CHAPTER 9 – NEW SOUTH WALES
(Bert) When we pull up our window shades we see four kangaroos lounging within a few feet of our campervan. They stretch their bodies across the lawn, lying on their sides with just their heads raised, rotating their ears like periscopes to sounds of interest. A dozen or so are scattered across the campground and their attitude definitely suggests they consider this their home territory and we are the guests. This coastal beach area is so inviting we decide to spend the day here. We hike a trail from the beach, up the cliff and through a coastal woods that separates attractive homes from the sea. It is a good morning for birding and I mark down Australasian Gannet, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Red and Little Wattlebirds, Eastern Whipbird, Satin Bowerbird and I photograph the tiny thornbills, this time getting good shots of Striated Thornbills. More relaxing then most days, I edit several days worth of photos while looking out of the RV’s expansive windows at the antics of the kangaroos.
(Shari) It is 11 AM. With such pretty weather, we decide to stay another day at Pambula Beach and walk the trail next to the campground. The trail is not much for wildlife but has some pretty views of the rocks and beach below the cliffs and the mouth of the river. The guide books say these white sand beaches along this coast squeak and, sure enough, little squeaky noises emanate from the heels of our shoes when we walk across the deep sand. Later, sitting outside, I watch the nearby kangaroos, wondering if they get arthritis in their joints when they get old. One of the babies is getting very brave and wobbly hops not far from its momma. When hunger strikes, it quickly returns and sticks its head inside of momma’s pouch.
(Bert) Just as we are about to leave the Pambula Beach campground I decide to photograph the doe and joey that have shared our campsite for the past two days. Joey is in the pouch and while mother bends forward to nibble grass, Joey leans out of the pouch and nibbles also. I kneel to the ground to get a frontal shot of the two and as I do so the doe hops toward me and pokes her nose at my long lens. From my squatting position the adult kangaroo stands taller than me and looks at me like a dog wanting to play. Shari has retrieved her camera and snaps a photo of the three of us buddies.
(Shari) We depart from the nicest campground we have visited during our trip. The toilets even have spray disinfectant to use on the toilet seats. The camp kitchen has an espresso machine that delivers hot mochas made with real coffee beans, for a price of course. The two swimming pools are heated and the lounge is very comfortable. All is spotlessly clean, except for all the kangaroo poop. We travel northward and the day deteriorates. We stop to purchase produce as we were down to none, nothing, nada.
(Bert) Today is mostly a driving day. When we stop at Narooma for groceries we are accosted by a pair of Masked Lapwings. One is standing over a single egg which she has placed at the curb where my front bumper abuts and the other lapwing is on the parking lot, crouched low like a bull ready to charge me as soon as I step away from the vehicle. I escape unscathed, get groceries and return gingerly, edging the side of the campervan and slip into the driver’s seat without causing the lapwing to rise from the nest.
We visit Jervis Bay National Park where Eastern Bristlebird can be found, though I am sure not today. Cold rain douses our plans and they do not have a campground with electrical hookups, so we move on to Nowra to camp. Cozy and warm inside the campervan, I work on preparing bird checklists for our forthcoming caravan and use the Internet for e-mail, though the WI-FI connection is poor in the rain.
(Shari) Intending to camp at Jervis Bay National Park, I learn that it does not have electricity. So I veto camping there as it would be too cold and damp in an unheated camper. Why the makers of Kea did not use gas powered heaters in their 4- and 6-berth campervans, I have no idea. They are advertised as truly self-contained with the ability to camp anywhere since they have solar panels to keep the batteries up. In June when we did not need heat, we did dry camp and our batteries were fine. Plan B is to camp at a Big4 with Net4 Internet. Way back in June we purchased a year’s worth of Net4, intending to use it on our trip. So whenever we can, we seek those places out as we get 10 hours per month in the $70 package. Unfortunately, Net4 is not in all the Big4 parks and certainly not in other parks. So here I sit, reading much appreciated e-mails, writing e-mails, trying not to think about the pouring rain outside and wondering what it intends to do tomorrow.
(Bert) Rains have flushed from the sky and we drive to Kiama. I want to visit a nearby birding site, but not in the middle of the day, so we choose the Kiama campground for an early start tomorrow. In mid afternoon we walk to the promontory overlooking the ocean bay and campground. I tally 17 bird species in the short walk, though none new. This is another beach property that in the U.S. would be too valuable for campsites and would be turned into stacked condominiums or cantilevered vacation homes for the wealthy.
