Friday, June 26, 2009

Megalong Valley with a Capertee Detour

15 emails, a few SMS messages and some statements that rocked the foundation of pub-law and we were ready to hit the bush :-) Jarrod, Adelle, Iain and yours truly met up in Blackheath Saturday morning'ish to do some nature and wildlife exploring in the not-so touristy end of the upper Blue Mountains. The lack of tourists could possibly be linked to the less than impressive weather, but as long as you have the right shoes you would be fine ... said by the guy that forgot his walking boots at home, tip-toeing around in his work shoes instead :-\

Jarrod and/or Adelle had been trawling through the books and found a great little walk down in the Megalong Valley. As the above picture reveals it gave stunning views of the cloud filled valley below.

Due to the weather I had not expected to see much wildlife, but was proven wrong. Maybe indeed because of the near evening feel the clouds created Jarrod was able to spot two Squirrel Gliders sucking eucalypt sap of a tree few metes from the path.

Great spotting! I have only seen gliders before by spotlighting during the night and never this close. The Squirrel Glider is very similar to the Sugar Glider, but never carries a white-tipped tail, has a slightly pointier nose and overall a little bit larger. I might be wrong, but apparently even the gliders find it difficult, there are reports of interbreeding between the two species in captivity producing fertile offspring so a close call.

Jarrod had promised Iain that the Glossy Black-Cockatoos would be swarming in plague proportions, probably a bit optimistic but he was actually going to deliver - at least one, but that is all you need. An eventful 30 min of scrambling off road into the bush trying to pinpoint a smallish black Cocatoo that flew over us while softly growling, resulted in great celebrations and the closest I have seen Iain dancing since the famous Dural wedding ... actually longer than that :-) The bird had shown its red colored tail and Iain "400" Blake ticked his 400th Australian bird - Great guns!

We ended up amputating the walk quite badly due to the weather, but Megalong Valley is definitely a place to visit. If Jarrod can guaranty GBCs I will not be shy of promising a bit of Kangaroo-action.

I had decided to sleep in Capertee Valley, since it was only 1 hours drive away and there was a chance weather would pick up and produce a better Sunday ... it did not! However, Capertee is nice even when wet and as always the owls were out.

Quite happy about the above picture, ISO 3200, ss 1/60s only half zoom 270mm, using manual focus and on camera flash, taken lying on the passenger seat, out through the left window of the Magna, which I had stopped in the middle of the road ... luckily not much traffic going to Glen Davis after dark :-) Red-eye remover in Picasa only medium successful, but sufficient for a blog ;-)

Sunday morning I woke up to clouds so low that they nearly touched the good old Salewa tent, after a couple of hours battling to shoot some pictures while keeping the camera dry I gave up and drove towards Sydney, only stopping for a coffee in Blackheath and a little walk in Castleraegh SF.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Snorkeling The Wild Waters of Gordon's Bay

Finally back in Sydney the gang was up for a bit of water sport. Excellent opportunity to test if the wetsuit would still fit or if the gnocchi meals had slimmed me down a size or two. Happy to announce that the suit was as nice and tight as ever and made swimming around in the 20 degrees hot/cold water a joy.

Snorkeling Gordon's bay during winter is very different from doing it during the 9 summer months that we are blessed with down here. It is quieter and it can be argued that the amount of light penetrating the surface is reduced. However water quality is amazing and you can easily expect double the visibility of what you get during a summer day afternoon.

As stated the quantity of wildlife seen is reduced when the water goes cold, but what you see is more exciting. We have yet to see the first Port Jackson sharks this winter, but we were very lucky to get some intimate interaction with a Giant Cuttlefish.

The usual Ludericks and a couple of rays were hanging around and even a dive school gave good views ... apart from algae attached to rocks, divers are probably the slowest moving life form in the water :-D

No doubt the Giant Cuttlefish was the highligt of the day .. only rivaled by the big breakfast consumed afterward at our new hangout on Coogee Bay Road.

Snorkeling in Gordon's bay


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Kakadu & Darwin, Day 4 - Final Day

From my previous post it could sound like Ubirr was the best place around ... I did not tell about the mosquitoes! After having been gobsmacked by the sunset at Ubirr I raced back to the campsite: Merl, where I already had pitched the tent. I was nearly as hungry as tired and started cooking my gnocchi. You all know by now, that gnocchi only takes a fraction of time longer than couscous to prepare i.e. it is fairly fast. However, multiple times I nearly gave up and considered leaving the food and seek shelter in the car or the tent. I literally could not stand still while cooking without being sucked dry by an army of mosquitoes. In similar fashion I ate my food while walking, I just dropped all the unwashed cooking gear into the bottom of the car - I could clean it the next day - and crawled into the tent, after negotiating a ceasefire with the approximately 50 mossies that wanted to go to bed with me, I realized that I had not brushed my teeth ... well I for sure was not going to crawl out again, so I fell asleep to the sound of mosquitoes trying to enter my tent and the taste of gnocchi and red wine ... hm.... :-D

