Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dangerous Roads

Michele: Last week a Cassowary was struck by a car and killed on the road in Wongaling Beach (the next town). Cars and dogs are the leading dangers for the less than 3000 or so Cassowaries left in far north Queensland. We feel very lucky to have seen 4 Cassowaries since we've been here and hope that they will be around for a long time.

Signs are posted along the road to remind motorists to slow down as they pass through the rainforest. Some signage, such as "Cassowaries utilize this area" seem a little wordy to my ear. The sign pictured here gets to the point with the graphics even if the text is a little passive-aggressive. There is another passive-aggressive one that says "Are you Speeding?". Why don't they just make it an imperative "slow down". When I first saw these signs I hadn't yet seen a Cassowary and thought that the scale of the bird was a little off in the graphics. It is not! The Cassowaries are large and could seriously damage a car. Never the less, few people drive at the posted speeds.

We've seen a fair bit of road kill here but the most unusual that I've seen was a wild pig this morning in Wongaling. It was huge and I'm sure that whoever hit it has some body damage to their vehicle. Most of the road kill are Wallabies. Wallabies fill the same ecological niche as deer back in North America. They graze on grass in herds, inspire paintings, invade vegetable gardens, take over some communities and they are just as dumb. You know that phrase 'like a deer in the headlights'? Well it works for Wallabies too. One evening I came down a hill towards a Wallaby, slowing down the whole way and the critter just stared at me. Just before I came to a complete stop 10 meters from the marsupial did it realize that it should probably hop away.

Friday, November 27, 2009

An Ausmerican Thanksgiving flaws and all

Michele: Thanksgiving was just another day in Australia so we tried to make it special. No turkey dinner here, no cranberry sauce or apple pie. It is hot and humid these days so even the thought of cooking such a meal is unappealing. But we did have a turkey - just not the poultry kind.

It turns out that if you make your own Pavlova you can make it into a shapes other than the circles available at the supermarket. So with the help of a recipe from
Mariel, I set out to make a Turkey shaped Pav. It wasn't too hard. Robin drew a turkey shape on paper and then I put the paper on top of some aluminum foil with something soft underneath and traced the shape with a blunt knife. This made a groove in the aluminum foil in the shape of a turkey that I could use as a guide for when I arranged the meringe. For something soft under the aluminum foil I used Robin's homework book - more on that in a bit.

When the Pav was done baking and cooling the kids and I had great fun decorating it to look like a Turkey with food coloring, lollies and strawberries. It was great and tasted just like the ones from Woolies. I took a picture of the awesome turkey-shaped Pavlova but unfortunately,
Will was playing with the camera later last night and deleted that photo. He also put the camera into some weird mode that will probably take me months to get out of. Anyways, today I took this photo above of the left-overs. It isn't the same....

Well that wasn't the only thing that went wrong last night with the Pav. Remember I said that I used Robin's homework book as something soft to transfer the turkey shape to the aluminum foil? Well, I forgot to take the book out from under the foil before I baked the Pav - I cooked her homework book. Yes, the Pav had an interesting burnt paper smell as it cooked but since I hadn't made Pav before I didn't recognize this as amiss. You've seen a cookbook but have you seen a cooked book?

Of course Robin's teacher thought this was great fun and told the other teachers and even had Robin tell the story to the whole class for show and tell. There goes any credibility I had built up after I visited school a few weeks ago to talk to Robin's class about planetary geology.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Will Wins Best Behaved Religion Student

Michele: I didn't have a picture of Will in religion class so I posted this picture of Will with uber-goofy hair on the ride to the Eddy Reef.

The school year here in Australia is winding to a close and today was the last day of Religion class. The Religion teacher gave bags of lollies (candy) to each student and then gave beautiful fish-shaped kitchen magnets to the best behaved girl and boy students. And guess what?

Will was the awarded the best behaved protestant grades 1 & 2 boy.

I am proud of Will. Not only is he recognized among his peers, but how cool is it to say that he won an award for the best behaved grades 1 & 2 boy in protestant religion class at Mission Beach State School? C'mon! In 10 years, I guarantee that this is one story that his friends will never believe!

Metallic Starlings

Michele: Around the corner form our house is a tall Eucalyptus Tree with... no kidding... hundreds of Metallic Starlings. Here is a picture from back in August when they first arrived and starting building their nests.

