2016  Australia

2016 Australia

It’s almost Friday midnight as we hurtle down the twinkling runway and up into an ebony sky; chasing summer 12,500 km around the world to the ‘Land Down Under’; where tomorrow has already gone to bed.

Our lodging is at Sydney Youth Hostel. Yes, I know that may seem strange, but we couldn’t seem to find an ‘oldth’ hostel. The odd structure is built over an open archaeological excavation called the ‘Big Dig’, with remnants of more than thirty British convict buildings dating back to the 1790’s. The hostel’s rooftop deck offers a panorama of one of the world’s greatest harbors and the jaw-dropping Sydney Opera House.

Eagerly unpacking, Christine and I collect our legs for a walk to try and adjust to our new time zone. We ferry across bustling Sydney Harbor to the beach-side suburb of Manly, but our walkabout is abbreviated by a bitter wind that has my hands resembling Little Richard pummeling ‘Tutti Frutti on his piano!

Passing by the Heads on our return huge waves pound the ferry, sending them right over the top of the boat. All those seated outside including ourselves are soaked, and urgently struggle to get back inside the rockin’ and rollin’ boat. Safely but soggily back ashore, our teeth chattering like a Gatling gun and we’re hell-bent for a hot shower, planning to test the capacity of the Hostels hot water tank!

Another chilly day begins with a run over the soaring steel arced bridge to explore the surrounds, before joining Christine for a yoga class up on the hostel’s roof. Later, we meet up with a fellow from Sydney Greeters who has agreed to show us the city. Standing outside on the bow of a fast catamaran in the wind, we’re grinning like a dog with its head out the car window, and a stop at Watson Bay is followed by a clifftop walk leading us past Lady Bay to the dramatic entrance to Sydney’s harbor known as ‘The Gap’.

 

For more of an explore, we work up an appetite by walking about the areas of Miller point, Nurses Walk, and Barangaroo. Knowing Aussies love to swill and grill, the three of us stop to grill our own barbeque lunch at the funky Phillips Foote Restaurant; aghast by the outright robbery that would make even a pirate blush. Yes, the evidence of Australia’s convict past is clearly reflected in the felonious pricing; as it’s $8 for a beer, $20 for a salad, and if you’re considering any animal flesh you had best be prepared to sell an internal organ or two! I’m pretty certain their buccaneering forbearers are proudly applauding from their graves!

Christine and I decide to saunter the shoreline splendor of the famed Bondi to Coogee clifftop coastal walk. We pass bodies tanned the color of tea and wearing a minimum of textiles sprinkled over the blonde sand, along with a collection of unusual art works courtesy of a ‘Sculpture by the Sea’ display. We have a chuckle on Tamarama Beach, seeing a humongous sculpted rhinoceros partially buried in the sand, lying on its back with horn and hooves reaching heavenward.

From the weeping fig tree avenues of Hyde Park we cross the iconic Harbour Bridge to Wendy’s Secret Garden in Lavender Bay. The garden is a former rubbish dump, converted by a resident into a place of enchantment where birds now love to sit and chatter amid the bamboo, flowers and towering trees. Overhead, a stunt pilot cleverly uses his plane as a pen while skywriting ‘Aussie’ across an empty blue sky.

Randomly exploring, we find ourselves in the inner-city area of Woolloomooloo. ‘O’ dear, the aboriginals must have been smoking some wacky-tobaccy out of their digeridoos when coming up with this voluminous-voweled variant. After wandering the sprawling Botanic Gardens we finally introduce our bums to a chair in Lord Nelson Brewery; a cool old pub built 175 years ago out of convict quarried stone.

During our week in Sydney we’ve logged over 20 kilometers of walking each day, in addition to taking advantage of a sophisticated train system to visit the outlying areas of Enmore, Newtown, Paramatta, and the Vietnamese town of Cabramatta, known as ‘Little Saigon’. Formerly a war zone and hub for drug gangs, it has now morphed into a spot renowned for its outstanding Vietnamese cuisine, and we plunk ourselves down for a superb bowl of Pho about the size of a manhole cover!

