Living in Japan - Visits to Japanese Alps, Koyasan, Tokyo, London, holiday in Burma, holiday in Australia
2005
  
  
 
 

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Hakuba, Japanese Alps, January 2005

 

Hakuba - December 2004 / January 2005

Christmas was very enjoyably spent in Japan with friends and neighbours. We went to see “The Nutcracker” on Boxing Day which was performed by a Japanese ballet company and executed with their characteristic enthusiasm and precision.  It was very enjoyable but quite unlike anything we had experienced before. The multiple encores finally resulted in an extra set of Christmas Carols and I thought we were never going to get home! Edward was muttering about people clapping too much as the cast just kept coming back. Eventually the curtain came down and we were allowed to leave.

The next day we set off for our now annual trip to Nagano for some winter sports.  A sudden deluge of snow made some great powdery conditions.  All this in a six hour drive from Kobe.

 

"Toe-turn" Verity                                                                                            "Powder Bashing" Edward

 

Edward and Verity had the usual great instruction from Evergreen Outdoors and perfected their style, speed and stamina. Dad is still limping for the exertion.

 

 

Intermediate Snow boarding certificates from Evergreen Outdoors                          Fashion on the slopes

 

Clair is continuing her skiing lessons and now looks very poised on the slope, although she remains the only person in history to get lost skiing on a single track road.  She also thoroughly enjoyed an arduous snow shoe hike with a friend, organised by  Evergreen.

 

(Photos below are not mine but borrowed from a friend)

 

Snow Shoe Trek

 

View of Hakuba

 

Log Cabin from Green Valley Cabins, booked by Ski Japan Holidays

 

This time we rented an excellent "log" cabin which gave us more space.  It had all the comforts of home except, as is typical in Japan, no arm chairs or sofas.  It did have a special room with a tatami floor; although after the agony of adopting a squatting snow board position for most of the day and pummeling my knees against moguls, I did not feel inclined to spend the evening kneeling. The Japanese New Year was seen in fast asleep as we were so exhausted from the snow sports but we saw the UK New Year in with cups of tea and Big Ben at 9.00am, courtesy of (commercial free)  BBC radio, live on the Web.

 

Hakuba

 

 

Mount Fuji from my Tokyo Hotel Room - February 2005                                                                 Sapporro

 

Clair                                                     Tokyo                                                                                                                              Me

 

Sledding on Mount Rokko 13/2/05

 

Nara

March - Todai-ji temple in Nara has a festival said to be initiated in 752 (the year the Great Buddha statue was completed) by a priest called Jitchu to pray for auspicious weather, abundant harvests, good health and peace.  Actually it made a pleasant late afternoon / early evening jaunt to Nara to see the free deer roaming the parks, eat a Japanese tea outside and watch  the priests' assistants set fire to five metre long torches made of bamboo and cedar needles.  They then run around the balcony of the Nigatsu-do, showering a surprisingly large crowd with sparks.   Apparently catching a spark will bring good health rather than the expected burn.

 

Feeding the Deer at Nara                                                                                                  Fire Festival

 

Japanese Food

Japanese food is truly excellent - easily one of my favourite styles from around the world.  Even if you don't like the style it would be difficult to argue that the quality is not good.  Much of the food is seasonal and only appears at certain times of year.  It is all extremely fresh and often individually packed.  In how many countries could you find carefully selected and individually packaged potatoes?  Raw fish is very common, but it is of such high quality and so fresh it really does not need cooking.  Raw cuttlefish is a local favourite and a traditional Japanese restaurant in Hakuba served us a local delicacy of raw horse meat.  The presentation of the food is much like other aspects of Japanese life - precise with a fine attention to detail.   Kobe is famous for Kobe beef, which is ferociously expensive but beautifully marbled with fat, which gives it a soft melt-in-the-mouth feel.  Kobe cows are lovingly cosseted on a daily basis by their owners; hand fed with bottles of beer, then carefully massaged and played gentle music.  Apparently a relaxed cow makes tender beef.  Another local delicacy is bits of octopus cooked in a batter similar to Yorkshire Pudding.  There are hundreds of local styles of food here and exploring them all would take a life-time.  The children particularly enjoy the styles where you cook your own food at the table - there are various styles of do-it-yourself stew, grills and deep fried dishes.  I enjoy the local rice wine or Sake (the Japanese call it Nihon-shu) which is drunk either hot or cold. 

