Leaving the Land Down Under

This morning we fly to Bangkok. So yesterday, amidst the rush of packing and last minute surf sessions, I visited the beauty shop. Time to say goodbye to all the golden (bad brassy?) highlights from so much sun and sea.  Washing away the gray fringe I was getting far too used to seemed like a good idea as well.

Clearly I need to polish up my selfie skills, which, if I recall from my last visit to Bangkok, is a bit of a national Thai obsession.

As reported in our latest posts, Australia has been a land of downs and ups for us. The rain barely ever stopped and the entire family, save Coco, passed around a pretty nasty head cold over the course of our two week visit.

On the other hand, it is here that we visited the truly spectacular Lady Elliot Island, a 30 hectare island on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef still relatively unaffected by rapidly warming ocean temperatures to the north.

Above, from our flight in.  And below, a few snaps to add to Brendan’s fabulous LEI post, including some underwater shots kindly sent by the guide on one of our dives.

A few from above sea level, including our cozy eco cabins.

I’m happy to report that the high points continued after we left the reef to spend our final Aussie days sampling the tasty surf point breaks of Noosa Heads.

For me, these surf sessions felt like a huge step forward in the Barbarian Days aspect of our trip.  Our last attempt to surf had been a deeply humbling experience in the consequential waves of Raglan, NZ.

SO much bigger than they look in this picture. Those black dots you can barely make out are pro surfers who are pulled into the waves by jet skis…

In New Zealand, I worked up the courage to paddle out to Manu Bay’s famous break, but proceeded to get absolutely crushed.  I didn’t come close to catching a wave. B and W did much better, but still didn’t have the best days.

Following Raglan, I wondered if our surf family aspirations were a bit fantastical. At a minimum, I figured that I was probably too old and not nearly brave or nimble enough to be part of the crew.
But our Noosa experience, and especially Brendan’s commitment to the cause, have begun to pull me away from that negative thinking. He insisted that we focus our Noosa days on the surf (not yoga or running or even shopping) and goaded us into multiple sessions a day.

He encouraged me, spooked by the monster waves in NZ and still remembering that fin hit to the head in Sri Lanka, to venture out to where Noosa’s more forgiving (but nonetheless significant) waves actually break.

He even carried my surf board when we made the trek out to iconic Tea Tree Bay.

By our last day in Noosa, Brendan and, of course William, were hanging in the line up with the locals, even catching a hoot and holler or two.

As for me, I still missed most of the waves I tried for, despite my best and strongest paddling. And many of the waves I did catch ended in a frustrating nose dive.   But I also had a few of the most beautiful, satisfying rides of my life.

And I was reminded again that the best things in life take dedication and effort and often a fair bit of pain.
That said, our last night in Noosa was pretty pain free.  A somewhat glitzy Queensland beachtown, Noosa is newly flush with Melbourne Millions, or so some surfer locals tell us.  While not a particularly enriching experience from a culture vantage, our experience in the town was comfortable and fun. In addition to my time at the salon, we managed some shopping.

Holly found a pretty dress. And Coco approved.

Phoebe also tried her first oyster.

Is it horrible to be happy that her reaction meant a higher oyster count more for me?

Now it’s off to more adventurous adventures in Thailand. Wish us luck on 9 plus hours of flying (in Row 40…). Phoebe, for one, seems primed for the trip.

Lady Elliot Island, Queensland


Alex’s summation of our time in rainy Byron Bay pretty much hit the nail on the head.  As feared, Australia had been a bit of a doldrum (a doldrums?), a dead spot between the alpine adventure of NZ’s South Island and the return to Asian city life that awaits us around the next corner.  Spirits had grown dim as we departed Byron and headed north through the hinterlands of Queensland. We slept a quick night in the Glasshouse Mountains before racing to Hervey Bay for our flight to the edge of the Australian Continental Shelf.


Fifty miles off the mainland sits Lady Elliot Island, the southernmost extension of the Great Barrier Reef.  The island’s human history is brief and largely uninteresting – even with about 120 guests spending the night, there is no doubt that most, if not all, of the action takes place among the reefs surrounding LEI.


There are, however, thousands of residents of the island that might disagree with that last point.  The bird population there is a transient one, but its members are numerous and not shy. Like their nearly-extinguished cousins back in New Zealand, they aren’t remotely afraid of people, and together they produce a racket like a more frenzied and alarming version of the background noise of a World Cup soccer game.  The white-capped noddy pictured above belongs to a particularly frisky species.  During the day, the noddies camp out in trees and shrubs of the island, or loiter in the pathways, uninterested in whose path they might be blocking.


