August 2014


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

After the chilly walks in the Blue Mountains, we were all thrilled to step off the plane in blissfully warm Carins (pronounces Cans) in north-eastern Queensland. Dad was quite brave and had volunteered to rent and drive a car on the left side of the road. This means that we were peering in the dark that night trying to find the right streets as Joan told Dad “Go left on the roundabout and take the –no the next one.” My brilliant sister was the self-proclaimed navigator, which incidentally ensures one has the front seat. Joan excelled at the key phrase “Take a right while keeping left, Dad.” We made it to the hotel without incident.

After a morning exploring the touristy main streets of Cairns, which make it hard to envision the town as a key staging base during WWII, we settled on a nice Thai restaurant. Over curry, we agreed that the marina had been breathtaking both for its lovely boats and the distant hills. The number of crocodiles in all the waters meant that the city had made a special pool area for residents to play in near the marina. Andrew loved downtown Cairns for its free Wifi that was for the city, rather than a particular establishment.

The drive up to Port Douglas that afternoon was breaktaking. Here is what I cannot put into words:


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

That evening at Port Douglas, we went for a walk on the beach about sunset. Joan denoted where we needed to return by spotting an “absolute value of X” ( lXl) shape in the palm trees near our entrance. Once the darkness began, we located our mathematical mark, and sat on the sand leaning against each other and waiting for the stars to appear. This naturally could hardly be done in silence. We got very excited to agree on the location of the Southern Cross. Finally, Dad complained about a cloud blocking his view of the Milky Way. “No, Dad, that IS the Milky Way,” Andrew explained, “you see more of it here in the Southern Hemisphere.” And it did in fact look milky. Just an amazing evening finding stars on the beach.

DSCN9153The next day, we drove up to Cape Tribulation, where the road in the Daintree Rainforest ends. Our first stop on this adventure was Mossman Gorge, which belongs to Aboriginals and has one of the few places to swim thanks to some fast-moving water. However, after sticking a single toe in the icy water, I left the ablutions to Andrew. While the foliage was remarkable, I was most excited to spot a Ulysses butterfly with its black and bright aqua wings.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Driving from Mossman to Cape Tribulation, we passed many sugar cane fields and even the sugar rail (the railroad tracks used to transport the cut cane), which reminded me of The Thorn Birds. When we passed a field of cane being cut, we saw a menagerie of birds circling or standing on the cut ground in anticipation of the snakes and mice making their way to “safety.”

Once back in the rainforest, I was again awed by the vastness of all the plants. Ferns and palms are never this big back home. We enjoyed the short self-guided walk through Jindalba and Dubuji, which is mangroves. It’s amazing to contemplate how this rainforest is the oldest in the world, about 180 million years old, enough to have been part of Gondwana, formed before Panagea. While driving on the gravel roads, we did not run into a Cassowary. Although Joan thought the narrow curvy roads were adventurous enough without a car accident with an endangered species, I’d been hoping to glimpse one through the trees a safe distance from our car.

Of course no trip to Port Douglas would be complete without scuba diving and snorkling in the Great Barrier Reef. Joan and Andrew did an intro dive, and Dad tried snorkling for the first time. My first was using an underwater camera while diving. The turquoise fish, red coral, and sting rays were a small sampling of the amazing sites. Dad spotted the Minka whale and Andrew swam with a sea turtle.

Australia 2014 - 4

(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Our final days in the north included a sunset cruise at Port Douglas where we spotted some lovely birds but only saw crocodile tracks. A quick drive over the mountains to the tableland (Rocky Creek, Mereeba) gave us a very different vision of local countryside. This part of Queensland countryside had termite mounds several feet high and wide and much less vegetation as the mountain plants strip the clouds of moisture as they roll inland.

Since Australia is roughly on par with the continental United States, it’s unsurprising that there is so much of the country that we weren’t able to see, even with two and a half weeks, but we were really pleased with how much we did experience. Going Down Under has been an awesome adventure!


20140719_112812Being residents (or former residents) of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, we decided that we had to explore the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Stepping off the train in Blackheath, we realized it was definitely below zero degrees Celsius with the wind chill. Immediately, we crossed offs the several three hour hikes we had planned. Within seconds we were struggling to drag our luggage directly into the wind with no idea where our hotel was. When we stopped at the first place for directions, I pulled on three more layers to make it the two blocks to our hotel.
The brick exterior of the New Ivanhoe hotel indicated character. One step into the lobby with its orange pattern from the 1960’s confirmed the date when the last renovation had taken place. The manager, her crimped dyed blonde hair helping her look straight out of East Enders, stood at the bar, which doubled as reception and couldn’t find the reservation we’d made the day before, but did we ask to see a room first before paying? Of course not.

