Airlie Beach

Good morning from Airlie Beach! Home of the Whitsundays, backpackers and not much else. The Whitsundays are a group of about 75 small tropical islands in northern Queensland. It’s a very popular destination for sailing (sail, drop anchor, bar-b-q, repeat) in Northern Queensland.

Sarah and Xavier had planned a sailing trip to a nearby island resort, and I was off to swim with the fishes in the Great Barrier Reef.

Unfortunately Sarah’s sailing trip was cancelled at the last minute due to boat failure. 😦 Instead, She and X went to check out the town, and the local swimming hole.

The thing with beaches in Northern Queensland is that while they are beautiful, you can’t actually swim there at this time of year. Summer is “stinger” season, and at times you can see hundreds of very nasty jellyfish floating around in port. So, local councils create elaborate swimming pools for people to go to instead. Sounds like it was fun, but without a sun shade, too sunny for sonny. He was flush by the end of day and needed a break from the heat.

One thing they did find that was super cool was a beach caravan if camels passing through a playground.

Meanwhile, I hopped on a catamaran and darted off towards the Great Barrier Reef, a big item in my bucket list. The small cat ran for two and a half ours straight out into the ocean. Somehow, here was a floating platform there with change rooms, picnic tables and a waterslide.

I paid a bit extra and took an entry level scuba diving tour through the reef. It was breathtaking. The coral wasn’t as colourful as I expected but the fish more than made up for it. At the end the guide offered to take us for another twenty minutes (or until our air ran out, whichever came sooner) but I had to pass. Scuba is fun, but I was concentrating so hard on not concentrating on my breathing (apparently thinking about it is more likely to cause panic) if actually developed a cramp. In my face. Of all the stupid things…

So, back on the luxury barge for a dip, a visit to the water slide, some food and a few snaps from inside of the underwater observatory.

What you can see is the huge number of fish that were out at the reef. I had no idea. What you can’t see is the school of silverbacked baitfish – each fish is the size I my pinkie, but the school was bigger than a city bus. Or the giant, overly friendly, ugly-fish (that’s my name, I don’t know what it was actually called) that would swim up to you if you waved at it.

This was my top pick for the trip and I wasn’t let down.

Tomorrow, we will be heading up to Cairns (rhymes with cans) to explore the Daintree rainforest.

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The Top End

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For my birthday this year I did something a little different. I flew to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory to teach school kids how to build Lego robots. A small group from my office was heading up and they were a person short. I’d had some related experience at an earlier job, and Darwin was on my shortlist of places to see, so I jumped at the opportunity (and then asked my wife, who kindly said yes).

The entire flight up I had my nose glued to the window. We didn’t quite go over the red centre, but we went awfully close. I finally got to see some red dirt! (#1 on my Aussie bucket list) The dessert is beautiful. Way more colourful than I’d thought it would be. Most of the colour seems to follow what must be seasonal waterways. There were also some stunning views where you could see a roadway down the middle of the landscape with dessert on one side, and grasslands on the other. I guess just having a concrete barrier was enough to break up the encroaching sand and let the new growth get started.

After landing in the city I had a chance to take a short trip around downtown. Its a sizable community by my standards, but feels very small. Most buildings are one or two stories tall, and the CBD is made up of small shop windows along quiet streets. It reminded me a lot of PG in terms of the feel of the city.

One other thing that stood out was the large indigenous population in the area. In particular in the city parks. I don’t know the community well enough to fairly describe them, but I can safely say that there were a lot of people hanging out in small circles or sleeping in the shade. While I definitely got the feeling that poverty and substance abuse was in play, I can’t say for sure if that was the case, or just my own bias from back home where that’s very definitely the case. On a few occasions I tried comparing what I was seeing with what I’ve seen before and was rebuked. This was something different.

One thing that I did think was weird was that I couldn’t make my way down to the water. I tried finding the beach but didn’t have any luck. When I got back to the hotel someone told me that there’s a very good reason for that: the beach is home to giant salt water crocodiles. They live in the ocean along the top of Australia, and Darwin was built in the middle of one of their natural habitats. One of the ladies I met told me that it felt like a cruel joke to be so close to beautiful beach, in a city that is 32-34° 360 days a year, and not be able to swim. To help out a bit,the city maintains several inland outdoor swimming pools that are freely available to locals looking to beat the heat.

That night we visited the Middle Markets, a good and stuff market that takes place along a safer stretch of beach. You still didn’t see anyone in the water but people did get a lot closer to the edge. The markets are the place to be on Thursday nights and thousands of people showed up in style (big caravans and deck chairs) to grab a bite and watch the sun set.

