the Manly ferry docks on the harbor side of the town. A slightly seedy pedestrian esplanade full of surf shops, smoothie counters,  tattoo parlors and T-shirt boutiques runs the several blocks from the harbor to the seaside beach. The beach itself is grand by American standards, almost inconsequential by Australian ones and, on this holiday weekend, was a frenzy of activity. Surf life saving clubs from throughout the region – volunteer lifeguard clubs that exist at every large beach – were on hand competing in loosely organized boat races in their oar powered surf dories. Another group was in the midst of an Australian beach side version of an iron man competition, involving a sequence of running, swimming, and surf board paddling, repeated seemingly endlessly. Yet another group was engaged in a beach version of musical chairs. On a signal from a starter, five to ten strikingly tan and speedo clad schoolgirls would run to capture one of a smaller number of sticks stuck upright in the sand some distance away. Those who captured a stick remained in the game. The others were through. The contest was repeated again and again in alternating directions with fewer sticks,  up and down the beach until only one champion remained. Apparently, when the weather is hospitable for near year round beach going, the level of sport invented to pass the time grows exponentially. Already starting to burn under the ozone challenged summer sun, we took refuge under one of the many strategically placed shade trees along the Manley promenade and shared a lunch of fruit, cheese and crackers, while admiring the inventiveness of this sand-centered culture. <!—page–>

Later, after the equally spectacular return trip to the city, providing an admiring view of the Opera House from its water side, we went in search of the city’s Chinatown. As luck would have it, and our luck was clearly on, our arrival also coincided with the Chinese New Year and the streets of Sydney’s Chinatown were crammed with street vendors, performers and those taking it all in. Just adjacent to the main Chinese tourist district are two other attractions we had hoped to explore. The first is called Paddy’s Market and represents the city’s major stall market place which, like New York’s Canal Street, specializes in designer knock off goods and was crammed to the rafters with shoppers. After a few minutes it was, to us, overwhelming and we beat a hasty retreat. The perfect antidote waited nearby, the city’s Chinese Gardens.  Nestled between Chinatown and Darling Harbor, the garden, the largest of its kind outside of China, presents a perfect sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the streets outside. The centerpiece of the garden is its formal teahouse overlooking a stunning pond and waterfall. After a cup of soothing tea and a heavenly mango cake we explored the gardens before continuing on for our first look at Darling Harbor We can attest that many people seemed to be finding this tourist sanctuary a wonderful diversion. Whether looking for a glitzy casino, the Sydney Aquarium, a waterside terrace for dinner or a pounding disco for late night diversions, the area is hugely popular and extremely busy. As impressive as the development is, it could be located in any waterside city anywhere in the world and the harbor from this vantage is lined in concrete and completely artificial. We walked the harbor and barely made last call at a playful Thai restaurant called Chinta Ria, where diners swirl noodles and spiced meats in brightly colored bowls, all watched over by a giant concrete buddha. Except for the obvious impatience of our waiter with our arrival and his inability to close up and go home – we started to wish they’d just said, sorry we’re closed – the food was reasonably priced and fun if not fantastic. After, we were relieved to find a cheap ferry available for a few dollars that would deliver us from tourist hell back to the Circular Quay and the more inviting environs of the Rocks after a pleasant cruise under the Harbour Bridge.

Ferry decked out for race

Before leaving the city the following day we enjoyed the morning Ferry races and patriotic celebrations of Australia day and the annual country music festival that takes over the Rocks with multiple stages of non-stop music and a swarm of buskers seemingly camped out on every corner. A few days before the holiday the country’s annual country music awards ceremony, the Golden Guitars, take place in Tamworth in interior New South Wales and the winners then move on to the free Australia day performances in the Rocks. From the sounds of the performances we visited, mainstream Australian country music relates more to the non-commercial alt-country strain here in the states, a singer songwriter mix that has produced some progressive favorites here in the US, including, most recently, Kasey Chambers, who has won a boat load of Golden Guitars in Australia.

