A Travellerspoint blog

March 2009

Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras

sunny 73 °F

Even though Ash Wednesday was two weeks ago, Australia is having their annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. It was also Jason's last night in Australia, and we couldn't think of any better way to send him on his way.

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The parade wound through downtown before eventually making its way to Kings Cross (the red light district in Sydney). The streets were absolutely swamped with people, most dressed in scandalous costumes. Everyone seemed headed in one direction, straight for the parade. Following the crowd, we eventually found the parade path. Since people were lined 10 deep to watch the parade, most had brought milk crates or stools to stand on for better views. Dawn found an abandoned stool while Jason, Will, and I squeezed in to take a peek.

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Music blared from floats as people danced through the streets. Heaps of people, both in the parade and the spectators, were dressed in drag. Rainbow flags were everywhere. It seemed that each float tried to be even more flamboyant that its predecessor. A lady next to me seemed to know someone from each float and received several hugs and kisses. Here are some shots (notice the guy walking in only a G-String, the gay marriage promotion by the Gay Catholics, and the Mature Age Gay bus).

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Pictures don't really do the parade justice. Thankfully Dawn also got some video footage. The first video is a group of dancers, but make sure to look for the two girls dressed as halves of the Earth that come together to make a whole planet at the end.

The next video is one of the percussion groups that came by.

The last video I'm posting shows a group of hula hoopers. Enjoy.

Shortly before midnight the end of the parade passed us by. Having seen enough, we left downtown and started bar hopping back to Glebe. We ended up stopping at the Pyrmont Bridge Hotel for the majority of our drinks (on the other side of Darling Harbor from the parade). However, as the night passed, the crowd started getting much more colorful. After figuring out that a guy had been standing at the middle urinal for over an hour (I guess doing a little sight seeing), we decided it was time to move on again. The Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was definitely an unique experience, but not exactly something I'd look to do again.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 16:49 Archived in Australia Tagged event Comments (3)

Hunter Valley Wine Tour

sunny 85 °F

It is another beautiful day, so we decided to head up to the Hunter Valley to sample some Australian wine.

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The Hunter Valley is about a 2 hour drive north of Sydney. The river valley contains ample water and the cooler climate provides a great environment for grape vines. Red grape vines dominate the hills (they do better in the drier weather), but white grape vines are also abundant. Over 100 wineries are located in the area, some family-owned wineries having surviving 5 and 6 generations. At 10:30am we arrived at the first winery, time for the drinking to begin!

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Our tour group only had 9 people, so we were a pretty intimate group (especially when 5 of us already knew each other). We started off in true fashion, as the first winery had 9 bottles for us to sample. One of the nice things about doing wine tasting is that you are free to try wines you normally don't drink. I typically shy away from white wines, but since the samples are free, I took one of everything they offered. We tried 3 whites, 3 reds, and then moved to the desert wines. The first winery was known for their port wines, so they had several for us to sample. I wasn't too familiar with port wines, but they are a wine that has been fortified (brandy was added) to stop the fermentation and boost the alcohol content. Port wines are usually sweeter and are served as a desert wine. Typically ports are red, but this winery had made a white port as well. They were excellent, a nice strong finish to complement the smooth tasting wines sampled previously. Downing 9 wine samples in 25 minutes had greased our wheels, and we were chomping at the bit to get to the next winery.

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The next winery was only around the corner, so we were there in 5 minutes. Knowing the routine now, we lined up along the bar for the tasting to begin. The second white we tasted was called The 'O', which stood for "over ice". Immediately I thought of Office Space. Jason and I kept making our 'O' faces after every sip and making the 'O' sound.

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We moved on to the reds, eventually getting to a Shiraz called GSM. Shiraz is generally regarded as the top type of wine that comes out of the Hunter Valley. The environment is very well suited for the grape (or so I was told). Throughout the day, the Shiraz wines were actually the most diverse and best tasting wines. The GSM was the best wine I had tasted at that point on the tour. The girl behind the bar explained that it stood for "gimme some more", but then whispered to us that it also stood for "great sex making". Dawn, Greg, and I each bought a bottle.

