Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Of All The Gin Joints,… In All The World"

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Since I last wrote about our experiences in Hobart, Australia, our ship has traveled two days eastward to New Zealand. What is normally a very rough passage, turned out to be surprisingly mild and uneventful. New Zealand is a country which covers over 100,000 square miles and is home to over 4 million people. Its landmass is divided into three principal islands, the North Island, the South Island, and Stewart Island.

Our ship made landfall on the Southwest corner of the South Island in a region known as Fjordland National Park. This vast area offers some of the most magnificent scenery in all of New Zealand. Specifically our vessel was able to explore two fjords, the first being named Milford Sound, and the second being named Dusky Sound. Unfortunately for us the wonderful weather that we enjoyed in our crossing between Australia and New Zealand had given way to a low dark overcast and intermittent showers. The seas had become quite rough, and during the night the crew had taken obvious measures to secure the ship for the rough weather that we were going to experience as we traveled down the coast.

As we approached the coastline of New Zealand early in the morning, there was no obvious entrance into Milford Sound. The coastline itself seemed to be unbroken, and it was for this reason that Milford Sound was not discovered until the early 1800s. As our ship turned towards the mainland, all of us were trying to figure where we were going to go since the coastline appeared to be unbroken. However the closer we approached we could slowly make out an opening into a narrow channel, Milford Sound, Australiawhich then widened into a magnificent fjord with deep-water and high cliffs on either side. Our ship traveled through this magnificent scenery for over an hour before coming to the end. One of the very few roads to exist in this National Park does connect to a Lodge at the head of Milford Sound, and so as our ship turned around for the reverse journey, we could see people in kayaks, and small sailing ships enjoying the tranquility of the surrounding area. Unfortunately for us, the sky was gray and threatening, so the few pictures that we got do not in truth reflect the magnificent beauty that was around us.

Our vessel departed Milford sound about 10 AM and then cruised South West along the New Zealand coast towards our next stop, Dusky Sound. It was during this passage that the long swells we had been experiencing during the morning now ran directly parallel to our course causing the ship to roll and pitch, and at times violently. I can tell you that a great deal of china and crystal was broken over the next 24 hours, not to mention more than one unexpected fall among the passengers.Dusky Sound, Australia Eventually we turned into Dusky Sound about 5 PM in the afternoon, and while it was still overcast, there were now occasional breaks in the clouds which allowed the surrounding hills to be bathed in sunlight.Dusky Sound, Australia I captured a few pictures under these conditions, and you can just imagine how magnificent this would have been on a truly sunny day. The channel into the sound at times was so narrow that there was very little leeway on either side of the ship. The massive cliffs soared well over 2,000 feet above us creating a truly awesome experience.

At the end the ship once again turned around and by 7 PM, we had exited the Sound and set our course south to follow the coastline towards the southernmost island in New Zealand, Stewart Island. This was an extremely rough passage at the beginning, but by early morning the seas had smoothed, and the sun was out during our brief visit to New Zealand's smallest island. Frankly, I'm not quite sure why the ship chose to stop at Stewart Island other than to allow the passengers to say that we had been there. Stewart Island, New ZealandThe island is home to New Zealand's newest national park, Rakiura National Park, and the island itself is home to one of the last surviving species of New Zealand's native bird, the Kiwi. Stewart Island is separated from New Zealand's South Island by only 15 miles, so it is a short trip by ferry. As far as I could tell, except for the small township of Oban at Half Moon Bay, the island is practically uninhabited. We were told that the total population of the island is around 400 people. The island without question is a haven for backpackers. Stewart Island, New ZealandThe small township of Oban appears to exist solely to provide provisions for those who choose to spend their vacations walking around in the wilderness. The island has approximately 10 miles of roads, and we were given a short 90 minute trip that basically covered all of the populated areas. At the end of our tour, Lisa and I elected to get off the bus and spend some time in the town of Oban. Stewart Island, New ZealandWe visited their local museum, which although very small was quite interesting. We then walked the streets, took some pictures, and found our way to the visitor center. We had been told that at the visitor center a five dollar contribution would allow us to receive transportation back to the dock from which our tender would return us to the ship, which was at anchor in the harbor.

Departing Stewart Island, our ship commenced a cruise towards the North East along the coastline of South Island towards the city of Dunedin. During dinner on that evening Lisa and I recalled our previous trip to Dunedin and the one thing that stuck in our mind was the absolutely wonderful time we had had there with the cab driver whom we had selected at random out of a long line of taxis waiting by our ship. The gentleman, whose name was Ken, was one of those people whom you could "bounce off" all day long, and he had given us such a truly memorable tour of the city and its surroundings, that almost 10 years later we still recall that visit fondly. On this journey we had arranged a private car through our ship, since with heightened security taxis are no longer able to drive right up to the ship as they once had been. In fact, in some cities it is almost impossible to find a taxi without first having to take a very long walk into a populated area.

Imagine the shock on our face when the limo pulls up, the door opens, and out steps Ken! I could not believe my eyes. It caused me to recall the great line from the movie Casablanca, when Humphrey Bogart said "of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine." Well, what were the odds that Ken would once again walk into our lives?Dunedin, New Zealand We obviously spent our first minutes together getting reacquainted. I clearly remember the last time we saw Ken he was single, and bragging about how he would go to the local pubs with his inflatable doll under his arm. I thought that was the funniest image, and one that I still recall to this day. In the interim, Ken got married so the inflatable doll obviously had to go. He recently underwent a quadruple bypass, and only just in the last weeks has been released to return to work. That made it even more incredible that of all the drivers in Dunedin, he would end up with us.