After a jerky flight into Adelaide we’re totally blown away; well almost. Awaiting us outside the airport, a Herculean, pant-flapping gale requires a 45 degree lean into it to make any progress. Even locals are aghast by the strongest winds in over a quarter of a century! Rubbing the gale’s grit from our eyes, we bus into town, and seeking our lodging spot life-size bronze pigs that appear to be roaming in the Rundle Mall.

My day begins with a nippy run along the Torrens River, tenanted by paddling pelicans and handsome black swans. Christine and I then cycle a riverside path, lined with stately red gum trees, to the sprawling sands and protruding piers of Henley Beach; stopping to try and gather warmth when the sun uncloaks itself in this th-awful weather. Our route is alive with bird-speak, including murderous screams right out of a horror movie coming from a profusion of beautiful but cacophonous white cockatoos.

Today is the Melbourne Cup and a banner day for Aussie bars, with Adelaidian women parading about in awkward bonnets or fanciful headpieces stuck to the sides of their heads like half of an off-kilter earmuff. It’s now time to move on, and with “Wind-elaide” minimizing in the rear view mirror, we chase the sun further north. Just outside the town of Tanunda we come to the 20 acre Blickinstal Barossa Valley Retreat. The wine-famous valley is genuinely gorgeous, and along with a funky cabin in the vineyards, we finally can enjoy an obliging sun beaming down from a faded denim sky.

Driving back from dinner in the village of Angaston, a fox scampers across a gravel track on our way to watch an Aussie sunset that doesn’t disappoint. Jersey cows and sheep congregate in huge fields of lavender as the sun lowers itself over the horizon, while a jarring squawk alerts us to parrots and pink cockatoos beating the hell out of the sky with their wings on their way to roost for the night.

Our intriguing morning wakeup call is courtesy of vocally versatile magpies sounding somewhat like a warbling xylophone. After a few days and still looking for our first kangaroo sighting, I say to Christine, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could spot one near the vineyards’. Ten minutes later, as if by magic, we witness a hoptical illusion! My request is granted as enchantingly illuminated with the soft afternoon light, a large kangaroo suddenly rears up to inspect us from between the rows of grapes.

Locals tell us we can see many more ‘roos’ as they are called here, in nearby Kaiserstuhl Conservation Park. On that advice, we enter at dawn we have the park all to ourselves, and within minutes spot the motherlode of ‘roos’; including curious little joeys peeking out mama’s pouch.

The monstrous marsupials are a confusing conglomeration. They have a head like a deer; stand upright like a man; and hop like a frog! With lovely licorice eyes and fashion model eyelashes they look quite innocent, but preposterously oversized hind feet make Michael Jordan’s sneakers seem like baby-booties, and can deliver a bone-breaking kick should they happen to be in a dim frame of mind. These pogo poster boys also seem licensed to carry small arms, as their tiny Thalidomide looking front arms pale in comparison to their humongous back legs and a muscular T-Rex size tail acting as a fifth leg.

Venturing too close to a family of the laughable jumble of limbs, a huge alpha male suddenly postures up on its rear legs, and putting the mean in demeanor, thrusts his chest out flexing substantial pec muscles. Now at eyeball to eyeball height he radiates an unmistakable ‘one more step and I’ll hurt you’ glare, so deciding there are far better ways to get my kicks, I back off, leaving the cantankerous bad boy to its breakfast!

Raucous Kookaburras seem to enjoy my confrontation with the posturing kangaroo and hysterically mock me with a maniacal ‘hohoho – hahaha’ laugh one might associate with inmates breaking out of an insane asylum! Amid the open air taunting by these feathers, we also have a visit by an unbiased spiny anteater. He of the stout snout looks like the comical offspring of a porcupine and Pinocchio; and not of broad vocabulary, noses on past with nothing to add.

Next, we drive to the Whispering Wall at the Barossa Reservoir, where a 36 meter high curved cement retaining wall holds back the pressure of the dam’s water. It’s said that even when whispering against the wall, the sound can be clearly heard 140 meters away from one side to the other; and after trying this for ourselves, we can confirm the statements validity!