 

The traditional style of eating is still very popular i.e. sat on the tatami floor armed only with chop sticks, whilst kimono clad waitresses pad around and kneel every so often to serve you.  I have noticed that despite the  kneeling position being traditional here the local Japanese complain just as much as the foreigners about numb legs.  Removing footwear is compulsory whenever there is a tatami floor, so clean socks in an essential requirement before dining out.

 

Traditional Japanese Food                                                                                                    Now we know what really happened to Nemo.....

 

I came across an amusing video which made me wonder if the locals bother with these customs except when foreigners are present!  Perhaps it is all a big joke

Misunderstandings are common around the world.  When living in the Middle East we learned that the Arabs traditionally present the eye of a slaughtered animal for their guests to inspect before a meal.  Basically they are proving that the animal you about to eat is freshly killed by showing that the eye is still clear, rather than milky.  At some stage in history some foreigner thought they were being presented the eye to eat, and to avoid insulting his hosts promptly did so.  The Arab hosts then presumably thought eating eyes was some strange foreign custom!

 

Kyoto - March 2005

Nijo castle in Kyoto was created by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) to cement his power in the newly established Edo-based Shogunate.  The castle has "nightingale floors" which are deliberately designed to squeak when walked upon to detect intruders.  It has some impressive cherry tree paintings from the 17th Century on the sliding doors, but irritatingly the bossy proprietors don't let you take photographs (as you can see from the photo below).  Ornamental gardens are lovely and currently Kyoto is letting all people wearing Japanese traditional clothing into the tourist attractions for free, which explains why we saw so many kimonos.

Nijo Castle, Kyoto

 

Okazaki Shrine                                                                                                           Kyoto

 

 

Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum, Kobe

It's 10 minutes from our house with easy parking, it's free, takes 20 minutes to see the exhibits and you get a free shot of Sake at the end.

 

Piano Recital - March 2005

Edward practices for the school recital and then plays the recital:

   

 

Piano Practice                            Performance                                                                                 Kobe Rokkosan Pasture    

 

Oji Zoo, Kobe

 

Cherry Blossom 2005

 

Golden Week 2005 - Kyoto

We have a different set of visitors this year so we went to Kyoto and visited some temples and did the much enjoyed Geisha tea ceremony and Cherry Blossom Dance again (see also photos from last year).

 

Buddist Priest                                                                 Kyoto Geisha

 

Audio of priest's chant:       

 

 Miyako Odori (Cherry Blossom Dance)                                                            Geisha Singers                                               

 

Click to hear the Geisha singers:   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

geisha [gâ'sha], a "refined person".  Japanese woman of exquisite beauty, grace and elegance who entertains gentlemen of considerable means.  She is versed in the arts of music, drama and conversation.

 

Golden Week 2005 - Nara

Todai-ji Temple, Nara

 

Golden week continued with a trip to Nara where we were fortunate to arrive during a major temple festival. Parades of dignitaries in spectacular fashions and traditional dancing on a stage built on a lake drew the crowds.  Rows of stalls selling the Japanese versions of fast food added to the spectacle as well as filling the air with delicious aromas.

 

Todai-ji Temple Festival, Nara

 

Golden Week 2005 - Amanohashidate

 

Amanohashidate - "Heavenly Bridge"                                                                                                                            

 

Children Play on the beach                                                                                                                                 Wistaria

 

Golden Week 2005 - Himeji

 

Himeji Castle - May 2005

 

Clair's Party - 21st May

D.J.                                                                         Clair's Birthday Party

 

We opened our garden for the fist time this year to celebrate Clair's birthday.  She did her usual fabulous job on the catering and the garden was lit with coloured lights, flaming lanterns and candles.  The food, drink, music and dancing competed effectively with the F.A. Cup final and flowed enthusiastically through the night.  That is until the inevitable police car turned up at 1.00am and respectfully asked us to close down. 

 

Trip to Shiraisi Island via Kurashiki - June 2005

Okayama Prefectural Government have thoughtfully set up a number of International Villas as a non-profit service for foreign guests.  You can also make all the bookings in English.  These make an ideal weekend retreat for expats living in Japan.  One such villa is located on Shiraisi Island - a secluded and tranquil little island reached only by ferry off the south coast of Okayama Prefecture.  This is less than three hours from Kobe and the drive there takes you past the picturesque village of Kurashiki which is a perfect place for lunch.