We had an absolutely wonderful day, and Ken seemed determined to insure that we not only saw the city of Dunedin, but we drove every little small road in the city that offered an interesting view. Dunedin, New ZealandWe found viewpoints on little narrow roads; old cemeteries tucked away in the hillside, and in general had a marvelous time. He once again took us to the world's steepest street, and while lines of young people were trying to huff and puff their way to the top,Dunedin, New Zealand Ken drove us there in his BMW as if it was no challenge whatsoever. We made a stop at the gorgeous Edwardian railroad station, and I took a picture of Ken and Lisa sitting on the same bench where I had taken their picture some 10 years prior. Dunedin, New ZealandIt will be interesting to go back in my photographs to see if I can find that picture, and if so I have promised to send Ken a” before and after version.”

Dunedin is a city of around 200,000 people, and is the fifth largest city in New Zealand. It is largely a college town, which doubles in size during the University season. We were there on New Year's Eve, and the town was quiet except for preparations for the New Year's Eve party. We managed to stop at the botanical Garden, and then we managed to stop at a private garden. We got some photographs of their Cathedral Dunedin, New Zealandand some other pretty churches, and then we went to their Museum for coffee and a roll and a short visit before deciding it was finally time to return to our ship. All in all we had an absolutely wonderful day.

Last night we celebrated New Year's Eve, and of course New Zealand is the first main country in the world to celebrate that event. That means that we beat the rest of the world in getting to the New Year which is kind of a neat feeling. For those of you who are now just crossing over the line, I'll simply say the New Year is great, come on over!

Happy New Year and best wishes to everyone!


PS just a short note to let you know that I may not be able to do updates between now and the end of our cruise. We have three days, one right after the other, where we will visit new ports, and on the fourth day we arrive at Auckland which is the end of our cruise. That really leaves little time in between for me to organize pictures, much less to be able to dictate about our experiences. If anything dramatic happens I'll try to get out a quick e-mail, otherwise it may have to wait till I return home to finalize this trip.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hijacked In Hobart, Tasmania

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It has taken me an entire day to calm down enough about our day in Hobart that I'm able to calmly write about our experience. Before baring my soul, let me digress for a moment and discuss where in the world exactly is Hobart, Tasmania.

I have been throwing around names such as Queensland, New South Wales, and now Tasmania, as if you should have instant recognition. In point of fact however before I traveled to Australia, I really had no idea what these words referred to. Australia, like the United States, is a Republic that is formed by the merger of its member States. We, of course, are all familiar with the names of our States, but less knowledgeable about the names of the States in Australia. They have only seven: Western Australia, Northern Territory, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. Tasmania is unique in that it is an island State, in the same sense that Hawaii is an island State of the United States.

The island of Tasmania lies south of the Australian mainland, and can easily be reached by car ferry in only a few hours travel. Most ferries depart passengers on the northern part of the island, and from there one can drive to the major city, Hobart on the southeast corner of the island, in only three hours.

And so it was that our ship docked in the capital city of Tasmania, Hobart. Lisa and I had visited Hobart once before, and we had very strong memories of two attractions on the island. The first was Bonorong Park, and the other was the historic little town of Richmond. In fact, we have been talking about visiting Bonorong during our entire cruise, because we had such a wonderful experience when there before. In this relatively small Park, they have a large population of kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, and other animals which are indigenous to Tasmania. All of the animals have been acclimated to the presence of people, so that you can easily walk right up to an animal and give them a pet.

For our visit to this port we had arranged a private car, and I had specifically written down on a sheet of paper these two destinations so that there would be no misunderstanding with the driver about where it is we wanted to visit. After entering the car I explained the situation and showed the driver the names of the places we wanted to see; he immediately dismissed them as not being worthy of a visit to Hobart. His comment was, “if you've already seen them, then why would you want to see them again?" And so I pushed back again, and again, and he continued to dismiss the suggestions by saying that the significant parts of Hobart are in the southern part of the coast, and not North towards the little town of Richmond. I guess I'm just too nice a guy, and as my friend suggested, they probably should paste my picture on the men's room wall throughout Australia. Rather than argue with a man anymore, I finally gave in and said “fine if you believe there's more to see in the South then we are at your disposal for the day.” What a mistake! We had been effectively hijacked and in return we spent four hours driving around the southern coastline, admittedly seeing some pretty scenery, but not seeing anything that I considered memorable or noteworthy.

Hobart, Australia I did manage to get a picture of the State Capital building, and along the highway we came to an old shot tower which did make a pretty picture. He was surprised that I even knew what a "shot tower" was. I was raised in Baltimore Maryland, and there we have an original "shot tower" from the Civil War. Hobart, AustraliaThis was a tall chimney-like structure from which molten lead would be dropped over the side. During the fall the lead would form into a ball and then land in a pond of cold water where it would harden into a piece of "shot" for the old muskets. In any event, when we finally got back to the ship, both Lisa and I were really disappointed at our adventure that day. Here we had talked our entire trip about going to see the animals at the park, and I outright let this man walk over me and instead we saw things that were really not that interesting to us at all. As Lisa said, "how many times do you think we’ll ever return to Hobart to visit the park again?" And so, I spent the last two days beating up on myself for not having been stronger, but I guess sometimes you just have to admit that we are all human and make mistakes: and that was certainly a big one on my part.

I have posted some very pretty pictures to our second album, and I encourage you to take a look at them. We spent yesterday, and again today traveling east from Australia towards the coastline of New Zealand. Tomorrow we will spend the day cruising Milford and Dusky sound, which promises to be very picturesque. This time of the year the crossing is normally quite rough. To the surprise of everyone on the ship, however our crossing has been relatively calm as has our entire cruise.