Every evening at sunset, they get even friendlier.  Should you choose to walk from our tent to the bathroom after dark, you’d finally hear something over the collective squawk: the flapping of noddy wings as they performed low-altitude fly-bys past your ears.  A bit unsettling, if you prefer to keep your distance from the birds.  A more majestic species that we saw each day is the lesser frigatebird.  These seabirds don’t know how to walk and they rarely swim. Instead, they spend their days gliding in formation over the island, occasionally swooping to the water’s surface for a bite.  The only photo I got was this, where a lone frigatebird soars over the island’s grass and coral airstrip.  Tough to make it out.


Back to the action under the sea.  My brief career as a scuba diver has been largely an exercise in anxiety management as I fight the perfectly reasonable panic reflex that results from voluntary self-immersion.  On our first dive at Lady Elliot, I followed the smooth and stoic Holly as she led the way down a mooring line into about 10 meters of water.  I paused instinctively at the surface and was breathing like I had just run a dozen sprints, and wasn’t able to fully relax and slow my breathing for ten minutes or so.  That’s a good way to use your air up real fast, have to be the first one sent up to the surface by the dive master, and generally feel like a rookie.

Holly contemplates an early morning dive over breakfast.

On the next dive, William and I went down with a more experienced group of adults, all of us certified to go deeper (increased depth means higher water pressure means I run out of air even faster and oh great all the adults are going to laugh and point fingers at me).  Our dive master, Phil, took us off the reef a bit into a deeper area of sandy seafloor with the occasional “bommie,” or underwater outcropping of rock covered by coral.  Under one bommie we saw an amazing sight: a fever of whiptail rays fluttering around a larger female bull ray which had wedged herself deep under an overhang.  At the time, Phil speculated to himself that the whiptails were mistaking the female for one of their own, and fighting for her affection, but another theory soon won the day: the whiptails were agitated and trying to avoid a threat that they could detect nearby, and which Phil would capture a few seconds later on video (I hope this link works):


Harry the Hammerhead returned a few seconds after that disappearance and headed straight for Phil.  William was immediately to Phil’s right and I was about 15 feet to his left. Phil was once again filming (I have seen that video and it’s much better than the above, c’mon Phil, share it!!) as the shark dodged to its right and headed my way. That was another of those moments wherein I questioned the wisdom of voluntary self-immersion. We got a nice close-up view of it’s teeth as it gave a kick and slid off into the distance.   Needless to say, I ran low on air pretty quickly after that and William and I were safely on a boat about 15 minutes later.



… and sunset

The big shark, about 3 meters nose to tail, was one of many underwater megafauna we saw at LIE: turtles, rays, grouper, the maori wrasse, and color-shifting octopi became routine sights. I am still new to diving, but my sense is that LIE is special for its concentration of such big-ticket species.  The island is also becoming increasingly noteworthy as one of the remaining healthy portions of the Great Barrier Reef.  We didn’t hear much talk of this while on the island – there were books and displays to read, but the hosts and guides did not seem too interested in talking about the warming oceans, dying coral, and the myriad ripple effects.  We saw patches of colorless coral here and there, but the locals seemed reluctant to accept that these were signs that the massive bleaching taking place to the north was headed toward Lady Elliot.  Meanwhile, William overheard a lecture being given to a group of University of Georgia students in which the instructor felt it necessary to point out that climate change, human-powered or otherwise, is a matter of opinion.  Ugh, says the guy burning far more than his share of jet and auto fuel wandering around the planet.

Happily, there was plenty of peace and distraction to be found during our time on the island.  On our final full day, William, Holly, Coco and I put on snorkels and popped into the water for a semi-circumnavigation of the island’s west coast.  It was Coco’s first time in the deeper section of the reef, and we drifted maybe a half-mile over turtles, countless fish of all colors and sizes, and a pair of wrestling (mating?) octopi.  Three reef sharks passed beneath us, and Coco ate up every minute of our float.  Alex, William and I did the same route in reverse early the next morning before our flight back to the humidity and rainy season on the mainland.  We passed over three turtles munching on coral, and William and Alex moved along.  As they did, one of the turtles turned and headed up to the surface, maybe ten meters above.  As it headed straight for me, I could have pondered the irony of a turtle attack after our close encounter with a hammerhead a couple of days earlier.  Instead, thanks to the lack of the anxiety-producing breathing apparatus on my back, I paused, let the turtle approach and pass quietly, and think how lucky we were to spend these days on the Barrier Reef.  A few minutes later, our trip was crowned by a manta or devil or eagle ray overtaking first Alex, then me, then William at eye level.  It passed us from behind and was gone in a few seconds, like a graceful Klingon starship on a smooth, silky underwater mission.


A couple of hours later, we were on our way back to Hervey Bay and the Australian mainland.  We are barely covering one tiny corner of this country, and it seemed appropriate that the first song to come on the car radio was “In a Big Country.”  It is a big one, indeed, and let’s hope that our time on this little island has gotten us out of the doldrums of our first few days in Oz.  The forecast calls for six more days of rain, but we’ll be on our way to Bangkok in four.  In the meantime, it’s onward to the surf of Noosa.