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Since we were making such great time, our tour guide suggested we go to an extra winery before lunch. Of course he got no objections from us. 6 more samples later, it was time for a break from wine and to get some food in our bellies. We got some food from a line of cafes, ate in the sunlight of the absolutely gorgeous day, and then lounged on the grass while the rest of the crew finished their meals.

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After lunch we had a sit down tasting where we were actually served wine (the other places had all been a walk-up bar). It sounded like a nice idea, but I preferred being able to move at my own pace instead of waiting for everyone to chit chat about the wine after trying it out. After completing the tasting at this winery, it was time for a different type of tasting—a cheese tasting.

I love cheese. I have missed the cheeses of the US. In Australia there is no American cheese, no Monterrey Jack, no Colby Jack, no Pepper Jack, no Munster, and I could go on for all day. The tour guide said that this place had every type of cheese imaginable, so I couldn't wait to finally get something other than Australian 'Tasty' Cheddar. The cheese tasting followed the same pattern as the wine tasting as we all stood along a bar while a lady passed out the samples. We tried a varierty of cheeses, each one seemed to be even better than the next. She also passed around a sample of chocolates. As I tried each cheese and chocolate, I could easily see why certain types of cheeses and chocolate compliment wine very well. After the cheese tasty, we wandered around the cheese hut trying other samples of cheese and bread. Eventually we made our way to the gelato where Jason found his perfect ice cream—"it's a gay time!"

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Unable to pass it up, Jason and I each got a cone. The girl didn't understand why we thought the name was funny. After finding out we were American, she explained that Gaytime is an ice cream sandwich in Australia. We finished our ice cream, hopped on the bus, and made our way to the next wine tasting.

After one more winery, it was time to start making our way out of the Hunter Valley. On the way out, we stopped at a beer brewery to do a little beer tasting. The brewmasters only made a small amount of beer, enough to pay the bills and allow them to experiment with new recipes. The beer was very full flavored, a nice relief from the typical Australian lager. Jason took extra tasting samples while I prayed the beer prayer. We snapped a few more pictures and got back on the bus. Our day through the Hunter Valley was over and we headed back down into Sydney (although having to stop every 30 minutes for bathroom breaks).

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 15:57 Archived in Australia Tagged beer tour wine Comments (1)

Daintree Rain Forest and the Crocodile Park

sunny 105 °F

Having seen the outback, the city, the rock, the beach, the reef, and the bars on our whirlwind trip around Australia, it was time to see the last remaining landscape—the bush.

Port Douglas is sandwiched between the beaches of the east coast and the rain forest to the west. We put on our hiking shoes and headed out into the humid forest. Driving out of Port Douglas we were presented with more glorious views of the coast. Looking away from the coast, fields of sugar cane butted up against the rainforest.

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Traveling inland along the narrow roads leading into the rainforest, we eventually found a spot to park the car. The Daintree Rainforest is a World Heritage area and contains the highest number of plant and animal species that are rare, or threatened with extinction, of anywhere in the world. Away from the sea breeze, the sticky heat became even more noticeable. Even standing still you became covered with a sheen of sweat. The ferns, the heat, and the giant trees gave the area a prehistoric feel. The Daintree Rainforest is over one hundred and thirty-five million years old—the oldest in the world. Eager to emerge ourselves into the forest, we set off on one of the longer hiking trails.

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The trail wound along above a river which provided a subtle background roar as it churned beneath us. Birds called noisily to one another. Great views were presented from cliff outlooks and giant trees towered overhead. Boulders and rock formations covered in moss were scattered throughout the forest. Large spiders lay in the centers of massive webs that looked sturdy enough to even ensnare a human. Even a wallaby popped out next to the trail and watched us as we passed by.