 

Kurashiki

 

Kurashiki

 

As well as historic buildings and pleasant walks Kurashiki also has a theme park based on the famous Tivoli Park in Denmark.  This is an very worthwhile distraction  for the children and has a pretty reasonable rollercoaster and log flume.  The journey is then a further hour or so to Kasaoka where we (just) caught the last ferry to Shiraisi Island.  The International Villa is only a short walk from the ferry terminal, which was just as well as we had to carry all our baggage.

 

View from our International Villa, Shiraisi Island

 

A very pleasant deck with great view greeted us as we arrived at the villa which made us thankful we bothered to pack the portable barbeque.  The following morning we were able to rent a number of kayaks and paddle ourselves and a massive picnic to our own island for the day.  The children were completely absorbed with their new private little kingdom and played adventure games all day, taking particular pleasure in repeatedly attacking the shore SBS style from their canoes.  This distraction led to a truly wonderful, relaxing day for the adults. 

 

 

Our own secluded little picnic islet, near Shiraisi Island.

 

Another Gruelling Business trip to Hawaii - Maui June 2005

Mid-summer sunset in Maui - June 2005

 

The Ritz Carlton, Maui

 

- the mind numbing jet lag, the hours of tedious toil in windowless conference rooms, the stressful decision making, the relentless heat, the....  - OK it wasn't all bad...(and the girls were much slimmer than last time).

 

Japanese Alps - July 2005

Japanese Alps July 2005

 

Verity                                       White Water Rafting - Japanese Alps July 2005                                     Edward

 

The monsoon rains have finally arrived nearly a month late.  This soaked an otherwise enjoyable weekend we had planned in the Japanese Alps with some close friends.  The children had spent a week in a summer camp run by Evergreen where they mountain biked, sailed, kayaked, swam, hiked and camped to their hearts content.  Mum stayed at a nearby cabin and Dad joined them for some white water rafting and mountain biking at the weekend.

 

 

800 yr. old Temple of the Mountain - Nagano       Wet Landscape                                                          Zuijinmon Gate - Nagano

 

Path to Okusha Shrine

 

The path to Okusha Shrine is not as quiet as you might imagine

                                                                                                                                                                

Path to Okusha Shrine,  past ancient Cedar Trees  - Nagano

Okusha Shrine

 

The journey home to Kobe took us past Togakushi where we walked through ancient forests to reach historic Buddhist and Shinto temples.  The Temple of the Mountain claims to be one one the first Buddhist temples in Japan.

Koyasan - July 2005

Koyasan is the home of Japanese esoteric Shingon Buddhism and was founded at an idyllic mountain retreat in about 812AD.  This is a vast complex of over 100 temples which form concentric circles in the shape of a lotus blossom.  The site is surrounded by eight heavily forested peaks and permeated with clear running water.  A lantern trail winds through an ancient cemetery which has accumulated the remains of over 500,000 people hoping to be first in the queue when the future Buddha returns.  Where else in the world but Japan would you find corporate graveyards?  This is not for bankrupt companies but for the expired employees of Nissan, Toyota and other Japanese industrial giants.  Burial here must be the final company perk.

Kyosan temple complex winds through mature forests alongside clear running water.....

 

....a peaceful experience but with the potential to become a tourist trap.

 

Tokyo - August 2005

As our wives are on home leave we had a boys weekend in Tokyo - eating, drinking, fast cars and photography, champagne on top of Roppongi Hills, neon night clubs and real shopping in the excellent electronic stores.

Statue of Liberty, Odaiba, Tokyo                              Shinjuku

 

Tokyo Bay

 

 

National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, Tokyo                  Fuji TV, Odaiba

 

Tokyo Tower, Roppongi                                 Mori Tower, Roppongi Hills                             Shinjuku

 

Shimbashi Station                                                                                               The Controversial Yasukuni Shrine

 

London - August / September 2005

Home leave was mainly to take Edward to his new boarding school but we managed a tour of London.  The London Eye was surprisingly good, as was Westminster Abbey.  It is amazing how many famous people are buried here - from Henry V and Edward I to Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.  The weather was perfect, not too hot but sunny and clear with lightish crowds after the tube bombings.  As usual London was easy to find our way around with most of the sights in walking distance.  We managed to take the children to the Theatre to see We Will Rock You, a Queen musical, as well as Planet Hollywood for dinner and Smollensky's on The Strand for lunch.