(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Dad’s suitcase is unfortunately the broken one I took to Oxford, so he struggled up the stairs (no lift) and announced upon entering our rooms that we seemed to have free air conditioning. Indeed the hallway with its radiators was much warmer than our rooms which lacked any kind of great beyond the electric blankets on the beds. (We could not have made it through the night without them.) We each checked the windows thinking one must have been left open to create such a draft.

The men’s washroom had a sign saying that “wet paint. Use the ladies’ shower since no ladies are staying here tonight.” I turned to Dad and asked what that made Joan and me.

For Andrew, the greatest sadness was the inaccurate statement online proclaiming free internet, which in reality was 15 minutes upon purchase of a drink from the bar. My brother cannot survive without a virtual connection to the world. He went around asking people if they were using their Wi-Fi passes.

The freezing rooms made for more jokes than I could possibly write. We went from a dry comment about air conditioning to laughing so hard a single phrase could send us to tears. As Joan pointed out, a nicer place to stay wouldn’t have been so funny. Luckily, our second day the only funny thing that happened was our perfect timing, we missed every train by thirty seconds.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

While Blackheath is a bit quieter than Katoomba, it is harder to navigate without a car. Fortunately, Katoomba was a short twelve minute train ride away. Given the balmy temperatures, we decided to spend most of the day at Scenic World, where we could take two cablecars and the steepest train in the world (52° angle) top see amazing views without long hikes. The trolley dropped off in numerous places abd was regular. The Skyway offered breathtaking views of Katoomba Falls, the Three Sisters, Mount Solitude, and Orphan Rock. The Jamieson Valley is spectacular. From there we enjoyed the Prince Henry Cliff Walk, sheltered from the wind, to Echo Point. The exposed sandstone contrasted nicely with the hills covered in various eucalypts. Formed 200 million years ago as the Sydney Basin, this area was underwater. It rose up 90 million years ago.

20140719_121638​By far, we loved the train the most, riding it three times. After all, it did start with the Indian Jones theme song! At the end of the train ride, we walked through the temperate rainforest as Joan rejoiced in the lack of mosquitoes, and I shivered from the temperatures.  Andrew kept pointing to coal that was just lying on the ground. We saw a lyrebird, a Pied CurrawongTurpentine trees, Rough Tree ferns, Blue Gums, and much more. Braving the cold was worth it!

The day ended with a truly wonderful meal at the Piedmont Inn restaurant, which had a fabulous Greco pizza made in their brick oven. Corkage fee was only $1.50 a person but tragically I didn’t have a bottle of red on me.

Before leaving Blackheath on Sunday, we got a glimpse of Govetts Leap before the sleet began, and we headed back to Sydney to catch our plane to Cairns (Cans).

​Thanks to the American Revolution, the British were at a loss for where to send their prisoners until they found Botany Bay. Now recognized as Sydney, this location is a haven for many with its picturesque beaches and coastal views. Even rainy winter days cannot hide the city’s charms. I will however admit that nothing made the city quite as appealing as visiting my dear friends Laura and Nat and meeting up with my family.
DSCN4969 - Copy

(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

The most famous aspect of Sydney is without a doubt the Sydney Opera House designed by Jorn Utzon. The curved iconic “sails” of the exterior were deemed by many to be impossible to create when the design was submitted. I was truly impressed with how the nautical theme continued inside the buildings as well. I recommend the official tour as a great way to learn more about its history. Just across from the opera house is the well-known Sydney Harbour Bridge. Also at Central Quay (pronounced key), is the Museum of Contemporary Art whose cafe boasts a lovely view overlooking the harbor. After a day of touring, it was really special to end with a lovely meal with Nat and Laura, at Rockpool. The next evening, I was able to see Rigoletto performed in the Joan Sutherland theater. The production was excellent, but I must admit that the acoustics were disappointing.

Sydney’s museums are really charming. Loving science museums, a must see for me was the Powerhouse museum. Having just read Water, I was beside myself with excitement to watch one of Bolt’s original stream engines in motion. There was a great exhibit about sustainable living that determined if you use too much water when showering. For some odd reason, the costumes to Strictly Ballroom were on display as well. Hands down, the best exhibit was by Sean Tan called Oopsitorium, about the failed inventions of the fictional Henry Mintox. It’s delightful!

Another recommendation is the Art Gallery New South Wales. Not only located beside the beautiful Botanical Gardens, its free admission gives access to some lovely Australian artists as well as the usual montage. The Aboriginal exhibit was a main attraction for me. I’m fascinated by a culture at least 38,000 years ago and whose art is the oldest unbroken art tradition in the world.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

The Australian Museum was also worth a look. One of the great joys of traveling with my family is that while we all love learning, we’re interested in different things. I could never have enjoyed the mineral exhibit as much without Joan’s exclamations of “Look at this!” and Dad’s comments about which chemical compositions were rarest and which he’d taught his students. I was fascinated by the Scott sisters, who barred from university, were biologists in their own right through detailed illustrations and cataloging of flora and fauna. Dad liked the dinosaur exhibit, and I was intrigued by the powerful exhibit detailing the sad history of the Aboriginals, including the period between the late 1800’s and 1969 where the government took children away from their parents to “educate” them in being “civilized.”

