Thursday, 30 May 2013

Koala, whales, dingoes:1, Spotted by us:0

Not sure what this is, but it was wandering round our campsite

The title of this entry says it all really, we’ve looked, but we haven’t seen any! Jackie and I are pretty sure we saw three water spouts out in the deep ocean from Cape Hawke and I had camera ready, but we didn’t see a whale body! We’ve also driven through many areas that tell us to ‘drive slowly, koalas live here’, stopped, walked into forest, but they have eluded us. We were warned about dingoes and flying foxes (the largest bat species) at Cape Hawke as well but didn’t see any.

It has to be said, however, that in all other respects the last two days have been pretty amazing, warmish sunny weather, fantastic scenery along the coast roads and really nice campsites, so we’ve no complaints at all, but Jackie is in need of animal contact. No cats, no koalas, no kangaroos (except two roadkill we saw), nothing for her to stroke! We’re going to head for the koala hospital and a koala wildlife park in Port Macquarie sometime tomorrow, but she says it’ll only make up for not seeing a cat if a koala comes into the van and sits on her lap!

On the ferry
So in the last couple of days we’ve moved up from The Entrance (a small finger of land almost separating large Tuggerah Lake and the Tasman Sea except for the small opening, hence the name) up to a place called Harrington, just south of Port Macquarie. The drive itself has been superb with fabulous scenery virtually all the way, but we’ve punctuated it with some short walks to viewpoints, to make it quite spectacular. It’s away from the main ‘Pacific Highway’, except for short distances, on smallish roads, hugging the coast, swamps, lakes and bush, pretty much just what we wanted from the journey. 

The mangrove swamps
At a remote place called Bombah Point we came upon a small ferry, required to cross about 100m of water joining two lakes to avoid a long detour and on arrival the pilot of the empty little ferry, capable of taking about 6 cars, signalled us to board, closed the gate behind us and took us across on our own, all for AUS$5. A lovely little spot in a beautiful isolated place, Jackie asked if we could go back and forwards again all day it was so pleasant, but there were three cyclists waiting to go the other way, so we exited, drove on a road cut through swamp and mangroves and onto a rocky headland called Seal Rocks, which has a lighthouse atop, approached by a steep hill and plenty of steps, much to Pauline’s dismay! 
The lighthouse and keepers cottage
The promise of chocolate cake and tea later encouraged her up. The old lighthouse keepers cottages are now holiday lets and beautifully furnished (we had a guided tour of one) and a holidaymaker in one of them told us about the whales she had seen swimming by earlier. Up we went and spent half hour or so looking out to sea – nothing!

Lighthouse beach from the lighthouse
Seal Rocks
More thin slivers of land between lake and sea took us to Forster and a great little campsite, ‘The Smugglers’, where we took a two bedroomed cabin with kitchen, bathroom and lounge, leaving the little van for the night. The nearby towns of Forster and Tuncurry are pretty well slated by our Lonely Planet guide, ‘just drive through without stopping’ it said, but we think that was a bit unfair, they were OK and right on the coast, but nothing special it has to be said.

This morning we went back south only about 5km, to drive out to Cape Hawke and walk up the 420 odd steps to a viewing platform and pretty amazing views. Although nothing was mentioned in our book or the notice board at the car park about how it got its name, I felt Captain Cook may have named it as he named Hawke Bay in New Zealand after Admiral Hawke and I was pleased to find (Jackie found it first), a small stone monument with the words ‘Saturday May 12 1770. This point I called Cape Hawke. James Cook’. They don’t seem to make as much about Captain Cook as they did in New Zealand, which is very disappointing!