The Houses of Parliament, Westminster

 

Thames River Cruise                                                 Tower Bridge

 

View from The London Eye

 

London Eye

 

Traitors Gate and the Tower of London                                                                              Institute of Contemporary Art

 

Trafalgar Square

 

 

Horse Guards From St. James' Park                                                                                            Cousins

 

Admiralty Arch

 

10 Downing Street                                    River Cruise                                                                                                          Westminster Clock

 

Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire

Brocket Hall

 

Auberge Du Lac Restaurant at Brocket Hall

 

Having dropped Edward at his new boarding school I tried to cheer Clair up by taking her to Brocket Hall for the night and booking the Auberge du Lac restaurant for some elegant dining and English country grandeur.  Swathed in beautiful Hertfordshire countryside it is just 22 miles from London.  The food was a fabulous 6 course taster menu cooked under the watchful eye of celebrity chef Jean Christophe Novelli, who chooses a different fine wine with each course.   Accommodation, dinner, wine and breakfast cost £299 for two between Tuesday and Thursday, but expect to pay more at the weekend. Brocket Hall was built in 1760 by Sir Mathew Lamb whose son was elevated to became the first Lord  Melbourne largely due to the efforts of his wife, who was mistress to the Prince Regent (later King George IV).  The second Lord Melbourne's wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, is better known for her very public and torrid affair with the poet Lord Byron.  So sticky goings on were routine in Brocket Hall. The current Lord Brocket was imprisoned on an insurance fraud in 1996.  He dismantled his excellent collection of very valuable vintage sports cars and hid them in his lake whist claiming hundreds of thousands of pounds in insurance.  He was caught and jailed and has subsequently leased Brocket hall to a golf and hotel company but is apparently prohibited from the premises.  Meanwhile, since his release, he has earned a reasonable living as a disgraced aristocratic celebrity.

Exploring The Tango Peninsula, Honshu, Japan - September 2005 

Japanese Fishing Village

 

We spent the weekend at the Kyotofu-Amanohashidate Youth Hostel with close family friends. On arriving we were relieved that the proprietors did not demand that we show proof of age and then have us unceremoniously thrown off the premises for being middle-aged and clearly not "youths".  Actually they were very friendly and were very forgiving for us not knowing the rules. They had misunderstood that we did not want to order breakfast, which they patiently kept laid out for us for two hours while we finished our sleep-ins, morning exercises and ablutions.  Having noticed that we failed to eat most of the rice and fish they had cooked, they provided what they would consider to be a western breakfast for us on the second day, which was very thoughtful.  We then failed to leave the premises by 10.00am, which we later discovered was customary, and got very confused about the correct footwear.  There were different slippers provided for toilets, showers and main sitting areas.  However we got our own private family room, with a tatami floor, futons and bunk beds.  In fact this was not much different to the generally austere Japanese hotels and considerably cheaper.  The main difference was sharing a bathroom and toilet with other guests.  It was beautifully situated in a bamboo forest near the sea and was clean and comfortably air-conditioned.  The cold beer machine in the sitting area was particularly welcome.  There was even a sofa.

 

Boat Trip, Tango Peninsula                                                                                Hill Shrine

 

A fish hawk showing off.                                                                                                                            Bamboo Forest

 

Our friends had already done some reconnaissance work in the area and had found a fabulous beach, deserted except for a handful of surfers, which made an ideal site for a barbeque.  The car park attendant had some sort of beach tractor contraption with a trailer which he kindly used to ferry our barbeque, portable fridge, picnic, children etc. from beach to car.  As I've said many times before, the service in Japan is second to none.  On the way back to the Youth Hostel we stopped at a local Onsen where we were able to wash off the sand and salt and then sit stark naked in a communal hot water spring bath whilst admiring spectacular panoramic views of the Tango Peninsula.

 

Home and Office

Our Kobe Lounge                                                  Our Kobe Lounge                                                My Osaka Office

 

 

 

Sailing the Mergui Archipelago, Burma - October 2005

Verity and Clair on the beach of one of 800 pristine deserted islands on the Mergui Archipelago

 

Edward finished his first half-term at boarding school and joined us for a sailing holiday in the Mergui Archipelago in Burma (now inexplicably called Myanmar).  We booked a skippered Charter on Ilala, a beautiful 65 foot cutter with our next door neighbours.  We flew to Thailand and drove to the Pak Chan River which defines the Thai - Burmese border.  There we hired a very noisy longboat for the 20 minute journey across a 3 mile wide stretch of river to meet Ilala which was moored in Kaw Thaung, Burma.