PS  Apologies for the lack of underwater photos.  We are Go Pro hacks and can’t figure out how to get our shots onto the computer, and they’re pretty shaky at best.  There were many unbelievable moments and sights to be seen underwater at Lady Elliot, but almost of them will have to live in our brains.  I hope that at least the link above for the facebook video works!





For A Rainy Day

We long expected that Australia would feel like a bit of a letdown after our time in New Zealand. To be honest, we weren’t super excited about visiting here even before we realized how hard it would be to leave NZ, before we knew that whatever place came next would struggle to measure up.  Many told us that Australia would seem a whole lot like the States, just with funny accents and, if we were lucky, some koala and kangaroo sightings.

The place is indeed a lot like America, though the differences aren’t as limited as indicated above.  For example…LOTS of fast food, but sometimes happier (?) versions.

Many Big Box stores, but no Mattress Discounters, instead Forty Winks.

A national auto obsession, but unlike at home one that still includes many El Caminos.  

Though skeptical it would prove a true travel adventure, it seemed wrong to come so close and not even see the land of Oz. Plus, we really do like koalas.

William rescuing Phoebe’s Tony the Koala, who she managed to leave on the rock after a climb in Wanaka.

So we planned a 3 week stop (which reduced itself to 2 when we extended our time in Wanaka) and decided to focus the time on a small sliver of the massive country, its own continent. This has generally been our MO on the Trip: resist a Clark Griswold instinct to tag all the big ticket spots and instead try to really get to know one or two places in each country we visit. Hence, a month in Spain that never brought us to Madrid, Barcelona, or Basque Country, but had our kids so comfortable with downtown Sevilla that they could skateboard the markets and navigate themselves to the best tapas joints all on their own.

For Australia, we chose as our focus Queensland’s storied Sunshine Coast. We figured we’d drown our longing for NZed’s beautiful (but admittedly chilly) mtn peaks in this iconic, sundrenched land of beachtime fun. We’d surf, snorkle, scuba, and maybe even oogle a beach volleyball match or two.

So far, that vision hasn’t materialized. At all.  Apparently, the Ozzie gods didn’t take kindly to our relatively low expectations for this part of the trip. Upon our arrival, and almost as if to punish a bad attitude, Queensland’s reliably blue skies turned an ominous gray then opened to torrents of hard driving rain.

The kind of rain that seems like it might let up… only to start pounding even more insistently.  The kind of rain that makes the nice Aussie weather lady on the telly shake her head and chuckle with sympathy for the holidaymakers who chose this week of “recordsetting rain” to come to the beach.  She was talking about us.

I would be lying if I said the downpour didn’t dampen some already flagging spirits.

With the relentless rain, we missed Big Phoebe and Wanaka even more than we had before. Stuck in a cramped, drab beach condo, we tread on each others’ nerves like we hadn’t in weeks.

And, seven months into near constant togetherness, Brendan’s and my tired tricks for lifting spirits were falling decidedly flat.

Brendan cheerfully suggested we surf despite the rain. (“It’s not like you don’t get wet surfing anyway…”)  But the kids pointed out there was also thunder and lightening.  (“Do you want us to get electrocuted or something?”)  I called for a Bananagrams tourney.  (“You guys love that game. And it’s educational!”)  But Little Phoebe rightly asked what good this would do her. “Mommy, don’t you even remember that I can’t even read?”)

In the end, there was little to do but acknowledge that the rain was a big bumner-period; to admit that everyone was a little glum and frustrated-including the grownups; to remind ourselves that, nonetheless, we were incredibly lucky to be together in a cool place; and then to use our God given talents to make the most of it-which we did.

When the kids realized Brendan and I needed just a few minutes of quiet, they took their skateboards to the parking garage below the condo. Not quite Seville, but a smooth skating surface.

When a few minutes didn’t suffice, Brendan amd I extricated ourselves for long, rainy runs. The best route took us to Byron Bay Lighthouse, which overlooks the eastern most point of mainland Australia. Gorgeous even (maybe especially) in the rain.

A visit to The Farm at Byron Bay, where the rain makes the mud puddles that much better.

Perhaps best of all, a desperate Trip Advisor search led us to Byron Bay’s School of Circus Performing Arts. Trapeze was our focus.  And it was awesome.

Dark inside the circus tent, especially when it’s gray outside, so the photos aren’t great. But this gives you the idea.

Eventually our patience paid off. The sun showed itself now and then that first week …

… and so did the kangaroos and koalas (at least at the wildlife sanctuary).

And when we finally made it to the waterpark, it didn’t matter much that rain started to threaten again … because we had already gotten really wet anyway.