After picking up a rental car and overcoming the panic of left side of the street driving, we headed out of the city late on the holiday, our next stop the Blue Mountains, a region vaguely analogous to our Grand Canyon but just two hours outside of Sydney. After an hour fighting through the urban sprawl that characterizes Sydney and many other Aussie cities, we began to climb into the mountains. Though it was mid summer the temperatures drop considerably as you climb to the top of the cliffside until light jackets become a worthwhile addition to the wardrobe. As you reach the top of the canyon, the highway begins to thread along a narrow plateau between two valleys. As a result, breathtaking views are everywhere, just a minute or two detour to either side. The highway winds through a string of small tourist oriented towns – Wentworth Falls, Leura, and Katoomba each with its own charms, with Leura the more upscale and Katoomba the designated tourist trap. We stopped briefly to savor the instant views along the side of the road and then pressed on to our destination a bit further on, Blackheath. We had booked a cabin at an Ecolodge called Jemby Rinjah and were not at all disappointed in the result. The lodge was well removed from the highway and just a five minute walk, most through a national park, to the edge of the Canyon wall at a breathtaking spot called Evan’s Lookout. While most visitors savor their views from the closer and more well known Katoomba lookouts, those in Blackheath are every bit their equal and with far fewer fellow gawkers. Solitude was particularly easy to come by during our visit because Australia’s school children return to school the day after the holiday and the summer tourist season unceremoniously ended just as we set out on our tour. During our two days at Jemby Rinjah we were the only guests.

Feeding the birds at Jemby

Days at Jemby Rinjah, as at many eco-lodges in the country, begin with bird feeding. While we were never quite sure about the ecological legitimacy of the practice of hand feeding wild birds, it would be hard to ignore the sheer delight the experience produces.  Dozens of Crimson Rosellas and magnificent orange and green King Parrots descended on us and took up seating on our arms,  shoulders and heads as we joined the owners in the daily ritual, holding handfuls of sunflower seeds out to all comers, as they jockeyed for position, establishing and reestablishing their breakfast pecking order. After the birds were sated, we had our own breakfast in the lodge, a beautiful native timbered structure with a central open fire pit and views of the eucalyptus forest surrounding the lodge. As we ate we could hear the unmistakable laugh of the Kookaburra and the raspy complaints of Gang-Gang Cockatoos, huge black birds with pink crests who remain too timid to join the morning feeding ritual but observe it from the canopy above. <!—page–>

After these delights we spent our day in the mountains on an extended hike, beginning from our cabin door and following the clifftop several miles from Evan’s Lookout to another celebrated overlook called Govett’s Leap. In between were two spectacular waterfalls, cascading more than 800 feet down sheer cliff walls. Unlike the Grand Canyon, the cliff walls in the Blue Mountains result less from the impact of rivers running between the cliffs  than from the phenomenon of softer layers of sediments deep in the valleys below. In geologic time these softer layers below the cliff faces disintegrated faster than the rock layers above and when they become unstable underneath the rock layers, large segments of the remaining rock walls sheer off in great segments leaving behind the majesty of 1000 foot sheer vertical walls. After our strenuous hike, we decided on a less self propelled approach for continued sightseeing, traveling back to Katoomba to the regions foremost roadside attraction, Scenic World, the central terminus of a collection of rickety devices that will carry you up and down or across the cliff walls for views of the mountains and, in particular, the single trademark natural structure of the Blue Mountains, the Three Sisters, a set of huge stone pillars that line a portion of the cliff top. We elected to take a funicular device called the Scenic Railroad  to the valley floor and a gondola called the Sceniscender back to the top. In between the two is a rainforest boardwalk that to our pleasant surprise we found well documented with signs and panels that described quite helpfully both the plant life we were passing, the geology of the cliffs and valleys and the history of coal mining operations in the region that originally motivated the building of the railcare we had just used to reach the bottom.  The whole process took just an hour or two and despite the tackiness of the whole complex turned out to be a pleasant and respectful way to see a bit of the forest floor that would otherwise be unattainable without some serious rock climbing. On our way back to our cabin we stopped for a sunset drink at the Hydro Majestic Hotel, an old style grand hotel, somewhat down in the teeth, but with a stunning patio view overlooking the opposite valley. Both our  lookout in Blackheath and the Scenic World lookout in Katoomba provide views east over hundreds of square miles of national park wilderness. The HydroMajestic view overlooks the western valley called the Megalong, a fertile commercially important region of cattle and sheep farms that is also known to tourists for its horseback riding opportunities. The view is equally majestic in its own right. By the time we returned to our cabin we were ready to fall into bed.

