Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Our little island getaway in Queensland

Fraser Island
Our home country Australia. Been all around the world but have hardly scratched the surface of the country of my birth. So even though there was a major family component to Queensland (Elizabeth has much family here) we tried to include some travelling discoveries as well.

Fraser Island
Hervey Bay
On our way up to see the eclipse we stayed for a few nights at Hervey Bay that included a day trip out to Fraser Island. Fraser Island is mainly a resort island with most places inaccessible except by 4 wheel drive so a true exploration of the island traditionally involves 4 wheel drive tours. We took things much more leisurely preferring to take the ferry out on our own and just do some hiking trails. Not the best of days as it was raining, sometimes heavily, but with umbrella in hand we did a bit of a tour anyway; the weather just added to the atmosphere of the place. Allthough famous for its dingoes, we failed to find one. We had a brief stopover in Airlie Beach and then high tailed it up to the eclipse.

Mossman Gorge
Marrdja Boardwalk
Straight after the eclipse (very early in the morning) we headed to the Daintree Rainforest. We started at the Mossman Gorge and followed the dreamtime walk where we were introduced to strangler figs, a type of tree that climbs like a creeper around another tree and then strangles it, thereby making the shell of the tree its initial support base as it grows. Then we headed to the Marrdja Boardwalk where rainforest turns into mangrove and back into rainforest. This was followed by Cape Tribulation where the forest goes right down to the beach and 'Lord of the Rings' trees look ready to walk with their little tentacle root systems like legs balancing on the sand. The Daintree was a really beautiful experience.
Cape Tribulation

Millaa Millaa Falls

Off we went heading back down Queensland stopping at a few waterfalls on the way and spending a few days at Magnetic Island. We have affectionately named this place our little island getaway as it was a very relaxing idyllic location where time stands still. We stayed at a place near Horseshoe Bay called 'Bungalow Bay Koala Village' that was so dark at night we needed a torch to find the loo and our bungalow. The place included its own koala sanctuary with daily tours to meet some of our more exotic animals where we got up close and personal with pythons and crocodiles. Once a day on the path they would bring out food for the rainbow lorikeets that ravage like a pack of wolves, whooshing and swooping fighting over every morsel.

So our typical day at Magnetic was a run, breakfast and then hiking along one of the many trails available. Back for lunch and then a swim and lounge around the pool area, before experiencing the ravaging birds reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The day was finished with a walk along the beach or to one of the beautiful nearby bays, followed by dinner at our favourite beachside restaurant. It's a hard life, but someone's got to do it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I was Eclipsed in Shannonvale

Over two and a half years ago I decided that I was going to see a total eclipse after listening to a physics podcast about them. Two years ago I found out that the next nearest one to me would be in Cairns in 2012 and booked a spot on the lawn of Elizabeth's aunt's tropical fruit winery in Shannonvale near Port Douglas, smack bang in the middle of the path of total eclipse. (They actually let us use their caravan). Our planning for our year of discovery had to take us to this spot on November 14th.

So it was with immense excitement and expectation that we drove through Cairns on the 12th of November only to find out that they had run out of eclipse viewing glasses. The next day in Mossman the same thing occurred: totally out of eclipse viewing glasses. It was not until 6pm on the 13th that we found some glasses left in the tourist office of Port Douglas. Whew, ready to go.

The early eclipsing sun is in there somewhere...
The weather forecast that night was giving us a 50/50 chance of a clear sky for the eclipse starting at 5:44am with totality occurring at 6:38am. I set the alarm for 5:30 and went to sleep. I woke at 5 and could not get back to sleep. We grabbed the camera, some coffee and drove down the road to a location where we could see the sun (the winery was too low). Clouds were in the sky but initially the sun was clear. As the time drew near the clouds closed in and things were not looking too good.
Elizabeth and Trudie
looking for the sun

Just before totality
Wide shot on auto
Then with minutes to go the sky around the sun cleared. We stared at it with our eclipse glasses, watching the moon eat away at the final pieces of the sun. As totality approached I took off my glasses and looked behind me. The last remaining rays of the sun were casting an eerie contrasting glow on the landscape. Near night time darkness washed over the landscape within seconds. I was surprised at how quick it was and how cold it suddenly got. I checked my phone, 6:38 plus a few seconds, it is at this time you can look directly at the sun. I turned around and was awestruck at the sheer size and amazing beauty of the eclipsed sun, with easily visible flames licking out from the outside of the moon valiantly trying to contain its power.

The fully eclipsed sun!
Final glimpses back at
the winery
You always think that pictures are enhanced of eclipsed suns - special filters, equipment, timing etc - but not so; it was as you see it in my picture using an average digital Canon camera on automatic with the only adjustment being an override of 2 f stops under-exposed. I was interested in hearing if the animals and birds went quiet but I completely forgot to register whether that happened at all as I stared at and photographed the eclipsed sun for the full two minutes (and a few seconds). Minutes later clouds started moving in again, and over the next hour the sun would come out intermittently and we would rush to put on our glasses to have some final looks. 