Next morning the space between the fly and my inner tent was populated by many thousand mossies - attracted to the CO2 and dampness caught under the fly - it looked like suicide to try to crawl out. Luckily the "coldness" of the morning (still above 20) had slowed them down and in a mad charge I made it into freedom. All in all I probably received somewhere around 200 bites and was still scratchy a week after :-(
Before driving back to the Arnhem highway, which would take me back to Darwin, I decided to give the Bardedjildji walk another go. Result; nearly as depressing as the day before - but the sandstone rock formation was still stunning.

Another happy camper advice had been to stop at Mamukala, I had actually planned to go to Fogg Dam again, but the lady had been very convincing so the homesick Yaris and I turned of the Arnhem highway nearly before the 1.3L engine had reached cruising temperature. The bird hide overlooking the lake was very impressive and is supposed to be the main attraction, however, having already seen hundreds of waterbirds I used less than 10 min there. Walking back to the car I noticed the sign proclaiming the start of the 3km bush walk ... hm ... well why not? Good decision!!

The walk lets you explore the dryer regions around the billabong, a type of habitat that I had not really visited previously during my trip. Highlight was probably when two Brolgas flew over my head. I am getting better at this camera thing, because when this deep thundering sound started in the distance I had absolutely no idea what was coming, but instead of seeking shelter I change the setting of the camera from center auto focus to 21 AF points and tracking, knowing that no matter what it was, I wanted the picture :-D

After a super duper walk, we took of again this time making it all the way to Darwin without any further stops ... actually there was entirely true had a quick stop at some wetland center, but not much to report from there.

Owls are fantastic animals and very very hard to see, unless you know where they like to hide during the day you will have to tramp around in the night trying to spotlight them while they are out hunting. If you are lucky you will get a glimpse of something flying through your light beam and you will have to be very lucky to be able to ID what it was. The task of trying to convince friends and family(?) afterward is nearly as hard as seeing the bird in the first place, unless you have a picture ;-)
The Botanical Garden in Darwin is an owl hotspot and that was my first stop after returning from Kakadu. Rumors would know that there was a good chance of seeing Barking Owl in the park and if really lucky; there was a chance of spotting a Rufous Owl. After having spend an hour tramping around I was getting afraid - I had only about an hour of sunlight left and I would have preferred seeing a little more of Darwin while bright, for a little while I stopped looking up in the treetops and looked at people instead; I should have done that earlier! An older couple with binoculars around their necks, telelens on the camera and Birding Australia t-shirts ... hm... they would probably not be offended of I asked them if they had seen an owl :-D Big smile and a "show him the picture" confirmed I was right!
Got excellent description of where to go followed by a "hurry, it might take off" and I raced towards the rainforest section of the park, about 30 sec of quick walking, just when I was at the junction with the rainforest up to the right a Barking Owl called from down left ... what to do? I went left, it sounded like the Barking had been close and one bird in the hand is better than .... In a matter of less than 2 min I found the Barking Owl, luckily it called again - if not it would have been super hard to pinpoint it.

Took 30 pictures in less than 1 min and took off towards the rainforest again. I had been given excellent advice on how to find the Rufous and had even been told that if I looped around I would be able to get pictures front on. Got great views of a sleepy Rufous owl that took a little look at me when I started shooting of pictures, but quickly went back to sleep again - 2 owls in less than 5 min, not too shabby :-)

All that owl-action took the energy out of me - and I decided that there was no need to run around hunting wildlife anymore. Took the Yaris downtown Darwin, to get some non-gnocchi food. Departed Darwin 1.45am, luckily I had been able to sleep a bit in the airport before leaving and had my eyes well and truly closed most of the way back home to Sydney so that I could be fresh at work a few minuets before 8am.
The pictures from day 3 and 4 have been combined in the Picasa link below here below - please feel free to press the funny looking pigeon below if you having already seen the photos.
Darwin & Kakadu Escape, Day 3 and 4

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Day 3 in Kakadu, Ubirr and Arnhem Land

The expression "happy camper" is often true. Guess it relies on the fact that people on holiday often are happy - particularly when they are out of their cars and have established camp, hence the camper bit. All that happiness transform most of them into "chatty campers" so chatty in fact that even a sweaty (and potentially smelly?) single male traveler with a funny accent will be the target for a conversation. Having only 4 days up north there is a great deal of optimization that can be done based on advice from fellow campers as soon as you learn how to graduate levels of happiness - very few people will admit that they wasted a (holi)day on something disappointing so instead of asking if something was good, then stir the conversation to an evaluation against alternative options and remember to analyze the background; a Dane would call anything above 120 meters a mountain and an Australian from Darwin would say that below 20 degrees would qualify as cold :-) ... but if the same Australian from Darwin says that some place has a lot of mosquitoes then believe it!!

