Cairns Aquarium and Cairns Botanic Garden

It rained quite a bit yesterday and continued into the night. As a result, the ferry into the Daintree Rainforest was shut down due to high water. The Rainforest was to be today’s activity, and it had to be canceled. Instead we took a bus to Cairns (which is pronounced without an R in it, so it sounds like Cans or Canes, depending on the Aussie dialect of the speaker.) Cairns has a new aquarium, less than 2 years old, that focuses on the aquatic life of the Great Barrier Reef. This fit well with yesterday’s reef visit because it gave us a chance to see the corals and fish that we were not able to see when snorkeling in the murky water.  

The aquarium has two floors of large and small tanks, including on the ground floor an “oceanarium” which is a very large tank that the observer walks through into a circular atrium and through a tunnel where fish including sharks and rays can pass overhead. The dark purple fish at the top is a red tooth trigger fish. The purple color of the coral and fish in the bottom photo are the effects of artificial lighting in the aquarium.

There is a bright orange hermit-type crab in the upper left that has taken over an empty shell. Several kinds of lobsters were on exhibit, multi-colored and oddly well camouflaged given their size. There were a number of Nemos (clownfish) in the flowing arms of the anemone, mesmerizing to watch as the fish swirled in and out and the current played across the anemone.

Lionfish are native to this area, and there’s a tank of at least 10 of the spotted tail type. Also there is a tank containing a couple of saltwater crocodiles. These are found in the river estuaries and can be fairly dangerous to people and other animals if you get into their territory.

Cairns Botanic Garden, Parasol palm and bird’s nest fern

After the aquarium, we visited the Cairns Botanic Garden for lunch and then walked in the gardens. The plants that are growing outdoors in this garden are the same plants as those growing indoors in the conservatory houses of my local botanical garden, Brookside Gardens. The conservatory in the Cairns garden included orchids, carnivorous plants, exotic ferns and butterflies.

The orchids in the conservatory are grown in small hanging planters with exposed roots. The carnivorous pitcher plant is also being grown as a hanging specimen.

There is a ‘river’ water feature, a ‘forest’ of tall trees, and a pond of water lilies:

What’s not to like about a water lily?

I’m closing with a picture of a heliconia, just because it is pretty.

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The Great Barrier Reef – Snorkeling in a Storm

The Great Barrier Reef stretches from Papua, New Guinea to Lady Elliot Island, about 280 miles north of Brisbane, about 1400 miles long altogether, and giving the name of its building block, the coral, to the Coral Sea. There are 2900 individual coral reefs and 900 islands, give or take, in the Great Barrier Reef system. Our group went to Agincourt Reef this morning for snorkeling, with options to SCUBA dive, use a clear bubble helmet, take a snorkel tour with a marine biologist, or have a helicopter ride over the reef. There was also a semi-submersible glass walled boat available to ride for 20 minutes or so. The excursion company we used is called Quicksilver. It has busses to collect people from the large resorts in the area; a big ferry-type boat to take people out to the reef; a catamaran that is anchored at the reef to serve as a dive platform, restaurant and equipment facility; and the aforementioned glass bottom boat.

The Agincourt Reef is located at the outer edge of the reef system. The permanently docked catamaran is on the leeward (west) side of this particular reef, protected from the wave action from the Coral Sea on the eastern side.

We were provided with full body Lycra suits to wear while snorkeling to prevent sunburn and jellyfish stings. We were also provided with goggles, snorkel tubes, fins, pool noodles (optional) or life jackets (also optional). I had my waterproof camera, but they had cameras available for rental. There were plenty of crew to available to assist. There was not much danger of sunburn today, because there was a rain and wind storm in progress.

Lycra body suits are universally attractive garments that are easy to get on and off. Not.

But their protection from jellyfish stings is well worth the embarrassment and annoyance. (When wet, they seem not to dry out, either, so while you may get out of the water, you remain cold and damp.)