The Barossa Valley is clearly the cherry on the bejeweled cake of Adelaide, but it’s time for another flight, north to Cairns. In our rental car, a serious splattering of bugs turns the windshield into a memorial of their martyrdom, by colorfully painting it with their exotic corpses as we drive a slate-grey ribbon of road called the Cook Highway; the only thing separating the rainforest from the reef.

Stopped for a driving break to stretch our legs on a stunning beach, a dolphin gracefully swims by close to shore as if offering us a welcome. Unpacking our bags at the Lazy Lizard Motel in Port Douglas, we make our way to gorgeous Four Mile Beach, joining vibrantly plumaged rainbow lorikeets hopping about in flamboyant red Poinciana trees. The only disappointment is numerously posted warning signs banning swimming, due to an influx of the evil jellyfish known as ‘stingers’.

At dawn, a cloud of giant fruit bats the size of crows flap along in our car headlights, escorting us out of town. We drive to Daintree National Park, said to be the earth’s oldest tropical rainforest, with the thriving greenery containing more than the total number of tree species in the whole of North America and Europe combined! Our car is loaded onto a small open ferry and electronically winched across a river into the park.

Dangerously anorexic roads in the Daintree leave no margin for error, and have signs posted to use caution because of the legendary Cassowaries. This solitary throwback lives in Australia’s remaining rain-forests and is known as the world’s most dangerous bird. After several short hikes trying to catch sight of one, we give up and continue on to Cape Tribulation.

Skinny cane trains hauling cut cane to be burnt into sugar at the factory pass by during our drive to the rainforest of Mossman Gorge to again search for the Cassowary. Access to the Gorge is blocked by a gate that will not be opened until 8 a.m., but keen to get started, we trudge a couple of kilometers up a side road for an illicit foray into the deserted area a couple of hours early.

We follow a river tumbling over granite boulders in the gorge, amid a surrounding forest rife with gigantic ferns, strangler figs, and tree-swallowing vines. With no fashion police in the jungle, I’ve gone into Cassowary doppelganger mode by outlandishly donning a red trimmed ball cap and matching red necktie; in hopes of attracting one of the elusive feathered giants with my infinite charm and sense of style!

Slaloming through the Survivor-ish setting, Christine lags several paces behind. Perhaps her reasoning is a potential encounter with the dangerous bird, but more likely it’s to disassociate herself from the flamboyant avian-wannabe hopscotching through the jungle in front of her! Regrettably, there are still no Cassowary sightings today; only two Bush Turkeys, or three counting ‘Mr. GQ’, stylishly bedecked in the cap and tie!

Tempted by a clearer than crystal pool in the river, I can’t resist taking a dip. An expressionless Boyd Forest Lizard cautiously watches me from a rock, and I watch him back, listening to the exotic sounds of forest  birds somewhere up in the curtain of vines permeating this pristine 400 million year old rainforest.

Back in Port Douglas we look at booking a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow but the price requires a deep wallet, and the boat is far too crowded for my liking. Oh yes, and in the domain of the Great White Shark, my desire to go swimming always diminishes with the possibility of leaving this planet as lunch! Also known here as “the man in a grey suit”, these tooth terrors are always eager to sink their 300 pearly whites into anything with a pulse that should happen to enter their salty pond!

A more likely concern though is ‘stingers’, as even these venomous beyond reason Box and Irukandji jellyfish seem to have caught the ‘we hate humanity’ virus. Their sting can cause cardiac arrest, leaving about three minutes before you become unconscious, unable to breathe, paralyzed, and communicating with eye blinks. It seems jellyfish kill more people in Australia than the sharks and crocodiles combined!

Now, while I may possibly force myself to come to grips with all these evil entities eager to maim or kill, there is a far more serious show-stopper! Due to the stinger danger, it’s mandatory on the boat for anybody entering the water to wear a dorky ‘stinger suit’. This is a poofy-looking, head-to-toe Lycra body suit that comes in only two Day-Glo colors – an appalling fuchsia-pink or a heinous lime-green.