(Shari) “I thought they were in the other pasture”, I say when I hear a loud “Moo”. Bert comments that they seem to be after something as we increase our steps across the steep hill. The day is a 10, but we have wasted most of it, sitting inside. Leaving late, we only travel about 30 mi. so we can be situated for an early birding start in the morning. The campground is on a private beach and we are walking on the hillside above the sea. I had napped earlier while Bert worked on bird lists. Spring has sprung and even the willows have early green leaves. The red-orange flowers on the bare branches of the Tiger Paw tree are abundant too. Daffodils look a little peeked, though tulips are in a full array. With spring, the birds should be abundant and Bert is happy to watch. Those silly lapwings seem to make nests right where we want to park and then attack us as we exit our camper. Yesterday, while stopping for groceries, a nest was not 6 in. from the curb where we parked. Momma was sitting on the nest with one egg and poppa was staring down Bert as he got out of the door. Those birds look so funny, all swirly black and white with yellow helmets and long yellow earmuff-type doodads drooping down their faces. I just had to laugh out loud. By the way, we reach the gate before the cows and safely make it to the camper.
(Shari) Up at dawn, stopping at the bakery for a breakfast takeout pastry before heading to the birding site, wears me out. I wait in the van for Bert while he makes the 6-mi. loop. I enter receipts in the computer, plan our next route, and take a nap.
(Bert) Reaching Barren Grounds is another of those narrow spiral staircase road experiences. Fortunately at 6:45 AM the only oncoming traffic we encounter is a garbage truck that I see far enough ahead for me to pull to the inside of the cliff. At this hour Shari is not in the mood for hiking, so I leave her with the RV in the parking lot and head off through the woods on a 10 km Griffiths Trail hike. The targets are Ground Parrot and Eastern Bristlebird. Having read of the habits of the parrot and knowing my difficult experience in finding the Rufous Bristlebird, I’d say my odds at finding either are less than 1:10. Except for small patches of forest where I find Striated Thornbill and White-browed Scrubwren, the trail leads through heathland. The shrubbery is about 6 ft. high and so dense that I cannot see a foot inside. In fact, I find very little: a Swamp Harrier overhead, a few New Holland Honeyeaters flying from tree to tree, and the riflery of several hidden Eastern Whipbirds. Yet, the invigorating hike is enjoyable and at high points I can see miles across the heath to eucalypt forests, raw red cliffs and, in the opposite direction, across the valley to the sea far below. I stop once when I see something scurry near the path, it stops briefly, I focus binoculars on it and just after it disappears I jot down sighting details in my notebook. Later, when I peruse my mammal book, I match the marsupial “mouse” to Common Planigale.
I am about 3.5 km–2.5 km since the start of Griffiths–into my hike when I reach the prime habitat for Ground Parrot, a reclusive ground-dwelling endangered species that can be heard at dusk–it’s 8:15 AM now–but is rarely seen anytime. Having cast my eye left and right for over an hour, seldom seeing anything stirring, I catch movement out of the right corner of my eye and quickly center on the green object just as it jumps to ground. My one-half second view is a photographic image of a bulky green parrot-sized bird with a speck of red on the head. It does not reappear, nor make a sound. As I continue my hike, I mull over the sighting, look again at the drawing in the bird book, and consider alternatives. Few birds beside parrots are green and no other parrots live inside this heathland. The observed behavior and the prime habitat match. Even with only a half-second view, I’m quite sure it was the elusive Ground Parrot. I wonder if my observation would pass mustard in a police lineup.
I finish the 10 km hike in a bit over two hours and rejoin Shari. We leave the reserve and descend the mountain. First one, then another, large pheasant-like bird dashes across the road, trailing long feather trellises. “Lyrebird”, I exclaim. Shari picks up the bird book and quickly identifies them as Superb Lyrebirds. Like a peacock, the lyrebird has a tail that is nearly twice as long as its body. My introduction to lyrebirds was over 50 years ago when I studied the details through a magnifying glass. In my collection of Australian postage stamps I still remember the upraised feather display depicted on the small stamp.
(Shari) On our drive down the mountain, we see two lanky pheasant-like birds with long lacey tails trot across the road in front of us. I look it up in the bird book while Bert negotiates the turns in the road and realize we just saw two lyrebirds. How neat!
We are headed to Royal National Park, the oldest park in Australia and the second oldest in the world; Yellowstone is the oldest. We hope to find the Visitor Center to arm ourselves with maps and information on the trails we expect to find here. We enter the park and a sign informs us we must have a park pass and to pay for it at the Visitor Center. After 45 km of driving through the park we reach the campground, but never come to a kiosk or Visitor Center. We think it may be the office at the campground whose sign indicates it hours of operation as 2-4 M-F, not now. Boom gates block the entrance and exit to the campground. We call the telephone number listed for campground reservations only to find that its office is closed for the day. We stop a man exiting the campground and ask him for advice. He does not know about reservations but tells us to just go on into the campground as the boom gate will open when we get close and no code need be entered in push-button security pad. So in we go, find us a lovely spot backed up to the ocean and park the night for free. We walk a trail through some brush and mango trees and end up behind houses built on the cliff overlooking our campsite. Later, we sit outside in the nice weather watching the tide come in, the waves lap the shore and planes descending into Sydney Airport. The park may not be visitor friendly but we sure found a gem of a camping spot. Our neighbor asks us how we found the place as locals do not even know about it. I tell him, we–I use the term loosely here–are birders and we search them out. I want to go to sleep with the back drapes open to watch the twinkly lights of the houses across the bay and the airplanes come in but Bert thinks it will get too cold tonight.
