Thursday, December 17, 2015

Most Liveable City in the World

Melbourne is apparently number one (then Vienna and Vancouver) and it's no surprise. Not only has it got a lot of interesting architecture, green areas, free trams, great weather, a giant Christmas theremin AND the largest LEGO Christmas Tree in the southern hemisphere.

This is our final stop in Australia and we're enjoying every last minute of it. The day after we arrived we had an all day tour of the Yarra Valley which produces a lot of Chardonnay, pinot noir and sparkling wines. The first winery we visited was Chandon, known for their French champagnes. The day included a few more wineries (lost count), a cheese tasting and a beer/cider and tasting.
Nadine organized the tour and she and her mom helped give a toast to the morning:

On Wednesday we ventured over the Yarra river (which divides Melbourne) to the main shopping area - first stop Hopetoun Tea Room - very famous for their cakes (one slice of chocolate/fig tart)! 


Then a Circle Tour on the free tram which takes you around the outer rim of the Central Business District (CBD) with a recorded commentary describing some of the history. Melbourne has an eclectic mix of extremely modernistic architecture combined with grand 19th century structures - all of them very visually interesting. Lots of little laneways brimming with shops and restaurants. Many coffee shops that Scott has been checking out.

We had dinner at St. Kilda (a beach area just south of the city) then went to the pier in the evening where there is colony of penguins that climb onto the breakwater at sunset. They are very small, in fact they're called Little Penguins or Fairy Penguins - about the size of a large pigeon. It was too dark to get any decent photos.

The Melbourne precinct (area) we're staying in is the 'arts' area and there are many galleries, theatres and art schools within a few blocks of here. The exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria is by Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei - a Chinese activist and artist. Both very iconic contemporary artists with a good sense of humour (necessary for most modern art).

This sculpture was created by Ai Weiwei with 1500 "Forever" bicycles.


Heat waves are hitting many areas of Australia with temperatures expected over 40 in some place and it's a bit strange to hear "Let it Snow" in the middle of summer. However snow is starting to enter our consciousness as our departure date nears :(

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Fish Pictures


As I started researching our trip it became apparent that a visit to Cairns was not only on the 'approved' list (people who had been here nodded approvingly when I mentioned it) but that the trip must include some version of a reef adventure.

The Great Barrier Reef is 2300 km long and is the "world's biggest single structure made by living organisms" (Wikipedia). Our trip took us about 40 km offshore to Michaelmas Cay and Hastings Reef which is on the outer reef. The pictures below speak for themselves - there was also an immense variety of corals of different shapes, sizes, colours and textures which are difficult to photograph.

This one was almost transparent:


I was often surrounded by schools of large fish. A bit unnerving at first. They didn't seem bothered by me. 
 A random brilliant blue fish:
 Rather ordinary Green Sea turtle
 HUGE (1 m across) giant clam hiding among the coral:
 No idea who this guy is but he's kind of funny looking:
 White tip reef shark. See the white tip.
 Angel fish (I think):
 Coral structure several meters high:

Not fish. But fishy looking characters at the end of the trip.
Technically I don't have a bucket list. But if I did, snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef definitely should have been on it!

[Note:  My camera is a Nikon Coolpix AW100 - not super great but does the job. Underwater pictures are difficult to get - the subjects don't want to stay still and the camera and photographer are subject to wave action.]

The Far North - Cairns

As well as being the 'gateway to the Great Barrier Reef', Cairns, in northern Australia, is a beautiful tropical paradise.

There are some beautiful beaches in the area but there's only one small problem - deadly stinging irukandji jellyfish which means that NO ONE goes anywhere near the water at this time of year! This particular type of jellyfish is very small (1 cubic cm) but very venomous and Cairns reported its first victim of the season a few days ago. Luckily she survived and was released from the hospital.
So, beautiful but abandoned beaches.