Snorkelers in Lycra suits, life guards and equipment assistants gathered at the snorkel deck

It has been raining in Port Douglas since we arrived. The crossing to the reef, which probably took 75 minutes, was very rough and caused motion sickness for some members of our party, even though they were pre-medicated. There were 2-foot waves in the snorkel zone, with wind and occasional downpours. The water temperature was about 82. Because of the recent cyclones, the king tides due to the full moon, the coral spawning in response to the lunar cycle, the water was cloudy. Add that there was no sun, and you will understand that the photography opportunities were poor. However, I did not come to the Great Barrier Reef but not snorkel because of stormy weather, challenging waves and poor photographic options.

Weather conditions today in the snorkeling area. It is raining and blowing and the waves were a challenge.

The pictures I took today may eventually (with actual, purchased photo processing software) look nice, but the best I can show at this point are photos of coral that are monotone greeny-blue, and a fuzzy photo of a couple of fish. The photos from the glass-bottom boat were a failure due to the distortions of the glass and lack of sunlight.

These were shot with a Nikon Coolpix AW 120, which has been a sturdy little point and shoot for me for several years. Don’t think of your little underwater camera as just a uni-tasker!

Uluru – Sunset, Sunrise

Uluru at Sunset

Last night we watched the sun set on Uluru. This morning we watched the sun rise on it. It is beautiful at either time. Uluru is a very large inselberg, a rock island, made of coarse-grained sandstone that was weathered from Musgrave, Mann and Petermann mountain ranges to the south and west, deposited by a river system in an alluvial fan. Think of a river delta, where sands and gravels are washed down from eroding mountain ranges and deposited in flat or rippled sheets. (A guide who had been certified by the national park explained that the sand had been deposited in 100,000 year layers in a deep pit and then baked together by heat from the earth’s core like a cake. Misleading ‘science’ like this is more common than one would hope.)

Uluru at Sunrise

About 50% of the sandstone grains are feldspar, 25-35% are quartz and the rest are grains of rock fragments including basalt. Because of the high iron content, the exposed face of the sandstone is mainly red, but the hue changes from deep maroon to glowing ochre depending on the time of day and the brightness of the sunlight. The sunset and sunrise watch-parties celebrate the color changes, which are easy to see because Uluru is set in a plain with only vegetation to disrupt the sign line.

Inselbergs are by their nature unusual, grand features of the landscape that attract everyone’s attention, so it is not a surprise that European explorers found them as compelling as the Originals. The rock became a sacred site for both visiting and local Original groups, a meeting place, a place to gather to hold ceremonies. Among the marks left by Originals, there are many petroglyphs, some of which we were allowed to see and photograph. (There are restrictions on what and where you can take photos at Uluru. These are imposed by the Originals tribe that now owns the rock.) Marks left by the Europeans include the steel chains and posts drilled into the rock where people used to climb it, and artifacts on the playa, including the airplane runway and former campgrounds.

These are petroglyphs from a cave called Kulpi Mutitjulu near a waterhole – a pond at the base of one of the ravines that run down the rock. The petroglyphs range in age from the 1930s back to early times. Research on the age is not permitted. The symbol of concentric circles represents waterholes.

The waterhole is nearly dry at this time, but can fill up quickly when the water is channeled down the rock. The central dark colored triagle is water. Keeping the waterhole clean of debris such as branches and dead animals was the work of the women, in a culture where roles were very strictly divided between men and women. Many of the stories we were told involved the distinction between men’s and women’s spheres of work and influence.

Alice Springs

We flew to Alice Springs on the morning of the 18th. It was a complicated lift-off because the bus that was to take the group to the airport didn’t show up. (The driver slept in. He’s been let go.) Jeanette, our tour leader, did an impressive job of commandeering two large taxis and getting us to the airport and checked in, virtually at the last minute. Having an experienced guide with excellent judgement and contacts makes a trip of this complexity possible. I can’t praise her enough.

She got me a window seat on the plane, so I could watch the amazing landscape of central Australia flow by. I expected it to be much more featureless than it is, but from the air you can see the beach lines of the ancient seas, lakes and rivers, with ranges of hills and huge systems of dunes. This is a photo from the approach to Alice Springs’ airport.