On our second day in the city we went to a nearby school to help Grade 5&6s learn about robots and programming. I won’t go into much detail other than to say that it was a very fun, and very rewarding day.

That evening my colleagues surprised me with a mini birthday celebration. I had this lovely pin, silly hats, dinner, wine and churros for dessert.

The third day was a bit of a strange one. I couldn’t do too much, as most of the tours ran at odds with my flight home. But there was one thing I could do that seemed really unique I ended up tagging along with my colleagues again as they drove an hour towards nowhere to visit a school in Bachelor, NT. This is a city of about 480 people, half of which come from the local indigenous community. They had a small group up there building much larger robots for a competition later in June. I. The short time that I was there I met with about a dozen different folk from northern Queensland and the northern territory. I also go to take explore the school grounds for a bit which were lovely. Tropical climates are totally foreign to me and just about square metre contains something cool to look at. Pics below. I joked with one of the guys at the school that even the toilets were amazing – after stopping in for a pit stop I spent the next five minutes admiring large butterflies, teeny lizards, exotic spiders and a bunch of other interesting critters.

We ended up very very close to Lichfield National Park, which is the home of those giant magnetic termite mounds. I didn’t see any of the giant mounds, but there were plenty smaller mounds on the local school grounds. It looks like they crop up at the base of a tree or thick shrub and then grow as the little guys feast. There were a few places on campus where the mound had got a few feet high and the associated tree had been cut short.

I think that by any Australians standards it was a pretty dismal trip. But I still get a big thrill every time I see something that’s not North American. Termite mounds, stubby palm trees, crocodile infested waters – it’s all amazing. Meeting some of the folk from the local indigenous community and sharing some stories was equally incredible. On top of that, working with the kids is always me sly rewarding. Nearly three classrooms joined us, and nearly every kid there (and a few of their teachers) had a blast.

Winter Visit!

I’m so stoked – we have planned (notice the past tense) a trip to North America for January/February this year.

Over the trip, we will fly nine times, and travel nearly 30,000 km. We were originally hoping to make it over for the Christmas period, but the cost of travel between December 4 and January 14 is just too high. Our initial quote on airfare was for $11,000. Pushing this out a few weeks helped us drop that cost by a huge amount, and made it possible to use points (both ours and as a gift from my in-laws). 

One of the cool side effects of traveling at the time of year is we will be hitting the peak of summer, and winter, over the course of the month. Last January saw temperatures upwards of 40 degrees in Sydney, and below -30 in Prince George. Poor Xavier hasn’t yet seen snow, or experienced temperatures below zero, so he’ll be in for a surprise.

So look for us in California during the last two weeks of January, and Canada during the first two weeks of February. We’ll be the family shivering by the fire. 🙂

The Island of Sodor

Next Stop: Sodor!

Today we went on a bit of an adventure out to the Trainworks Museum, about 90 minutes south west of the city in Thirlmere. On most days, the Trainworks museum is a historical train museum, showcasing bits of railway history over the last hundred years. Today, they had a much younger audience, who had come to see Thomas the Tank Engine!

Xavier had a blast hopping up and down on the trains, and even got to take a 45 minute ride on a steam engine. He spent most of the trip standing on the rails between cars watching the slats move beneath his feet.

Back at the event, they had tiny train rides set up, an opportunity to take a ride on Toby, or get your picture with Thomas and his friends. They also had bouncy castles and slides which Xavier loved. (Who doesn’t?)

Back from Adventure

I think when one starts creating Venn diagrams to describe life’s problems, they may have crossed some kind of mental breaking point. In any case, I’m back. Both physically (from an exploratory journey to NA) and mentally (from a brain imploding what-am-I-doing-with-my-life adventure).

The trip was really great. Not only did I get to spend the better part of a day with a couple of friends – mostly eating and playing with rubber balls – but I talked with 9 different people about possible job opportunities within my current company. I also got a few insightful opinions about opportunities in general.

Last year, after having been here about 8-10 months, I’d asked a few folks about opportunities within the company in other areas. They were super standoffish to the point of being rude. I guess there’s some unwritten rule about ‘thou shalt not so much as talk about changing jobs within thine first 12 months.’ Now that the barrier has been breached, the tone of conversation couldn’t be more different. Each of the people i talked with were super open to change, and were all really keen to talk about best fit from a team perspective.

It’s going to take me some time to sort out what makes the most sense for me – I think I need to carefully balance a few different factors: is the change a good career move? is taking an easy path a cop-out that I’ll later regret? Should I work on a project I don’t like because it has high exposure, or work on something I’m good at that will probably flop, or work on something that’s boring but looks good on a resume, or work with people who are super interesting. Blah. I think I feel another Venn diagram coming on. One thing that we did determine is that one of our geographical options – Seattle – is probably off the list.