It's quite hot here (30+) but not as humid as Bali.  Fortunately we have a pool at our apartment and downtown Cairns has a beautiful large lagoon (pool). One other nice feature of Cairns is the Esplanade, a 2 km strip park all the way down the water's edge. It's a very clean, well maintained park, with a large children's play area, various exercising areas and many, many beautiful trees (lots of banyans) full of red and blue birds (rainbow lorakeets) or perhaps giant fruit bats; groups of pelicans by the marina. The downtown area is mostly restaurants, gelato bars and tour operators - a real holiday/party atmosphere. Ross managed to find both the Irish pubs!



There is a huge area of tropical rainforest just north of Cairns where there is a sky rail (gondola) and train ride through the rain forest. We opted to rent a car for the day and hiked down to the Barron Gorge just near the small town of Kuranda. The Barron Gorge is over 250 meters high and becomes quite a rushing torrent during the rainy season. The rainy season has technically started although we have seen very little rain during our time here. In fact, I'm considering ditching my rain coat that I brought as it's taking up precious suitcase space!



I continue to be amazed at the wide range of fruits and unusual birds and animals. It's obviously mango season - not only can you buy them for $2, if you manage to find a tree by the side of the road you can just pick them up off the ground, which Mike has done several times now.  It's like being in some kind of paradise! Also saw a herd (?) of wallabies on our drive back into Cairns. Smaller than a kangaroo but very similar looking.

We drove farther past Kuranda to the Daintree Rainforest and took a cruise along a mangrove lined river. It was pretty quiet in terms of wildlife since it was mid-day, but we did manage to spot one crocodile lurking by the water's edge.

And this elegant great egret.

Next up....Great Barrier Reef.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Wine. And Kangaroos too!

I shouldn't have given it away in the title but yes, our wine tour today ended with kangaroos. We booked a 1/2 day tour (twofatblokes.com.au) that started at 10 am - a bit early for wine tasting unless you're us! We were picked up about 9:30 from our little house in the Hunter Valley and headed off to the first of three wineries.

It was all a lot greener than I would have anticipated around here.


The Hunter Valley produces 4% of the wine in Australia so it's relatively small. Although there are plenty of vineyards, there are also a lot of open grazing spaces. The main wines are Shiraz, Chardonnay and Semillon.

I very quickly lost count of the number of wines we tested although I know at our 2nd stop we had a pairing of 9 different wines and mostly local cheeses. The wines were great but the cheeses were to die for. Can we get cheeses like this in Canada?


While conversing with the driver, I mentioned that we STILL hadn't seen kangaroos so he promised he'd find us some by the end of the tour and indeed he kept his word. It wasn't hard, there was a mob (that's the collective noun) of about 20 sitting there waiting for us around under a tree at a little accommodation stop off the road. Bingo!

This mommy has a passenger:
 They are so funny!


I must admit it was lot easier than finding moose in NFLD - now we'll likely see them all over the place.


Friday, December 04, 2015

Birds and Beaches

We had such a fabulous apartment in Sydney we were all a bit disappointed when we had to pack up and leave for Palm Beach. I did manage to gather the group for a photo on the deck before we left.


While in Sydney, Ross and I did the requisite hop-on hop-off bus, then Mike and Liana joined us a few days later for the hop-on hop-off ferry around the harbour. This gave us an excellent overview of the entire area, from Bondi Beach to Manley. Also did a tour of the opera house which took 14 years to build and went massively over budget ($7 million to $102 million). The tour focussed a lot on the architecture of the building which, as you know, is unique. Construction started in 1959 before they had any idea of how they would put it all together. Obligatory tourist photo:


Palm Beach is kind of the holiday or weekend get-away area for Sydney-ites (is there another word for them?). It is situated on a narrow peninsula just an hour or so from the city and dotted with beautiful beaches on all sides. Lots of surfers around here and dangerous waves/currents that often require beaches to be closed. We're staying in a lovely house with amazing birds in the backyard. It's a bit jarring to be woken up to sounds I've never heard before. As well as the kookaburras that come and sit in the gum tree, yesterday there were three of these beauties enjoying the pink flowers.


We saw these black ones (ducks?) with the yellow and red beaks in Sydney:



Long legs and a yellow beak.


I'll have to consult our local guide to get the correct names for these and I'll add them later.