To me, paddling about all pimped out like a garish colossal condom is about as appealing as a waterboarding session at Guantanamo Bay, and adding in the fact that Christine is in possession of a camera, no judicious risk assessment is required for me to forgo this ludicrous aqua fiasco.

The day of my birthday begins with some heavy breathing. My lungs are breathing in the fresh sunrise and my restless feet groping the sand during a pleasant run along Four Mile Beach. Returning to Mossman for lunch, I treat my face to vegie burger laced with beet-root and large enough to choke a hippopotamus; by light years the healthiest ‘glamburger’ my choppers have ever masticated on.

Back in Port Douglas we drop in for happy hour at a luxurious waterfront bar called Barbados, kicking off our shoes and sprawling out in a bed-like booth, while blessed by the breeze of the largest oscillating fans we’ve ever seen. Drinks start sliding down far too easily, moving us into dangerous territory, so with considerable effort we pry ourselves out of the bar in search of dinner.

Attracted by aromas wafting out of Bel Cibo on Macrossan Street, we stop and order a dinner of Barramundi, with grapes, handmade gnocchi, pine nuts, and lemon-burnt butter having the flavours tap-dancing on our tongues! Seated outside on the balcony, the twilight sky is further darkened when hundreds of screeching lorikeets fly past and land in an immense tree on the street beside us.

The absurd volume of bird squawk from this implausible Hitchcockian scene makes table talk difficult, but creates a birthday shout out like none other! Halfway through dinner the gargantuan gathering of feathers hushes, as giant-winged fruit bats begin wooshing past in search of a dinner of their own.

Just when we think it would be impossible for the evening to get any more bizarre here in the ‘twitter capital’ of Australia, we learn the United States has just elected Donald Trump as president! This shocking scenario leaves us aghast, and we give our passports a big hug, ever so happy to be Canadian.

Today, crouched on the seashore in front of a scenic Port Douglas cane shed waiting for the sun’s first rays to take a photo, I am suddenly presented with a different kind of ray, as a stingray hurls itself from the sea and glides through the air a few feet away. Who knew these water pancakes could fly?

Bound for the Atherton Tablelands, we pass an attractive viewpoint and stop around the next corner in a parking area to walk back for a photo. Enjoying our view, I suddenly have an uneasy premonition about all our gear in the car. I rush back just in time to thwart a car robbery as two bad guys quickly jump back into their van; spitting gravel from beneath the tires as they hastily flee the scene. We are overcome with relief, having just avoided a calamitous outcome.

Continuing on to Mareeba we drive by a 30 km stretch of fields hosting a mind-blowing number of termite mounds the size of sheep. Rather amusingly, the first building we see on entering town is called the Ant Hill Hotel. We end our road trip in the Atherton Tablelands, in the charming little town of Yungaburra.

After checking in to our cabin we’re off in pursuit of the elusive platypus, rumored to inhabit a nearby creek. Sure enough, we soon spot bubbles rising up to the surface, revealing two nostril on what looks like a duck’s bill stitched on a furry otter-like body, along with webbed feet and the tail of a beaver! Our jaws sag in amazement as we’ve actually stumbled upon the world’s oddest mammal; a duck-billed platypus! I’m so excited trying to capture a picture I slip down the river bank plonking both feet into mud up over my ankles.

The cartoonish mess looks as if it was designed in a pub and assembled from a box of leftover bits and pieces. It is so very, very wrong. The wacky mammal also lays eggs like a bird, walks over ground on its knuckles, hunts via electricity, and can deliver excruciating venom from a claw on its ankles. Well of course it can; here in Oz everything is armed!

Silently creeping further along the Peterson Creek Track, panicky Water Dragon Lizards leap into the water, joining a couple of large serrated snapping turtles that not only have a fierce bite, but apparently can also breathe through their butts! Again, we would expect no less from the zany Australian wildlife!