I hope that everyone had a wonderful Christmas.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Ghost of Melbourne Past

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It is impossible for me to discuss our visit to Melbourne, without first sharing the story of "the ghost of Melbourne past." Lisa and I visited Melbourne several years ago, and on that visit we jumped off the ship, and at random selected a taxi driver to show us around the city. We had a wonderful experience and a great deal of fun that day which we will always fondly remember. During our day together, the driver mentioned that he and his family would be coming to the United States in the following year and visiting Disneyland in California. In those days I was “young and naïve about the ways of the world,” and so I made my infamous statement "well, if you're ever in the area, give us a call and we'd be delighted to have you stay with us." Now in truth, in the back of my mind, I was thinking there's no way that anyone is going to visit California, and then pay the airfare to just run over to Kansas City for couple of days. Boy was I wrong!

About a year later, I get a phone call from our friendly Melbourne driver who tells me that they are indeed coming to the United States, and they've made plans to visit Kansas City. Talk about a surprise-you could have knocked me over with a feather! Anyway I said all the right things, “of course we'd be delighted to have you, and would look forward to the visit,” but then he said, “I hope you don't mind that my wife and I will be bringing our kids." Well, what could I say but of course they were welcome to bring their kids. He forgot to mention that his two boys were adults, one age 27 and the other age 32. At this point in the conversation, I'm in a complete state of shock, so when he mentioned that they had made arrangements to stay with us for a week, I don't think I had the strength to respond in any intelligible manner.

Fortunately, I guess, Lisa ended up being out of town when the appointed week arrived, and thus I became the designated innkeeper and tour guide for this family from Melbourne, about whom we knew virtually nothing. At that time I still owned a nice airplane, and so I figured that one easy way to deal with them would be to travel some around the Midwest taking them to places they have never visited. My first trip was to Santa Fe, New Mexico--it was also my last trip in the airplane with them. Oh yes, they enjoyed Santa Fe a great deal, but they paid not one single penny towards the cost of their accommodations, or food! At this point, I figured that the most inexpensive way to work my way out of this dilemma, was simply to show them around the Kansas City area.

I am absolutely certain that they had a wonderful trip. I did all the cooking; I did all the laundry; I cleaned up all the dishes; and I served as both driver and tour guide for several days. To give you a sense of just how bad it became, I would generally go to bed shortly after dinner as is my habit, and leave them watching the television with the dinner plates still on the table. When I got up the next morning, all of the lights and electronic equipment were on, and not a single dish had been taken to the kitchen. Talk about feeling abused! I would go to the grocery store, and they would tag along. As I would walk down the aisle, they would reach over and fill the cart with items in which they had an interest, but not once did they offer to pay any portion of the bill.

To this day, I honestly don't know why I let the situation get so far out of hand. Early on in the visit, I should have just told them enough is enough. Somehow I guess I was too nice a guy, and I allowed them to completely run over my good common sense. One of my friends joked that he had heard a picture of me was hanging above the urinals in Australian men's rooms, suggesting that anyone who would like a free trip to America should contact this gentleman.

So you can see that in visiting Melbourne yesterday, I was confronted immediately by "the ghost of Melbourne past." But, I had exorcised that ghost by completely throwing away all contact information for these people. However, as I exited the ship, I was actually a little hesitant that I might see this gentleman drive up in his taxi, but of course in a city of 4 million people the likelihood of that was very small, and it did not happen. So, let me turn to the present and discuss our wonderful visit to Australia’s second-largest city, Melbourne.

Melbourne has a population of slightly fewer than 4 million people, which means it is only somewhat smaller than Sydney. It is however growing faster than Sydney, and is projected to surpass Sydney in size in the next decade. Melbourne has been noted as "the most livable city in the world." I'm sure some other cities might take exception with that, but by the same token it is a beautiful city.

This was the only stop on our cruise, where the ship spent the night in port. That gave us two full days to visit Melbourne. On our first day we had a private car and thus, we were able to scurry around the city fairly quickly. Because of the Christmas holidays, schools were closed thus giving many families an opportunity to leave the city and traffic was extremely light. We did stop briefly to take photographs of the Shrine of Remembrance, which is a beautiful structure that was built to honor the roughly 90,000 Australian troops that were killed during World War I. Melbourne, AustraliaOver the years the structure has been added to and increased in size, so that it now serves as a memorial to all citizens who have served in the military. From there we made a stop at the Royal Botanical Garden and spent about 30 minutes pleasantly walking through a magnificent area. Melbourne, AustraliaOnce back in the car, we drove by the National Cathedral, and stopped so that we could take several pictures.

Our most memorable event in Melbourne was our visit to the National Gallery of Victoria.Melbourne, Australia We actually remembered visiting this building from our previous trip, and while Lisa and I both recall that it had some interesting art, there was nothing actually special about the Museum. When our driver let us off, he said that he would return in 30 minutes, but we got his cell number just in case we changed our mind. Well change our mind we did--we spent over an hour and a half in the gallery and could easily have spent more time had we not been on somewhat of a schedule. The gallery has a very interesting construction such that there is an outer building, in the center of which is yet another building that houses the most important pieces of art. This inner building has a unique glass ramp which circles completely around the outside of the building and allows you to climb from level to level. On our last visit, I very distinctly remember visiting level I, and being disappointed and somewhat miffed when after a long climb to the top where level II should have been, only to find a sign that said "closed for reconstruction." Well today that second level was open and it housed some of the most magnificent art that either us have seen in a long time. I can simply say, “What a pleasant surprise!”

Having taken so much time, our morning was quickly coming to an end when we drove by the Royal Exhibition Building. Melbourne, AustraliaHere I stopped for several quick photographs, since this is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With that our morning came to an end, and we retreated to the ship.

