Monday, September 30, 2013

Trail sign

[Michele]  More instructive Aussie signs.  I think that this one means no hoons on bikes but you are free to torture animals in various ways including: tethering (but only while wearing a spiffy hat), mounting and strapping to your bicycle.   Now why you would want to strap a wallaby to your bike is something I cannot answer.

Melbourne: this ain't Mission Beach

[Michele]  The kids have a two week holiday between the school terms 3 and 4 and we've decided to visit Melbourne and Victoria.  This is where Gavin was born and spent his first 5 years and we've all heard lots of stories of the region and thought it would be nice to see a different part of Australia from far north Queensland.
Spring at Carlton Gardens

On arrival our first impression was SPRING!
Everything is cool and green. The trees are budding and the flowers blooming.  Ahhhh.  Now THIS is real and true Spring - not the subtle spring of the tropics.

Our second impression was was "Wow Melbourne has a lot of people!".  In addition to residents and the typical influx of tourists, our visit to Melbourne coincides not just with the Victorian school holidays but also with the Australian Rules Football (footy) grand finals in Melbourne.  Footy is really popular in Victoria and the final teams were one from Melbourne and one from Perth.  Everywhere we went in the city we saw footy fans.  We ended up spending some effort finding ways to avoid crowds in Melbourne and except for an unfortunate tram ride on the first day we managed this pretty well.

the usual fairytale elements
One highlight of our visit to Melbourne was that Robin and I went to see the Australian Ballet performance of Cinderella.  It was awesome. It has the usual fairytale elements but the show, which featured entirely new choreography by Ratmansky also had lots of quirk.  It was sort of a cross between ballet and Cirque de Soleil.  The costuming was also amazing.  In short, we and the rest of the packed audience had a fantastic time.
unexpected quirk

A little bit of tropical Queensland in a
greenhouse at the Botanical gardens
Another highlight of our time in Melbourne was some really enjoyable meals. In 2.5 months in Mission Beach we ate out at restaurants only 3 times.  OK, we did get fish and chips take-away but that doesn't count.  In Melbourne, we took advantage of being in a city reknown for its food by having wonderful sushi and greek food. Yum!

We also got to learn about Melbourne.  Traveling with a Melbourne native meant that we could pester Gavin with arcane questions about .. well everything.  "Gavin, you are from melbourne, what kind of tree is that?"  "Gavin, you are from Melbourne, what restaurant should we go to?"  Never mind that he left the city when he was 5 years old and remembers pretty much nothing.

All in all our 3 days in the city met our expectations: we enjoyed museums, good food, saw a show, walked through the Botanical gardens even some shopping. But when it comes down to it, we just aren't city-lovers.  Robin ranked Melbourne above Paris but below Townsville, QLD.  I suspect that this is purely based on population since she doesn't like crowds.  I also suspect that she is the only person in the world to rank these cities in this order.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

hat-eating vine

[Michele] Getting caught up on things here.

September 1 is father's day in Australia.  Robin, Will, Gavin, Phil and I celebrated by taking a 9. 2 km walk through the rainforest on the Musgravea and Dreaming trails.  It was a nice day walking on old logging tracks and narrow tracks through dense rainforest. The rainforest is not the same after cyclone Yasi came though, but it has definitely green up a lot since the cyclone.

A vine caught Will's hat when he walked past.  It is amazing that cassowaries can just walk right through these vines.

The dead logs from cyclone Yasi make great habitat for fungi.

Small Town

[Michele]  I used to think of Amherst, Massachusetts as a small town.  With a population of 34,000 it is smaller than many towns in the northeastern US and smaller than all the towns I've ever lived in, except Martinsville, NJ (11,000).  Why did I consider Amherst small? When out and about in Amherst, it is rare for me not to see someone I know.

Ok, so how small is Mission Beach?  It is small!  Population 2,700!
Yes, I often see people I know even though I haven't been here that long.
photo stolen from the internet

One aspect of small town life that I still chuckle over every time I see it is our postal vehicle. At right is a picture of a typical Australia post delivery van.  It is similar in size to a US postal truck.  Well, with Mission Beach (and Wongaling Beach and South Mission Beach) only having a total of 2,700 people we don't really need a van of this size.

So our post is delivered on motor bike.  This works really well for the postie as he can zip right up onto the grass to get to the postboxes.  Dave is fast too.  In trying to get a photo I tailed him for a while and couldn't get any closer than this pic below, which is zoomed in quite a bit.