This was truly an amazing natural event and I am so glad that I put in the two years worth of planning and effort it took to get me here and that the clouds and the location randomly worked in my favour. Many people were not as lucky; places in Cairns stayed clouded over and apparently in Port Douglas on the 4 Mile Beach half saw the total eclipse unimpeded while the other half of the beach was clouded over. Thanks Tony and Trudie for letting us stay in your caravan and for the brilliantly quiet and secluded location where we were on our own as we witnessed this little cosmic miracle.

I think I am now a confirmed eclipse chaser and I have since found out the next one is in 2015 with the best spot at the Faroe Islands near Iceland. Now how to break it to Elizabeth...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Star Struck

We completed our trip to the US directly diagonal to where we started (thankfully), in Los Angeles, and had to give our beautiful car back.

Hollywood Boulevard
Rodeo Drive
We took one of those Hollywood tours with a guide whose life revolved around occasional run-ins with the rich and famous. For instance there was the time that he put his coach in the way of Nicolas Cage parking his car. Nick came out all upset with two poodles in tow while the coach occupants came out snapping away with their cameras. He could not understand why Nick was so upset. I had a few ideas.

R2D2 and C3PO on the Walk of Fame
Then there was the time he saw John Travolta jogging and sweaty trying to get back into shape to revive his career. He had half a dozen stories like this and gleefully pointed out the hotels where Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston, John Belushi and River Phoenix died. He even stopped at an intersection on Rodeo Drive where two innocent people were about to cross the road, exclaiming 'Are they famous?'. As we all stared at them he determined that they were just 'ordinary' people. In the end it all seemed a bit sad, I guess the rich and famous are not my cup of tea.

Venice Beach
We got to see Hollywood Boulevard and the footprints of my heroes R2D2 and C3PO, wildly dressed and coloured poodles on Rodeo Drive, the hotel used in Pretty Woman, the Hollywood sign, Venice Beach and much more.

A day was spent at Universal Studios, and trust me a day is not enough, as several things we still wanted to do we ran out of time for. Of all the rides my favourite was 'Transformers the ride 3D', a 3D simulator that also moved and spun around the complex. It came with a back-story where you were helping to evacuate the allspark by being extra eyes and ears for the evacbot (which you were in). The graphics were immense and immersive, truly feeling like you were flying, falling, being shot at etc, complete with physical water, heat, flames and air blowing for a 4D experience. It was so good we did it twice.

Whatever you do, DO NOT turn around...
The other standout was 'Jurassic Park the ride'. We had been in other water rides before that took you around bends to an eventual drop and splash, but none like this. Surrounded by jungle infested with robotic (I assume) huge dinosaurs of all types coming from all sides trying to get at you the ~30m drop at the end saps the breath out of you. Then there were the shows, which included a Waterworld themed extravaganza with explosions, water battles and even a plane that came over the top and crashed into the water.

Now that's a thin building
The roof collapsed
and a tanker fell in...
The famous Universal Studios Tour did not disappoint as it took you through the backlots, explaining movie tricks and becoming a ride itself driving through a 3D 360 degree King Kong simulator, the Jaws town complete with Jaws, a subway that exploded with the road falling in and a water main exploding among many other things. Universal Studios was awesome, worth the trip on its own.
Waterworld, the show.

As we say goodbye to the US I can say that we have had a much better time than expected. Especially driving (I LOVE cruise control) through the magnificent countryside where the scenery was beautiful, mountainous and varied. The roads were generally good, the speeds were awesome (top speed of 121 km), most restaurants were gluten aware and there was plenty of gluten free stuff in the supermarkets. The people were friendly and helpful and the places were all they promised to be and then some. We only came to the US because, well, we hadn't been here before so thought we should, but it now is certainly on our list for further exploration.

LA at night
Keep watching the cars.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Viva Las Vegas

Our hotel the Circus Circus Hotel and Casino

Bright light city gonna set my soul
Gonna set my soul on fire...
So starts the Elvis classic promising bright lights and the certain loss of a bundle of money on the pokies. But as long as you keep your money in your pockets you can have a lot of fun for surprisingly little. 

Our room

For starters you can find some really good accommodation for the cheapest prices we have paid this year. We stayed at the Circus Circus Hotel and Casino, perfectly located on Las Vegas Boulevard (known as 'The Strip') in a huge room with a king size bed, TV, bathroom, etc for the total price of $37 per night. For an extra $10 per night resort fee you get access to the gym and a book of coupons for everything from 2 for 1 meals to discount massages and gambling chips. In the middle of the gambling halls they have circus acts performing at regular times throughout the day.

The Strip
Paris Las Vegas
During the day we took the long walk down The Strip where you can find hotels and casinos based on a variety of interesting themes. The Venetian is modelled on Venice complete with rides on gondolas going along a lake physically inside the hotel itself. Caesar's Palace has a Roman theme. Paris Las Vegas has its own Eiffel tower. New York New York has all the famous buildings and includes a statue of liberty and the Luxor is a pyramid. All are huge, full of shops and gambling halls.

