"Arctracer" Letters

Brisbane, and Hilary's Visit, Nov-Dec 2004

We've just returned from the airport after seeing our daughter Hilary off for her 24 + hour trip back to New York City. We had a wonderful time and lots of new experiences. Even though we ate well, we must have lost a little weight with all our walking.

We arrived in Brisbane on November 17th and moored between pilings at the Botanical Gardens - very close to the city center. Hilary arrived from NYC on the 20th via Los Angeles and Auckland, New Zealand. We barely had time to clean the boat before her arrival. Public transportation here in Australia is wonderful so we made use of trains, buses and ferries when distances were too far to walk. We think it is neat that they use the river as part of their public transportation system and the fast ferries are a very quick way to jump from one part of the city to another. There are even free buses that run continually during weekdays in the center of town - good when carrying lots of groceries, but not too practical most of the time as you can walk to your destination almost as quickly as waiting for the bus. A taxi to or from the airport is the same price as three train tickets, so that's a good deal when dealing with luggage.

Food - We ate extremely well during Hilary's stay. We had Spanish Mackerel and Spotted Mackerel (caught on our trip south from Bundaberg), lots of salads and vegetarian sandwiches, spaghetti and lasagne. For Thanksgiving on the 25th of November we ate large stuffed mushrooms and Prawn Scampi, and it was so wonderful we did it again later. Hilary made delicious stir-fried rice with chicken and also made guacamole for veggie sandwiches. We had gourmet turkey sandwiches (cranberry relish, lettuce, turkey breast, tomato, avocado, camembert cheese and crushed pepper) first in a Charleville restaurant in the Outback and then a couple of times on the boat. We had Caesar salad (with home-made croutons seasoned with rosemary and two whole garlic bulbs in the dressing), fettuccine Alfredo, samosas with basmati rice and dahl and more. We lunched and snacked often during our walks in the city, and enjoyed several smoothies (thick ice cream and fruit milkshakes), but our most spectacular meals were cooked aboard by Nina.

Malls - We walked to HUGE malls in the city, finding ourselves lost on more than one occasion. The Queen Street Mall (pedestrians only) is lined with all kinds of shops and restaurants, and has two stages where free performances are frequent. Broadway on the Mall has 65 specialty shops; MacArthur Central has 40 stores; The Myer Center has 180 shops, a huge food court and cinemas; Wintergarden has 90 stores on 3 levels; and the David Jones department store has 5 floors of shopping. Besides The Queen Street area there is Chinatown and several other sizeable shopping districts.

Outdoor Markets - Brisbane hosts several open-air markets on weekends, including those at Eagle Street Pier, Riverside, South Bank, King George Square and Chinatown in Fortitude Valley. Some open Friday through Sunday, but all are open on Sundays. We have seen lots of neat ideas for making jewelry and other things. They also have food booths, Australian crafts, used books, DVD's and CD's and more.

Walks - Brisbane has wonderful walking tracks along the river and through parks. We walked through the Botanical Gardens to South Bank several times to go to markets or movies. Once across the river we enjoyed the long ENERGEX Arbour which has bougainvillea growing around and up its arches. Adjacent to it are shops and restaurants, a subtropical rainforest, a "beach" (inland from the river), a huge convention center, art galleries, universities, and the Queensland Museum. We spent a couple of afternoons at this museum which has the 12' sailboat that Australian Serge Testa sailed around the world. We met him in Trinidad and he signed his book for us. We also enjoyed its Australian Wildlife exhibition, the Outback scenes and descriptions, the Pacific Islanders instruments, masks, weapons, tools, baskets, and other handicrafts. We also walked to the huge Roma Street Parkland which has beautiful flower beds and trees (all labeled). On another walk we found the Museum of Brisbane with a few exhibits including interviews and photos of people who have immigrated here from Sudan. It's a great city for people-watching, and seems to be a very safe city to wander around alone.

Day Trips - We took a few day trips. We took a bus to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary where we saw a Merino Sheep show with sheep dog Sophie, LOTS of Koalas, cassowaries, snakes, wombats, birds (including a tawny frogmouth on a nest), squirrel glider (a marsupial), wedge-tailed eagles, monitor lizards (including some begging near a table at the food court - a first encounter for us). We learned that Koalas eat the leaves of 60 out of the 800 varieties of eucalyptus trees here in Australia. From the Sanctuary we went to another Botanical Gardens and the Planetarium on the way to Mt. Coot-tha Lookout. The lookout has fantastic views of the city. A one day ticket allows you to go on any of the public transportation for the day, so from the Lookout we caught another bus to the Brisbane River and took the City Cat Ferry to New Farm Park - a beautiful large park with an area that is becoming a very in-place to live. Many run-down homes are being remodeled and the real estate prices are high - mostly between $300,000 to $600,000 for an ordinary home there now.