The viewing platform at Cape Hawke

...and a view from the top
Flying foxes watching us!
On up north we went in land a bit to find a place called Wingham Brush Nature Reserve, which our book says is a patch of idyllic rainforest that has giant, other-worldly Moreton Bay figs and flying foxes. Not being able to find the place on any maps we had we called into the visitor centre in Taree, offering free tea and coffee (a good lunch stop!) to find out and came out with armfuls of leaflets of things we must see he told us! Not having the time (or inclination to drive 17km along an unsealed road to see an impressive waterfall), we went to the Nature Reserve and had a fabulous time. 
The magnificent Moreton Bay fig
The flying foxes (yes we saw some – several thousand!) were very noisy, very colourful and also very aggressive to each other. Hanging from the trees above us, we were aware of thousands of pairs of eyes watching us! The Moreton Bay fig trees were pretty amazing too and I took a photo of Jackie and Pauline standing next to the largest and yes, other-worldly tree, before returning to the river, watching some pelicans land on the river, then driving to a really nice campsite at Harrington in time for chocolate cake and tea – Pauline’s happy!

Tomorrow it’s more Captain Cook at Crowdy Head, followed by koalas at Port Macquarie!


Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Sydney and beyond

Looking down on the Bridal Veil Falls in the Blue Mountains

I finally feel I can breathe again, we've got 'our' van, they've changed the locks so the keys work and we can each have a key, it rained last night and no rain came in, the lights still seem to 'light' (though tonight will be the test as we are 'unpowered'. The more expensive van was hopeless – we were reading by headtorch. All in all we are both a lot happier. It's more comfy to travel in than the 'upgrade' and has better storage than the 'upgrade' that he wanted us to pay money for!

The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains
Looking into the blue yonder of the Blue Mountains from the Three Sisters viewpoint
We are slowly gathering the bits not supplied - wine glasses, cafetier and duvet cover before we even got any van, cheese grater for 50cents yesterday (37p) and she threw in the $2 pyrex dish for B's crumbles for free! Which when you add in all the 'extras' I managed to get from the nice hire mechanic we are not doing too badly!
Just to prove we were there!
Accommodation is more expensive than we were expecting, particularly for mum, but the cabins are all lovely - kitchens, bathrooms, etc. Camp kitchens however are going to be a bit of a problem as they seem to comprise of a BBQ and microwave and a sink, rather than loads of sinks, hobs and mostly an oven as we are used to! We may starve when mum and our access to ovens goes! We too have a microwave in this van, but it only works when powered, and I’ve never cooked much in a microwave!

Sunset over Tuggerah Lake
Still not sure I'm going to enjoy Oz anywhere close to NZ but time will tell. Now we are out of Sydney where we felt we saw more people in one evening than we saw in the last three months and the traffic is atrocious at least we are meeting some 'real' people. Still feels a bit like we are in a suburb as we are either on a motorway or in housing!

Jackie feeding the pelicans and ducks the following morning
The Blue Mountains were beautiful, this strange gash in the ground caused by the eroding of layers of substrate by small streams causing huge destruction, I may miss a lot though as I feel compelled to walk around looking for Koala in trees. What we couldn’t miss though was the hoard of Chinese tourists in busses, mini-busses, cars (no rickshaws)! We are now heading up the coast, last night’s excitement was pelicans, and unpacking and making the van feel like ‘home’. 

A very talkative magpie
This morning I dashed out to feed bread to pelicans (they seem to like it, but not as much as the ducks did!) curious birds, their eyes are very close together! What I am missing though, cats! Haven’t now seen a cat to talk to for a fortnight!!!!!

Don't know what these are
Jackie is getting serious withdrawal symptoms without her cats so the very least we can do is find her somewhere to cuddle a koala, so wish us luck with that.

We are just entering what promises to be a more picturesque area, as is this and last night’ camp sites where there is lots of water, though we’re never sure whether we’re looking at river, lake or sea.  Brian took what should be an award winning picture of the sunset last night – no doubt it will appear in this blog!

