Australian Medley - A photo essay

by S.Parthasarathy

Amritha (my wife), Rukmani (my wife's elder sister), Hema (my wife's younger sister) and I left India on 22nd November 2009 on a trip of Singapore for 3 days and Sydney for 51 days and returned to India on 16th January 2010. We thoroughly enjoyed our trip. The first two weeks in Sydney was a big family reunion as my nephew Mukund, his wife Prema and two kids-Keshav (4) and Shriya (2) joined us from Michigan, USA. The Australian tour was made very meorable for all of us by Raghu (my wife's younger brother), his wife Chandra and daughters Vidya and Nitya. I had written regular letters to close relatives every 10 days or so. This article is in the form of a photo essay and records my experiences (as well as the others who were with me) under various topics. The second and concluding part will appear in the next issue.

Water

Australia is known as down under as the entire continent is below the equator. Of course the entire continent is also an island. Coincidentally my most memorable experience in Australia was down under the sea. In the next few paras, I shall cover this as well as my other experiences in water in Australia

Even when we first mooted the idea of visiting Australia, I was sure we would see the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). In the list of Natural wonders compiled by CNN after some research, it ranks second behind the Grand Canyon. (The others are Harbour of Rio de Janeiro, Mount Everest, Aurora Borealis, Parcutin volcano and Victoria Falls). It was purely coincidental that I had seen the first in January 2009 and the second in December of the same year. Seeing the Grand Canyon is relatively easy. But a close look at the GBR is not. As we all boarded the Reef Experience - the ferry which was to take us to the Great Barrier Reef, all the 12 of us were thrilled. As the forms were distributed whether we would see the corals by Scuba diving or by snorkelling, all the 10 adults opted for snorkelling. Amritha, Rukku and Hema who were in saris were assured by the crew that they would be able to snorkel. We finished the breakfast on offer and as the ferry set sail, there were high expectations about the visit to GBR.

Alas, we all underestimated the power of a fast ferry and a choppy sea to make us seasick. The crew had distributed anti-vomit pills, but they had no effect. Raghu was the only realistic person as he had said that he would become seasick as soon as the ferry started. After Raghu, it was Prema, then Vidya and soon there was a clamour for the brown bags (to contain the vomit) and a scramble to the deck which resembled a sick bay. The only four who did not throw up in our group of 12 were Mukund, Nitya, Chandra and Rukku. Surprisingly most of the other 30 passengers were also victims to the sea-sickness. Mal de Mer is a rather pleasant and unassuming French term for the debilitating effect motion sickness may have on your body. In the case of Raghu, Hema, Amritha, Prema and the kids, the symptoms escalated to extreme nausea, vomiting, dizziness and headache. In one of his books, Isaac Asimov has related the anecdote about a seasick passenger whom a steward cheerfully assured that nobody ever died from seasickness. The passenger muttered, "Please– it's only the hope of dying that is keeping me alive." So when the first stop of the ferry for visiting GBR came, only Mukund and Nitya were ready to go snorkelling. After they got into the water, I asked Gabby (a helpful New Zealand crew member) whether I can go snorkelling as I have not done any swimming for over 20 years. 'Yes, of course. You don't need to know swimming' was her answer and when she added,'I'll guide you' I started putting on the wet suit. What is snorkelling? According to Wikipaedia, it is the practice of swimming on or through a body of water while equipped with a diving mask, a shaped tube called a snorkel, and usually swimfins. In cooler waters, a wetsuit may also be worn. Using this equipment allows the snorkeler to observe underwater attractions for extended periods of time with relatively little effort. After I was ready to jump into the water, my stomach which had held on till then turned queasy and I asked Chandra for a brown bag. Out came my breakfast into the bag. A concerned Gabby asked, Do you still want to go snorkelling? ''Yes, of course,' was my answer. There was a Japanese girl who was also a novice and Gabby was to guide both of us. 'ok, then. Don't ever let the pipe out of your mouth' she told both of us. Since I wear dentures and since losing them in the Pacific ocean would have caused a premature return to India, I bit the tube firmly and let my bite release only after I came back to the ship. With Gabby's encouragement, both of us held the rubber tube that Gabby was holding and off went the three of us on the surface of Pacific ocean to look at the coral reefs which were about 80 metres away.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system comprising over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching more than 3,000 kilometres over an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometres . It is formed by 400 types of coral, is inhabited by 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc. It was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1981. It is claimed to be the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms, since the reef structure is composed of and built by billions of tiny coral polyps. These are mere statistics. The sight under water has to be personally seen to comprehend its awesomeness. Though the corals come in a variety of hues, surprisingly the water filters out most colours and you see only varying shades of blue. But you can see the fishes in all colours. Every now and then, Gabby would dive into the water and come up with some unique sample to show to us and put it back into the sea. After about half an hour, we were ready to go back. It was a unique and memorable experience. After I came back to the ship, Nadine (another crew member from Denmark) told Raghu that the glass-bottomed boat would take passengers to see the corals. All of us (except Mukund and Nitya who were out in the water) got into the boat. Just as we got into the boat, I felt like vomitting. An Australian sitting next to me said,'Go ahead and throw up into the sea. Some fishes like it.' So I went ahead. The fish that likes vomit got some from Amritha and Hema as well. The glass-bottmed boat trip was good and we could see the corals.