Trip North to Mooloolaba and Eumundi - One rainy Wednesday we rented a car. The car rental place is supposed to be open by 8:00 but the employee arrived at 8:45 when we picked up the car and 8:30 when we returned it, so we had to wait. Maybe this is just a big island? We drove north to Eumundi which has the best and largest outdoor market that we've ever seen (also open on Saturdays). We enjoyed walking around and looking at the crafts and other things, but didn't have time to see all the booths before they closed at 1 p.m. On the return we stopped at the Buderim Ginger Factory in Yandina where they do all kinds of things with the ginger they grow. We tried a few varieties of ginger ice cream and sorbet. The next stop was to take photos of the "Big Pineapple." Throughout our travels in Australia we've seen "Big" items - the Big Lobster, the Big Sheep, the Big Banana, etc. Often you can walk inside these things to gift shops. Hilary wanted to go to "Underwater World" in Mooloolaba to dive with some scary sharks. However, we didn't get there until two hours before closing time and all the seal shows were over and it was too late in the day to take the necessary dive lesson before swimming with the sharks. We're sure she'll dive with sharks and swim with dolphins sometime in the future. Since we didn't go to "Underwater World" we had a chance to walk on the beach, put our feet in the surf (cold to us after experiencing water nearer the equator for several months), and eat dinner overlooking the ocean.

Outback - After studying several possibilities, we decided to go to Charleville and Quilpie, 1000 km west of Brisbane. It was an overnight train trip (7:20 p.m. to 11:50 am). We saw lots of coal cars on trains going in the opposite direction. When it got light at 5 am we saw lots of kangaroos, wallabies (smaller than kangaroos), padymelons (smaller than wallabies), emus, a rabbit, goats, sheep, beef cattle, horses, galahs, black and white magpie larks, lots of very long fences, many satellite dishes, ant hills, dams (some full and others dry), mostly dry creeks, billabongs, road trains (trucks with 2-3 trailers attached and used mostly to transport livestock and fuel), large cacti (some with red flowers) and lots of road kill (in various stages of decay including bleached bones as the animals are apparently not removed from the roads.) We were warned that it is very dangerous to drive at night with all the nocturnal marsupials. Most vehicles in the outback are white to reflect the sun and many have huge grates on the front of their vehicles to prevent damage when they hit marsupials. It was VERY hot when we got off the air-conditioned train. The first thing we did was to fill our water bottles with "bore" water from a tap outside the station. We had to let the water run for a while until it was cool enough to drink. We walked a few kilometers, but quickly decided to rent an air-conditioned car. It was definitely too hot to spend a lot of time walking. We were about the only tourists around as few visit the Outback in the southern hemisphere's spring and summer months. It is very hot, and seasonal rains can cause flooding which stops all transport for weeks.

We drove to the town of Augathella (Home of the Meat Ant - whatever that is) which was established in 1805 - a relatively old town for Australia since the first convicts arrived in Botany Bay near Sydney in 1788, creating the first "white" settlements in Australia. The aboriginals had been occupying the land for thousands of years before that. We saw signs that said the road trains are up to 53.3 meters long. We also saw wallabies, lots of bee hives, and had a couple of near misses with kangaroos on the Matilda Highway. We stopped by a car with dented bonnet (hood) and broken windshield next to a dead kangaroo, but the young woman had already contacted friends via cell phone and did not need our assistance. We had take- out Chinese food that night in our cabin at the Cobb and Co. caravan park. We entertained ourselves with Australian television for a short while (one person shown decorating hermit crab shells?!), but were very tired from our overnight train trip and slept well.

Opals - The following day we drove 300 kilometers to Quilpie in the boulder opal area.