Walking through the woods during a visit to the Nerada Tea Factory, we are looking up in the trees for any timid tree kangaroos known to frequent the area. I tell Christine to be on the lookout for a long tail hanging down that looks like a dog’s. Sacrilegiously fumbling with her iPhone and not closely attending my words, she responds with a start, ‘they eat dogs?’.  ‘Why yes honey’, I tell her with a healthy dose of smart-assery, ‘and I believe they have a preference for great danes!’ Call me callous, but I simply cannot restrain myself.

Sure enough, we spot one of the portly fuzzballs curled up in a tree. He seems quite content to just snooze, so we just let him be and sit down for tea. On the way back to the car we have an entertaining encounter in the same woods with a playful and photogenic wild Sulphur-crested cockatoo. It starts flirting with us by getting up close and personal with the camera, but when I try to stroke him his large yellow head feathers stand up like fingers, and a horrid squawk rings out like the sound of an unoiled hinge.

In Curtain Fig National Park we find the famous 500 year old strangler fig tree with aerial roots hanging down like a giant curtain. The surrounding boardwalk is designed to protect the tree from people, and people from nearby Gympie-Gympie bushes; the world’s deadliest plant, with stems and leaves covered in fine hairs that if touched are said to be akin to being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time!

Another name for this vegetal horror is ‘Suicide Bush’;  as one unlucky bastard who used a leaf for ‘toilet purposes’ was in such excruciating pain he shot and killed himself! Also, horses have also been known to run themselves to death if touching up against it. There’s no doubt about it, Australia has butt-clenching peril oozing out of every corner and ready to ruin someone’s day; even in the form of a stationary bush!

Hiking around a campground at Etty Beach in our ongoing search for the elusive Cassowary, our faces become stretched with disbelief when the unthinkable happens! One of the formidable apparitions suddenly struts out of the bush directly in front of us, and stops to gobble up some berries and stones off the ground. We are equal parts thrilled and anxious. Clearly deluged with demon hormones, the forbidding fowl’s grave demeanor is telegraphing a sinister ‘don’t fuck with me or I’ll peck out your eyeballs’ glare.

This preposterous-looking flightless behemoth grows over six feet tall including the large bone helmet on its head, and is one of those beasts that probably should have been wiped out with the dinosaurs, but somehow missed the memo! Confronting this new peril, I hastily snap off a few pictures before changing direction to veer out of its way; but it begins to follow. Powered by scaly legs attached to vast three-toed feet with dagger-like claws capable of disemboweling its enemies, it has an odd strut with backward bending knees.

However, even as a runner for almost forty years, I still don’t want the dinosaur descendant in pursuit, as they’re capable of running at speeds up to 50 km per hour! My heart is racing, and with palpable purpose I again circle away from the silent assassin. Then, as quickly as the enigma appeared, it silently ghosts back into the rain forest; the rapturous moment gone!

Relating our cross-species drama to the campground owner, she tells us the territorial colossi often attack intruders, even if unprovoked. More brawn than brain, the formidable feathered bullies apparently possess a brain the size of a marble, and are even known to attack cars should they see their own reflection. She tells us that once a Cassowary came after her, and when she locked herself inside one of the cabins, the queen of mean went berserk, ramming the walls with its bone helmet trying to get at her.

She also tells us about another occasion when a woman who left her cabin door open was joined by a Cassowary with a Goldilocks complex who wandered in and laid down atop her comfortable bed. Lunging at her every time she tried to get out of the shower, the villain kept the terrified lady prisoner in her shower for three hours! Yes, this Darwinian-defying ‘bonehead’ is meaner than a three day hangover, and gives a true sense of what was wandering the planet 65 million years ago!

Without ‘feather’ ado, we point the car towards Babinda Boulders. Passing by reoccurring billboards on the highway advertising for an auto accident and injury lawyer named Splatt, we chuckle at the appropriateness of the name and the 1-800-SPLATT phone number on the signs. At Babinda, surrounded by Wooroonooran World Heritage National Park, we hike along the rain-forested creek, pin balling through gargantuan water-worn granite boulders standing up to four meters high.