Having tasted blood once, I wanted more. Gabby had said that the guided snorkel tour was free only in the first stop and that the second would cost 20 $ per person. That did not put us off and Vidya (who had recovered enough to try it), Chandra and I gave our names for the tour. As wet suit was not required, I put on Mukund's shorts. Vidya went with another guide while Chandra, myself and the Japanese girl (the one who came with me earlier) went with Gabby. The reef was only 50 metres away from this stop. Chandra was flanked by Mukund and Nitya for additional safety. The procession went for a few minutes, but Chandra could not somehow breathe through her mouth and was choking often. So we came back to leave her and then spent more than half hour enjoying the tremendous sight underwater. Reluctantly we came back to the ship. Mukund who had snorkelled for more than 3 hours had to yield to Prema's frantic signals to come back. So it was Mukund, Nitya, myself, Vidya and Chandra (in that order) who saw the GBR in all its glory. On the return trip, Mukund, Prema, Keshav, Shriya, Chandra, Nitya and I sat on the upper deck and it was a very nice experience with occasional sprays of water as well as the sighting of a whale (by a crew member).

We had stayed out for 4 days in Cairns, 3 days in Coffs Harbour and 3 days in Melbourne. All the 12 family members went to Cairns while 7 went to Coffs Harbour and only the 4 of us from India went to Melbourne. Our stay in the first two places had been organised by Raghu and both were excellent. In Cairns, it was a fully-furnished bungalow with swimming pool, an outdoor swing etc. In Coffs Harbour, it was a fully furnished 5-star resort in a 200-acre campus which had a swimming pool. So my adventures in water continued. The day after visiting GBR, Mukund, Nitya and I jumped into the pool. I became overenthusiastic and after 2 laps of swimming started a race with Mukund. Halfway through the lap which unfortunately was at the deep end I lost my breath. Fortunately the maximum depth was only 6' 2" and the place where I lost my breath was just over 5 feet. I became ok quickly. I was not so gently reminded by Amritha that I am 63 and so confined myself to the shallow end thereafter. In Coffs Harbour, Nitya, Charles ( a family friend of Raghu and Chandra, Nitya's boss and Vidya's tenant) and I got into the pool.

My other memorable experience with water was when we visited the famous Penguin parade in Philips Island near Melbourne. It was an experience at the waterfront but can be included here. In Penguin parade they march in groups to their homes in the dunes after a day in the water, The parade takes place every day just after sunset. We left Melbourne at 5.00 PM and reached Philip Island by about 8.00 PM. After coffee, we walked around the information centre and then on to the special stage on the beach. A ranger gave us a brief description about the fairy penguins. We learnt that penguins are creatures of habit and that they would use the same path every time they move from the sea to their home (burrow). The ranger left after exhorting the crowd to be as silent as possible. The first penguin was expected shortly after 9 PM, but came by about 9.15 PM. As the penguins waddle up the beach, more and more clusters swim up from the sea. When they reach the sand, we observe quietly as they walk unsteadily up hill to their homes. Photography is not allowed and everyone talks in hushed tones. All we hear are the ocean waves and the penguins talking with each other as well as some of their kids which have come down to meet their parents. We walk back slowly to the bus watching the penguins waddling all around us. It was a spiritual and unforgettable experience. As we were about to board the bus, we saw the board asking people to check under the car for penguins. We smiled, but did look under the bus.