(Bert) From our campsite within the Royal National Park I walk across the mangrove mudflats that were submerged by last night’s tide, but now are mostly dry. Herons and ravens are picking through tidal flotsam and spiral shells. I creep through the snarled mangroves to get a better photo of a Striated Heron poised at a waterhole for a quick strike at any unwary creature. Later, in a more open area of the mudflats, raucous clamor above me alerts me to irritated flocks of ravens and cockatoos. A juvenile White-bellied Sea-Eagle has invaded their territory and the boldest Australian Raven chases it across the sky, dashing left and right, up and down, harassing the eagle twice its size until it effectively escorts it from the area.
(Shari) Three 10’s in a row. Unbelievable weather! After a half-hour of driving, we finally find a nice area in the park to walk. A person could spend a good day at this pretty area. But we still find neither Visitor Center nor informational maps, although we do pass a sign that says “Parks and Wildlife Office”, but no office. Is this where you go to get camping permits? Who is to know? I stop a maintenance worker and ask her where to find a place we had read about in the bird finding book. She tells me I am at it, just the name has changed.
(Bert) We drive south, then north, to Hacking River, still within the Royal National Park. It is only now that we see any signs and any trails that suggest how to explore the park. On trimmed lawns below vaulting trees, beside the tranquil muddy-brown river, tame Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Purple Swamp Hens glean the grass. High in the canopy I get a much better look than we had yesterday of a pair of Yellow-faced Honeyeaters. I see yet another life bird, an Eastern Spinebill, striking in its black-white-chestnut striped head, cinnamon belly and long down-curved black bill. A few parrots are nesting or thinking about it, as I find Rainbow Lorikeets and the cockatoos climbing in and out of tree cavities. Although I’ve seen them many times before, I never tire of watching Australian King Parrots, perhaps the most regal looking of the family, in their red and green satiny royal attire.
With lack of desire we look at our watches, anticipating the Sydney traffic that awaits us. I hate driving in large cities. From 11:30 to 1:30, traveling southeast to northwest we span the congested city, 44 km on six anti-parallel lanes, stagnated by more traffic lights than peacocks have eyes. Still in the city, but on the outskirts, we stop at Lane Cove National Park. The tranquility of the campsite is a delusion from the city turmoil that surrounds it.
(Shari) We stroll around the park awhile and finally decide we had better head to our campground in Sydney before rush hour strikes. As we sit in traffic Bert comments that he is sure glad we left before the traffic got heavy. We both hate driving in big cities and if it weren’t for our indispensible May we would avoid them altogether. She always gets us where we want to go, round about or not. When I check in the campground, I find there is a guided night walk this evening. I sign us up for the 6:30 walk. Our ranger gives the ten participants for the walk a lecture on the birds and wildlife in the park before we walk the campground roads to spot animals. Bert seems to want to show off his knowledge and answers all the questions asked or not asked. Or maybe, it is that he shows the most interest. The female ranger ends up talking to him during most of the walk. One of the men on the walk spots most of the wildlife and I stick with him. By the end of the night tour, the ranger has lost the group who are way ahead of her and Bert. I think the rest of us just want to go “home” and have had enough of seeing Brushtail Possums, Ringtail Possums, bandicoots and kookaburras.
(Bert) At 6:30 we meet a park ranger, joining three families, for a night walk. Elizabeth precedes her tour with a preamble explaining the various animals we might encounter tonight, complementing her presentation with a billboard of nature photos. Although educational, I’m anxious to get started, as I came to see the animals in the wild, not hear about them. One of the men in the group has a bright spotlight and successfully finds our first Long-nosed Bandicoot as it hops away like a bunny through the underbrush. He finds our second also and this one stops long enough for a good view of its elongated snout. They spotlight possums too and Elizabeth is surprised we find almost as many Ringtail Possums (4) as Bushtail (5), all in the space of 45 min. All the possums except one are high in trees, the remaining one on a campsite table, rummaging through the camp dishes and containers. I photograph all of the possums, as well as a pair of Laughing Kookaburras huddled tightly together on a stout branch. The rummaging ringtail looks up from his thievery and stares guiltily toward the camera lens.