DSCN4947 - Copy

Koala at Taronga Zoo, (c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

The Taronga Zoo is across the harbor from Central Quay and boasts a stunning view of the bridge, opera house, and commercial district. The zoo is the only place I’ve been able to spot a kangaroo or a koala (the koala was awake!). We also saw sleeping Tazmanian devils, red pandas, black swans, the pink and white galahs, and more.

A ferry to Manly, a northern Sydney suburb, was a great half-day excursion. Once you begin the walk from the beach, you soon forget that people and civilization is anywhere nearby. We enjoyed climbing along the cliffs and looking out onto the Pacific. Joan and Dad saw whales out in the ocean. Ending the day with homemade apple strudel and pumpkin soup at Rion Corso Espresso Bar was perfect.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Laura and Nat live near Gordon’s Bay, one of the best places for snorkeling in Sydney. Armed with a wet suit (it is winter here) and fins, I floated past lavender rocks covered in dancing seaweed. I spotted a sea urchin, a blue groper, a school of translucent fish, three sting rays, and a baby shark. When I resurfaced, there were dolphins on the horizon. It was incredible. Also along Gordon’s Bay, is a coastal walk up to Bondi beach. The walk atop the sandstone cliffs is really incredible in early morning as the sun rises.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

One of our favorite aspects of Australia has been the new and diverse flora and fauna here. We have been pleasantly surprised to see cockatoos, kookaburras, and rainbow lorikeets flying free. The figs are huge, impressive trees. The many varieties of eucalyptus keep their leaves even at freezing temperatures. The Blue Gums, a variety of eucalypts, are enormous (the tallest trees in New South Wales at 75 meters) with easily identifiable white bark. In contrast, the White Stringybark eucalyptus has dark brown bark that comes off in long strips. The tress Joan dubbed bottle brush trees because their flower heads resemble bottle brushes are known as banksias. Wattles are what the British settlers named the local Acacias.   Dad is amazed that palm trees reside next to conifers.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

​I gingerly place my feet on the cold tiles as I step out onto the balcony to absorb the sun rising over the ocean and the bay as the Gold Coast awakens. Nineteen stories up, the view is incredible as I shiver and try to convince myself to bask in the view just a little longer. I am finally on vacation. I am in Australia.

The new light rail train follows the curving track below  me on another test before it officially opens on the 20th of July. Being on a balcony overlooking the water, reminds me of Haifa, and for a moment I’m transported back five years and then to today’s sad news updates from there. But I’m on holiday.

When you say Australia, the first images that tend to come to mind are kangaroos, Crocodile Dundee, and the dusty Outback, which is a bit like picturing all the of U.S. as the Wild West. Those images are not south-east Queensland.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

The Gold Coast is near Brisbane, the capital of Queensland. While Brisbane is more of a cosmopolitan business center in the region, the Gold Coast mirrors a millionaire’s beach paradise complete with massive high-rises and a Versace hotel. This coast is broken up into hundreds of small peninsulas only a block wide and a few blocks long making water front property (either backwater or ocean) the norm. The peninsulas are connected by small bridges that proclaim neighborhoods “Surfers Paradise” and “Chevron Island.”

DSCN4702Equally amazing, a half hour car ride transports you from the beach to mountains and a temperate rainforest. Mount Tamborine has caves lit up with glowworms, views that remind me of Rockbridge County, and a rainforest that doesn’t feel humid or hot during these winter months. On the walk to Curtis Falls, I discovered a tree I could fit inside.


(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

North of the Gold Coast about three hours is the Sunshine Coast. We stayed overnight at RACQ in Noosa with several friends of Archie and Sharleen. For dinner at La Vida Restaurant tried barramundi, a delightful Australian white fish, and the restaurant’s atmosphere accentuated our lively conversations over good food and wine. Noosa reminds me of Hilton Head with its picturesque boutiques on Hastings Street and small town feel. We stopped in a cafe to have breakfast on the beach the morning before we left. A new reason to love Australians: they believe in ice cream for breakfast. Seriously, my pancakes came with butter pecan ice cream. Naturally after such a meal, a walk is in order.

Despite much time staring at trees, I did not see a koala at the Noosa National Park. The park, which surrounds the town, has stunning walks along the coastline which provide excellent vistas of blue gum trees, turquoise waters, and rocky cliffs.