The advice picked up by applying the above wisdom kept pointing me towards Ubirr in the North-Eastern end of Kakadu, so Sunday morning I pointed the bonnet of the Yaris North and took of towards Arnhem Land.

All those campers had given excellent advice! Ubirr and the surrounding area is the "best" part of Kakadu that I saw ... except if you only count the quality of a site by number of new birds. Despite having a solid presence of tourist the Ubirr area seems "wilder" than down South and it provides a good mix of all the good stuff; rainforest, sandstone, wetlands, river cruise, vistas and rock art for those who are into that.

Again I had a busy schedule and with the mercury hitting mid 30'ties it was going to be a tough day. I started out by doing the Bardedjilidji walk, I had heard that this would be a great spot for feathered wildlife ... it was a great walk, with excellent sandstone views, but maybe because I did it around midday I saw absolutely no life, except for 4 other hikers.

After having ticked the walk, I went for the Border store in Manblyarra to book a river cruise. Going for a late departure gave me a couple of hours where I managed to run up to the top of Ubirr to enjoy the look out over the wetlands and into Arnhem land. My camping companions down at Muirella Park had pointed out that it would be worth the effort to scramble up the hill again later during the day when the sun was setting.
Still having a bit of time before the cruise I did the Manngarre rainforest walk, great little walk along the river, where I could have used a more time but still managed to see some feathers and some fairly grown-up spiders:

It was a very clever choice to arrange an event where I would be sitting down, waiting for the boat I realized that I was absolutely knackered, so taking another spin in the bush-supermarket shelling out another $50 for a cruise was a great idea.

hm .. sign was right :-)

Excellent trip in the boat, not as packed with birds as down around Yellow Water, but somehow it felt more real and you actually had a feeling of being on the edge of civilization ... and who complains when a black bittern struts up and down on the bank.

Take a look at the Picasa album that I link to at the end of this post to see more pictures.
Arriving back to shore, I decided to swim against the flow and go to the campsite to set up my tent before heading towards Ubirr for the sunset. That was quite smart thinking by a tired Dane ... guess the tiredness made me priorities organizing my sleep before climbing rocks again - how lucky was that, had to circle ca. 80% of the campsite before finding a little spot for my tent. 15 min later I would probably have had to drive all the way back to Jabiru or having to find some camping-capable-bush on my own ... since my skills in evaluating how close a piece of bush is to crock territory are not that well developed, I would probably have done the drive :-)

Beautiful sunset! - again, take a look at the Picasa album I link to down below - I was nearly to tired to enjoy it, but got that good feeling of having accomplished. 3 days gone and it had been absolutely fantastic, now there was only Monday left and for the first time I actually felt that I could relax a bit and just enjoy the last bit of the ride.
Darwin & Kakadu Escape, Day 3 and 4

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Big Second Day in Kakadu

It is amazing to wake up just before sunrise when you sleep in the bush - somehow you feel that you have a head start. I needed that this Saturday morning, a head start that is, since I had planned a big day!

When I decided to go for Darwin I ran a little Danish style of joke, the type where you do give a good hint of what is cooking, but in usual style you never really tell ;-)

Iain have been subjected to this exceptionally clever - and funny - type of humor for nearly 4 years now and obviously he knew straight away what was going on, when I proclaimed I would be going for the White-throated Grasswren (WTG) during the long weekend. Of all the potential habitats in the universe the WTG has decided only to live on the sandstone escarpments in Kakadu and if you want to see it you go to Gunlom.

Despite it all starting out as a joke I had been playing with the possibility of actually doing it - even with it involving 66km off road driving in the (very) 2WD 1.3L Yaris, luckily I had a chat to one of the fellow campers at the Malabanjbanjdju campsite, who could tell me that they had "floored" their car multiple times getting into and out of Gunlom the day before - looking at the nearly virgin (178km) Toyota I knew that Gunlom would have to wait till my next Kakadu visit ... I am confident the Magna can do it :-)
First stop was Mirrai Lookout, where I scrambled up the hill get get a view of Kakadu - not the best lookout in world but an excellent way of getting the sweat pores going and I there was a fair amount of wildlife on the way.