Our next layover is at Tabu Bed and Breakfast in a suburb of Cairns called Freshwater. The owner Mark is a professional landscaper and the property’s stunning gardens just shout lushness. Showing us our detached cabin, his wife Farley says ‘you have a gecko over the bed and a frog in your closet, is it OK’?  Now that is something we have never been asked before while checking in! We inform her that yes, they are indeed welcome to stay, as they’re fun to watch and may also prove helpful in tongue-slapping any intrusive bugs.

After dinner at the oddly named ‘Siam Orchid Spicy’ in nearby Stratford, we return to our room to find sticking to the outdoor bathroom wall, a humongous green frog more than twice the size of our original closet dweller. Closing up the windows for the night, it’s time for our first little roomie to come out of the closet, so I sock up and deftly grab ahold of him; squeezing just firm enough to stop his hop and take a photo, before escorting ‘his-greenness’ outside to bug munch with his Goliath web-toed brother.

After being serenaded by throat-clearing frogs during a voluminous breakfast, we drive north and spot a sign for Yorkies Knob; with curiosity diverting us into the little coastal suburb. It turns out to be a bust, and we are left pondering what kind of helium-heads would disgrace a place by naming it after a terrier’s penis.

Continuing the corner cluttered road to Kuranda, we stop to hike in to Barron Falls. Despite a lathering of lotion, the searing Aussie sun soon has our skin blushing, so we return to try and to find our Zen in Tabu’s gardens and swimming pool.

Our unique dinner is inside a turn of the century rail car at the Freshwater Railway Station. In the romantic elegance of the throwback train, we have the whole car and entire train to ourselves, dining in ‘MacArthur Car’, named after the General who actually rode in it back in the day.

After flying to the Gold Coast we pack our bags into a rental SUV and drive to the beach town of Byron Bay. It is overrun with a crowd of bare-foot, dreadlocked Woodstock wannabes. Joining them is a tatted up teen surf crowd sporting hedgehog hairdos and a fondness for facial appendages pierced with precious metals that likely create some lively tunes when the metaled morons pass through airport scanning machines!

At Cape Byron lighthouse, Australia’s most easterly point, we watch the sunrise. Then on a whim, we drive 70 km inland to a groovy little town of surprises called Nimbin, where familiar fumes dance in my nostrils before we even see the funky alternative commune. This, you see, is the cannabis capital of Australia!

Less than four hundred, the ‘Nimbinites’ are an eclectic crowd of pot-sozzled, stringy grey haired mavericks so laid-back they’re almost horizontal. The village became of interest as the site of the Aquarius Festival in 1973, which left most of the residents ‘fuming’. Many of the visitors have been here ever since.

Streets are awash in colorfully painted stores filled to the gills with smoking paraphernalia and hemp products, while hazy little cafes play host to patrons enjoying a joint. Unsurprisingly, banners aplenty are plastered about town calling for the legalization of Cannabis. Hemp, hemp hooray!

Main Street, and pretty much the only street, is a ripe with reefer avenue of frontier-style building facades, including a feature building called the Hemp Embassy, where I briefly consider looking for ‘hemployment’ as a Canadian ambassador. After a fun afternoon we take a circuitous route, more goat-path than road, back through the macadamia nut areas of Channon and Dunoon; stopping along the way at a vibrant Jacaranda tree shedding flowered carpets of violet, so I can gather seeds to plant in our garden back home.

On the move again, we stop in the attractive town of Yamba for breakfast, joined by a couple of sleek myna birds table-hopping around our plates searching for errant crumbs. The next few days we plan to spend ‘glamping’ at the Emerald Beach Campground; just south of Coffs Harbour. We are unsure of what awaits us, as the cabin’s description states; ‘bathroom with toilet’.

It always seems a little scary when management figures their best marketing feature is that guests don’t have to take a crap in the sink! The cabin is definitely rustic, but the beach is awesome, and we’re delighted to report that our sink will only have to be used for the usual ‘sinky’ kinds of things!

Sulphur crested, pink, and red-tailed cockatoos have been bountiful throughout our considerable travels, but today we spot beautiful yellow-tailed black ‘cockies’ while hiking the ‘Look-At-Me-Now’ headlands.     By the way, isn’t that a great name? Apparently back in the day, some young pompous British captain slipped and fell in the mud, angrily exclaiming ‘look at me now’; and like the mud, the name stuck.