(Bert) It is billed as an Eco Family Fun Day and the gates to the RV park–a portion of the national park–are open to a stream of local families here to see the displays and enjoy a free lunch. Animals are the main attraction: a man-sized wombat inhabited by a man in costume, stuffed Echidna, mounted Ringtail Possum, caged rehabilitating Tawny Frogmouth, python wrapped around lady’s neck, Long-necked Turtle quickly walking across the ground, and best of all Grey-headed Flying-Fox inside a man’s breast pocket. Actually, four flying foxes are here, three in cages and one being held by the man demonstrating the very active animal twisting and turning, spreading its wings, eating a grape and displaying its cute face. From all appearances, this could be fascinating pet, though I don’t think I’d want one. He seems to be giving it various commands and it responds. I ask him about its intelligence and he says the flying fox is smarter than dogs and cats and therefore far above politicians. Unfortunately, Grey-headed Flying-Foxes could be extinct within 20 years. Home owners who have them in their backyard are wary and want them removed–although the risk of harm is exceedingly small–and the famous Sydney Botanic Gardens wants them vacated from the trees where they roost, as they are killing the trees. Ironically, the bats have been at the gardens location for centuries and the affected trees are introduced from another continent, so the proposal is to destroy native animals to benefit foreign trees. The real culprit in the bat’s demise though is the clearing of forests with fruiting trees that are where they feed at night. The eucalypts are pollinated by the flying-foxes and without their aid the trees will no longer propagate.
(Shari) Eco Days are similar to our Earth Day and the national park has a free celebration with free entry to the park today. Hordes of people are parking on the street and entering the gates already at 10. We join them and make a visit to the 20 or so booths, all relating to wildlife or the outdoors. A big stuffed wombat–resembling Smokey Bear from behind–is walking around waving to little kids. Moving along the street are two people holding snakes for anyone to hold or pet. No thanks! One booth has bats in a cage and a man holding and talking about them. I learn that they are great pollinators but at the rate of their demise, are expected to go extinct this century. With them go the eucalyptus trees. The koalas will fall before that. So it is a worry. We partake of the free sausage sandwiches before heading back to the RV. Later we walk a bit in the park and watch a Brush-turkey make a mess of dry leaves. We look around and notice he has made a huge mound of leaves and twigs. This is his way of incubating the eggs that are inside, because the female has left and has no intention of sitting on eggs or raising chicks for that matter. The mound will keep the eggs at a warm temperature until they hatch. Then the chicks will have to find their own way out as Dad also has no intention of raising kids.
(Shari) The best bargain in Australia has to be the Sydney train network. We do not want to drive into the city so we walk to the train station, intending to pay upwards of $20 per round trip ticket to the city. What a pleasant surprise when we find the fare to be $2.70 one way. For a little over $10 both of us can go to the city and back. Today is Sidney’s running day and another reason not to drive. Hordes of people will be here and already the train is packed with so many runners that there is not even standing room available. The Harbor Bridge is closed as that is part of the marathon route. As our train goes over the bridge, I get a bird’s eye view of the racers as well as the beautiful city below. Most of the day racers run past us someplace in the city. Today I had hoped to attend two markets while sightseeing. The first one is a tent-covered market with 150 vendor booths at the area called The Rocks, the original site of Sydney with some neat historic buildings. Here we have breakfast at an open air café.
(Bert) I’m impressed with the modern train system. We start with a nicely furnished twin-level train that rockets us underground from the suburbs to a transfer station. We switch trains for the in-city route and are joined by hundreds of runners appropriately outfitted for the Sydney run. They get off one stop before us and join thousands of others. The marathon has already begun, soon to be followed by the half-marathon, 10 km and 5 km runs. Streets are closed and thousands of onlookers mingle the Sydney harbor touristy areas. We fill our day with activities, starting with a stroll through The Rocks market as they are setting up their outside booths, breakfast at an outdoor café, another market walk now that they have all their various wares displayed, and then wander over to where the first 100 marathon runners pass the 30 km mark, with 10 km left. We circumscribe the wharf, heading to the Sydney Opera House, all the time watching a constant stream of runners pass us by on a roped off pathway.
(Shari) The next market was supposed to be beside the grand Sydney Opera House but because of the race, it must have been cancelled. We enjoy the walk along the harbor and watch the first of the marathon runners cross the finish line. We stroll through the Royal Botanic Gardens and then visit the controversial Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition today is rather depressing as it is all about how people all over the world are destroying the earth. Most of the “art” is in the form of film.