View of the Opera House from Stafford

Our next days drive took us through the mountains east to Australia’s original wine producing region, the Hunter Valley. While the Hunter has now been eclipsed by South and Southeastern Australia as the nations premier commercial wine making center, it remains the sentimental heart of the country’s vintners and retains a reputation for the production of exceptional Shiraz’ and Semillon’s. More than fifty different wineries, from massive commercial operations represented by McGuigan, to small family wineries whose output can only be purchased from the winery’s own cellars, dot the serene valley. Many have their own bistros to accompany tasting rooms and extraordinarily lovely grounds. We visited the Henry Sobel winery to experience the feel of a small family operation and the huge McGuigan complex in contrast where we cobbled lunch together from the products sold in its Hunter Valley gourmet cheese shop and its supermarket size wine retail facility.  In between we visited our two favorite venues in the region, the idyllic Tyrrell’s family vineyard, a collection of old style farm buildings, fields of kangaroos, a wonderfully friendly and helpful tasting room staff and perfectly balanced wines, many produced on site. We also enjoyed the views if not the wine from the Wangan Winery whose location atop the largest hill in the immediate area provides it an atmospheric advantage. We spent the night at the underwhelmingly named Vineyard Hill Country Motel which, despite its Motel six style appelation is, in fact, a small collection of beautifully appointed self catering apartments located high on a hill offering panoramic views of the winery’s below. We awoke in the morning to the magical sights of a hot air balloon drifting across the valley and a flock of pink and white Gallah cockatoos spread out on the sweeping lawns below us.

From the Hunter we slogged on north through two days of serious driving to reach our next planning destination, the rainforests of the southern Queensland hinterlands. The drive takes one along the Pacific Highway, a three lane road of alternating passing lanes, reduced speed limits through every nondescript town along the way, and the occasional roadside attraction. While the name of the road would suggest some scenic potential, none is really to be had.. The road never passes close enough to the coast to provide any views and one feels as if they might as well be driving through Kansas or the Canadian plains. We did take the occasional detour to convince ourselves that we were near the coast, stopping for lunch the first day at the harbor in Cunungra. , There, we happened upon what we learned is a characteristic of virtually every harbor and coastal town, the local fisherman’s cooperative and its take-away seafood stand. For an embarassingly small price we had some of the best fish and chips of our lives, sitting at picnic tables watched over by Pelicans hoping for a handout. One of them patiently, politely and quite literally sat at the table with us. Cunungra’s harbor is renowned for its pod of friendly resident dolphins but, alas, they were otherwise engaged while we were in town for lunch.

We ended our first days drive a bit more than half way to our destination in the town of Coffs Harbor. Two basic choices for accommodations exist at Coffs – a series of motels and apartments along the surfers beach or a holiday apartment buildings on the hillside above the town’s boat harbor in a neighborhood called the Jetty. We opted for an apartment above the harbor which had the advantage of water views – the surf beach accommodations are separated from the beach by a large dune that effectively blocks all views – and access to the sheltered harbor beach, more appropriate for us non-surfers more interested in swimming laps than riding waves. The jetty area also has the added advantage of harboring the city’s restaurant row, such as it is. The area was also a short walk along the boat harbor to a headland called Muttonbird Island that after a strenuous uphill walk rewards with expansive views of the coast from north to south. Muttonbird is the Australian name given to Shearwaters, a pelagic bird similar to a gull that nests in burrows underground. The headland is a sanctuary used by thousands of these birds as a breeding and nesting ground and the entire hillside is peppered with nest burrows, housing females guarding their eggs. Coffs also has its ubiquitous fisherman’s coop, this one larger with a more adventurous menu. I opted for grilled Calamari with asian spices and lemongrass and was rewarded with my second memorable meal in as many days for less than the cost of scones and coffee in Sydney. <!—page–>

Coffs Harbor is also the starting point for a bizarre little touring diversion as one drags themselves up the coast. For reasons not entirely clear, Australians have fallen in love with a form of highway kitsch known as the giants. These are outsized concrete, plastic, and gunite representations of a variety of animals and plants that pop up throughout the country, often as come-ons at resorts, amusement facilities and gas stations. One of the best known is the Big Banana-  the unofficial symbol of Coffs Harbor, advertizing a tourist attraction called Coffs Plantation that honors Coffs role as the major producer of banana’s for the country. In short order as we continued up the coast to our next major destination we came across the Giant Prawn, a B-movie style thirty odd feet of mutant shrimp with huge clear plastic bug eyes, attached to the roof of a tourist restaurant, and the Big Pineapple, a less startling plastic mega fruit advertizing a gas station. Many a roll of kodak film has been sacrificed to take pictures of these ultimately stupid curiousities but we, like all the rest, pulled over to our and our fellow driver’s peril, to snap a shot of each and every one. There are many more examples scattered throughout the country, including a several story high guitar in Tamworth, the country music Mecca.. I suppose we were lucky to have only scratched this itch for a relatively short drive.      