Once arrived, we toured the Old Telegraph Station, visited an ANZAC memorial, checked out the downtown area, and had dinner at the Casino. The Old Telegraph Station is exactly what the name implies, an old telegraph station – one of the repeater stations that connected Adelaide to Darwin. It was nice to see, but virtually everything there is reconstructed. It’s historic importance is based in the fact that telegraphy connected a continent (and country) in a way that physical mail couldn’t. It was just one of the stations that made it possible. Maybe it is that one that survived longest, and that may be because after it wasn’t so much needed for a telegraph station it was used as a facility to house half-caste children of white men and Aboriginal women who had been removed from their families to be raised by the government as White.

The Old Telegraph Station

Alice Springs was made famous by Neville Shute’s popular book A Town Called Alice. It became the seat of Northern Territories government during World War II when Darwin was badly damaged by bombing. There is now a “secret” facility called Pine Gap here, part of the satellite monitoring system and weather monitoring system, operated by the US government (CIA, NSA, and Defense) and the Australian government.

We had lunch at the Telegraph Station, which was nice, but served outside, so there were flies. Maybe you heard of the bush flies of the Outback of Australia. They are small, like fruit flies. They don’t bite but they are always trying to get into your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. The proper name for the bush flies is Musca vetustissima. They are dung flies (deposit their eggs in dung) so are associated with cattle and sheep agriculture. Bush flies provoke what is called the Aussie Salute, which is the swatting away of flies around the face. If you are bothered by flies in the face, you can wear a bug net over your hat.

One of the flies!

Alice Springs has a population of about 28,000 people. There is a river, the Todd River, that runs underground most of the time, but surfaces and leaves pools after rains (which are not frequent.) The town is to the north of the MacDonnell Ranges, and is the largest city of the Red Center. The original inhabitants of the are the Arrernte people. There are a number of Arrernte communities and family lands around the town. The Alice Springs area has been continuously inhabited for about 30,000 years.

Wildlife, wineries, fairy penguins, and the Australian Grand Prix

Kangaroo Island kangaroos at the Healesville Sanctuary

Yesterday we went to a wildlife sanctuary, a winery, and St Kilda’s beach to see the fairy penguins. The wildlife sanctuary is called Healesville Sanctuary, and has koalas, wombats, wallabies, platypuses, emus, parrots, lorikeets, parakeets, rare black cockatoos with red tails, lyre birds, several kinds of kangaroos, and other animals we didn’t have time to see, including reptiles and dingos. We learned lots of interesting facts. Like, did you know, wombats, which are marsupials like koalas and kangaroos, have pouches that open toward their bottoms rather than toward their tummies. That is because wombats are diggers and tunnellers and as they dig they push the dug dirt under them. A top-opening pouch would tend to get dirt in it whereas a rear-opening pouch does not.

Also, koalas and wombats are close relatives, but koalas evolved to go up into trees and wombats evolved to be diggers of tunnels and caves. Koalas eat eucalyptus leaves, which are fibrous and don’t have a lot of food value. They therefore sleep for about 19 hours a day, to conserve their energy. If they are stressed, they get sick easily and stress can kill them by lowering their immune system.

Wombats don’t sleep in trees. They are diggers, and are very solid, sturdy creatures.

We had a wine tasting and lunch at a winery in the Yarra Valley, which has been compared to the Sonoma and Napa Valleys in the US. We tasted 6 wines, got to order a glass of the wine we liked best, and had it with our lunch. We learned about grape phylloxera, which is a mite that eats the roots of grape vines and kills them. This is the bug that killed most of the vineyards of Europe in the late 1880’s. Australians say they saved the world of wine because they alone had the stocks grown from old vine cuttings that had not been devastated by phylloxera and that could be grafted onto native American grape stock roots that were resistant to phylloxera.  

After lunch we returned to our hotel for a short break. Then we took trains and busses to St Kilda’s beach where we had dinner at a respectable but not fancy Italian restaurant and then walked out to the end of the breakwater to watch the fairy penguin colony that has made the rocks of the breakwater their home. The adventure of the trams and trains to get to St Kilda’s (because so much of the public transportation system has been diverted to handling traffic to and from the Melbourne Grand Prix) and to get home from St Kilda’s (because young Aussie sportsmen drink a bit and are very enthusiastically rowdy on the trains/trams.) Overall walking was about 11 thousand steps.