Walking postcard perfect beaches along an 8 km Solitary Islands Costal Walk, we stop to race small spiky tumbleweeds impelled by the wind, before arriving at the town of Woolgoolga, or ‘Whoopie’ to the locals. Christine orders herself a coffee, but my spirits shrivel when learning the Bottle O shop has recently closed, meaning there is no beer. Life can be so cruel; a moment of silence please.

Lamenting my plight to Christine, one of the locals witnessing me in the throes of intolerable grief, kindly offers a solution. ‘Come with me’ he says, ‘I’ll take you to a bottle shop and drop you back off’; so I jump into his Audi TT sports car and we blaze away on the trail of ale.

On our return we enjoy the comradery of a couple of good old local boys, and amongst other things, learn that wombat poo is cube shape. I shit thee not!  Evidently, the Mr. Magoo-like marsupials have the eyesight of an oyster, and the square shape allows them to stack their crap high, to attract other amorous wombats.  The things you can learn over a beer!

Up in one of the campground’s trees I spot a camouflaged Tawny Frogmouth; a bizarre looking owl with a bill that does indeed resembles a frog’s mouth. We also take some photos of a Kookaburra who turns out to be a bit of a poser, as the raucous little mirth-magnets have been a constant source of yucks for us Canucks. Then it’s time for a little pose-athon of our own on the beach, with a sinking sun’s salmon sunset stretching our thirty foot silhouettes across the seashore like warm taffy.

We’re cautious to avoid stinging Blue Bottle Jellyfish, and ensure our toes are not introduced to any lurking Marble Cone Snails. Another of Australia’s deadly medley, this calcium cased escargot has a barbed harpoon-like spear that can inject venom even through a toenail! The innocent looking little badass has been responsible for 20 deaths in recent years. It would likely be more, but it’s only a dawdling mollusk!

Seriously people, we’re talking about a fucking snail! Yes, the Australian book of ‘Harmless Creatures’ is one slim volume indeed, with so many critters capable of playing a starring role in your obituary; such a serious departure from our own country, known primarily for chattering ground squirrels and chipmunks!

With the pinkness of morning spreading, we again clamber up to the headlands to share sunrise with the ‘roos’, and watch as the ludicrous leapers skip over the ground like a flat stone across still water. This gobsmackingingly beautiful gem called Emerald Beach is by a country mile our favorite spot so far. However, still with more turf to tread, it’s time for us to make like the ‘roos’ and bounce.

Several hours later we make it to Port Macquarie and locate our B & B just outside of town. Across the road is a caravan park with a BYOB restaurant where the ‘battered flathead ‘ on the menu catches the bulk of our attention. A quick check with the waitress confirms that rather than recent roadkill, it is just the name of an ugly fish tasting far better than its unflattering name suggests.

We’re finding Australia gives good beach, and the entire Gold Coast is a myriad of one unspoiled beach after another. Apparently, if you visit a new beach in Australia every day it will take 27 years to visit them all! After hiking out to the lighthouse for sunrise we bus into town for a wander, before deciding to walk back along the 9 km Costal Walk Path. It is said that adventure comes to those who walk, and today we can certainly confirm this, after coming within inches of a near fatal blunder in the Land Down Under.

Walking a wide sidewalk near Flynn Beach with our eyes in the trees following the endearing cackle of a Kookaburra, our hurry is horrifyingly halted as Christine suddenly lets out a fearful shriek. In premature rigor mortis, her foot is frozen midair mimicking the Karate Kid in a wise and potentially life-saving maneuver to avoid stepping down on a sinewy four foot long, not-to-be-fucked-with Eastern Brown Snake!

Despite its tame name, this scaly menace is the second most venomous land snake in the world, responsible for 60% of deaths by snakebites in Australia. If not treated with anti-venom within 30 minutes, this ‘Da Vinci of Death’ can have you laying on a cold slab dressed in nothing more than a toe-tag!