Our driving hell ended in the southern Queensland city, if that’s the word, of Surfer’s Paradise, our way station for an evening before heading into the rainforest. Situated along several miles of perfect beach, Surfer’s Paradise at first blush seems to invite comparisons to a host of Florida seaside towns but it really has no peers. More than 500,000 people live or vacation every day in its towering high rise hotels, condos and apartments but unlike Miami or Fort Lauderdale, or Tampa – St. Pete, Surfer’s, as the locals call it, has no real city or metropolitan center attached to its surf side extremities. Only about an hour south of the major city of Brisbane, it exists simply for its beach and its sun worship, nothing more or less. Its center, to the extent it has one, is a one block beach side promenade of restaurants, bars, discos and surf shops. When one thinks surfing in the US one thinks youth. and youth is certainly served at Surfers. but its denizens include elders and families and every socio-economic class and group the country has to offer, all spiced with what seems like tens of thousands of Japanese tourists ritualistically snapping digital pictures, slathering sun block on each other and being herded from place to place by clip board wielding white Australian tour operators speaking perfect Japaanese and giving off the countenance of gym teachers conducting fitness exams. The roughly six waking hours we spent in Surfer’s seemed about the right amount. It would be a shame to get to the central east coast of Australia without experiencing this utterly weird place but it would be a far greater shame to make it any central part of your vacation plans.

One peculiarity of Australia’s beach cultural was particularly dramatically illustrated at Surfers. Because Australia’s beaches are essentially endless and because they are so often dangerous, with monstrous rip tides, nearby sharks and a host of venomous creatures lurking about, swimming is generally encouraged only on small sections of any beach,. marked by signal flags. These small sections of the enormous stretches of sand are patrolled my lifeguards and deemed free of the most vicious rips. As a result, the characteristic vision of an Australian beach is of a stretch of pure white sand and azure water deserted for miles upon miles with the exception of one or two patches perhaps 100 yards wide packed so densely with swimmers and sun bathers that they look like city swimming pools. Our room at the Gold Coast International, a giant skyscraper of a hotel a block from the beach was in the nose bleed section and from our soaring balcony vantage we had a dramatic aerial view of the particular swimming pod staked out by the lifeguards for that day. It looked for all the world like a giant and very busy ant hill in the middle of an otherwise uninhabited desert. 