 

Longboat Water Taxis

 

 

Thai Immigration Hut                                                                                    Our Skipper Outside  Burmese Immigration Hut

 

Kaw Thaung, Burma                                                      Long boat taxi river crossing to our yacht

 

After the formalities of immigration we immediately set sail on the Andaman Sea to the scenic and deserted Mergui Archipelago.  This is made up of some 800 pristine, totally uninhabited islands  - many large enough to have a number of freshwater rivers.  Perhaps one of the last remote areas of earth this area has been completely closed to tourism for 50 years.  We came across the occasional Burmese fisherman and Moken Sea Gypsies, but not another village, building or tourist in a whole week of sailing.  We were even out of cell phone range.

 

Choose one of 800 Pristine Deserted Islands.......

 

 

 

See a video of a picnic spot on a deserted coral beach by a waterfall

 

 

All the islands are uninhabited with miles of deserted, pristine, coral beaches.  As well as exploring the islands there was plenty of opportunity for snorkelling, kayaking and fishing.  We were lucky enough to catch a dogtooth tuna on a fishing trip which provided eight of us with two meals on our trip.  I dived "Shark Cave" with our skipper, which was a fascinating underwater cave, but unfortunately, despite its name, we saw no sharks that day.

 

Dogtooth Tuna                                                        Another Deserted Beach

 

Cooling Freshwater Waterfall by a Coral Sand Beach

 

The islands were stunning.  It is very rare in this day-and-age to find deserted islands with fresh running water.  The Mergui Archipelago has hundreds - many with freshwater waterfalls which are perfect sites for picnics and cooling off from the hot tropical sun.  There were many miles of pure, white, soft, coral sand beaches.  We saw monitor lizards, eagles, dolphins, flying fish and monkeys.  Not all the wild life was fun - I was nearly eaten alive by sand flies on a beach early one morning, the bites of which were still itching intensely a week later.

 

Edward and Verity on Ilala                                                                  Burmese  Fisherman

 

 

Ilala Moored in a Quiet Bay, Clara Island, Mergui Archipelago, Burma

 

We planned a "Jungle Trek" expedition through prime Burmese rainforest in order to climb West Peak on the island of Clara.  This promised the chance to see a spectacular view of the island as well as experience unblemished tropical rainforest and hopefully see some wild animals.  This area has many wild boar, leopards, gibbons, snakes, squirrels and tropical birds.

 

Jungle Trek Start                                                                                      Following a stream up to the summit....

 

...a seven hour uphill trek through prime Burmese Rainforest....

 

....dark, hot and humid with regular water breaks and leech checks....

 

This was an arduous seven hour climb and the only clear route was up a stream as the jungle itself was too thick to walk through.  This was very hot and humid work.  We stopped often to drink copious amounts of water and check each other's legs for the blood-sucking leeches which infest the mountain streams.  Most of us got a leech at some stage but if you find them quickly they easily pull off leaving only a small bleeding hole.  However if they are allowed to linger they bury their head under your skin and are harder to remove.  There were few mosquitoes but many horse flies which were also big enough to leave a small bleeding wound after feeding on us.  Some of the ascent involved climbing up steep slippery rocks of waterfalls which took some courage and teamwork.

 

...but the fabulous view at the top was worth it.  West Peak, Clara Island, Burma.

 

The view at the top was truly spectacular.  We could see Ilala quietly anchored in a bay below and a backdrop of picturesque tropical islands which emphasised the remoteness of the area.  In fact this island was relatively crowded by comparison, as we shared the bay with a few Burmese Fisherman and a Moken Sea Gypsy camp.  I had to climb a tree to get the photograph as the vegetation is still thick on the mountain peak.

 

View from West Peak (500metres)                       Near the end - muddy, bitten and Clair unknowingly harbouring a little passenger...