Australia has 3 major types of precious opal - black opal from Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, white opal from South Australia, and the Queensland boulder opal. Boulder opal is found within ironstone boulders, filling concentric, radial, or random cracks in the ironstone. Boulders are generally elongated or ellipsoidal ironstone-rich concretions, which can be up to 3 meters long and 1 meter thick. Only a small portion of boulders contain precious opal. Small ironstone boulders up to 5 cm across are known as 'nuts.' Opal can be found in the nuts between concentric layers, as a network of thin veins or as a kernel filling the centres. For boulder opal, some of the ironstone is left attached as a natural backing, producing natural doublets. Doublet opal is opal which has been detached from the host rock and then cemented onto a natural stone background. The value of an opal is subjective and depends on many factors. These include the size of the cut stone, the perfection of the cut and polish, the body colour and the play of colours. Black or dark body colours are more valuable than white or light colours. Also important are the extent and pattern of the play of colours, intensity or brilliance, and the actual colours present. Soundness of the stone is also considered, as there should be no cracks or flaws.

Opal is Australia's national gemstone. We arrived at Mark's "Sunrise Opal" shop just as he was about to close for the season. During the summer he goes to the seacoast and shows his jewelry at street markets there, where it is much cooler than the Outback temperatures of 35 - 40 degrees Celsius (95 - 104 degrees Fahrenheit). Nina found out how fragile the cut and polished boulder opals are when she dropped the one she bought onto a tile floor and it broke in half. This was sad. Hilary found some cut and polished boulder opal that she liked and plans to have a ring and necklace made.

During our drive we saw wallabies, six foot high hills made by "white ants", dry creek beds in the rocky red soil, hawks (which clean up much of the road kill), rainbow lorikeets, gorgeous red-winged parrots, emus, lizards, straight stretches of road over 6 km long, the ghost town of Cheepie that used to be a large rail town, Lake Houdraman with pelicans, ibis, ducks and timid cows attempting to stay in the shade of very small trees. All but two of Quilpie's streets have bird names, and most are the aboriginal names. After shopping for opals we met Lyn Barnes, a local artist who paints outback scenes. She was very friendly and told us where to find red sand dunes in the desert (too far away for us to see this trip). We visited the church in town with its opal altar and then talked with Lucy at the information center. She told us where to find rocks just outside of town that were dumped from a mine for locals and tourists to do some fossicking. We spent some time there with our chipping hammer, but it was so hot that we didn't crack too many of the small boulders. However, we did bring home a few rocks with opal streaks through cracks. One brochure that we read advised:

The best time to visit the opal fields is April - September. Summer should be avoided due to the high temperatures and possible heavy rains making road access impossible in some areas. Road conditions should be checked with the RACQ or local police. Emergency supplies including food, water, first aid kit and vehicle spares should be carried when traveling in remote areas.

Next, we headed to "Baldy Top Lookout" to see an Outback sunset. The sunset the previous night had been hidden by trees so we were hoping to have a good viewpoint for our last chance to see one of the famous outback sunsets. We climbed two fairly steep hills trying to figure out which of them was the best spot, and decided to reclimb the first one. We waited on top 30 - 45 minutes for the sun to set. It was a cloudless day and there was a hill on the distant horizon so our expectations weren't too high and we didn't get too disappointed when the sunset was far from spectacular. At least Hilary got a photo of brumbies on the way back to town. In case you don't know, brumbies are the wild horses in Australia.

After a night in a cabin at the Channel Country caravan park in Quilpie, we drove back to Charleville. On this trip we counted 21 emus with up to 8 in a bunch. We stopped once to photo several baby emus that didn't seem to have any adult attending them. We stopped at the only town along the way, Cooladdi, with a population of six. We were able to get cold drinks and look at their many cages of birds. We made another stop to get rid of some of the rocks we had collected. Jerry chipped, and we got rid of more than half their weight.

Jerry returned the rental car while Hilary and Nina stayed at the rail station with the luggage. The rail attendant let us get on the train a couple of hours early so that we could be in air-conditioned cars. This was a real luxury. We could concentrate on reading our books better than we could have in the afternoon heat. It was another overnight trip back to Brisbane - 6:15 p.m. until 11:15 am. During the hour before sunset we saw more kangaroos, wallabies and padymelons on the big farms where a few sheep and cattle try to find something to eat. By the time the sun rose (about 5 am) we were out of the red soil of the outback and approaching the Great Dividing Range. These mountains aren't nearly as tall as our Rocky Mountains, but do provide some different Australian scenery. Then we got into suburbs and finally reached the center of Brisbane to end our Outback excursion.