We were not sad to leave Surfers in the rearview and head away from the coast to our next stop at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Guesthouse in the Green Mountain section of Lamington National Park. As closet bird watchers and amateur naturalists, a visit to the Australian rain forest and its wealth of animals and plants found nowhere else in the world was central to our own aspirations in making the trip. Because the weather is sweltering farther north during the summer months and monsoonal rains routinely wipe out access to the tropical forests in the northern Daintree area, we opted for the southern subtropical experience available at O’Reilly’s and in Lamington. We could not have made a better choice. O”Reilly’s presents a type of guest experience that has almost vanished in the United States and is all to rare elsewhere. The mountain top that hosts the guesthouse was settled by the O’Reilly family decades ago when to reach it meant a multiday hike through a dangerous jungle. The family grew and generations later they are still the only real residents of the region. Almost all the family members participate in the operation of the guesthouse whether in guest services or back office operations. Over the years the lodge has slowly expanded but never so quickly as to lose the intimate feel that this dedicated family brings to its efforts to share its ancestral home with its guests. Almost from the moment one arrives, every member of the staff seems to know your name and genuinely care about you and your stay. The experience is truly familial, with all of your earthly needs cared for while you are on site. The staff provide three meals a day together with morning and afternoon tea and offer a groaning calendar of hikes, 4 wheel drive excursions, naturalist programs and children’s adventures. The guesthouse is famous for its access to some of the world’s great avian curiosities. Lyrebirds, Bowerbirds and Riflebirds surround the property and a genuine effort to find them will almost always be rewarded. Paddymelons, a rainforest variety of wallaby, are ubiquitous around the property as are brush turkeys, Rosellas and King Parrots. The area’s Bowerbirds are particularly well known and their almost unbelievably complex mating rituals have been the subject of innumerable natural history films and television shows, most filmed here because of the extraordinarily accessible populations of these birds around the lodge. Bowerbirds gain their notoriety for their efforts to attract mates. The male of the species builds an elaborate structure, the bower, a u-shaped theater of twigs within which he struts his stuff. To attract females to the bower the male works endlessly decorating it by placing colorful objects in front of the structure and hanging others from the bower itself. Different species of bowerbird favor different colors for these ornaments. O”Reilly’s hosts two varieties, Satin Bowerbirds and Regal Bowerbirds. With humans on the mountaintop, O’Reilly’s birds have a wealth of material to work with. Hiking through the rainforest, one acclimated to the bowerbird’s particular eccentricities will notice patches of blue that upon closer examination represent a collection of human artifacts mixed with flowers and other natural enhancements. One bower we noticed was notable for the creative use of blue bic lighters stolen no doubt from unsuspecting day trippers and scraps of blue plastic tape from some guesthouse repair project.  The birds themselves are just as remarkable, with male regal bowerbirds a startling contrast in bright yellow, orange and black.

From the guesthouse, a range of trails of different lengths and degrees of difficulty provide every visitor, from wheelchair bound to triathlete, an opportunity to experience the rainforest in all its glory and diversity. A canopy walk winds on suspension bridges through the top of one section of the forest and a multistory tower provides access to the canopy in another section. Because the remaining rainforest remnant is on the top of the mountain, many of the walks are cliffside ones reminiscent of the walks in the Blue Mountains, rewarding the hiker with stunning overlooks and viewpoints along the way. O’Reilly’s also hosts a flying fox ride, a zip line that provides an electrifying ride along a wire strung from the top of one hilltop across a small valley to a field at its bottom. In the evening, the naturalist opportunities continue with night hikes to see glow worms – a remarkable photo luminescent insect found along riverbanks and in wet caves throughout Australia and New Zealand – or to spot nocturnal wildlife like ring tail and brush tail possums. Meals are hearty and satisfying if not gourmet, and during each meal the staff place treats in a set of feeders placed outside the windows of the dining hall, attracting remarkable birds during the day and  possums after sundown. An early morning bird walk presents an opportunity to learn more intimately about the diverse local species and our guide, Tim O’Reilly, had an absolutely remarkable command of the various species of both plants and animals around the facility. His narrations during the morning walks remind the visitor of the unusual lethality of the Australian environment. He explains, among other things, that an interesting looking tree with huge circular leaves, found alongside the trails throughout the property, can kill you if rubbed up against. It bears remembering as well that fully 75% of the snakes you will almost certainly encounter as you walk the various trails are venomous. This information is thrown out with a degree of casualness that again reinforces the different attitude that Australians have to the innumerable biological and climatological threats that permeate their environment.

A large theater is available for those who want a chance to get off their feet in the evening. Natural history and entertainment programs alternate. A second story bar with outdoor seating provides a spectacular vantage point for a sunset cocktail before dinner. O’Reilly’s is a life altering experience, both because of the insight it provides on the extraordinary natural treasures that Australia harbors and because of the insight it offers on what true guest hospitality looks like. It is the vacation experience against which all our others will be measured. <!—page–>