Next stop was Yellow water; one of the "bush-supermarkets" of Kakadu. Many of the great places in Kakadu have been heavily commercialized and it is nearly impossible to explore these areas on your own - even with a 4WD and a boat you will need permits to enter certain areas. I had no boat, no permit and a 2WD with half empty tank, so I had to let the VISA bleed somewhere above $50 for a trip onto the water in a tinny :-\ Hm ... at least it was an absolutely amazing cruise, with the best wildlife I have seen in Australia! :-) Please take a look at the Picasa album, which I link to at the end of this blog entry.

Not being able to do Gunlom I still had one option of getting onto a sandstone escarpment without risking the life of the Yaris. Nourlangie is known for its Aboriginal rock art, but in my "Walking in Australia" book I had found that behind the lookout where approximately 99.9% of tourists turn around and begin the journey back to the comfort of the car, there was supposed to be a track going to the top of the escarpment - the beginning of the Barrk Sandstone Bushwalk.
Great having a "little" workout and lucky that I had brought water :-) When returning to the Rock art walk about 3.5 hours later I looked like I had been swimming in some secret rock pool and I might have scared quite a few tourist away from going to the outlook, since judging from my appearance it looked like a challenging walk :-D

Views had been great from the top, bird-wise it had been very disappointing, since I had only seen 3 birds in total while doing the extra bit of the climb ... when I got to the car and took a look in the book it helped a little bit realizing that one of the three had been a Banded Fruit-Dove, but one new bird in 3.5 hours was way too slow .. ;-)
It had been a fantastic day and I was getting tired so decided to head for Muirella Park, a campsite situated just a short drive from Nourlangie. That proved to be an excellent choice, since the $10 fee at Muirella included the posibility of getting a proper shower and having drinking water on tap - all that sweating meant that I had already used 10 liters of the water I bought in Darwin.
Driving towards the campsite I realized that there was quite extensive "controlled" burning going on in the forest surrounding the site, I would only understand the next evening how lucky that was, since the only thing that can really scare away mosquitoes is smoke. The Northern Dtellas (Gehyra australis) running around up-side-down on the ceiling in the toilet blog did not mind the smoke and I did not mind them - after having been few meters away from their much larger and significantly more dangerous cousins (the saltwater crocks) I found them quite amusing.

Darwin & Kakadu Escape, Day 2

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Darwin & Kakadu Escape, Day 1

Arriving in Darwin at midnight has the advantage of you having ample space on the roads while getting used to a manual gear stick again. The inconvenience on the other hand being the increased difficulty of finding appropriate accommodation for the night. Since the night was already well advanced I decided to rough it a bit and see how comfortable a night in the Yaris would be ... Lets just say that I used a few hours trying out all 4 seats and none of them proved much better than sleeping on gravel.

Early morning I happily left the Yaris for a quick morning stroll in the park - it seems there are a lot of Toyota owners in Darwin, since the park was full of people that had actually chosen to sleep on gravel rather than in their car. I happily saluted at least 50 happy campers slowly waking to greet a new day. But quickly got a bit scared about the fuel economy of the toyota, since the greetings were constantly meet with a plea for money .. guess I was lucky to go for the 1.3L!

CousCous is dead - long live gnocchi! :-) I have started really liking to cook with gnocchi in the bush, they take a fraction more gas than CousCous, but makes a much better meal .. and will function as an excellent (but over time shrinking) pillow. I got myself fueled up on gnocchi, fruit, gas, water and other necessities in Darwin and apart from using 2 * 20 min in two carefully selected parks I could not wait to get out of Darwin and take on Kakadu.

Center of Kakadu lies approximately 260 kilometers East of Darwin, with a speed limit of 130 most of the way that makes the drive a piece of cake ... except there are quite a few places on the way worth visiting and the automobile I was flying had a sound profile going exponential towards the stratosphere when pushed above 110km/t.
First stop on the way was Fogg Dam (Danes have to be very careful with the pronunciation here) which constitute a failed attempt of rice farming turned into excellent wetlands only 70km out of Darwin. This was also the first encounter with signs warning about the risk of being eaten by a crock!

Fogg Dam was an amazing place - please take a look at more pictures by following the Picasa link at the end of this post - but Kakadu was calling and I was getting tired. When it comes to welcoming tourists Kakadu does really well. Soon after you have entered Kakadu you can pick up the "visitor guide" that tells you everything the average tourist needs to know - and probably even a bit more - in combo with a very helpful visitor centre in Bowali I decided to camp at Malabanjbanjdju, not because it was particular good, but because I was tired and it was close. Hm ... next to a billabong means:

Only one thing to do - eat so much gnocchi deliciousness that no crock would be able to swallow me and then hit bed hard so that I could be in top shape for day 2, just before going to bed I went down and took a look at the water, no crocks spotted only a snake - I could sleep safe :-D

Darwin & Kakadu Escape, Day 1