I was not familiar with starlings at all and was struck by a couple things. Firstly, the birds are as strange as all the stories and youTube videos document. They swarm and swoop around in seemingly random patterns. Sometimes, when we go down the street every single bird from the tree is sitting along electric wires across the road. Maybe there was a tree snake near their nests or something? Then, as we walk by one bird decides it is time to go back and the entire flock immediately follows.

Watching them build their nests (hanging pouch-like nests) was interesting. Groups of 10-20 birds would leave the tree as a group and return with bark, twigs etc. While the group was gone the remaining birds would chirp a bit but when a group of starlings returns to the tree, Oh the Ruckus! Really loud chirpings for about 15 seconds whenever any bird returned. This is the conversation I imagined translated from Starling language:
Mabel the Metallic Starling: "Is that really you Stan? I thought you were gone forever. Thank GOD you've returned!"
Stan replies: "Yes I'm back from my epic 5 minute journey across the vast skies to the neighboring tree and look at the bounty that I've brought back from distant lands!"
Mabel: "A twig!!! For me? Aren't you a dear! I know just where to put it too. Now if I only had another few more twigs...."
The nest building lasted for a couple weeks and was really entertaining to watch. It was very noisy. The property around the tree is for sale and I imagine that the realtor has a difficult time showing this property while the starlings are nesting. These birds come back to the same tree each year and they really like the tallest gum trees around. There are plenty of nice gum trees in our neighborhood but instead of spreading out, the starlings all like to sit - hundreds of them - in this one tree. Odd birds.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Billabong Sanctuary

Robin: We went to the Billabong Sanctuary. I had a really fun time! This picture is of me hand feeding some very people friendly kangaroos. First, I thought that they would bite me but then Daddy fed them so I gave it a try. At this zoo they had a lot of crocodiles. The people who work at the zoo even have a crocodile show! We got to see some of that crocodile show! They made the crocs jump into the air! Watching it was scary but it was really cool.

The funny thing about having lots of crocs was that lots of ducks live at the zoo and they could go wherever they like including in the croc ponds.
I thought that once the ducks went in the croc's pond they would be gone for good. But the crocs didn't seem to mind at all. My favorite part of the zoo was...umm...uh I don't think I have a favorite part, all of the zoo was good!

Will: I held a wombat. It's fur was more like straw then fur. The wombat
was a lot bigger and heavier then I thought it would be. It was silent but it wriggled a lot. But the wombat wasn't wriggling like it was trying to get out of my lap. If I was catching it from the wild it would definitely run away.

BTW: Robin and Will each composed and typed their own blog entries this time. Great job!

Michele: After 4.5 months in Australia, this was our first visit to a zoo. For some animals, like black cockatoos, it was much more satisfying to see the
m in the wild. The zoo did provide the awesome experience of petting, feeding and holding some amazing animals as well as the opportunity to see some animals that we haven't had the chance to see yet, like crocodiles. There are plenty of crocs in Mission Beach but needless to say, we haven't gone looking for them. All in all I'm very glad that we waited till near the end of our stay to visit a zoo that way we could see critters in the wild first.

End of our stay. It is true. If you've figured out the Aussie style dates on our blog header (day/month/yr) then you
've deduced that we are returning to the states on December 8th. Over the next two weeks we will shut down do some traveling north of Cairns and say goodbye. I don't think any of us are ready to leave.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Australian Good Ideas #6: luv

Michele: No, not the kind that you can't buy with money. Nor the kind that makes the world go round. I'm talking about an affectionate term used among strangers engaged in a business transaction. Huh? OK, I had better explain.

In the US, well the northern US anyways, if a woman over the age of 30 goes to a sales counter, she is likely to be asked
"Can I help you ma'am?"
Now if you are over 30 and female like me you might also cringe slightly when you hear this. I find nothing pleasant sounding in the word ma'am. If you lip read an American saying ma'am you will notice a fleeting grimace in the word ma'am as if the person were in pain. I like nothing about this word.

Now in Australia, if a woman of any age goes to a sales counter, she is likely to be asked.
"What can I do for ya luv?"
It doesn't matter if the sales person, bar tender, butcher etc is male or female, young or old, familiar or stranger, they will still call you 'luv'. luv luv luv Doesn't that sound wonderful!