From O’Reilly’s we set out for our last great adventure, two days spent on a tiny island that defines the southern extreme of the Great Barrier Reef. Lady Elliot Island is a 100 acre bump of coral some fifty miles off the coast just east of the seaside communities of Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in southern Queensland. Lady Elliot is fundamentally different than many Barrier Reef resorts because it isn’t a point of departure for the reef. Rather, it IS the reef. It formed when a small coral atoll reached far enough above the water to provide a landing spot for a few birds. Over thousands of years, the accumulating mounds of broken coral and bird guano created a beachhead that became host to a few plants which in turn produced more vegetable matter, soil and more guano, all protected from the pounding surf by a fringing reef, producing coral lagoons and a needed respite for the smaller tropical fish of the reef system. Over time the island grew to be large enough to become a major rookery for birds, predominantly one species called the black noddy, and for green and loggerhead sea turtles that, throughout the summer months, come ashore to nest, digging nest pits across the island and depositing collectively thousands of eggs each year to hatch and return to the sea. During the winter, when turtles are not present, humpback whales can often be seen feeding in the waters around the island as they migrate south. Access to Lady Elliot is exclusively by plane and small single and double engine prop planes fly to the island from the mainland several times a day. The entire population of the island consists of the 100 or so guests of the resort and a few small planeloads of day trippers willing to shell out several hundred dollars Australian to spend a few hours in this utterly unique place. As at O’Reilly’s, a day on Lady Elliot is spent choosing between a host of naturalist activities including snorkeling trips to the far side of the fringing reef, reef walking excursions, turtle spotting walks, naturalist programs, and self guided snorkeling and, for those qualified, diving. Each guest upon arrival is dispensed a mask, snorkel and flippers and a offered a set of old shoes to be used to walk the reef. These goods are accompanied by a lecture on what not to mess with while visiting the island. Cone shells are the most surprising. These small but beautiful pink and blue conical shells would be any beachcombers prize on a Florida beach. Here they come complete with lances that if the shell is picked up or otherwise disturbed, dart out to deliver enough toxin to kill 30 people. Likewise, the reef comes complete with deadly sea snakes and a range of jelly fish and sea worms that, while not lethal, will give those unfortunate enough to run into them a good jolt of pain and a lingering irritating rash. Sharks are everywhere, but rarely a genuine threat. Despite the risks, a reasonable degree of care will keep a guest from a lethal if not a potentially painful experience.

 Lodgings are varied, from apartment units to tent cabins, all spartan and utilatarian as befits a place where basic dress is a bathing suit and T-shirt. At the center of the small resort is a larger building that houses both the dining hall (breakfast and dinner are included in the cost) and an education center, media room and library presided over by students from the University of New South Wales which uses the island as a research center.

A visit to Lady Elliot is otherworldly. Our unit faced the coral lagoon, a snorkeling site at high tide and a reef walking venue when the tide is too low for swimming. Our first morning I woke before my wife and daughter, just past dawn and with the tide high, ventured into the lagoon. The water temperature was perfect and though strong winds the night before had unsettled the water and caused some cloudiness, the area was alive with colorful fish darting in and out of the coral. While there was only a foot or two of water covering the coral outcrops, the lagoon harbored large fish as well as small, from box fish and grouper to two and three foot long epaulette sharks, harmless bottom feeders with beautiful leopard markings. The prevailing winds and changing tides cause a constant current in the lagoon which permits the snorkeler to simply drift from one end to the other, walk back to the starting point, and do it all over again. My second time across the lagoon I noticed that the larger fish tended to remain close to shore where the water was a bit deeper before the coral built back up gradually until it culminated in the protective outer reef. Along the shoreline, in 3 or 4 feet of water, turtles lolled and fed and larger trevally’s and groupers loitered. As I reached the point nearly in front of our cabin I sensed something behind me and turned to look. Drifting along contentedly behind me was a manta ray, its wingspan considerably wider than my own. Though I knew them to be harmless filter feeders its sheer size was startling and my sudden movements in response caused it to veer off and head out farther toward the outer reef. It was but a few seconds that I had the opportunity to meet it face to face, but it will remain one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. As it disappeared I stood up and popped my head above water, and could just see its shadowy form gliding effortlessly out to sea just below the choppy surface. Lady Elliot is one of the few places in the world where a snorkeler has a better than remote chance of seeing one of these magnificent creatures. Even here it is a fairly uncommon occurrence. Perhaps one or two guests each week are lucky enough to have the experience. Throughout our stay I was the envy of the island.