(Bert) By the time we reach the opera house and head to the Sydney Botanic Gardens the marathon runners are passing the finish line, some looking a bit weak, but most are amazingly still energetic and look like they could keep running indefinitely. “Sunday in the Park” is a favorite pastime with friends, lovers, families and a few older couples like us. Shari sits near a reflecting pool coursed by ducks cutting a thin wake and I photograph a Dusky Moorhen walking on the pavement when I notice its strikingly bright orange legs and gray-banded toes. Then I hear the megabats and look up to see hundreds of Gray-headed Flying-foxes hanging from wearied trees. Few are asleep, most are squabbling and two are flying from tree to tree. We slowly make our way back through the mob of runners, now all having passed the finish line and lounging on the grass, consuming hundreds of bottles of water. We cross back through the harbor because I want to visit the contemporary art museum. Displayed is very modern art including many pieces where the artist’s meaning is unclear to me. More emphatic, one museum floor displays environmental art in the form of spoken words, documentary film, newspaper clippings, campaign posters, photographs and paintings that disturbingly engage the viewer in Australia’s and the world’s tragic environmental disasters, most instigated in pursuit of growth and energy demands.
Now we cross the harbor again, this time headed to the Sydney Opera House in time for the 3 PM performance of Great Opera Hits. The poster says tickets start at $69 each, so I am pleasantly surprised when the ticket counter attendant says they will be only $35 each. This turns out to be a great way for us to see the inside of the Opera House, otherwise not open to the public except by expensive tours. Brightly colored receding semicircles of cushioned seats arc the uplifted stage and three tiers of private boxes panel the walls. Accompanied by a pianist, two men and two women from the Sydney Opera entertain us with familiar selections from Verdi’s La Traviata, Sampson & Delilah, The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, Carmen, The Tales of Hoffman, Marriage of Figaro and a few others I didn’t recognize. It is an enchanting performance and a special treat to be performed in this world-famous house. Dinner at an Italian restaurant tops off the day and by the time the train takes us back to the suburbs and we walk the last mile we are exhausted.
(Shari) We walk back to the Opera House and actually attend a performance. Four singers entertain us with songs from famous operas. We walk back to the train station after eating dinner on the Circular Quay. Sydney has to be one of my favorite cities of the world. Of course, a weather score of 10 does not hurt.
(Shari) Today is another trip to the city, this time to attend to business as we need to finish up the paperwork for our New Zealand visas. Normally a person from the United States needs nothing to visit the country but since we are tour escorts, we need a special permit. We had applied for it in March but lacked two documents so we are doing it today. Armed with our 20-page application, passports, proof of return, airfare, etc., we get off the train and head to the address listed on the web site. Luckily it is only a short walk from the station. We planned to stay in Sydney a week because we do not think we can get this application approved in one day. Thankfully, we were wrong and the nice lady approves it while we wait. Since the embassy is close to the largest department store in Australia we just have to visit it. Live piano music fills the air when we enter the store. Oh, oh, I bet it is too expensive for me. I am looking for a simple gold-plated chain for my necklace; instead I am shown 18-carat $700 chains. Out the doors we go. All the stores on the street have items I deem to be too expensive. Oh, what I could do in a Wal-Mart. But alas, no such animal here! We stop for lunch at a food court displaying a large array of foods. We purchase some milk, bread, lettuce and tomatoes, putting the items in our backpacks before both getting haircuts at the train station. We arrive home well before dark, completing the visa issue with ease, one task that I worried about unnecessarily.
(Bert) Again, we take the train to downtown Sydney this Monday morning. By leaving after 9 AM we get the lower rate, same as weekends, and only pay $10.80 round-trip for two people, an amazingly low price for so long a distance. We walk to the New Zealand embassy and are delighted to be told they will conclude our visa entry permit–we must have a work visa, unlike normal tourists–while we wait. Shari started the process last March and it has been quite tedious, confusing and difficult. The last requirement could not be completed until we visited New Zealand in June to gather the information. After a 15 min. wait everything is completed. Next it is Shari-shopping, then lunch, then haircuts. We stop at the train terminal for the haircuts and Shari finds a shop that takes her in immediately. I find a barbershop and wait for two others in line ahead of me. When I finish I cannot find Shari and wait at the train turnstiles. She shows up an hour later and says she just finished the cut. Mine is $15; hers is $60. I guess her hair is longer.
(Bert) Nothing interesting to report, we spend most of our day busily using computers to catch up on e-mail, journals, photo editing and caravan preparation.
(Bert) Typically, I don’t make recommendations in this blog. However, after this morning’s walk I’d have to say Lane Cove is an inviting and convenient place to stay when visiting the Sydney area. And it isn’t only a place for campers, as they also rent small chalets. For the Sydney touristy sites, you’ve heard about how we easily got around via train on previous days.