Today (Sunday, March 17th) was a free day, so, after Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, I went to the Australian Grand Prix which was being held at the Alfred Park, close to where the hotel I’m staying in. This was the final day of a several-day event, the highlight of which was the running of the Formula 1 race. I am not an aficionado of car racing, although I expect it can be a thing of beauty if you know what you are looking at. However, desultory watching of NASCAR races on television is the closest I have come to car race participation. (No, wait. There was that one time John took me out ice racing on the Red River up near Winnipeg. I was in the car. That would be closer.)

I was tipped off that the Grand Prix is a big deal, and seeing it in person in Australia is a rare opportunity. There are, in fact, more than 20 Grand Prix races each year, but you have to travel far afield to attend them, and typically the tickets are quite dear.

I bought a general admission ticket (that means no seat in the stands and generally not much of a view) for today, Sunday. It cost $106 AU dollars including the Ticketmaster fee. It merely got me in the venue. It didn’t even get me a program. There’s not much shade in Alfred Park, and the park is fairly flat. There are small elevations that have been built up where general admissions ticket holders can stand. There’s not much shade and not much of a view, but you can see cars racing past.

I was warned the noise would be terrible. It was not. I was told there would be music and food for sale.OK, sort of. There was an Australian military rock band that was quite good. They were the only band I heard and they were valiant to play so many sets. The lines for food were very long and slow. Advice to next year’s attendees: bring your own food. Also, photographing very fast cars through a heavy wire fence from a distance isn’t worth the megabytes. Advice to self at the next race: Just watch the race. Or the people.

The racing was interesting, the people watching was interesting, and the cars on display by the local car clubs were beautiful, if a little dusty. And the crowd was well behaved and family friendly. There was a full minute of silence at the start of the race for the New Zealanders killed in the mosque masacre.

Melbourne: Royal Botanic Gardens, a Welcome to Country smoking ceremony, and Hosier Lane graffiti

Today we met to board our bus shortly before 8:30AM. We went to the Royal Botanic Gardens and met a guide named Jakobi who took us on an Aboriginal Heritage Walk and had us participate in a Welcome to Country smoking ceremony, which involved burning leaves and herbs. Jakobi explained the First Peoples’ use of several trees, flowers, seed pods, and plants. Then our guide took us off to the side and discussed the history of persecution of the Aboriginal peoples by the British, and the legal status problems and prejudice that are present now. This will be a theme of the tour.

When Captain Cook grounded his ship on the Great Barrier Reef, the Aboriginal people living in the area helped him fix the ship so he could return to Britain. When he reached Britain, he reported that Australia was uninhabited by any people. The Aboriginal people were classified under the Flora and Fauna Act until 1967. That’s not a typo.

The flag of the First People

I realize there are a lot of “but’s”, and “wait’s” and “however’s” and that I am a North American, and we treated our First Peoples horrifically as well. That’s not the point. I am telling you about this because there is a lot of palpable tension in Australia about this issue, and because I hear about it as well as other issues of racism and xenophobia frequently. The murders in the mosques in New Zealand have added tinder to these tensions.

The Botanic Gardens are beautiful, with an interesting mix of native and imported specimens. There were some spectacular beds of succulents. The Aboriginal guide showed us an interesting variety of banksia that has seedpods that are used for transporting fire. The inner core of the pod smolders for hours while the outer case of the seedpod remains uncharred. There is a picture of one of those seedpods above, and several succulents below.

We had lunch at the Abbotsford Convent Bakery, which has woodfired ovens build in 1901 for the Good Shepherd sisters whose convent it was, and who started a finishing school for girls because the bishop told them to, even though they were not an “education order”.  The food was very good and there was far too much of it.