On our second day in Melbourne, we took a tour which was offered by the ship. It's a little hard to characterize our experience: let's just say, it was a bit unusual. We started by taking the bus to the loading point for the Colonial Tram Car Restaurant. Melbourne, AustraliaTo understand this experience, I have to first explain that throughout the city of Melbourne there is a very extensive trolley car system. Most cities in the world have done away with their trolley cars, but Melbourne has steadfastly retained this tradition, and in fact, expanded it throughout the city. There are trolley tracks on virtually every major street in Melbourne. The cars that run on these tracks are called "tramcars." Several of the oldest tramcars have been converted into moving restaurants. Our journey this morning was to ride on such a converted car for approximately 90 minutes, during which we were served High Tea, a very British tradition. And so our railcar went up and down and up and down and around what seemed like every trolley track in the intercity of Melbourne for 90 minutes, all the while waiters sang and rushed about serving coffee, tea, scones and sponge cake--oh yes, and don't forget the cucumber sandwiches. All I can say is that it was at least "an experience."

Our next stop was to visit the Eureka Sky Deck. This is a 1000 ft. building that has 88 floors, with the top floor being dedicated to an observation lounge. The observation floor is the highest public vantage point in the southern hemisphere.

The elevator which took us to the top was so smooth and swift that it seemed impossible we had climbed 1000 feet in the short time during which the doors were closed. It was somewhat hazy, and so our view over the city was limited but still interesting.

Having completed this experience in record time our drivMelbourne, Australiaer had about 90 minutes to kill, and so he started driving around Melbourne at random which unfortunately duplicated what we had done the prior day. In any event, we enjoyed our stay at Melbourne.

We had a pleasant Christmas Eve onboard ship, and today we are traveling south from the mainland of Australia to its most southern state, the Island of Tasmania. So, from down under, Lisa and I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

It Is A Small World, After All!

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The city of Sydney belongs to that exclusive club of world class cities that give you a sense of excitement from the first time you visit. It ranks up there with the likes of San Francisco, New York, Paris, London, Beijing, and Shanghai. It is home to more than 4 million people, and it is by far the biggest and the most cosmopolitan city in all of Australia.

Lisa and I have spent considerable time in Sydney over the years, so we were a little sad that our ship would stop for only one day. Rather than try to take in everything, we made note of what we considered were the things we enjoyed the most, and then spent our time seeing each of those.

Our ship could not have docked at a more beautiful spot. The center of all Sydney is the circular Quay area of Sydney Harbor. Here is located all of the bustling cosmopolitan activity that you associate with the city. It is full of ferries running to and fro, and is towered over on one side by the beautiful tall buildings of the city itself, and on the other by the Sydney Opera House; completing the horseshoe that is the harbor, is an area known as "the rocks" wherein the historical buildings from the early days of the city still exist. It was right in the midst of this horseshoe that our ship docked and from our room we were directly across from the opera house. If you walked to the bow of the ship, you looked over the beautiful Sydney Bridge that spans the entrance to the inner Harbor.Sydney, Australia

We started our day by driving some around the city to reacquaint ourselves. Our first stop was at the magnificent Botanical Gardens. I wish we had had more time to spend, but sadly it was an overcast day and the gardens are quite large. Sydney, AustraliaThe sun came out briefly, and then disappeared once again thus, necessitating a shortened visit. A short drive took us to one of our favorite spots, the magnificent Art Gallery of New South Wales. The gallery houses the magnificent collection of 15 to 20th century European art. That was the main focus of our visit, and it took us well over an hour.Sydney, Australia The museum is quite large and we could have spent a great deal more time, but as I said before, there is too much to see in Sydney on a one-day visit.

Leaving the art gallery our driver suggested several places in and around the city where spectacular photographs could be made. He was absolutely right in that regard, and I hope you enjoy some of the pictures that we were able to attain.Sydney, Australia The next highlight of our visit was to be the Sydney aquarium. However, both Lisa and I made one little mistake. What we remembered of the Sydney aquarium, is not exactly what we found. The aquarium in Sydney I would rate as being pretty mediocre. Lisa and I both had to have been remembering a visit to some other place, but even today neither one of us can recall exactly where the magnificent aquarium is that we intended to visit is actually located.

While we were driving, my cell phone rang. It showed that the caller ID was blocked, and I started not to answer the phone because I could not imagine who would be calling me. Out of curiosity I picked up the call only to find my good friend Steve Carter at the other end. As luck would have it, Steve and his lovely wife Joan had learned of our trip to Australia through our blogs, and they had let us know beforehand that they too were coming to Australia in December. We communicated with each other briefly in Cairns, but just missed meeting when our ship departed on the 16th, and the Carters arrived there on the 17th. This phone call however was to find out where we were today. When I told Steve that we were in Sydney, he informed me that they were at the airport in Cairns and headed to Sydney. Once again it appeared that we were going to miss each other, since their plane landed at five, and I thought that our ship departed that evening at six. Well as it turned out, our ship did not actually depart that evening until 7 PM. So I called Steve back to see if they had yet reached their hotel room, and if they were by any chance in a position to watch our ship's departure. From what we could tell, Steve's room was on the wrong side of the bridge to see our ship, and so I guess that we were just going to pass in the night. Imagine my surprise, when, as our ship is leaving the harbor, I received a text from Steve as follows "the grandkids and I went out of the restaurant to see you guys! We did see the ship, but we missed you. We did wave! Smooth sailing my friends!"