A few months ago I had the opportunity to work the plant stall at the primary school fundraiser festival. Working the plant stall seemed like a helpful thing to do and a good idea at the time but it turns out that I could answer absolutely none of the customers' questions about the plants. I couldn't tell a Ginger plant from a Bromeliad (ok, well I could tell that one but you get the idea). I did my best. One part of working the stall stood out in my mind. One of the customers called me 'luv' as we were negotiating how to pack her plants into the boxes. Ah ha! Luv goes both ways!

I haven't yet been able to call strangers
'luv' here in Australia. I say "No worries" instead of "You're welcome". I can greet folks with a passable "G'day". After months of blundering I now have emphasis on the correct syllable in "Good on ya!". I can stumble through "How are ya going?" with only a slight pause before 'going'. I even occasionally declare that "She'll be right!". But calling strangers 'luv' is a bit harder.

I will work on this though because we all could use more
"luv" in our lives.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Another trip to the reef

Michele: Sunny skies, relatively low wind and a low tide in the early afternoon yesterday were near perfect conditions for another trip to the Eddy reef. This time I took pictures above water and we didn't even bother with the underwater camera. In this picture Will is proudly sporting the hairdo that he was given by the salt spray and wind on the way out to the reef. The kids really enjoyed sitting on the bow with legs dangling over the edge. If you sit on the correct side, you really get sprayed with water!

Our time on the reef went by amazingly fast. Robin and Will did great -- they got to take advantage of their improved swimming skills. We saw many of the same amazing critters and plants as last time with some new critters like a Cuttlefish and more attention to the details.

A highlight for me was swimming alongside a sea turtle for several minutes. I was about 2 meters to the side of it and I got to swim along while it glided over the coral and came up for air twice. Amazing to watch! With each effortless wave of its front flippers, I was using my fins with moderate vigor. How do they do that? I'm sure the turtle could see me; yet, it didn't seem afraid and didn't swim away from me. Eventually, I was concerned about swimming so far from the boat so I bid goodbye to the turtle... for now.

Gavin: while Michele was swimming with the turtle, I was swimming with a shark! A small, shy white-tipped reef shark that the Calypso folks told us was born at Eddy Reef a few years ago and has lived there ever since. I know we had a great time because we were all really tired but happy when we finally got back home.

Robin:I saw the turtle too! I saw it and pointed it out to daddy he swam after it. I wasn't fast enough because I was not wearing my fins. I also saw sea stars that were feathery. It was very fun to go to the reef again. Even if my wet suit gave me a blister.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Signs that we've been here a while...

We are starting to bleed Aussie.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ah ha! This is why this is a rainforest

Michele: Our first 4 months here in the wet tropics weren't very wet. We had two months of virtually no rainfall and this was the driest winter on record. However, when I asked uncle Larry and other if they were worried for the trees with the lack of rain they all laughed at my concern. "It'll come. Just wait till the Wet starts." It seems that they were right. In the past few weeks, we've been moving into summer weather and with it lots of wind and rain.

Spring rain here is unlike the steady rain of a New England spring. The rain comes up all of a sudden with a strong wind and with a torrential downpour that may be over anywhere from 2-20 minutes. The wind blows the rain sideways and everything on our covered terrace gets wet. I have a new appreciation for the word squall.

Until today we've had a shower or two a day but today was a whole new ball game. Squall after squall has been blowing in from the sea. 5.5cm in 24 hours. The happy frogs are croaking. Unfortunately, someone anchored their boat on the beach last night and they were not so happy this morning. The high winds actually turned their boat over (see pic). The great barrier reef and Dunk Island shelter our beach from high waves so the turning over of this boat is particularly impressive.

If this isn't the start of the Wet, I wonder what we are in for.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sea Patrol!

Channel 9: The Hammersley patrols Australia's tropical waters, from the idyllic coral atolls of the Great Barrier Reef to massive oil rigs on the North West Shelf. Amid the action and excitement of their patrols the crew of the Hammersley finds time for rest, romance and relaxation, often in exotic foreign ports. But their camaraderie, loyalty and integrity will be tested.

Michele: I haven't yet seen the show but for the past 8 weeks Mission Beach has been abuzz with Sea Patrol activity. Every spring (Sept-Oct) the cast and crew of Sea Patrol come to Mission Beach to film the TV show. They lease out local shops for sets but the main set of this show is the Hammersley, the navy ship that the crew serve aboard.