Another memorable experience with water was when we travelled on the Great Ocean Road near Melbourne. This road made by soldiers delisted after World War I is a great piece of engineering. There are a lot of places to see and it has some of the most breath-taking sights of sea coast. The most famous sight on this road is twelve apostles which I shall describe later, Personally I found Loch Ard Gorge to be more impressive than twelve apostles. The gorge is named after the ship Loch Ard, which ran aground near this place on 1 June 1878 approaching the end of a three-month journey from England to Melbourne. Of the fifty-one passengers and crew, only two survived: Tom Pearce, a ship's apprentice, and Eva Carmichael, an Irish girl immigrating with her family, both of whom were 18 years of age. According to memorials at the site, Tom was washed ashore, and rescued Eva from the water after hearing her cries for help. Tom then proceeded to climb out of the gorge to raise the alarm to local pastoralists who immediately set into plan a rescue attempt. The gorge is only a few kilometres past The Twelve Apostles and the stairs allow visitors access to the beach which is otherwise kept as it was in the past. To make the journey even more memorable, a film All the rivers run which was shot in that area was screened during our return journey. The film was also very good. Torque Bay, Bells beach, Apollo Bay, Port Campbell and Gibson Steps- all on the seafront are some of the impressive places on the beach that we saw.

We had a few other meetings with water. One was in our travel by ferry within Sydney to the zoo. And the others were when we visited beaches. There are so many good beaches in Australia that it is impossible for anyone to visit all. Apart from the places mentioned in the previous para, We had visited the following and all were good.
-- blowhole point at Kiama near Sydney where the waves come up in a spray through the hole in the rocks
-- Bombo beach near Sydney
-- Machans beach near Cairns
-- Nambucca Heads on way to Coffs Harbour and
-- Coffs Harbour jetty.

Photos of our adventures in water. Click on each photo to enlarge

Up above the ground

I have travelled by a large variety of transport - handcart, bullock-cart, cycle, rickshaw. cycle-rickshaw, tonga, scooter, motor-cycle, car, van, truck, steam loco, diesel loco, electric loco, all types of coaches hauled by train, push-trolley, motor-trolley, cable-car, winch, plane and so on. But the one mode of transport which I somehow could not use was the helicopter. So I decided to take the helicopter ride over the twelve apostles when Geoff, the driver-cum-guide of the coach which we had taken for the Great Ocan Road tour, said,'Normally the ride costs 85 $, but it will be 70 $ for the passengers of this tour.' Amritha and Rukku did not want the ride, but Hema said she would also take the ride. So as soon as the bus reached the Twelve Apostles, Hema and I rushed to the helipad along with a dozen other passengers. When we were standing the queue, an employee said,'All of you want to go in pairs. If any of you decide to split, we will give the front seat to both.' Hema and I took the offer and I was the first to ride. After strapping me in and putting on the headphone to me, the pilot told me not to touch anything (as if I would). The flight was only about 10 minutes long, but worth every minute for the amazing scenery, good commentary from the pilot, great photos, and of course the fact that I could tell the whole world that I flew in a helicopter over Twelve Apostles. It was much smoother than I thought and I hardly felt anything during take off and landing. Frankly I feel that the only way to really see Twelve Apostles is this way. After I got my photo taken by an employee, I ran to the gate in time to take Hema's photos as her helicopter was landing. In the meanwhile Amritha and Rukku had seen the Twelve Apostles. So Hema and I went fast to the walkway to have a good view of the Twelve Apostles. I'm sure you are wondering what exactly is or are Twelve Apostles. The Twelve Apostles are large, free-standing, offshore chunks of rock.They have been created by constant erosion of the limestone cliffs of the mainland that began 10–20 million years ago. The stormy Southern Ocean and blasting winds gradually eroded the softer limestone, forming caves in the cliffs. The caves eventually became arches and when they collapsed rock stacks up to 45 metres high were left isolated from the shore. Originally there were 12 of them, but now only 6 are there. As I said earlier, Loch Ard Gorge, also on the Great Ocean Road, was even more impressive than Twelve Apostles. The whole tour was memorable because of the scenery, the tour guide (about whom I shall mention in the next part of my travelogue), the weather (which unfortunately became very cold) and of course the helicopter ride.