Now is that a small world? Steve Carter is someone whom I met when working with Angel Flight, and in fact he was our very first volunteer pilot. He eventually became President of Angel Flight and was very instrumental in its early success. Upon retirement, Steve moved to Florida, so we do not get to see each other much anymore. The mere fact that we were in the same country at the same time halfway across the world was amazing enough, but that on two different occasions we virtually connected with each other is almost a miracle. Steve once said, his wife suggested that one day in some foreign place they were going to turn a corner and find Lisa and I standing there. I'm of the opinion that may not be too far off the truth.

Today our ship is sailing south along the Australian coast headed for the city of Melbourne. We will spend tomorrow, and then also Christmas Eve at the dock in Melbourne. By having a two-day layover, this will give the crew an opportunity to go ashore, and they are all considering this a very special holiday treat. On Christmas day we will once again return to sea to the southern city of Hobart.

I do hope that everyone is doing well. I was able to finally take the brace off my shoulder yesterday, and even though it is a little stiff and sometimes painful, it seems to be doing a little better every day. I'm slowly regaining some strength and range of motion, but clearly I'm going to need some serious rehab to recover any significant use of this arm. Perhaps that will be my best Christmas present of all!

Merry Christmas!


Monday, December 19, 2011

Kola Poo!



Believe it or not, the highlight of our visit yesterday to the Australian city of Brisbane, was our side trip to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. Lisa and I had read about this facility in some of the material provided to us by the cruise ship, and when we first met our driver, the very first suggestion he made was that we drive immediately to the sanctuary. Apparently this facility is very well known, and I can tell you that we thoroughly enjoyed it.

It was about a 30 minute drive south of the city, and on our arrival, we just happened to be in time for the feeding of the wild lorikeets.

DSCN0677A lorikeet is a very colorful bird that looks like a small parrot. The feeding area was right by the entrance, and so we paused for a little bit to see what this would be about. We sat on benches with a small crowd of people, and in looking around there was not a lorikeet insight. Soon a young member of the staff arrives with a container of liquid food, and she starts to fill the feeding dishes that are lined up on pedestals in front of our benches. Suddenly-and I do mean suddenly-the trees and the sky become alive with wild lorikeets. I am not very good at estimating numbers, but let's just say that every tree in sight was literally filled with wild birds, and they were darting to and fro over our heads, sometimes sitting on people's shoulders, and all clamoring to get to the feeding dishes. It was quite a sight to behold, and of course, Lisa and I both ended up taking tons of pictures, a few of which have actually made it to our website for your enjoyment.

A short walk up the hill from the feeding area was an enclosure that housed kangaroos and emus. DSCN0701The animals in the enclosure were of course quite used to people, so you could literally walk right up to an emu and take a picture without any fear of being attacked. The same was true with regard to the kangaroos, and there you could actually walk up and pet them, although they certainly preferred visiting with people who had purchased feed beforehand.

Brisbane, Australia I had invited our driver to walk with us, and as I was passing the kangaroos, he explained to me that he had been born on a farm just south of the city, and that his family still lives there. Where they live, the "roos" are actually considered a pest, and the county encourages farmers to cull the size of the kangaroo population. In fact, he said at the beginning of the year, the county would issue each farmer a stack of "roo medallions." The farmer was then expected to collect that many roos, tag them, and turn them over to the county to be eliminated. My driver explained that the roos not only ate all the grass, but when the grass was gone, they actually pulled the roots of out of the ground and ate the roots too. They are very destructive to farming operations, and for this reason, their numbers need to be controlled.

Walking through the zoo, we encountered a few other interesting animals some of whose pictures you will see on our website. Finally we came to what they called the koala cuddling area. Here you can have your picture taken with a koala. Their professional photographer would take the picture, which would automatically transfer wirelessly to a nearby printer where the pictures would then be printed and put in a small cover that you could pick up afterwards. To my surprise, the photographs are also posted online for 60 days so their friends and family can see the event. I tried to get Lisa to go through the process, but she was too shy. I had no such reservations so I rushed into the gift shop and purchased a ticket and ran to get in line for my experience. I have to tell you what happened exactly as it occurred to me.

When my turn came the handler of the koala called me forward and as she did so, I happened to look down and notice that I was walking on the floor covered with koala poop. Brisbane, AustraliaIt was then that I looked up at the trainer who was leaning over with the koala to place the animal on my shoulder, and as she leaned forward, however, the koala was in the process of reminding me of a slot machine that was in payoff mode. There was a constant stream of poop balls falling out of the bottom of the animal. I kept telling the lady that my arm was not ready for the animal yet, and she kept trying to put the koala in my arm and I kept backing up. It became an almost humorous game, but I didn't want to hold that beautiful koala on the bottom and end up with koala poop all over the front of my clothes. Finally the payoff stopped, and the small little cuddly thing grabbed hold and some pictures were taken. All I can tell you is that the animal is just as cute as it looks in the photograph. Koalas, of course, spend their days sleeping in Eucalyptus trees. They eat the Eucalyptus leaves to the point that they kill the tree, and then they move on to a fresh crop. Since Eucalyptus leaves are not very nourishing, the animals have to eat a great deal, and even then they get only small amounts of energy so that they spend most of their time, over 18 hours a day, sleeping in the trees. Sadly these lovely animals are endangered by urban sprawl in their habitat areas, but Australia is taking extensive steps to try to protect the species. For those of you who would like to see the original picture that was taken by the professional photographer, you can direct your browser to the following link:

There is not a great deal that I can say about the city of Brisbane itself, except that it was absolutely beautiful, and clearly was involved in very extensive development and growth. It was first founded in 1823 as a penal colony, but today is home to over 2 million people. It is also the capital of Queensland, and is considered one of Australia's up-and-coming cities. Brisbane, AustraliaThey have a large and quite beautiful city center, but the city itself is spread out over a large area through which is intertwined an elaborate freeway system, so that reaching virtually any part of the city takes very little time. We drove to two different places where pictures over the city and of the city could be taken, and then our driver took us down town to drive us through the city center itself. The city was very much alive with restaurants and cafés and coffee houses, and we saw a huge performing arts complex which also housed two separate museums of art. Interestingly, the city also had its own Chinatown, and in fact has quite a large Asian population.