The Coral Lagoons immediately surrounding the island are too shallow to produce a vast range of corals and so are necessarily limited in the range of animals that inhabit them. Lady Elliot allows the visitor to overcome this limitation by taking short boat trips out past these lagoons to the opposite side of the fringing reefs, just 100 feet or so off shore. The snorkeling experience from this vantage are entirely different. Here, the coral grows in fifteen to thirty feet of water in towers and cliffs layered with different coral forms cut through by open chasms with sand floors. At its extreme edge, this fringing reef gives way to a sheer coral wall and then to a sand sea floor. Along this dividing line between the coral formations and the open sea, a remarkable diversity of sealife can be observed, even by the casual snorkeler. Black and White tipped Reef Sharks, harmless to humans, patrol the outer sea floor alongside the coral wall. Fantastical Moorish Idols, lyre shaped black, white and yellow striped fish,, needle shaped trumpet fish, yellow and several feet long, angel and butterflyfish, boxfish and wrasses pop in and out of the coral formations. Clouds of tiny blue chromus school, moving together as if they were a single organism. Deep in the chasms between the coral formations larger fish lurk, floating motionless in their underwater garages. Here a large batfish, there a pool of fifty trevally’s, loosely organized in a revolving circle deep in a large opening in the coral. The current is powerful on this section of the reef and a long rope line with floats provides a means for those who are not strong swimmers to pull themselves along to observe a portion of the reef. For those who are not comfortable in the water at all, thesame area is patrolled at different times during the day in a glass bottom boat.

After sunset, attention shifts to the land and, during the summer months, to the turtles that nest along the island’s shore. Turtle watching walks take place every evening and while sitings are not guaranteed the sea turtle traffic is likely to produce at least one siting for anyone spending more than a day on the island. In our case we went in search of turtles each of the two nights we were on the island. The first night we saw several tracks of turtles that had come ashore that evening but in each case they had as quickly turned back, mysteriously rejecting their landing spot for nesting, a common occurrence. We also saw turtles swimming close to shore, scouting out possible nesting sites and the staff were careful to move quickly away from these turtles and avoid interfering with their decision to come ashore. The second evening we were successful finding a Green turtle in the process of digging an egg chamber. We stayed out of sight until the egg laying process started, a point when the turtle is so engaged that it is unlikely to be disturbed by observation, then watched as the turtle filled the egg chamber with egg after egg. The naturalist accompanying us was concerned that the location chosen was probably not a safe one for the eggs. It was too close to the high water mark to remain dry for the 8 weeks necessary to hatch the eggs. Indeed, the next day when a full moon made the tide particularly high the nest washed out. But this turtle will return, several times during the season, laying another several hundred eggs before the season is done. Sea turtle hatchlings are very vulnerable with only one in several hundred reaching maturity, but Lady Elliot remains one of the most productive rookery’s anywhere.

Lady Elliot was a pricey part of our adventure. Between the plane fares and the accommodatkions themselves, two nights and three days on Lady Elliot cost as much as any other week of our adventure. There is also a bit of a sense of being nickeled and dimed while on the island, despite the initial price tag – with only some meals provided and some of the excursions separately priced. Still, the experience that the island affords is completely without peer. Most Reef resorts call for long boat rides to actual diving and snorkeling sites. In only a select few locations can you literally roll out of bed onto the reef. For those who are not divers but want to be exposed to a real reef and ocean community Lady Elliot is hard to surpass. Add the unique access to sea turtles and humpback whales in season, majestic frigate birds and tropic birds and, of course, the ghostly manta rays, and Lady Elliot is one of those few experiences that really deserves to be called unique. As we lifted off with our few fellow travelers to return to the mainland and watched the island grow smaller out the windows of the tiny single engine plane, we felt a genuine sense of loss, of a finality to our trip that was all the more dramatic because of its absolute grandeur. <!—page–>

THE PARTICULARS:

Rendezvous Stafford Hotel Sydney
75 Harrington Street
The Rocks, NSW 2000
reservations: 02 9251 6711
staffordsydney@bigpond.com

Jemby Rinjah Lodge
336 Evans Lookout Road
Blachhealth, NSW 2785
reservations: 02 4787 7622
jembyrinjahlodge@bigpond.com

Vineyard Hill Country Motel
Lovedale Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
reservations: 02 4990 4166
relax@vineyardhill.com.au

Gold Coast International Hotel
Gold Coast Highway
Surfers Paradise QLD 4217
reservations: 07 5584 1200
fb@gci.com.au

O’Reilly’s Rainforest Guesthouse
Lamington National Park Road
via Canungra QLD 4275
reservations: 07 5544 0644
reservations@oreillys.com.au

Lady Elliot Island Resort
Box 5206
Torquay GLD 4655
reservations: 07 5536 3644
reservations@ladyelliot.com.au

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