Tomorrow we head to the Hunter Valley for a few days, one of many wine growing regions here. If you don't see any new posts perhaps it's because I'm too busy testing the wines!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Balls and Bowls

Sunday was a fabulously brilliant day in Sydney and Sam's friend Nadine had organized a group of friends to meet for a game of Lawn Bowls at Clovelly Bowling Club. First we had lunch at Coogee Beach although we didn't actually get in the water. It looked pretty nice though. The beach itself is a few miles south of the City on the Tasman Sea.


One of the things to do if you're part of the 'in' crowd is to have a game of bowls. It's sort of like getting all your friends together and going to the bowling alley for an evening. The bowls club is fairly official, we had to sign in as guests and there are regular members; there were other groups like ours that seemed to be having a bit of a lark throwing the balls (or bowls) back and forth. Of course, as you might expect, there are many similarities to bocce and curling except for the fact that the balls (or bowls) are weighted on one side so they roll way to the right or left (so a lot like curling!).

The club was perched high above the ocean with a spectacular view, not too far from Coogee beach and the wind was howling. Fun hats (when they didn't fly away) added to the festivities.

Scotty had to give a bit of instruction to Sammy. But she caught on quickly.

 Ross figured his curling expertise would come in handy.  Not so much.
Strangely enough Nadine's friends included folks from Wales, New Zealand, South Africa, another guy from Canada (Edmonton) and one or two actual Sydney-ites.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Off to Oz

Our last few days in Bali were pretty exciting.  First we went to a temple (yes another one!) which was perched high on a hill over the ocean. The monkeys at this temple were a bit aggressive and we were again warned not to wear anything sparkly - earrings, watches, glasses, etc. We were fine, but the tourist in front of us had his glasses stolen by a very tricky monkey - as we looked to the left at the monkeys climbing the cliff, a monkey hidden in the tree above just reached down and grabbed them. He chewed on them for a few minutes, broke off both the arms, then tossed the lot onto the ground. Ross grabbed onto his hat and glasses a bit tighter after that.

The temple also had a dance/music presentation called Kecak Ramaynana and Fire Dance - 55 bare-breasted men chanting and creating vocal percussive rhythms with movement. It really reminded me of Polynesian dancing. There was a bit of a story with a golden deer, a white monkey, a giant, burning grass fire and some mythical characters - viewed while the sun set over the Indian ocean. Quite a spectacular setting.




Dinner was at Jimbaran - 24 restaurants on the beach - tables as far as the eye could see as the waves broke over the sand.

The last night's dinner was pretty impressive too - the menu they had on the table was a list of about 30 items - which at first we thought we would select from, but no, everything arrived, including the entire spit-roasted pig. Scott and Sam joined us (it was Scotty's birthday!) and someone had ordered birthday cake since we obviously hadn't had enough food already!

On Thursday night we said goodbye to Bali and landed in Sydney where the temperature had gone from 39 on Thursday to 17 on Friday morning. After the humidity of Bali it was a GREAT relief to be able to go outside and not be totally uncomfortable. It's now Monday and Mike and Liana have just arrived from New Brunswick. Here's the view from our apartment - if you've been to Sydney (even if you haven't) you may recognize the opera house and the bridge in the distance.

Sadly, we've been here for 4 days now and haven't seen a kangaroo yet! Maybe tomorrow.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Cooking the Balinese Way

Our first task of the day was to go to the market at 6:00 am and select food for our cooking class. If you know me, you know that there is not much that can get me up at that hour of the day, including going to the market at 6:00 am! So, after sleeping in until 7:30, and having a leisurely breakfast, Ross and I met the rest of the group at 9:00 for our cooking class. (We weren't the only ones, there were a few others in the group who value sleep more than shopping.)

I would likely classify today's lesson as a cooking demonstration; we did get to mix and stir a few things but most of the prep had been done ahead of time.  Our teacher, Heinz, a Swiss who has studied Balinese food extensively, taught us that most of what we know was wrong. You don't just boil the chicken bones for stock, you must boil it first, throw away the result, then boil it again. MSG occurs naturally in many foods and is not necessarily bad for you. The food we have come to know as Balinese is in fact Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian. You don't roast chicken at a specific temperature, you roast it based on how much time you have.