Today our ship continues cruising south towards our destination of Sydney where we should arrive tomorrow morning.

Hope all is well,


Saturday, December 17, 2011

The North Queensland’s Coast

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Our stop yesterday was at the northern city of Cairns, Australia. Sadly the weather for our one day visit was absolutely awful. At times we experienced drenching tropical downpours, but even in the best of circumstances, it was a slow drizzle. DSCN0450The weather broke for about an hour during the time that we were enjoying the highlight of our day, our ride on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.

Over the years I have heard so much about the city of Cairns, but I really had no idea what to expect. It turns out that the city is a resort community that today serves as the Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, and to the area known as the Far North Queensland. The city reminded me of my visits to Atlantic City, New Jersey. There were plush hotels, nice shops, cafés, casinos and just about any kind of entertainment that you could desire. DSCN0453It was striking that there were virtually no tall buildings in the city, and as it turns out this is by design. On this part of the coast, the city is frequently the victim of large cyclones, which are the equivalent to our hurricanes, and thus tall structures are discouraged.

Strangely enough, for a city that has such a "beachfront" atmosphere, there are actually no beaches in the city of Cairns. The closest beaches are many miles to the north, but unfortunately they are virtually unswimmable for half the year as a result of the jellyfish population that is so deadly, that they keep the stunning beaches empty. As we saw on Thursday Island, they also have salt water crocodiles, which only adds to the excitement of swimming on what otherwise appear to be idyllic beaches.

The city is quite literally carved out of the rainforest. You need only drive a few miles into the countryside, before you enter rainforest and a virtually unpopulated landscape. The city itself is home to roughly 200,000 people, and it was first founded in 1876 as a supply town for miners going into the wilderness prospecting for gold. Later it became a railroad terminus for the shipment of sugarcane, and indeed sugarcane is one of its main cash producing crops today, along with fishing.

Because of the drenching rains, we did a quick drive around the city, and then drove north towards the zoo. Along the way, we did not see any cuddly koalas, or kangaroos, but we did see a large population of wallabies. I'm certain that as we go south we will encounter more of these animals. For those of you who have never been to Australia, let me give you an analogy that would help you appreciate the difference between a kangaroo and a wallaby. Kangaroos in Australia act very much in a manner similar to deer in our country. They travel in herds, they are frequently seen on the edges of clearings, and in certain parts of the country they are pretty ubiquitous. Wallabies, on the other hand, appear to be a much smaller version of the kangaroo, but they act like rabbits. They hop around in groups, and they tend to live underneath bushes and trees. As we go further south, I'll have an opportunity to get more into the differences between these two animals, but since this was our first introduction to them, I wanted to make mention.

When we arrived at the zoo, the drenching downpour had relented to a gentle drizzle. We paid our fee and went inside hoping to see some of the exotic animals that are indigenous to Australia. Unfortunately the little critters seemed to be hiding, and for the most part, the zoo was geared towards animal shows, rather than animal exhibits. DSCN0470(3)Once we figured that out, there was no reason to brave the drizzle for something that was of little interest to us.

Our driver then suggested that we go see the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. DSCN0483I was a little hesitant, but since the cable cars were enclosed at least that was something that we could do given the weather. As it turns out, I should have had no hesitation at all. This tourist attraction is an award-winning trip. Completed in 1995, it has almost 5 miles of cable, and three stops. The first stop allows you to go for a walk through the rainforest, the second stop takes you to an interesting series of waterfalls, and the last stop allows you to depart in Kuranda, which is a quaint little village up in the mountains of the rainforest.

Sadly at this point the drenching rains were back, and so Lisa and I decided it was time to tuck tail and head for our ship. Today we are continuing our cruise south and are due to anchor off Hamilton Island. Rather than write a separate article, I'm going to combine that stop with the information about Cairns. So as they say-this is to be continued.

Hamilton Island

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The ship has managed to do it again! We are visiting WhitSunday Islands, but it is a Saturday. It all gets very confusing, and I have heard several guests complain that we should be visiting the Whitsunday Islands on a Sunday-but it's a Saturday! I mean what is a fella to do?


Following on my comments the other day about islands, here we are with yet another island chain about which I was totally ignorant before this visit to Australia. There are 74 islands that comprise the Whitsunday Islands, and they lie only 40 miles off the coast of Queensland, Australia. The largest of these islands is Hamilton Island, which is our destination for today's visit. As the ship approached the island chain, I was very surprised that it barely slowed down as it begun to navigate its way among the many islands. We twisted and turned among small island chains for almost an hour before finally coming to our anchorage off the island of Hamilton. At times, we were so close to the islands themselves that I swear if I had had a long stick, I could've grabbed a leaf from one of the trees!

I must admit that Hamilton Island, and indeed the entire island chain, was a complete surprise to me. As we entered these waters, we encountered large numbers of sailboats and other pleasure craft. It was clear from our position at anchor that Hamilton Island was heavily populated, and we could even see at the other end of the island, that it had its own airport. Usually at an island airport like this, you may expect the plane to arrive and depart maybe once or twice a day, but for the entire afternoon that we were visiting, the airport was continually busy with the departing and arriving traffic! Hamilton Island, as it turns out, is an extremely popular resort and serves as the offshore gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.

