Friday, March 27, 2009

Back on the Boat and Off to the Tropics

After almost 5 months in NZ and Australia, we returned to the Volendam on March 16 and put New Zealand behind us, at least for now.
It was comforting, as well as comfortable, to be back in a familiar environment after spending nights in about 80 different places during those 5 months, aided by the fact that the room looked identical to the one we were in last Fall. Almost immediately we fell back
into other familiarities, such as the towel animals left by the cabin attendant each night, not to mention the wonderful food and comfortable places to hang out on board.

Our first stop was Sydney, "across the ditch" as they say, but a fairly wide one at 1200 miles. The sailing into the harbor was exciting as we approached North Head, then viewed downtown over South Head,
and watched beaches and cliffside neighborhoods glide by.

We had a front row center seat in the harbor, next to downtown and just a few hundred meters across from the famed Opera House in one direction, and from the Harbor Bridge, aka The Old Coat Hanger in the other.

We spent two days in Sydney, and with perfect weather we could think of nothing better than continuing our hikes around the spectacular harbor. We walked 2 minutes from our cruise ship to the main ferry terminus, Circular Quay (pronounced "key" by the way), and twenty minutes later we were in Mosman Bay looking back at the Volendam and off into the bush.
The rocks in Australia are some of the oldest on the planet, a sharp contrast to those in New Zealand that are sometimes younger than cities in the US.

Our two hikes were along the north shore of the harbor, and we saw a surprising amount of fauna, including this kookaburra bird, pelicans, lorakeets, and a foot-and-a-half-long eastern water dragon.

The flora included eucalypts of all sorts, lantana, and the curious banksia, seen here in full bloom and in the late-bloom stage when it does an amazing imitation of a toilet brush.

We even got more than a few spectacular views, such as this one looking back out at North Head (left) and South Head, and some waterside views such as this stretch near Manly.

From Sydney we sailed two days and three nights north, into the Tropics. Our first tropical destination at 17 degrees South Latitude was Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Island group. A number of passengers took a bumpy boat ride 2 hours out to the Great Barrier Reef, but we headed instead to the island. The resort there was quite appealing, very laid-back, so of course we hiked right on by and uphill to this point where we could look back down the resort and -- to the far right -- the Volendam.

A little higher to the first peak and we could see ahead to Pinnacle Peak at the other end of the island.
They were generally nice trails that brought us to another closer view of the nearby reefs and our boat,
but alas just as we reached the second lookout the heavens granted us a tropical downpour. We had umbrellas with us and did not get totally soaked, though it was not far short of total by the time we were back.

Next was Cairns, just a bit further north. Here we joined fellow passengers Stuart and Carol for an interesting adventure. We caught a shuttle bus from town to the foothills where we boarded this cable car up into the mountains. From a high point we looked down to verdant fields of sugar cane, seen here close-up later in the day.

It was actually three cable car rides, the first two stopping at intermediate spots where we first did a rainforest nature walk, and at the next stop went to a lookout for a waterfall well below us. It was once much more spectacular, but the power company diverts most of the water these days to harness the 800' drop, about 2/3 of which you can see in this photo.

Notice that train across the gorge? That was the next part of our adventure, next that is after a lunch stop in Kuramba where we found this and other banyan trees. Close to where the cable car dropped us off we went to the leafiest train station

we've ever encountered, and boarded the Rainforest Railway back to Cairns.
It was a delightful trip over many trestles and through numerous tunnels, past several waterfalls besides the Big One, and past vistas back down to the coastal plain.

At last we were back on the boat, ready to refocus from the leafy rainforest to the Great Barrier Reef.

For an entire day we sailed along this famous place, but it was not anything like what we expected. Had we taken a small boat out to the reef and put on snorkeling gear, we're sure our aquasocks would have been figuratively knocked off, but we have to say that the Great Barrier Reef is anything but amazing from ship level,
unless you're Captain Cook or any of his many successors trying to steer a ship through this dangerous region. Many are "wet reefs," i.e. covered by water all or most of the time, and from our ship they were little more than light colored patches of sea. Some had a little more sand and a few plants, usually mangrove, and a few looked exactly like those cartoon images of an island with three palm trees, minus the stranded two sailors.

Notwithstanding the minimal visual impact, it was fascinating to see and to hear through commentary, maybe ten minutes out of each hour, about the human history of the reef -- you know, the usual murder, mayhem, shipwrecks and shark stories that are the stuff of Australian legend.

At last we sailed through Torres Strait, a relatively narrow passage between Australia and New Guinea with only one very narrow section deep enough for ships our size. Our final stop was Darwin,
which you may have seen depicted recently in the movie Australia. Our on-board historian and lecturer assured us that the movie was fairly accurate in how it depicted the first attack on Darwin. Although the Japanese attacked Darwin several additional times in WW II, it was Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day 1974 that really devastated the town, every bit as thoroughly as Katrina leveled New Orleans. With little historical to see and a botanical garden that was pleasant but not overly photogenic, we had a quiet day and caught up on some email,
and paid a visit to the local museum where we saw a wonderful collection of animals that can kill you, including this fellow known as "Sweetheart."

We made an important decision this past week, and chose to take the boat all the way back to Vancouver rather than disembark in Kobe Japan. The thought of trying to get our tandem and a lot more back to Seattle by plane was starting to make us hyperventilate, and this way we can have it delivered right to a rental car in Vancouver for a much less stressful portage back home. We got permission to get off the boat in Kobe and back on two days later in Yokohama, so we will get to spend two days with Jeff's son and family in Tokyo.

Well, next up is Bali and Java, Singapore, Bangkok and many other exciting places. Hopefully the boat will stop at a few more less-fascinating ports like Darwin so we can update you through our blog!

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