I shall continue on my adventures up above the ground. The flights from Chennai to Singapore and back , Singapore to Sydney and back, Sydney to Melbourne and back and Sydney to Cairns were all uneventful. Bt the flight from Cairns to Sydney can be titled as Vegetable upma in Virgin Blue. Chandra and Raghu are meticulous planners and are also choosy about eating when they travel. So whenever we went out, we would carry a lot of food, drinks and provisions. We spent 4 days on our Cairns trip. During this time, we had 2 meals in the ferry (not that anyone had the mood or energy to have lunch), 1 meal hosted by Mukund in an Indian restaurant and all the other meals were made at home. As our flight was at 6.00 PM and would land in Sydney only at 10.00 PM (3 hours flight and 1 hour time difference), it was decided by the ladies that we would take vegetable upma and curd rice for eating during the flight. An hour or so after we were airborne, we all took turns to have our dinner. When the lunchboxes were opened, a steward came to see what was happening, but went away when he saw that it was something solid and not liquor. When Amritha asked whether narthangai pickle is available, Mukund commented,'இது கொஞ்சம் ஓவரா இல்ல? (don't you feel this is a bit too much). It was a wonderful experience.

The other experiences above the ground were the cable car rides in Cairns as well as the Sydney zoo and the Centrepoint tower in Sydney. When we were planning to take the cable car ride in Cairns, I saw the price tag of 41 $ one way and 60 $ return per person. As Amritha and I had gone by cable car in Mount Titlis in Switzerland and Lake Tahoe in USA, we said we would opt out. Raghu or Vidya had to opt out as one had to drive the hired 12-seater van to the terminal of the cable car. After a lot of discussions, it was eventually decided that Vidya would drop us at one terminal of the cable car and drive to the other terminal and wait and all the others would go by cable car. It was an interesting 7.5 kms ride with two stops in between and good walkways in both the halts. We had a good ride over the rainforest and a good view of the Barron falls from the cable car. The cable car ride in Sydney zoo was much shorter, but it was nice as we could have a good view of the elephants and a few other animals from the top. The 3600 observation deck in Centrepoint tower in Sydney is about 250 metres high and you can have a good view of Sydney. But I felt the entrance fee of 25 $ was a bit steep and did not give value for money.

Photos of our adventures up above ground. Click on each photo to enlarge

Mountains and Hills

My impression is that you are never far from a mountain in Australia. Google gave me a list of over 150 mountains in Australia. I remember to have gone over many ghat roads in our various trips in Australia. We also had our introduction to a form of transportation that requires hills. I had talked about the addition of helicopter to the various rides that I have had. One more got added in Coffs Harbour. It was the toboggan. Toboggan is a long, narrow, runnerless sled constructed of thin boards curled upward at the front end. The Big Banana Toboggan in Coffs Harbour is a stainless steel flume (like a slide- சறுக்கு மரம்) set into the ground in which the toboggan runs. With deep drawn curved sections, bends and straight lengths, The track is over 650m long. The rider is powered by chains to go up and then gravity takes over. The rider controls the speed of the ride and there lies the excitement. Though the ride was less than five minutes, it was thrilling. Though all 5 of us started together, I completed the ride faster than the others so that I could take photos.

We saw just a few of the mountains in Australia. We met Blue Mountains near Sydney twice. the first was when we visited Jenolan caves. These are the oldest discovered open caves in the world. We took a tour of Lucas Caves which are tough on the feet. As Rukku had problems in negotiating the steps, she and Raghu went over to the easier Imperial Caves. The Lucas Cave features a number of large chambers including the famous Cathedral. All the caves are lit and when the guide explains about the caves and switches on the lights gradually, you are transported to a different world. But we were keen to return home early. I am not like young Keshav whose comment about the Jenolan caves visit was ,'it was a bad day for me.' There are hotels in Jenolan and a large number of people spend a few days and visit the caves one by one. I like caves, but prefer only one per every Australian visit. Another reason for our eagerness to return home was the weather. In the USA, I used to see the forecast of the place that we would visit. But none of us saw the forecast on the day we visited Jenolan. So we were caught unprepared by the cold, rain and wind. So we came back to Sydney without visiting Katoomba.

My third encounter with the mountains were when we went to see the Three Sisters on Christmas day. The Three Sisters are a famous rock formation in the Blue Mountains. They are close to the town of Katoomba and are one of the Blue Mountains' most famous sights, towering above the Jamison Valley. Their names are Meehni (922 m), Wimlah (918 m), and Gunnedoo (906 m). The commonly told legend of the Three Sisters is that three sisters fell in love with three men from a neighbouring tribe, but marriage was forbidden by tribal law. Battle ensued, and the sisters were turned to stone by an elder to protect them, but he was killed in the fighting and no one else could turn them back. The three sisters - Rukku, Amritha and Hema stood in front of them and got photographed. We also visited Echo point nearby. There are a lot of trails for hiking in the mountains. There are also cable cars and trains to go up the blue mountains. But we preferred to be back home after a darshan of three sisters.

Photos of our adventures in hills. Click on each photo to enlarge

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