With my heart thudding up against my ribs, I seriously test my cameras optical stabilization feature, by taking a picture of the toxic terror licking the air with its fiendishly forked viper tongue. Then, regaining possession of my mind, prudence prompts retreat. Racing away at redline with my sandal soles sounding like enthusiastic applause, I attempt to catch up to Christine already fleeing in an Olympic-worthy dash!

Walking on, trying to bring our heart rates down to a healthy human level, something rustles in the dry leaves beside us and Christine, still unquestionably shaken, grabs my arm squeezing it like a hungry anaconda. Fortunately the sound is only the reptilian scuttle of a large Goanna Monitor Lizard skittering back into the bush.

I’m afraid the ever-so-lucky Christine is finished with sightseeing, with her viewing options now reduced to the toes of her shoes! With the day only half over, we leg it back to town for a liquid lunch; and a possible change of underwear! Sharing the traumatic tale of Christine’s true ‘heart-in-mouth’ Aussie encounter, folks emphasize how fortunate she is that the cold-blooded slayer didn’t make her a part of hiss-tory.

Seriously folks: down here in the ‘Land of Venom’, there are hordes of silent assassins that walk, crawl, swim, or slither; all eager to provide you with an exit from existence should you venture within range. And here we are, a couple of tender fleshy bipeds from Canada; roaming about in the presence of peril with our soft unarmored skin, neatly clipped nails, tiny rounded teeth, and idiotically unsuitable non-poisonous spit!

It has indeed been an emotional day, but there is yet one more surprise in store! After looking so long for a wild koala, tonight the wildlife gods are charitable. Walking home after dinner we happen to spot not just one, but two Koalas perched in separate eucalyptus trees near our Bed & Breakfast. It’s difficult to get a good photo because their faces are partially hidden in the leafy branches, but suddenly one of the fuzzy-eared, glassy-eyed little tree-huggers lifts his big black nose towards the sky and makes a grunting sound like a little pig.

I try to imitate him in my best ‘pig-eese’ and sure enough, moving like molasses, the living-hug exposes his face as he dozily peers down over the branches at me; probably assessing my ‘koala-fications’.  Ahhh yes, there’s a new Koala whisper in town. No doubt about it, these Koalas are right at the top of the cute-meter and provide a perfect ending to an incredible twelve hours. From killer to Koala; truly a day for the ages!

On the move again, we visit the roo-ridden national parks at Diamond Head and Crowdy Bay, before stopping at Nelson Bay to explore the Stockton Sand Dunes and climb to the top of Tomaree Head Lookout for the sunset. Our day culminates in a romantic candle-lit outdoor spa, and with a little herb from Nimbin, we steep like tea bags in the warmth of the tub. With the jets swirling water and our tongues swirling Pinot Grigio, we’re soon reduced to two little puddles of contentment. Tomorrow we will travel back to Sydney for the last three days of our trip.

After hikes to Manly and Mosman, Mother Nature suddenly has her knickers in a knot. She’s in a thunderous mood and adding spears of lightning to the sky. Perhaps this is an omen of the weather of gloom awaiting at home, something we are not looking forward to with anything approaching fervor! The frenzied drumming of raindrops on the windows is obviously a happiness-retardant; so my plan is to forfeit any outings on our last afternoon in Sydney and immerse myself in a good novel and bottle of Zinfandel.

Dear Christine on the other hand, bless her little heart, suddenly becomes a magician and pulls an umbrella out of her suitcase, declaring she’s going to brave the elements and go out shopping. I should know better after 35 years of experience, but foolishly I ask her to reconsider. This however, is like trying to unscramble an omelet; it’s just never going to happen. There is no weather on this planet capable of denying my darling diminutive diva’s quest to separate herself from her cash. I am left alone with my book; the wine helps.

With our exhilarating trip at end, we feel that we’ve gone from survival to ‘thrival’ in checking this sun-drenched continent off our bucket list. And as we head for home in lingering amazement of our Aussie adventures, we both are in agreement that while many countries in the world would rate only a limp clap, Australia is different. This after all, is a check-all-the-boxes destination, deserving of nothing less than a full standing O!

Mark Colegrave   2016