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We hiked down to a hidden pool formed by a spring. Greg, armed with his super hiking sandals, waded right into the middle of the pool. Realizing that we were all watching him, he started to scale up a log that led to an elevated pool. He made it to the top, and just as we were congratulating him, he disappeared behind the overhang with a thud. Quickly popping back up, he started making his way back down the log (although clearly taking his time after already experiencing one fall). Greg safely returned to the lower pool and we continued on our hike.

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Even though Greg was the only one to actually get into the water, we were all drenched. I literally dripped with sweat. I don't think I had ever experienced that type of heat and humidity (and that is saying something having experienced multiple North Carolina summers). We got down to the car and downed cold VBs that were stashed in the car. After the AC had made the car cool enough to enter, we piled in and began making our way back down to Cairns.

We had one more stop before leaving the tropical north. Having seen most of the major Australian wildlife, we still hadn't experienced one of the most famous—the saltwater crocodile. A wildlife park right off the road presented us with the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with the crocs.

Upon arriving in the park, we went straight down to take a ride through a natural part of the park to watch crocs attack bits of meat hung from poles. Our guide drove us slowly through the marshy areas and pointed out the crocs that lined the riverbank. Pairs of eyes appeared a few feet from the side of the boat as crocs began surfacing to inspect the possible prey. Others watched lazily from the shore. As one of the female crocs approached the boat, the guide prepared the snack. He hung the pole off the side of the boat and slowly dipped the chunk of meat in and out of the water. Suddenly the croc lunged out of the water and snapped the meat from the pole.

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The guide did the same thing as other crocs approached the boat. After all the interested crocs were fed, we found our way back to the dock. Dawn and Jason wanted to check out the crocodile farm where they raised crocs that would be made into purses while Greg and I decided to wander through the other enclosures where the big males lived.

Dawn and Jason learned the in and outs of being a crocodile farmer. They saw the crocs in various stages of development. The farmed crocs apparently are only kept until they are 3 years old. After that point, even though they are still not full size, the leather begins to get too thick and hard and loses its vibrant colors. The guide even brought a baby croc out so that you could pet it.

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Greg and I made our way through the various enclosures. I didn't realize crocs got so large. Old males can weigh 3,000 pounds and be over 20 feet long! We saw some of these monsters laying out in the sun. Some of the enclosures appeared to be empty, but then the croc would appear out of the murky water 3 ft in front of us before disappearing again moments later (and only a chain link fence separated us). Some of the enclosures only housed a single male and female, while a couple others had large areas teeming with crocs. One section of the park contained fresh water crocodiles ("freshies"), while lizard and snake enclosures provided additional variety.

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We met back up with Jason and Dawn at a snake keeper presentation. This guy came out with two large containers, which I assumed to be filled with snakes. He didn't disappoint, and surprisingly jumped to the big gun and pulled the deadliest snake in the world out of the first bag—the taipan (also called the fierce snake).

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Right from the start, I suspected the snake handler was a little...different. He had a way of talking and used quirky hand motions. When he pulled the deadliest snake in the world out of a bag with his bare hands, I knew he was flat out crazy. After telling us it had enough venom in a single bite to kill over 100 people, he casually waved it around in front of us while loosely holding it with one hand. I was glad we weren't sitting in the front row. While waving the snake around, he continued to talk about the different types of venom and reasons snakes might bite. He started getting into snake bite first aid and asked for a volunteer, and without really waiting for anyone to offer, he selected Greg out of the audience to help out. I actually thought for a second that he was going to have this snake bite Greg and then show how to care for the bite. Thankfully he put the snake away first. After explaining how to apply the bandage (which by the way, this was only for Australian snakes, for US snake bites you throw the poor guy in a car and ignore all traffic laws as you get him to the emergency room), he held Greg's wrapped arm and waved it around while he talked. Eventually Greg was released as he moved on to non-venomous snakes. While holding a large python, he tried to convince a kid's mother why snakes make great pets (while the snake was big enough to probably eat her child).