 

Sneaky Leech attached to Clair's Abdomen                                                            Edward Helming

 

On returning to the boat Clair discovered a sneaky little leech guzzling on her abdomen.  It had surreptitiously crawled under her tee-shirt to avoiding detection.  It came off with the aid of a cigarette lighter but was later seen energetically vaulting across the deck of the boat looking for another victim.  We finally got it over the side where it doubtless became food for some grateful fish.

 

Relaxing on board in hammocks                                                                     Me Helming

 

In between the jungle treks, fishing, snorkelling, diving, kayaking, swimming and exploring deserted islands we still found time to relax on deck, sail the boat or just laze around in hammocks. 

 

Superb Food                                                                                                                                   Wet Skipper

 

Ilala is hosted by a husband and wife team who put in a tremendous amount of work to make this trip enjoyable and memorable.  They have been sailing these waters for eight years and are expert sailors, divers and guides.  Paul has immense knowledge of everything from safe anchorages, navigation and weather to excellent dive sites, fishing and boat engines - he even has qualifications as a ship's medical officer should any of us get sick or injured in this remote part of the world.  His wife Debbie provided three excellent meals per day, plus afternoon tea and snacks as well as welcome cocktails as the sun set over the tropical seas.  We could do as little or as much as we wanted in running and sailing the boat.  Ilala has all modern conveniences and can be sailed single handed if required.  It was wonderful to return from a hard day's trekking or snorkelling, in one of the world's last great wildernesses, and be welcomed aboard with an ice cold gin and tonic, before sitting down and eating excellent home cooked and fresh cuisine complete with wine list!  There was even a DVD player with plenty of films should we get bored with our tropical paradise or too tired to play in it.

 

Moken Sea Gypsy Camp

 

Moken Sea Gypsies                                                                                                                                        Moken Sea Gypsies

 

We were visited by some sea gypsies who were asking for some medical supplies for one of their fisherman who had cut his leg open on a manta ray.  These gypsies live their whole life on their thatched roof wooden boats and sail around the area catching sea cucumbers, which they dry and sell to Chinese tradesman as a culinary delicacy.  They occasionally land on a remote island where they set up a temporary camp and hunt wild boar and forage for food.

 

Verity Helms                                                              Deserted Tropical Island

 

This was a very enjoyable trip in an area of remoteness which I could not believe still existed.  To explore this archipelago with the support of a luxury yacht was truly a great privilege.

 

Autumn 2005 - Japan

November 2005 - Japan

 

 

Australia December 2005 / January 2006

Sydney Opera House, 1st January 2006

 

Tangalooma Resort, Moreton Island

Clair has dreamed of visiting Australia for many years and living in Japan gave us the ideal opportunity.  Australia is more or less on the same time zone as Japan so there was no jet lag.   Unfortunately poor Edward flew from London to Japan the day before our 8 hour flight to Brisbane. This was a great chance to spend our first ever Christmas in warmth and sunshine. 

After an early morning landing in Brisbane we boarded a ferry to take us on the hour long journey to Moreton Island where we would stay at the Tangalooma Wild Dolphin Resort for a few days to unwind.  Moreton Island claims to be the 3rd largest Sand Island in the world (it is more than 97% sand) and is 10km thick in the widest segment.  This is a wild life sanctuary for many animals but is particularly famous for its wild dolphins, which swim to shore each dusk for a free meal from the residents.  The beach and water were pristine and there were also plenty of activities out of the water.  It was great for families with lots of organised activities; from snorkelling and scuba diving to quad biking, helicopter rides and children's cricket matches.  The resort was not exactly exclusive, has probably seen better days and the food was a little limited, but suited us fine for a few days.  Apparently one of the largest Great White Sharks was caught here when it was whaling station in the 1960s.  It weighed a ton, although bigger ones have been caught since (but not landed).  Great Whites are rare here however, as the water is too warm.

Tangalooma Resort, Moreton Island                     A lonely 4x4 drives along the beach

 

Being a sand island there is a huge sand dune which is used for sand boarding.  This was surprisingly fast, although in a litigation conscious country the continual lectures and concerns for our safety became somewhat tiresome. We also had a sand "eco lecture" and learned that sand is used for manufacturing anything from sand paper to glass and sunscreen lotion.

 

 

Sand Boarding, Moreton Island

 

A helicopter ride gave us the chance to see how remote the island was outside the resort and see reef sharks and sting rays from the air.