After lunch and a short walk, we were taken to Hosier Lane in the central business district. Hosier Lane is a side street painted with graffiti from Wellington Parade to Collins Street. It is legal graffiti, encouraged by the city council, which paints the lane dark grey every so often so the graffiti artists can begin anew. This is not the only graffiti street in Melbourne but is the most well-known. Melbourne has a reputation for interesting street art including not just graffiti but sculpture, carvings, and yarn-bombings. We walked back to the hotel from Hosier Lane (via a pub) and for dinner, 8 of us went to the Duke of Wellington, walking down to the CDB again. I walked back to the hotel from the Duke and came out with a total of 17,500 steps for the day.

One of our members is leaving the group on Monday. He misjudged how much activity he could handle. There is a lot of walking every day, 3 to 5 miles, and lots of travel within each country.

Melbourne – Fitzroy Gardens and St Patrick’s Cathedral

Today is Thursday, my first day in Melbourne. Melbourne is the capital city of the state of Victoria. It has a population of about 6 million. It was founded in 1835 by settlers from a British colony in Tasmania. There were failed attempts to protect the aboriginal people living in and using the Melbourne area from being ripped off, but eventually they were. The original tribes were the Wurundjeri, the Boonwurrung and the Wathaurang. Tomorrow I will learn more about them and their story during a trip to the Botanic Gardens, where we will experience a welcome ceremony.

This morning I had a tiny coffee and very large croissant at a coffee shop near the hotel, and then walked through Fitzroy Gardens diagonally up to St Patrick’s Cathedral. Actually, before venturing out, I had several cups of instant coffee in my room, which is equipped with an electric kettle. Instant coffee is very typical in Australia, where you are much more likely to get instant coffee than brewed coffee. I know that instant coffee is hard for North Americans to accept, but it is what it is, people. My question is, why don’t people use electric kettles in the US? They are so quick and convenient. Maybe it is because we don’t drink much tea, but there’s dozens of uses for boiling water other than tea. Well. I think I need an electric kettle.

Waterfall fountain, Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne

Back to the Fitzroy Gardens: The Fitzroy Gardens is a 64-acre park directly across the street from my hotel. The gardens were established beginning in 1848 as a respite for city dwellers. There are many footpaths lined by large trees, some open green lawns, and other interesting features such as a waterfall; a mini Tudor village; a conservatory; and Captain Cook’s boyhood cottage, moved from England in the 1930’s. Many of the larger trees in the park have large metal sleeves around them to protect them from possums, which are a protected species not related to North American opossums (other than that they are both marsupials and both the size of a cat.) I hope I will see an Australian possum on Saturday when we go to the wildlife sanctuary. I am told they are much cuter than American opossums. For one thing, they have fluffy squirrel-like tails which makes them look a lot less rat-like. American opossums look like giant rats, pretty much. It is hard to think of a big rat as cute.


St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne

If you walk diagonally across Fitzroy Gardens you reach Landsdowne Street within a stone’s throw of St Patrick’s Cathedral. I have read that it is the largest church building in Australia. It is built in Gothic Revival style, with three spires, with walls of a basalt called locally, bluestone. It is a beautiful building, with statues of St Catherine of Siena, St Mary of the Cross McKillop, an Australian-born saint.

St Catherine of Siena at a door to the Cathedral

At St Patrick’s Cathedral they were busy setting up for a big Mass on Friday, which is St Patrick’s Day. St Patrick’s was the home cathedral for the now-disgraced former cardinal George Pell, who has been sentenced to 6 years in prison for assaulting 2 choir boys. This is a tragedy and embarrassment for the Roman Catholic world, but for Australian Catholics it’s an open, raw wound, not unlike the pain we feel in the Archdiocese of Washington with the disgrace of Theodore McCarrick. There is an iron fence surrounding the cathedral grounds. Long, colored ribbons have been tied to the fence to acknowledge the suffering of the victims of clerical sex abuse, and a saddened attendant sits outside the church at the foot of a statue of one of the parish founders to field questions and comments.

Ribbons on the fence to commemorate victims of clerical abuse.

I am sure you will be thinking how appropriate it is that there’s a statue of St Catherine at the doorway to the Cathedral, since she tried to be a defender of the Church against clerical malfeasance in her time.

Keep it between the lines, people.