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After the snake presentation, the four of us made our way back through the croc enclosures. We snapped a few more pictures and wound our way down to the crocodile attack presentation. A croc keeper came out to talk about the various techniques the croc would use to kill you. We saw the vicious shake and death roll. He also demonstrated how high they can jump out of the water and how fast they can snatch something in their jaws. After watching that demonstration, there is no way you'd find me swimming in the creeks and rivers in the north of Australia.

On the way out we stopped to see the koala. After a couple pictures (because koalas don't really do much), we left the park and started the drive back down to Cairns.

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Just before reaching the airport, the boys finally saw their first wild kangaroos. Over 100 kangaroos were moving around in a field just off the highway. Several male kangaroos were boxing and kicking each other while the rest lounged on the grass. We watched briefly before filing back in the car to catch our flight. It was time to head back to Sydney.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 20:29 Archived in Australia Tagged animals hiking national_park world_heritage_site Comments (1)

Great Barrier Reef

sunny 105 °F

It was a 3 hour flight from Alice Springs to Cairns, although it seemed like it passed by in a flash.

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Out of the dry, dusty, fly-filled, burning heat and into the humid, sticky, tropical heat. We landed in Cairns and jumped in the car to head up to Port Douglas. It was about an hour drive north (about as far as the paved road went) to Port Douglas from Cairns, and I was hoping that we'd see some wild kangaroos.

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We pulled into the little town of Port Douglas and if felt like we were the only people around. After checking into our apartment, we went down to the main strip. The tropical vegetation was very different than anything else I had experienced in Australia. It was amazing to me how diverse the different regions of the country were, only reenforcing the fact that Australia is a very huge place. Everything was green, no bare dirt was visible anywhere. Each tree and bush was an explosion of leaves and flowers. You could tell this area saw a significant amount of rainfall.

We stopped into a bar for a brew, and surprisingly enough, hockey was on TV. I didn't know that Australians even knew ice hockey existed. As it turns out, the bartender had lived in Canada for a while, so he had an appreciation for the sport. The bar had some live music, a guy on the acoustic guitar accompanied by a didgeridoo (Aboriginal instrument) that sounded awesome. We ended going to a couple other bars, playing some buck hunter, and sharing way too many pitchers. One of the bars had an interesting urinal. As I've mentioned before, the Australian urinal is really just a metal plate on a wall that you whiz on and a drain at the bottom. This bar took it one step further and had you whiz on a window. At first I thought I was doing something wrong and that the lady on the back patio would wonder why a guy was taking a leak on the window, but there was nowhere else to go. It was surprisingly nice to have a view while doing my business as opposed trying to find something interesting on a blank wall. Of course the influence of alcohol may have made this more interesting to me than other (sober) people.

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After the bar kicked us out, it was time to get some rest before our reef tour.

The next morning we stumbled out to wait to be picked up by our tour company. We went with a company called Wavelength. Wavelength specializes in snorkeling and small groups. The other tour companies have giant boats and offer underwater observatories, scuba diving, sub rides, and loads of other ways to get extra money from you. Since the coral and fish only live at a depth of 5-15 feet, you don't need all the other equipment to take in the views. By not doing the extra activities, our group didn't have to wait for the scuba divers to get ready or drop people off at observatories. Instead we could go directly to the best snorkeling sites. Since we had a smaller group, we weren't running into each other all day and got some breathing room out on the reef.

We boarded the boat and started our 90 minute trek to the first snorkeling site. Our guide explained what we would be doing, the proper way to use our snorkel equipment, and instructed us to get in our special snorkeling suits. Because of the threat of the jellyfish, we each had to wear special suits to protect ourselves even though the deadly jellyfish are rare out on the reef. The suits weren't too restrictive, but we looked like we were going in for bobsled training. Once we arrived at the first site, we all plunged into the water.