Walking through the mangroves by the lake at tonights campsite at Karuah

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Blue Mountains

Pauline doing a bit of beading

Well, we’ve had a couple of good days out since we arrived at the Emu Plains campsite near Penrith, at the foot of the Blue Mountains. The campsite is so pleasant, with its neatly cut lawns, manicured edges, clean facilities and very friendly and helpful staff, we’ve decided to stay here 4 nights! Pauline has a self-contained cabin with kitchen (with oven, microwave etc), dining area, sofa (with TV), bathroom and separate bedroom and we’re on a powered site very close by, it’s like being at home.

A big, but shy rook type of bird with a cry like a baby (Pauline says it reminds her of Hitchcock's 'The Birds)
Jackie preparing a scrummy dinner (I was sampling the wine!)
Its close proximity to the mountains means we’ve had a couple of very pleasant days out, which happened to coincide with the bicentenary of the first crossing of the Blue Mountains by European explorers. 25 years after the first fleet arrived in Sydney in 1788, the mountains were first crossed in May 1813 by a trio of explorers, Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson who followed the ridges of the mountains to reach the vast agricultural plains of western NSW, leading to a massive growth in agricultural production and the development of an export economy, the first step to making Australia the trading nation it is today.

Saw lots of these red parrot type of birds

To celebrate this, a whole series of events are planned throughout May, the bulk of which happens to be this weekend and, in particular today. The nearby village of Glenbrook had a day of events on their sports field, including balloon rides (20m up, tethered to the ground), a parachute descent, fly-by of aircraft from the nearby RAAF base (Royal Australian Air Force) and a whole load of stalls including Viking costumes for the kids (not sure what relevance Vikings have), wine tasting (at 11:00am!) and farmyard animals for the kids (Jackie) to stroke! 
The day was clear blue skies and locals turned out in numbers with deck chairs, sunhats and picnics, all very pleasant. At 13:00, at the close of events we went into the local hills for a walk to a viewpoint over the valley towards Sydney and then onto Australia’s oldest surviving stone arch bridge, built in 1833 (well, its old to them!) to form the route of the Great Western Highway, now a tiny back road.

Jackie chatting to a local at the viewpoint

Pauline and Jackie negotiate a difficult bit on the descent to the oldest bridge
The stone arch of the bridge

Pauline waving from the top (she decided not to walk down)
The dramatic Wentworth Falls
Yesterday we went up a bit higher into the mountains to Wentworth Falls to see dramatic mountain scenery and the falls but, although the weather wasn’t too bad, it was misty up at high levels, but still pretty good views and a reasonable walk as well. We’ve got the famous (apparently!) Three Sisters to see tomorrow at Katoomba followed by, what is described as, a scenic drive through Richmond and back to Penrith, then our final night at Emu Plains before returning to Sydney to pick up our originally booked Toyota van, which they tell us is now ready – we’ll see!

We saw this and thought of you Murray (and there were lots of Bob's there too!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Campervans and rain!

If you’re sitting comfortably we’ll relate our very stressful day of trying to get our campervan and heading off into the distance (not!). If you’re reading this Pete, you were right!

The weather forecast was pretty dire and it was almost spot on, the day dawned a bit cloudy and by lunchtime it was raining hard, plenty of it all the time with a dark, angry looking sky forecast to last 3 or 4 days. It was about how our day progressed as well. We got a taxi to Travellers Autobarn, south Sydney by Botany Bay arriving at 10:00am as arranged. The young girl, Sarah was great, going through everything, only to be interrupted by Bastian, who we think was the manager, if not the owner, to say he couldn’t honour Adam’s ‘upgrade’ from a few days earlier, as they’d had some van’s damaged and hadn’t the availability, so we’d have to go back to the one we’d booked – ‘15-love’ to Bastian (didn’t believe this when he said it and it proved his undoing later…). When Sarah asked if we wanted a SatNav at AUS$140, Jackie sweetly said that as we’d been disappointed in not getting our upgrade, will they give us one free? Sarah, feeling a bit embarrassed, agreed (15-all). 