Our first task was to eat - a Balinese breakfast, mostly fruits (again, a few I've never seen before), Balinese cakes, rice flour dumplings in palm sugar sauce, coconut cream.

Then we donned our aprons and began first to prepare the spice pastes for seafood, meats, beef, chicken and vegetables. The ingredients include fresh turmeric, galangal, kencur, candlenuts, lemongrass, salam leaves - I'm pretty sure I won't be picking these up at Butcher Boys!

Everyone got into the act threading the sate meat onto skewers.

Many hours later we were presented with our feast - including roast chicken in banana leaf, pork in sweet soy sauce, yellow rice, peanut sauce (which the Balinese never eat with their sate according to Heinz), vegetable salad, rice cake in banana leaf, black rice pudding, sweet corn and coconut, fried bananas, nasi goreng (fried rice) and many others. 

Now that I know how to cook all this Balinese food, next time I want some I'll know where to get it. In Bali!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

We Have a Lesson

Not only did we visit a school today but we ourselves were schooled in a few different aspects of Balinese life. Students in the public schools go Mon-Sat, in the private schools Mon-Fri.  They start early, perhaps 7:30 and are done around 1:00.

The students were happy to see us and practice their English (they learn 4 languages in school - Balinese, Indonesian, English and Japanese) and I'm sure we caused a bit of havoc for the teachers. They gathered at the front to sing for us - we were surprised when they started with Old MacDonald and You are My Sunshine - then their national anthem.


Four of the older girls performed a wonderful traditional Balinese dance for us.

We were escorted around the village by a local tour guide; they have made a business out of displaying their community to visitors. We were served "breakfast" at a compound (where they live) which consisted of sticky rice balls with banana, banana fritters, and some other delicious foods which are hard to describe. Bamboo is used for many things here (musical instruments, artwork) but it is strong enough to use in building.  They use it to support the concrete beams in construction such as shown here.  This is a new community centre that is being built.

We walked around the village and over to a rice planting demonstration area. Although you see the cattle below pulling the plow, this technique is not used much any more, machines are more the norm.

Rice seedlings are hand planted. I believe this is still the process.

After the rice is harvested and dried, it is pounded to loosen the husk, then winnowed using this technique of tossing it in a basket to separate the rice. They still may process it this way, but more commonly, someone in the village has a machine to do this.


Our final lesson for the day was a visit to Tenganan, an ancient Balinese village, one of only a few still in existence. This particular one had many crafts such as single and double weaving (ikat), basket weaving using a rattan-like reed found only in that area, painting on palm leaves, mask making. All in all a very informative school day for us!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Elephant Park

Elephants are the most amazing creatures and it's certainly not the first time that I've blogged about them (or last?).

Today we visited the Elephant Park which was more than an hour's drive from our hotel. Driving here, as you may know, is a combination of luck, skill and an acute awareness of the unwritten rules of the road.  With endless scooters and motorbikes, very narrow roads, and people pulling out or turning directly in your path it's a continuous game of chicken. But somehow, to my total amazement, it all works smoothly and everyone gets where they're going!

First thing at the park, we were treated to a fabulous buffet lunch, then a long bumpety ride through the jungle on the elephant. Rollie described it as rock'n'roll, our guide suggested it was a good massage. These are Asian elephants from Sumatra as they are not native to Bali, but the park has about 31 altogether. Not as big as the African elephants we've seen previously.


Of course our elephant needed to cool off in the pond for a spell.




The show afterward had the elephants playing harmonica, basketball, soccer painting and just sitting around on the bench.

I'm not sure it's because of the volcanic ash that has grounded Australian tourists, the Paris attacks that have affected European travel or just the time of year but it seems pretty quiet tourist-wise here. Along the beach at night we can wander by countless empty restaurants and there were only a few others at the Elephant Park today. Good for us, but not so much for the Balinese economy.

Exploring Haida Gwaii

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