 

Helicopter Ride, Moreton Island

 

It is apparently eco friendly to sink ships to help create an anchor for coral reefs to grow and provide a shelter for fish.  These ships were deliberately sunk for this purpose and also make an interesting dive site.

 

Ship Wrecks, Moreton Island

 

The highlight for Verity was the chance to wade out into the sea during dusk and hand feed some wild dolphins which visit the resort each evening in search of an easy meal.  They even have names - she fed one called Tangles.

Wallaby                                                                                                                                                Wild Dolphin

 

Quad Bikes                                                                                                           Cricket

 

Christmas Day 2005

Christmas Day 2005

 

From Moreton Island we flew to Cairns where we rented a two bedroom holiday flat from Coral Sands Resort on Trinity Beach.  Clair booked it because it had a washing machine (how sad is that?) but I was concerned that it was very cheap and may turn out to be a little "down market".  The flat turned out to be fabulous - well equipped, air-conditioned, two bedrooms, kitchen, lounge, balcony, cable TV and welcome snack pack with a camembert cheese and bottle of chilled wine. It even had a pretty reasonable swimming pool.  It finally dawned on me that Australia is just inexpensive and I chastised myself for being such a snob.   Coral Sands was right on the beach (although this was jelly fish season and beach swimming was restricted to areas inside "stinger nets") and near a couple of pretty decent restaurants.  Atlantis served our best meal of the holiday on Christmas Eve (the chicken in bread sauce was divine but Verity was reluctant to eat the rare peppered Kangaroo starter). We even managed to find traditional fish and chips on the beach front.  The Australians are a little more civilised than us in their fish and chip eating - it is eaten outside by the beach, with fresh lemon wedges to squeeze over your succulent fish, and washed down with chilled glasses of white wine.  Contrast this with soggy fish doused with vinegar, eaten out of newspaper on a freezing park bench and washed down with bottles of warm brown ale or polystyrene cups of luke warm tea (which is my memory from home). 

As planned, we spent Christmas Day on the beach, in the pool and al fresco in L'unico restaurant which served a great "traditional" Christmas dinner on the beach front.  The owner would only accept our booking after confirming that we were not Manchester United supporters.  He claimed to be a Chelsea supporter himself.

 

Christmas Day 2005

 

 

The Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef

 

On Boxing Day we set sail on the Santa Maria, a replica gaff rigged schooner, for two nights and three days of snorkelling, swimming and scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef.

 

The Great Barrier Reef                                                                                                                                      Scuba

 

I've scuba dived in the Red Sea, off Hawaii, Thailand and Burma.  All were very good (particularly the Red Sea) but none compare to the Barrier Reef for sheer scale and variety.  The Great Barrier Reef is undisputed as one of the world’s most important natural assets. It is the largest natural feature on earth stretching more than 2,300km along the northeast coast of Australia from the northern tip of Queensland to just north of Bundaberg.  It is apparently the only natural feature visible from Space.

 

Coral Garden

 

Different parts of the reef have very different marine life.  We explored three areas in all.   I saw my first shark whilst scuba diving (a relatively harmless white tipped reef shark) and knelt on the ocean floor whilst watching a giant turtle munch its way through an enormous piece of coral, apparently oblivious to my presence.   We saw florid giant clams the size of  a small cars, myriad shoals of colourful fish, sting rays, coral gardens, coral canyons and coral tunnels, cuttlefish, parrotfish, clown fish, jellyfish, trumpet fish........  The fish seem to think they were safe and were very inquisitive.   We had regular guests under the boat who would wait for scraps of food to be thrown over the side. 

 

Giant Clam                                                                Fish Coral Colony                                                          Cuttlefish

 

Lion Fish                                                                                   White Tipped Reef Shark

 

Sting Ray Close-up                                                                                           Flowery Cod

 

The Barrier Reef is a National Park so there is no polluting, fishing or harpooning allowed.  Nothing can be taken out of the park except photographs and memories.   I did however leave with a pseudomonas infection in my right ear (a problem I used to get in Saudi Arabia).  This got very painful, very quickly, and clearly needed some antibiotics if my holiday wasn't to be ruined.  On returning to Coral Sands I tried the phone number of the local doctors' practice.  I phoned them at 6.05pm only to hear a recoded message informing me that they closed at 6.00pm.    They gave the number of their emergency service, which I then phoned.  I was immediately phoned back by a very friendly and sympathetic doctor who saw me after hours, free of charge, gave me a prescription for some antibiotic ear drops and then telephoned the local pharmacy to ask them to stay open past their 8.00pm closing time to give me time to get there and have the prescription dispensed.  The pharmacist was more than happy to oblige.  On arriving in Sydney I was able to see a doctor at the local hospital, on New Years Eve, who  inserted a wick in my ear to aid my recovery - again for no charge.  I am pleased that the British NHS provides a reciprocal service for Australians visiting the UK.  Both countries have excellent healthcare so don't listen to anybody criticising socialised medicine unless they have experience of what they are comparing it to - the Australian and UK systems are both excellent.