We had a good time watching movies on DVDs, going to a couple of recent movies, and listening to music. Movies in Brisbane cost $7 to $14 Aus (with the U.S. dollar now near 80 cents rather than the 52 cents it was the last time Hilary visited Australia in 2001.) We especially enjoyed "De-Lovely" about Cole Porter. We bought a DVD player & a special connector for our ancient small television within the first few days that Hilary was here. It plays both American and Australian formats, plus plays MP3s (which we own none of) and CDs. Hilary brought several DVDs for us to watch and learned that instead of watching movies at home on rainy days, we watch them on sunny days when the solar panels are creating enough electricity. A few times we had to stop DVDs in the middle of a movie as there wasn't enough electricity to finish seeing it. One time we tried to run an engine to watch a movie, but it was too loud and we couldn't hear well. We also enjoyed the Diaz Show on a very special DVD with star performers Sara, Nico and Antonio, watched 9 episodes of "Freaks and Geeks",and watched DVD movies "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Freaky Friday," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Love Actually," "Captain Ron," and "The School of Rock." Nina definitely wants to see the Harry Potter movie again on a larger screen and wants to see "The School of Rock" again - what a wonderful movie from this teacher's point of view!

Music - New technology never ceases to amaze us. Listening to Hilary's iPod was great - 9 hours worth of music on one tiny machine. We also listened to a CD made by Aussie singer John Williamson with Australian Songs. We'd seen him in Canberra when Sara and Nico were with us in 2001, and again later at his concert in Bowen.

Cirque du Soleil's "Quidam" (out of Montreal) - Hilary had seen two of their other shows in New York and highly recommended that we see this one - a very good recommendation indeed. No animals - just clowns, acrobats and other amazing people doing wonderful things. We couldn't believe the performance! What talent we saw!

Rainy the last week - Jerry made repairs to our jib and did some engine trouble- shooting for a possible trip to Morton Island sand dunes and snorkeling. However, the weather didn't cooperate, so we found plenty of other things to do. Jerry took his computer apart, and finally fixed a broken solder connection after Hilary left. We did a lot of walking in the rain, but it's warm here so no worries (as the Aussies would say). At least we got to fill our water tanks and several jugs with the rain water. It had been almost a month since we'd filled them. We also played Shanghai Rummy and all won at least once. While Hilary was here we had some cool evenings and needed to put on long pants and warm tops. It is continuing to get warmer as summer approaches though, and we were usually warm in just shorts and t-shirts.

Reading - During Hilary's visit we heard about Australian author Tim Winton. Hilary read his book "Cloud Street" and ordered "Dirt Music" (via the Internet) to read at home. Books are very expensive here, and she found that ordering a used book on the Internet was MUCH cheaper than any we could find here. She also finished reading "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

It is a little inconvenient here to get ashore because we row and the currents are sometimes swift with the tide rising and falling up to 9' per day. We often planned our trips ashore to not coincide with the strongest current and took hot showers at the amenities block on shore before returning to the boat at night to minimize the number of trips. We only needed to do laundry once during Hilary's stay. It was Nina's first time using machines to do laundry since she was home over one and one-half years ago! Luxury indeed! Of course it rained REALLY hard when returning with the dry clothes so they had to be dried again back on the boat. :-)

After reading a newspaper article about the hazards of VIOXX, we threw out all that was on board. Nina used it before and after her knee operation in 2001. She had prescriptions from both U.S. and Australian doctors. Peter and Katheryn on "Arctracer" the Schooner invited us over for an evening. Peter is doing a lot of work on her and she is looking good. They are very nice people, but Katheryn isn't keen to sail too far.

We missed one photo opportunity during Hilary's visit. An ibis used a crosswalk to walk across a street in Chinatown one day. What a film that would have been! The ibises here are almost as common as pigeons in NYC. Every evening on the boat we can see lots of flying foxes coming in to feed all night on fruits and flowers in the botanical gardens. We also hear laughing kookaburras even though we're in the city. We feel lucky to be by the botanical gardens where they hang out. We've heard there are possums ashore after dark too, so may look for them on some evenings. We looked about 8 p.m. one rainy night but didn't see any. We do hear them sometimes from the boat. Begging ducks swim by the boat. Some cruisers feed them bread but we don't because we aren't sure it's good for them.

(view photos of Hilary's Visit)