Since Lisa and I had not signed up for any activities in advance, we decided simply to take the tender ashore to see what could be seen. DSCN0590When we landed I was really shocked to find that we were in the middle of a huge resort complex. It reminded me of Hilton Head in South Carolina. Condominiums lined the hillsides for as far as you could see, and over the ridge from where we were standing, the tops of tall hotels could be seen. The tourist Bureau handed us a brochure as we departed our landing craft, and it listed over 65 activities that were available on the island. You could visit their own wildlife Park, take a glass bottom boat tour, engage in bowling; they had an 18 and a nine-hole golf course, water sports of all kinds and at the airport, they offered rides in helicopters and seaplanes to soar over the reef and the surrounding areas.

Along the waterfront, they had essentially a boardwalk which included a bakery, pharmacy, numerous restaurants, and shops of all kinds and sizes. DSCN0597There were really only three ways to get around the island: you can of course walk; they offered a series of shuttles that would circle the island at 15 minute intervals in all directions; and there was the ubiquitous golf cart.DSCN0605 There were literally thousands of golf carts, some being driven by children that looked to be no more than nine years old. We had to be very careful when crossing the narrow streets, because the carts themselves make almost no sound so your eyes are your only early warning. From what I could tell the resort community was well populated by all kinds of people. There were plenty of teenagers, families, elderly, and quite frankly if I had the time and the money to come all the way back to the area, this would certainly be a place that I might explore as a “get away.”

We purchased a few items in the pharmacy, but when we decided to grab a pastry and a Coke, they refuse to take either our credit cards or American cash. At this point we decided – it was probably better to go back to the ship.DSCN0649

Today is a very pleasant resting day at sea as we had south towards the city of Brisbane. We will arrive there tomorrow at eight in the morning, and depart at 6 PM. Neither Lisa nor I have ever been to Brisbane previously, so we are both looking forward to the visit.

Hope everyone is doing well.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wednesday on Thursday Island


At some point early in my travels, I got the crazy idea of looking into the possibility of setting as a personal goal visiting every island in the world. As it turns out, that was a pretty naïve wish, and I clearly didn't know what I was talking about. When you start to discuss how many islands exist in the world, you first have to define exactly what you mean by "island." There are literally hundreds of thousands of small low lying mounds or sandbars that exist when the tide is low, but that disappear when the tide is high. Are these to be counted as islands? Well let's assume that we take the obvious answer and say "no." That still leaves the question of how you define an island. Is every speck of land in the world's waters to be considered an "island? Perhaps you could just define an island as every land mass that is bigger than a football field. Even using that definition, the number of islands in the world is astronomical. Perhaps then you just narrow your selection down to those islands that are inhabited. It all can get very confusing, very quickly, but no matter how you define an "island" by even the most conservative count; it is easily in the millions. Therefore, when our cruise chose to stop at an island, as many of you know, I really did not get very excited. I have pretty much come to the conclusion that virtually every island looks like every other island so there is not too much to be excited about- with rare exceptions. Sadly, our stop today at Thursday Island, was not one of those exceptions.

Yesterday was Wednesday, but we spent it on Thursday Island. At first I didn't know why we went to Thursday Island, because we could have gone to nearby Wednesday Island since it was Wednesday. On the other hand if we had wanted to hold off a day we could've gone to Friday Island, which was also nearby. On the other hand, if we had held off a day, then we would have been on Friday Island on Thursday. It all became very confusing to most of us: the whole idea of being on Thursday Island on Wednesday, somehow just did not compute, particularly since Wednesday Island was right nearby!

The question of why we went to Thursday Island in the first place is actually quite relevant. Thursday Island and its four large neighboring islands are part of Queensland Australia. Collectively these islands sit in the middle of the Torres Strait and comprise the northernmost territory in Australia.DSCN0388 Indeed from a high Hill, on a clear day, the island of Papua New Guinea is visible to the North. Collectively these islands have been populated for thousands of years by the Melanesian Torres Strait Islanders. Indeed even today the dominant language spoken on Thursday Island is a form of Creole, although English is becoming more widely spoken in recent years. Thursday Island is only 1.4 square miles in size, but it is the Administrative and Commercial Center of the Torres Strait Islands. In 1995, the Queensland Government officially recognized these islands as Torres Shire, and granted them the right to use their own flag locally.

As you can imagine, an island that small, which is home to only 2500 people, certainly did not take long to tour. Indeed our 20 minute ride around the entire island, took less time than the 30 minute tender ride from the ship to shore. As we departed the pier for our first stop, we drove by some absolutely magnificent beaches, but each of them had warning signs against swimming there. Our guide explained that the islands are surrounded by salt water crocodiles. Even so, according to our guide, every year a tourist will disappear when they ignore the signs and attempt to go swimming in water that seems absolutely pristine and calm. The crocodiles strike quickly and without warning, and frequently in pairs. The hapless swimmer is pulled under before any rescue attempt could be successful.

Our first, and only stop on the island, was to visit Green Hill Fort. The Fort is one of the most intact 19th century forts remaining in Australia, and was built atop earlier fortifications that date from 1891. DSCN0424The fort was abandoned shortly after the Second World War, but in 2001 it was restored by the Australian government. Today one can view the underground bunkers, and clearly see the old gun emplacements that were meant to guard the approaches to these islands.

After our 30 minute visit, we then completed our drive around the island in almost no time at all and were back at the pier ready to return to the ship. Since our one and only stop was at the fort, what pictures you do see were made through the glass on a moving bus. DSCN0439They may not be perfect, but they do give you some idea of what we saw.