Now I visit the national park in which we reside, leaving shortly after sunrise and descending into the gulch surrounding Lane Cove River. Birds are slowly overcoming sleepiness, wandering not far from where they spent the evening. The lighting is still dim, so my photos of an Olive-backed Oriole are poor. I’ll keep them anyway, as they are my first of this species. I watch a White-throated Treecreeper steadily climb a tree trunk and then swiftly fly to the next, resuming its bottom-to-top feeding strategy. I’m surprised to see many more treecreepers, perhaps a dozen or more this morning. I walk along a blacktop road, wide for the joggers and bicyclists exercising before leaving for work, narrow if taken by car, but none are moving so I assume the park road is closed off. When I stop to photograph a Golden Whistler, a bicyclist stops to see what it is. I point out the brightly colored yellow bird with the black head, contrasting white throat and black necklace, a very attractive male.
Nearby, a Rainbow Lorikeet dives into a nest hole and while I am waiting for it to reappear I see a pair of King-Parrots on the same tree. While I watch and photograph their interaction, adjacent to them I see a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo poke half its body out of a nest hole, displaying an expression like “What are you guys doing on my tree?” The cockatoo asserts itself and the female King-Parrot flies to the next tree and inspects a nest hole there. I wonder if all three parrots reside in neighboring homes.
Leaving the paved road I descend on a trail marked for pedestrians only. It is called Fern Valley and I find myself surrounded by singing birds. A Red-whiskered Bulbul alights on a branch above me. A species of southern Asian origin, introduced to Sydney suburbs in 1880, this is one of the few places it can be found in Australia. A flock of a dozen Silvereyes take control of flowering bushes and crawl through the leaves and branches like hungry ants. When the trail reaches Lane Cove River, I encounter a Laughing Kookaburra that has just captured a small animal. I watch has it maneuvers the salamander-like creature down its throat whole. The kingfisher then springs to a nearby branch at eye level and rests while it digests breakfast. In its sedentary state I take ever closer photographs until I get within 10 ft. of the perched bird and my camera lens is filled top to bottom even if I turn it vertically. With at least a dozen excellent photos, I back off while the kingfisher continues to pay me no mind.
I hike along the still river, active with ducks, cormorants and moorhens, bordered by tall trees noisy with lorikeets and parrots. I wish I had my sound recording equipment with me to capture the symphony of bird song. Instead, I use my camera to get a sample. I still don’t recognize most Australian bird calls, but the cacophony includes squawking lorikeets, raucous cockatoos, cracking whipbirds, twittering scrubwrens and thornbills, singing silvereyes, and most dominating of all, the laughter of dozens of kookaburras echoing their friendly greetings across the forest. I tabulate 27 species these first two hours of morning, perhaps not an impressive number, though amplified by substantial numbers of most. The sounds and sights of this nearly pristine forested riverway and its active wildlife easily add a second vote for Lane Cove National Park as the place to stay in Sydney.
(Shari) If I said it once, I said it 100 times, “I love Sydney”. Today I get up at 4:55 because we have to catch an early train to make it downtown by 7 for our tour of the city and suburbs. Our bus driver/guide takes us to all the places we have seen and have not seen yet. Only he has to drive, battle the traffic and negotiate the narrow turns and steep hills. All we do is sit in relaxing seats enjoying air-conditioned comfort and big views out the windows. I am amazed that the architects of the Harbor Bridge had the foresight to make seven traffic lanes way back in the 1930s. Good thing because all lanes are bumper-to-bumper now during rush hour. During our tour we get fantastic views of the city and the Opera House from every angle. Sydney Harbor is huge with many inlets and bays, but has only one entrance between two cliffs separated by about a mile. Starting today, the many statues in the city are clothed in robes, fur and flamboyant hats. Our driver does not know why. Some festival must be coming up. Housing is expensive with 40-year-old 2-bedroom condos going for around $400,000. Condos with harbor or city views escalate in price. Gardens are in spring bloom and every tree that is going to put out a flower has done so. Everywhere we are taken, streets are clean and buildings are in good repair. I wonder, though, where low-income people live. We stop for a 2-hr. lunch at Darling Harbor, now only for ships and boats offering harbor tours, and lunch and dinner cruises. We visit Manly Beach, remaining much as we remember from a quarter century ago. However, the famous Bondi Beach is a disappointment to me. It is smaller than I imagined and does not have the white sand shown on photos I have seen. The area around it seems a bit tacky too. Today the beach is full of teenagers celebrating the end of a school term and surfers in wet suits trying to master the sport. We get back home at 7 PM after a thoroughly exhausting day.
(Bert) Shari did not wish me Happy Birthday until this evening when I told her I got a greeting e-mail from my brother. That should make us even for the year I forgot our wedding anniversary, right? Actually, I didn’t remember it was my birthday either and if my brother hadn’t sent the note the day might have passed unnoticed. It is one of those milestone birthdays and like my one-year-younger brother said, I can’t believe I am that old.