 

Australian Wildlife

Australians are very keen to preserve their massive abundance of wildlife - not just in the Barrier Reef.  We were searched thoroughly at the airport on arriving in Australia - not just for bombs and drugs but for wooden objects, meats and plants which may bring diseases and pests in to the country and destroy their unique and varied wildlife.

 

Bats in Sydney's Botanical Gardens

 

Tree Frog  in Daintree National Park                                                                     Pelican on Lake Barrine

 

Kookaburra,  Moreton Island                                              Verity Cuddle's a Koala and...                         ...Feeds a Kangaroo

 

Fig Tree                                                         Daintree Rain Forest                             Lizard, Daintree Rainforest

 

Daintree

Also near Cairns is Daintree Tropical Rainforest.  An excellent way to see this is to take the scenic railway to Kuranda and then get a gondola back down, over the rainforest canopy of the Barron Gorge National Park.  You can stop off at various stations to inspect the rainforest from a nice clean wooden boardwalk.

 

Kuranda Scenic Railway

 

Tropical Train Station                                                                                Skytrain gondola over Rainforest

 

We also managed a boat tour to find some wild salt water crocodiles.  In the wild they are naturally elusive - not surprising for an ambush predator.  We even saw one female who was nesting - this is very fortunate as nesting females are even more reluctant to be seen.  We took a cooling swim in a freshwater billabong whilst our hosts brewed tea and cut up samples of the tropical fruits that grow in Australia.  We visited a distillery in the Atherton Tablelands which makes some excellent liqueurs (we sampled at least 4 including banana and Davidson's plum) and visited beaches where the rainforest and reef actually meet.

 

Wild Nesting Salt Water Crocodile                                                                    Edward and Verity Swim in a Billabong

 

Rainforest meets the reef                                                                         Lake Barrine

 

By this time we had stopped commenting on how relaxed, friendly and cheerful our Australian hosts seemed.   It had become clear to us that they had very little in their lives to make them hostile, stressed and miserable. The climate is glorious; the quality of life is outstanding; there is excellent education, healthcare and arts; fabulous food; relatively little crime; abundant natural resources; the right sports and plenty of space.  They have every reason to be cheerful. 

 

Sydney - New Year 2006

Our Hotel Room had views of Sydney Harbour Bridge...      ....Sydney Opera House....                                         ...and therefore the Fireworks

 

We ended up in Sydney for the last few days.  We were able to take in a few of the excellent museums, the botanical gardens and walk around a replica of Lt. Cook's Endeavour and learn a lot more about the history of this colony.  We tried a dinner boat trip around Sydney Harbour and enjoyed the cabaret afterwards.  The food in Sydney was universally impressive, the service good and the weather hot.  New Year's Day hit a record 44ºC (111ºF!).  Our main reason for visiting Sydney at this time was for their famed New Year's Eve Fireworks.  We booked the Intercontinental Hotel back in February.  I've stayed here before and knew we could get a room overlooking both Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House - and therefore a 25th floor, Grandstand view of the fireworks.

 

Sydney New Year Fireworks 2006

 

We were not disappointed.  Clair says this awesome firework display was the highlight of her holiday.  We sat in our room with a bottle of local sparkling wine, pate, cheese, crackers and Belgian Chocolates and watched, along with an estimated 1 million people below us on the streets of Sydney, as the local authority smoked $4 million of fireworks.  There was a display at 9.00pm for the children and a major light storm explosion at midnight with 3 displays simultaneously over (an on) the bridge, the opera house and the harbour.  The spectacle was amplified by the sight of hundreds of small boats sailing around the harbour, all decked with millions of coloured lights, also watching the pyrotechnic display.  Brilliant!

 

Happy New Year!

 

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