Today we are cruising southeast along the Australian coast in route to the city of Cairns. I am quite a surprised by our route of travel. Generally I would have expected our ship to go out away from the coast, and to follow a sea route in the Coral Sea well offshore of the mainland. To my surprise, however, the ship is quite literally hugging the Australian coastline, and weaving in and out of extremely picturesque scenery and islands. We appear to have a special pilot on board, who from time to time is providing commentary about exactly what it is we are seeing.

Lisa and I are both doing fine, and I continue to work at freeing up my shoulder. Tomorrow we have a private car for a half day tour, so it should not be too stressful.

I hope everyone is doing well, and stay tuned because there's much more to come.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Darwin During the "Build-up Season"

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The most memorable thing about our visit to the northernmost city in Australia, Darwin, was not the city itself, but rather its weather.

As we were finishing breakfast, Lisa and I looked outside the ship and saw the most massive wall of dark foreboding clouds that I can ever recall having seen. DSCN0327This dark wall covered 180° of the horizon, and in the distance we could just faintly make out the sound of lightning. Obviously, as we left the ship, we both grabbed an umbrella for our half day adventure in the city of Darwin.

As we started out our driver/guide started to discuss the weather of the city. I was only half listening, but I did perk up when I heard her refer to the "build-up season." That was a completely new term to me, and so I stopped her commentary and asked if she would be kind enough to explain what that meant. Apparently Darwin has three seasons of weather. It has the dry season during their summer months, the wet season during the winter and in between the dry and wet seasons, they have what is called “the build-up season.” During this time, the weather is at its most uncomfortable, and Lisa and I were actually witnessing that firsthand. The dark wall of weather which we had witnessed while having breakfast, had now become a most imposing force. The winds were completely calm, and in so far as I could tell, the storm system did not appear to be moving. It was simply sitting offshore literally sucking the air out of the atmosphere. Now I know it is impossible to "suck the air out of the atmosphere," but as the storm system built, it raised the humidity to almost 100%, which when added to the stillness of the air producing a sense of literally being suffocated.

The storms also generated massive lightning displays, and as we were driving along the shore, I saw many, many people who had set up cameras on tripods in an effort to record the oncoming display. Indeed at one point during our trip, I sat down and took a break while Lisa was shopping, and there was a local magazine which featured an article on how best to shoot the lightning displays that occurred during the "build-up season."

Anyway our guide explained that this weather pattern was quite typical for the three months of the year preceding the wet season. Usually the storms would just lie offshore and produce this uncomfortable environment, but as the wet season approached they would slowly began to drift over the city dumping over 36 feet of rain on the city during a three-month period of time. Today this particular storm did decide to slide over the city, and we experienced a massive rainfall in an extremely short period of time. It had two immediate effects aside from simply drenching everything with water.DSCN0335 First it lowered the humidity level instantly, and second it dropped the surface temperature considerably. The oppressive conditions that we had experienced just an hour before, were now virtually gone. So, I share with you this newfound meteorological knowledge, which at least in my mind was unheard of and a most impressive display of nature’s strength.

Darwin itself was somewhat of a disappointment to me, but in all honesty having never been there, I really did not know what to expect. It has a population of only 120,000 people, and therefore it is a relatively small city. For the most part, it is quite modern and I quickly learned that when one discusses Darwin, there is one date which defines the city's history, and that date is Christmas Eve in 1974. On that date, the city was hit by cyclone Tracy, and from everything I could understand, the city was virtually destroyed. During our short tour, our guide discussed what the city had looked like pre-Tracy, and which buildings had survived. It was most obvious from the display in the museums, and from informational signs located around the city, that very little had survived and at that it is a tribute to its citizens that the city was even rebuilt. So then the discussion turned to the post Tracey reconstruction.

I was also surprised to learn that the city of Darwin besides being the northernmost city on the continent of Australia is quite literally closer to, and in some ways more connected to Asia than any other part of Australia. If you look at a map, you will realize that Darwin is almost located in the Asian chain of islands. This accounts for the fact that its weather is much more tropical than that of any other part of Australia.

Since this was our first stop in Australia, it might be interesting to note that it is the only continent in the world to be ruled by one government. In landmass, it is approximately the size of the United States mainland. From the city of Darwin to the southern city of Melbourne, it is roughly 3100 km, or a little over 2000 miles direct line distance.

Because of the rainy conditions, I got very few photographs, and what I did get was not very good because the sky was very dark. Deciding it would be best to stay indoors, we drove to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which was interesting. It was a large and somewhat modern museum that housed primarily indigenous art from the aborigines. From there, we were given a driving tour "in the rain" and after an hour and a half of driving up and down the city of Darwin in a pouring rain I started to feel like this was turning into a "spam in a can tour.” The rain finally subsided, and we were able to visit the town's center where I was able to photograph the parliament building for the Northern Territory, the rebuilt Christchurch CathedralDSCN0366, and Government House where the administrator of the territory lives.


At that point, both Lisa and I had become tired, as well as bored, and so we asked our guide to return to the ship. In looking back on our day, it was a little unfair to be down on the city of Darwin. It obviously had been through a great deal in its past, and it was lucky to even be in existence today. They have done a lot to rebuild. They are in an isolated part of Australia and do not have much in the way of natural resources or income. They are, however, home to several large military installations. In fact, Darwin is where President Obama will be sending a large contingent of Marines, which he announced during his recent visit to Australia. I'm certain that the large military presence in the city has to do with its proximity to Asia.

Today is a leisurely day at sea. The conditions of this sea still remain so calm, that the only way I know the ship is moving is to look outside. We are headed to a location known as Thursday Island, which is still in Australia. At this point, I know nothing about it, but you can join with me in the adventure of learning more when we arrive tomorrow.

I will try to post some pictures this afternoon, but as I said, I got very few and what I did get was not very good. However, all I can do is share what I saw.

I hope everyone is well!