(Shari) We say goodbye to Sydney and head for the Blue Mountains. Yesterday on our tour, we learned that the mountains appear blue due to the vapor from all the eucalyptus trees reflecting and refracting light. We depart after rush hour but it seems like rush hour is late. Shouldn’t all these people be at work by 9 AM? Guidebooks say it should take 90 min. to reach the Blue Mountains. It takes us 3 hrs. Of course we had to stop for groceries as we had not done that in over a week. At one of the lookouts, called Echo Point, gobs of tourists from many buses roam the area. The famous rock formation of the three sisters is at this location. It is one of the areas I want to see too but parking is a problem. With no lot available anywhere, we park on the metered street. Here we can not get the meter to work ($3.90 for one hour) so we park for free hoping no cop will notice. We rush to the edge of the cliff for our views and pictures. Rising majestically from a canyon floor are three rock formations. Supposedly they were three beautiful sisters that were turned to stone by their father because he did not want them to marry outside of their tribe. He was killed before he could turn them back. At one side of the canyon a rail car or an aerial lift will takes sightseers to the bottom and bring them back up. The tourist can also take a gondola across the canyon for fantastic views of the three sisters and a falls. It is a beautiful area and I would enjoy it more if it were not so crowded. It reminds me of Gatlinburg, the gateway to the Smoky Mountains, with all the hordes of people milling about. We head north to another town in the mountains, Blackheath.
(Bert) Although aboriginal people lived in the Blue Mountains for some 22,000 years, early arriving Europeans thought the mountains were impenetrable and it took 25 years before anyone crossed them. Settlement began in the plains west of the mountains after the first road was built in 1815. Blue Mountains National Park was declared in 1959 and comprises over 600,000 acres.
We camped last night at 3500 ft. and this morning we drive nearby to the Grand Canyon of the Blue Mountains. Greeting us just before we park is a Red-capped Robin, which I only recall seeing once before. The canyon, a deep U-shaped gulf drops from our lookout point, the opposite side dimly lit in a blue haze even though skies are clear above us. I begin the hike down the trail, set in a few dozen feet from the cliff edge, walking through tall and dense forest on rugged terrain. This trail was constructed over 100 years ago and comprises over 1200 steps. Looking at the steep trail and the allotted time, I decide just to try the first part and Shari will stay on top at the RV. I call her back immediately when I see a pair of Superb Lyrebirds cross the trail. The male trails a long tail which would seem to be a nuisance as they scramble through the underbrush. I have my camera ready and get a few shots in before they disappear. I take the trail slowly, knowing that each step I take down will eventually be followed with ones back up, so mostly I wait for birds to come to me rather than pursue them. This plan brings me Striated Thornbills, New Holland Honeyeaters, a Golden Whistler, an Eastern Yellow Robin and a pair of Eastern Spinebills.
On the road again, we continue on the more-or-less flat plateau extending westward from the Blue Mountains. Except for remnant trees, the undulating hills are now grasses, some grazed by sheep, much vacant. We take a side road to Gardens of Stone National Park, descending into a pretty tree-covered valley with occasional openings showing raw rock cliffs in the distance. I am hoping to find Regent Honeyeaters said to occur here, but searching at mid day puts me at a disadvantage. I find New Holland and White-plumed Honeyeaters, but no Regent. We stop at a sign announcing, “Tree Planting To Save The Regent Honeyeater” and although I search the area I cannot find the endangered honeyeater. I do find a life bird though, a Brown Treecreeper. And, when we continue on the main highway I find another life bird, considered uncommon to rare, the Turquoise Parrot. Win some, lose some!
(Shari) Exploring two more areas of Blue Mountain National Park, we find them not to be crowded at all. Once out of the main tourist areas, the park is wonderful, full of gorges, canyons and great vistas. We depart the area about noon and decide to head northwest to avoid returning to Sydney and its traffic mess. This means we will miss the area of Australia called the Gold Coast but that is okay. We’ve seen plenty of beaches and we have many more to explore when we run the caravan in Queensland. The Blue Mountain road is smooth and uncrowded, with rolling hillside scenery and grasslands populated with cattle and sheep. Later, grain and canola fields abound. After a late lunch, while we are still parked at a rest area, a woman knocks on our window and asks for help. Her husband wanted to show her a place he had tent camped years ago and today in route on a dirt road he got stuck in a cemetery about 1 mi. away. Her phone does not pick up a signal and neither does mine so we give her a lift to the nearest house, 6 mi. away. It’s another 15 mi. to the nearest town and I wonder if she will get help there on a Sunday afternoon. We are headed now directly to Cairns to prepare for the caravan but don’t expect to get there for another 6 or 8 days. It still is 1600 mi. away. In route, we will explore whatever suits our fancy if it is close by, but we have no nightly destinations in mind.