Anyhow, does this mean that I’m moving to NA?

Well, not just yet. There are some opportunities here as well that I want to explore. Plus, we just signed a 6 month extension to our lease.

On thing that has been kind of surreal about the whole experience was the timing of the trip in relation to what our plans were last year. Originally I had asked for a sabbatical from my prior employer. They turned me down. Had they agreed, then I would have been taking the same flights through Vancouver, but without the return trip.

That time we found a still in a flower garden

The entrance to the distillery. It just gets nicer after this.
The entrance to the distillery. It just gets nicer after this.

The fourth of six catch-up posts that I hope to get out in February.

One of the fabulous Christmas gifts we received from our chef friends was the Foodies Guide to Sydney. This is not a restaurant guide; I have plenty of those. This is a guide to grocery stores, gardens, markets, bakeries, coffee roasters, and other purveyors of fine foods. Seeing as vacation = food, this was the perfect accessory for our summer excursions.

We consulted the guide on several of our excursions, and on the first day Nick was here we opted to take a short detour through the Central Coast on account of the recommendation of Distillery Botanica – a Gin distillery just outside the city bounds. How could we pass up the opportunity to visit a fully operational distillery, especially one who specialises in Gin, and native botanical liqueurs?

Distillery Botanica — recently rebranded from St Fiacre — is set in an old gardening centre. The proprietor, Philip Moore, has a long history as a gardener, and after developing an allergy to the liquor of the region (wine) he decided to retool a little and start making spirits. In particular, he wanted to highlight the flavours of the region, and he incorporates local herbs and such into his products whenever possible.

A lot of his inspiration in the production was taken from the London Dry Gin style, and the flavours in the Gin are very familiar. He showed us around the distillery, and took us into the back to show us his two copper stills. The big one had six separate filtration chambers, each one allowing him to refine the taste in his raw alcohol to be a little cleaner than the chamber before.

Copper Pot Still
Copper Pot Still

After the tour, he took as back to the entrance for a tasting. We of course tried the gin (delicious!), but also some of his liqueurs. The raspberry liqueur was a clear crowd favourite. It tastes of purse raspberry with a nice balance of sweet and tart, and no hint of alcohol at all. His other, native flavours included things like Lemon Myrtle, Mountain Pepperberry, and Wild Lime. Each one was delicious as a digestif; but perhaps a little too sweet for my palate under normal circumstances. My favourites were all flavours that had a nice tart or spice to balance the sugar.

After the tasting (and buying) we took a quick trip around the gardens to stretch our legs. Philip told us that the entire area had been lovingly brought back to life using a delicate garden tool (a back hoe) about two years prior. You’d hardly know to look at it though. The path from the car park had a wide variety of flowering plants, and was teeming with small bugs and animals.

A butterfly resting on some white flowers near the entrance of the garden.
A butterfly resting on some white flowers near the entrance of the garden.
Lavender lines the interior courtyard.
Lavender lines the interior courtyard.

Canberra

The third of six catch-up posts that I hope to get out in February.

Our first of four road trips this summer was to visit the nation’s capital (and a friend of ours). Canberra is about a 3 hour drive from Sydney, and we figured that we could make a day trip out of it. Note to future travelers – you might want to stay the night. The three hour estimate is maybe a little short.

The drive out was quite pretty. Lots of rolling hills (bigger than England; smaller than Ontario) and sweeping tree lines. We were also treated to an ‘act of God’ (as defined in our car insurance) on the way there when the great big freezer in the sky opened up and dumped giant balls of ice all over the highway.

Look at the size of these hailstones!
Look at the size of these hailstones!
Xavier was pretty keen to give them a taste.
Xavier was pretty keen to give them a taste.

Canberra is an odd city, and feels very manufactured. The streets are built in circles, and radiate out from the parliament buildings. From the center point, the city is cut into six parts, each dedicated to a different aspect — markets, museums, parks, and so on. It’s not a super big place, and really feels like it’s just a hub for government. I’m told that it was selected as the site for the Nation’s capital because it was equidistant from the two largest cities in Australia; but, if that’s the case, then Australian geographers cannot be trusted.

During our trip we met up with Jade, a friend of ours from the American Church in Paris, who helped us through a whirlwind tour of the parliament buildings, the gardens near the old parliament buildings, and the War Memorial. We managed to snap a few pics in the gardens, but as you can see, Xavier had a lot of excess energy from all his time sitting in the car on the way up. Thankfully, The space between the new and old Parliament buildings turned out to be an awesome outlet for pent up toddler energy. Had we been there an extra day, we definitely would have hit up the botanic gardens, and some of the national museums.