The Venetian, this was all inside (the roof is painted)
shades of The Truman Show
No trip to Las Vegas would be complete without taking in a show. Like Broadway you can get half price tickets for shows available on the day. I really wanted to see a magic show, but the one I wanted to see was not on on Wednesdays. Unfortunately the day we were there was Wednesday, so we went and saw 'Vegas the Show' instead. It was good fun with a bit of everything: impersonators of the famous singers of Vegas like Elvis, can can girls, comedy acts etc.

After the show we walked down The Strip towards our hotel taking in a lot of the free entertainment along the way. The Bellagio puts on a famous fountain show every 20 minutes, the Mirage has an exploding volcano and Treasure Island had a full on pirate show complete with explosions, music and dance.

I suppose you're wondering how much we lost in the casinos... well I can say with dead certainty that we lost exactly 0. I can say that because we tricked the lot of them and did not gamble at all. It was a load of fun and the cheapest time of our holidays; I would be quite happy to come back.

The Bellagio fountain show

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Biggest, hottest and most unique

As always after two cities we need to go to the country; the country is what makes our hearts soar, re-energises our bodies and calms our minds. Preferably somewhere high, where we can hike and be surrounded by nature. So we hired a car, promptly got a free upgrade from economy to a Hyundai Sonata, and headed east on our road trip. We chose three national parks to visit that all followed on from one another in an easterly direction. Yosemite, then on to Death Valley and then finish in the Grand Canyon. This post will be long as I thought all the parks should go together (but mainly pictures as I think the beauty of the parks can speak for itself) - I hope I have done them justice.

Now THAT'S a tree
The Grizzly Giant sequoia tree
Yosemite was a fantastic park to start at, very green and everything was BIG. Big mountains, big boulders, big trees (some of the biggest in the world), big forests, big open plains and big people (just kidding). As it was just after summer, and it was a hot summer, Yosemite Falls was dry but Vernal and Nevada Falls were running fine and were a lovely day's walk up a tranquil and scenic track. We also saw the huge and amazing sequoia trees. among the biggest trees in the world. The Grizzly Giant was over 1,800 years old!!! What tales it could tell. Many scenic routes and tracks to walk. So glad we had our own car.

Half Dome mountain
on the right
Vernal Falls

El Capitan. Look to the right,
and down and in about a cm,
see anything?

Yep, there are climbers
on that mountain. Crazy buggers!

Death Valley

Then off to Death Valley; to be specific we were staying at Death Valley Junction, population? the number of hotel guests at the Amargosa Hotel and Opera House plus about four staff. The 600km drive to Death Valley provided some of the most fascinating and diverse scenery I have ever come across, from the lush forests of Yosemite up to 3000m high with mountains still towering above us on roller coaster roads, to eerie deserts.

Zabriskie Point. Elizabeth said
it looked like a Cadbury Top Deck
Rhyolite ghost town
Death Valley is on average the hottest place in the entire world and, as of September 2012 when Libya lost the record due to dubious measurement practices, holds the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded at 57 deg Celsius (134 deg Fahrenheit) in 1913. It is also the hottest, lowest and driest location in the entire country.

Badwater Basin 90m below
sea level
Dante's View
This heat creates beautiful naked mountains where the colours, textures and shapes are exposed for all to see. Amazing by car but a nightmare for the 49ers (goldseekers) in 1849 who used the valley as a shortcut to the Californian goldfields and gave it its name. This area is very geologically active and ranges from high enclosing mountains all the way down to around 90m below sea level at the dry Badwater Basin to turn it into a unique hot spot of the world.

Pan of Dante's View

Grand Canyon

Finally we headed off for the 8 hour drive to the Grand Canyon. Your breath is taken away when the canyon first comes into view and it does not seem real, it seriously looks like a 2D painting, very surreal. Whether while walking along the many kilometres that make up the rim or while taking one of the many trails down into the canyon, you just cannot get enough of the ever changing view.

Taking a walk down the

Friends met along the way

The canyon is over 300km long and nearly 2km deep. It is unique in that the mountains were initially pushed up intact and then as the Colorado River started flowing through from the Rockies to the ocean it carved the canyon at about the width of a sheet of paper per year. After five million years the power of time has exposed two billion years of history in the changing rocks and fossils that had been previously buried deep within the earth. The changing layers of rock from limestone to sandstone to granite and gneiss provide a history of the geology of the planet over time.

After sunset

This first taster of the changing American landscape was much more varied and interesting than we expected and has created the desire to see more. I hope you enjoy the pictures as I enjoyed taking them.

Pan of the Grand Canyon

Note: As I post this Hurricane Sandy has just devastated the east coast of the United States. You have a beautiful country and the people have been very friendly and helpful to us during our visit. We wish all of you good luck in rebuilding and restoring your lives to normality.