(Bert) I don’t know if it is our early start (7:10) or the habitat surrounding Castlereagh Highway that is producing so many birds en route this morning. As usual I do the first shift of driving, but I am seeing so many birds I ask Shari to drive while I write down the birds I am seeing. Most amazing is the hundreds of parrots we encounter, most springing up from the roadsides like a reverse-wake as our campervan bounces down the highway. I record eight parrot species: Rainbow Lorikeet (a few at the start), Galah (100s), King Parrot (1), Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (100s), Eastern Rosella (2-3), Red-vented Blue Bonnet (5-10), Blue-winged Parrot (2), Australian Ringneck (1) and a number of others left unidentified. In the first 90 min. I identify 27 species, mostly in flight.
(Shari) Irritated with Bert’s erratic bird watching speed, I take over driving for most of the morning. Rather than wait around for a church service in the town where we camped and miss driving time, we decide to drive and stop at a church en route. Little did we know that the “towns” were only bumps in the road with no churches, or if they had one, we did not see it. Guess I’ll have to read two devotions tonight. Bert birds from the car as I drive and I am amazed at the list he accumulates as we whiz by at 90 kph. Plus, he gets two lifers. We are in what I call the Near Outback and I like it better than the crowded highways near the coast. I see few people and fewer cars in even fewer towns, but lots of kangaroos and emus.
(Bert) In mid morning we transition into The Outback, a flat-terrain ecology
with fewer trees, more savannah and less water. I start a list of telltale signs
that we have entered The Outback. You know you are in The Outback when:
- fuel stops are at Roadhouses offering a potpourri of sundry goods and services
- little green signs with 2- or 3-digit numbers announce distance to the next town (and fuel)
- skies are clear and sunny, views are distant, roads are straight
- kangaroo roadkills outnumber people in the countryside
- emus are grazing in the grasslands (over 20 Emus today!)
- road trains are thundering toward you
- cattle guards (grids) rumble the tires every 10 km or so
- you stop for cattle crossing the road
- floodway signs are numerous and broken pavement accompanies the worst spots
- vehicles are far and few between, some coated in red dust
- more vehicles have breather tubes for crossing water
- the ground is red and so are some paved roads
- you cannot find a Coles or Woolworths grocery store.
(Shari) The color of the day is yellow. We see fields and fields of yellow flowers. One field has big patches of purple and yellow. Lady Bird Johnson must have sown her seeds here as well as in Texas, as the ground is abloom with wildflowers. Around noon, we arrive at Lightning Ridge, the only place in Australia to mine the expensive Black Opal. Of course we have to stop. What a silly thought! And of course we have to buy. Another silly thought. The temperature is getting warmer as we move north and tomorrow will be crop pants weather for me. I will be delighted to have a new change of clothes as we have not seen warm temperatures since Darwin. Soon I will be complaining about how hot it is, I suppose. For right now, it is nice.
(Bert) At 2:30 we cross from New South Wales to Queensland. We stop in late afternoon at St. George, its name taken from St. George bridge, the spot named by early explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell when he crossed the river on St. George’s Day, April 23, 1846. I suspect this person is also explorer Major Mitchell, the namesake for Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo which is found in this area, although not by me as yet.
Although I’ve written enough for one day, I have two bird stories I want to document. The first is entitled “The Attacking Australian Magpie”. I am walking across a small park adjacent to the campground when a magpie dive bombs me. I hear the whoosh of its wings and I see the branch where it lands, but I don’t see it coming after me. It repeats attacking me many times until I exit the park. When I return 15 min. later I want to test a hypothesis I have about magpie’s behavior. I think it watches my eyes and will not attack if I stare it down. When I reach the park it again dive bombs me. I turn about and watch it sitting on the utility wire and it remains there even while I walk backwards through the park. I make an about face and continue my turn full circle. The magpie leaped down just as I turned my head and immediately stalls its drop as soon as it sees my eyes again, falling short of its attack and grabbing hold of the first perch it can find. I repeat my behavior four or five times and witness the same results each time. The magpie will only attack if it thinks it can make a clean getaway, the same tactic it uses when attacking eagles and hawks.
The second is “The Nesting Magpie-Larks”. When I return to the campsite Shari is sitting on a lawn chair, binoculars in hand, and tells me birds are nesting in the tree above us. I confirm they are Magpie-Larks and tell her we can determine if the male or the female is doing the chick feeding. At first glance all Magpie-Larks look the same, a harlequin pattern of black and white, but actually sex and age can be determined. We watch one bringing food to the hungry chicks and I photograph it leaning over the nest. Its white face tells me it is the female. A minute after it leaves a male brings food, differentiated by its black face. They continue swapping feeding duties until it grows darker and colder. Then they take turns sitting on the nest while the other retrieves food. Had we watched these Magpie-Larks until the chicks were raised we would see another harlequin pattern for the juveniles, a combination of the adult male and female.
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