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The first snorkeling site was along the continental shelf where the ocean floor just seems to end. It was a little freaky with such a vast open area water to our backs (which of course I knew was teeming with sharks just waiting for an open opportunity to strike). Our guide tried to show us all the different varieties of coral and appreciate the uniqueness of each formation.

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The coral was a variety of colors, from pale khaki to deep green, but some of the coral seemed to glow with vibrant colors. Anemones moved with the ocean currents. Fish swam in an out of coral structures, moving from one overhang or hole to another. You would be watching a single fish picking through the reef when a giant school of fish would explode from the reef. The muted sound of being underwater heightened my vision, making the beautiful colors and formations stand out even more.

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We got back on the boat and headed out for a deep water snorkeling site. This was a spot were there was an island of coral surrounded by very deep water. The island had multiple overhangs that fish like to hide under. Kicking down from the surface, you could sneak under and take a peak. Large spotted barramundi, squid, and other various fish were everywhere. Ghost whips snaked eerily upwards as fish wove their way in and out. A large school of fish actually took up residence under our boat, taking advantage of the new shady spot.

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Our guide, Fluffy, was awesome. He had such an obvious passion for the reef and everything that could be found on it. Since he could hold his breath for 3 minutes, he would dive deep into the water and find the best overhangs and spots for us to view. He also had an awesome superman suit.

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We made our way back to the boat and headed to the third site. It was only 100 yards away from the second site, but it was back on the continental shelf. More amazing views of coral formations and a variety of fish awaited us. A school of black fish twisted their way through the coral. Fluffy picked up a sea cucumber and passed it around. Fish huddled around a log that had gotten caught on the reef. Giant clams glowed with a blue interior. Anemone fish hid in their anemones.

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We climbed back on the boat for the final time. We had spent 6 hours out on the reef and it was time to head home. Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef had lived up to the hype.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 18:31 Archived in Australia Tagged animals ocean snorkeling world_heritage_site Comments (1)

Queensland

Leaving the dust of the Northern Territory behind us, we are on our way to the Great Barrier Reef that runs along the the northern and eastern coasts of Queensland. Here's a little background on Queensland.

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Queensland is the country's second largest state behind Western Australian and its third most populous behind Victoria and New South Wales. It is located directly north of New South Wales and east of the Nothern Territory. Since Queensland is so large, it experiences a variety of climates, but most of the state experiences two weather seasons: a "winter" period of rather warm temperatures and minimal rainfall and a sultry summer period of hot, sticky temperatures and higher levels of rainfall. We were going into the tropical north of Queensland during the "Wet" (rainy season).

Queensland is known for its sunny beaches and for the largest structure in the world built by living organisms, the Great Barrier Reef. Due to the presence of the box jellyfish, the most venomous animal on the planet, I expect we will be leaving the beaches alone. During the summer months, the beaches are swarmed by these jellyfish whose sting can kill humans (and is immensely painful). Several deaths have even come from jellyfish so tiny that it could fit on top of your fingernail. The beaches we encountered in Queensland had giant signs at the entrances warning of these jellyfish, which are still deadly even dead.

Keeping away from the deadly jellyfish, we instead went into the open ocean filled with blue-ringed octopus and great white sharks (both human killers). The Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 1,600 miles and is still growing. A reef is any structure that rises from the ocean floor and approaches the surface. A coral reef is a reef that has been created by coral, a small marine organism. Coral secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton, constantly expanding on old layers to form larger structures. The Great Barrier Reef did not always exist. Coral can really only grow in shallow waters and at a specific temperature. The Reef has expanded because the ocean levels and the Australian landmass are constantly in motion. For the past 20,000 years the ocean levels have been rising as the last ice age recedes (allowing the coral to continue their growth upwards) and Australia is drifting north 7cm a year (allowing the coral to continue to grow southward). Given enough time, the reef could reach along the entire east coast of Australia.

You may be asking why we would travel to a land during its rainy season and where the beaches are patrolled by deadly jellyfish, but just wait until you see the pictures.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 19:55 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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