Every year, the Royal Australian Navy leases out one of its most advanced ships for 8 weeks to be used for... you guessed it! As a set for a TV drama series. Isn't that an awesome business model for the military! Can't you just see all the military divisions switching to revenue generating systems involving the entertainment industry. It is brilliant!

It has also been fun having a navel ship off our beach for the past two months.
"Hey, look over there a sea turtle!"
"Just to the left of the Armidale class patrol boat, near where the water changes hue."
The kids of the cast and crew of Sea Patrol have been attending Mission Beach State School for the past two months and Robin and Will have enjoyed not being the newest kids in their classes. However, the crew finished up filming last week so the new kids have left, the equipment is packed up and the ship is gone.

What will happen to Mission Beach now that the RAN patrol boat is gone? Who will protect us from boats of immigrants from Dunk Island? Stay tuned for the next installment of ... Cassowary Tales!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Australian Good Ideas: #5 Swim Class in Public School

Michele: It is Term 4 at Mission Beach State School and that means it is time for swim classes. I can't say if every school in Australia has swim classes, but many primary schools in far north Queensland have swim classes for all students. What a great idea!

Australians are pretty serious about the sport of swimming. This is manifest in the number of Olympic medals Aussies have earned. The Aussies have earned more Olympic medals per capita than any other country. This reflects both their athleticism and their savvy. While sports like gymnastics only have a handful of medals available, the crafty Aussies figured out that swimming has an insane variety of events each of which gets a medal. There is the 100m back stroke, the 200 m individual medley and the 50m hold yer nose and dog paddle. Having figured this out, Aussies have invested wisely in teaching Aussie children to swim. It also comes in handy because most of the population lives near the sea.

At Mission Beach State School grades 4-7 take a bus to the big pool in Tully (25 km away) while the lower grades walk to the pool at the Tropical Hibiscus Caravan Park around the corner form the school. The walk is not long but it does have a very significant effect on the children. Shoes are required on swimming days. At our house on Tuesdays gleeful shouts of "Yay, swimming today!" are quickly followed by groans "Oh man! We gotta wear shoes." This is how life's lessons are learned.

We are lucky to have a swimming pool at our house, so Robin and Will have had lots and lots of swimming practice over the past 4 months. It has been awesome to watch their swimming skills grow. In July they were both very unconfident dog paddlers and now they swim and cavort in deep water with ease. This alone has made our Aussie adventure worthwhile.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Religion in school

Michele: Public school here in Australia is very different than in Amherst in a lot of ways. One feature of school here is Religion class every Wednesday morning. The school in our town offers three flavors of religion, Catholic, Protestant and none of the above. After some discussion, we opted for protestant-flavored religion for our kids. Robin and Will were pretty skeptical of the whole religion class thing. Kids who don't opt for either Catholic or Protestant get to go to the undercover area and color during Religion class. Coloring is a pretty big draw for the 7 to 9 year old set.

Gavin and I both did time in Sunday school classes growing up and I clocked in 6 years of Catholic schooling so we gently encouraged the kids to try out Religion class. It is good for them! Robin was the first to forgo coloring and try Religion and reported that it wasn't so bad. They learned some old testament stories that all have the same '
believe or be damned' theme. A few weeks later Will followed suit and now the coloring group has two fewer followers than it used to have.

Religion in school is very normal here and people are surprised (to some degree) that religion is not taught in American schools. I've been told several times that American children grow up much faster than Australian children. Many Australians may believe that America would be a better place and that we could have avoided the whole global financial crisis if we did teach religion in schools. I don't know about that, but a little fire and brimstone can't hurt and makes for great drama.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Red Tailed Black Cockatoos

Michele: Yesterday Robin and I went for a walk on the Kennedy track near our house. On the way back, we saw a flock of 6 red-tailed black cockatoos on the beach. These birds are amazing to watch on the ground or in the air. They are large and black all over, even their crests. The one bit that isn't black is a spot under their tail, which is bright red (see pic of cocky in the tree). In the air near the beach, they catch updrafts and just hang still in the air.

The sulphur-crested cockatoos are pretty impressive but these guys, the red-tailed black cockies, steal the show.
I keep being surprised by birds in Australia. I swear, I'm really not that into birds, it is just that the Aussie birds are pretty spectacular.