Jackie checks the van with Sarah
After sitting through their video demo, answering a questionnaire (it’s really for young backpacker types rather than us, she sheepishly said), we got to go downstairs and see the van, which looked almost identical to the one we had in NZ, so we were initially quite happy. It was, however, very tired with quite a few scratches and dents (all of which I photographed and Sarah noted down) and inside it was really quite old and damaged. The key was almost in 2 pieces and only worked in the driver’s door, centrally locking all but the side door (the one used to access the living part of the van). The lock in the passenger door and side door were different, so we had three keys, one to unlock the driver’s door, one for the ignition and another for the side door. The side door would lock, but was very difficult to unlock, mostly not working, occasionally just moving enough to unlock. Dave, the mechanic (a really nice guy) was very accommodating, getting another driver’s door key and explaining they change locks when one is broken by a young backpackers, who carelessly use them, hence the reason they are all different. He changed the tap in the sink, which didn’t work properly and leaked, changed the light in the back as it was very flaky, found us an electric kettle, baking tray, mixing bowl and three new mugs (the others were a bit suspect!) and quite a few other things.

Its broken!
Just before driving off the heavens opened and how fortunate that was as we found the back window leaked, which would soak the bed if it happened at night. At this point we went back upstairs and spoke to Liam, a really nice guy who is their after sales manager, but very much in Bastian’s shadow and asked him if they had another van as there were too many problems with this one. At this point we were shown into a private meeting room with Bastian and Liam, Bastian telling us that as soon as he saw us he knew this van wasn’t for us and we should upgrade to the ‘Kuga’ (the one Adam upgraded us to that he then told us wasn’t available!). He could do this for an extra AUS$10 per day (AUS$800 in total). I said ‘split the difference and call it AUS$5/day’, he eventually went to AUS$7/day. However, we told him that we are happy with the spec of the Toyota as we’ve had one in NZ for 6 months, it was just that there are too many problems with this particular one. ‘We don’t have any more’ he said, but one had just been returned so was on their forecourt… 

Waiting for the van...
He put several deals to us, but the one was to upgrade to the Kuga @ AUS$7/day or they would put the Toyota right (we said a new lock in the side door and the rear window properly resealed) by next Monday and, in the meantime we could borrow a Kuga, returning to the depot next Monday, or we could have all our money back, including the commission the agents took, so they would be out of pocket. Those were our choices, but we must decide now. He was confident we would go for the upgrade and pay him more money. We went away and thought about it, but actually we didn’t like the layout of the Kuga as much as the Toyota, so we went back and said we’ll borrow the Kuga and return next Monday for the Toyota with a new side door lock and resealed window.

The look on his face showed that he didn’t expect this and was his least preferred option. He now has to spend money on the Toyota and won’t get any more money (is that 30-15 to us?). So in the end we drove off at 17:00 in the Kuga in the pouring rain and Sydney grid-locked traffic. It is horrendous driving in Sydney in rush-hour (in a van I was unfamiliar with, at night, in the pouring rain and feeling very frustrated and annoyed). It was an absolute crawl watching traffic lights change several times before even getting to them, trying to follow the SatNav, always in the wrong lane and trying to move across lanes of traffic….don’t do it! Pete warned us about Sydney traffic and he wasn’t wrong!
Eventually we arrived at our third choice campsite (the others we rang had no availability of cabins for Pauline) still in driving rain, all piled into Pauline’s cabin to eat and drink wine!

The rain continued all night and today is still very showery, but it does seem to be clearing a bit. The forecast for Sydney tomorrow is 100mm of rain, but we’re close to the Blue Mountains now and we’re hoping out of the worst of it. Its afternoon tea and cake now, there’s a bit of blue sky and, at the moment it isn’t raining, so I’m feeling a bit happier and glad we got one up on Bastian. What will he have in store for us on Monday I wonder?

Hello everyone – I’m back!

Today is another  day; the sun is trying to shine, J and I have had a nice stroll to the river.  We’re in a lovely camp site with receptionists from heaven and pretty birdlife.  What more could we want?  Tempers have definitely improved since this time yesterday.