Dave the postie. Mail is carried in the box on the back
of the motorbike.
Recently I learned another aspect of small town life - service providers have to be good.  This was not the assumption that I had made.  I had wrongly thought that in a small town you would be stuck with whatever dentist set up shop whether they were good or not.  Since it is a small town, I thought that there wouldn't be competition among dentists (or other services providers) to do a good job.  But a long-time local told me that this isn't how it works at all. In a small town, if you don't do a good job every will quickly know about it and there goes your clientele.  People will drive 45 minutes to another town if the service in here is bad.

Judging from the number of people who heard about us before they had even met us, I suspect that goss about bad service gets around quick.

In a couple days we will get a break from small town life when we go on holiday to Melbourne.  We are really looking forward to museums and parks and lots of food choices.  Melbourne isn't Amherst, but it will be a nice change of pace.

Spring is here - for sure

[Michele] In a place were flowers bloom all year round and people wear thongs (aka flip flops) all year round how do you know that Spring has arrived?

You know it is Spring when the wind shifts. Over the past few days the wind has shifted from the SE to the NE, and this new wind brings hot and humid air from the equatorial region.  I'm missing the cool dry Southern Ocean winds that we had during the winter.

Metallic Starling
You know it is Spring when the stinger nets go up.  The water near the shore is as warm as a bath (or as Aussie's say 'the water is warm as').   The crocs and box jellies like it warm so spring means no more swimming in the ocean outside of the stinger nets.  Also the crocs will be nesting along the beaches.

You know it is Spring when the Metallic Starlings start nesting.   The nest in the same trees each season.  The Eucalypti in our neighborhood got a good trimming by cyclone Yasi but the Metallic Starlings are back, swarming and nest building.  We've seen some other new birds in town too.

There are probably many other signs of Spring that we are not yet attuned to.  While writing this I remembered that I had written something about the arrival of Spring four years ago (  In that blog post I wrote that Spring didn't seem Spring-like at all.  This time around, we are more adjusted to the tropical seasons and are starting to recognize those subtle signs.

The arrival of Spring in the tropics is not celebrate with the same E. E. Cummings 'in Just'-like joy nor the Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold can Stay"-like wonder that Spring gets in temperate climes.  Rather we are all a bit sad that the cool clear days of winter are over.  So we turn on the ceiling fans, swim in the pool and enjoy cool beverages as the heating up starts.

The Wallaby Menace

[Gavin] When we're here, we're loyal readers of the Tully Times. I think we've written about it before; it is a wonderful, quirky hometown newspaper. A lot like our Amherst Bulletin hometown newsletter, but with lots of pictures of big fish (fishing in the ocean and rivers is a really popular pastime in these parts).

We've written about the Wallaby Invasion before, too, but according to the Times the wallabies are taking it up a notch:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Chased by a cassowary

[Michele]  For a couple days I've been in a funk because the things I've been doing, such as working at my computer, grocery shopping and reading a book, are all things that I could be doing in Amherst, MA.  I don't like the feeling that I'm wasting my time here in far north Queensland.  This feeling has been acerbated because, don't tell Sueann, but I tore my good calf on Sept 4.  It had been acting up for while but on Sept. 4 it popped and I've been limping around ever since then and not being able to do much.  With encouragement from Lorna, I went to a great PT on Saturday and he said that as soon as it doesn't hurt to walk, I have cart blanche to go walking.  I've been very eager to get out and about but it wasn't until Sunday that I could start to walk without pain.

So this morning I woke up with a plan. I would take a long (~1hr) walk along the beach and the track past the Surf Club.  About 1.2 miles into my walk I started walking along the track.  It is a jeep trail that makes a short cut from South Mission Beach to Wongaling Beach and meets up with Wheatley road by the tip (aka the dump).

The trail is not often used and I was pulling down a lot of spider webs.  Not enjoying the tickley-creepy feeling of the webs, I picked up a long palm front and waved it in front of me to knock down the webs as I walked.  After a while on the path (.2 mi), I came around a slight bend and encountered a cassowary standing in the track.

Wow. Cool!

Ok, is it male or female?  The females are taller (can be 6 feet) and more aggressive.  This one seemed small so I judged it as male and decided to take some photos of the cassowary.   The cassowary was keeping me in sight while I shot off a few photos.  When we've seen male cassowaries in the past, sometimes with chicks, they've been pretty skittish and moved away from us and into the woods pretty soon.  I was expecting that this one would move away soon.  Well, the cassowary did move, but not away.

In this next photo, you can see that the cassowary started to move towards me, into the next block of shade.  What?!?  Hey wait a second, I'm a 5'10" tall scary human and you should be going away from me.  Of course, you my dear cassowary, are a wild creature with razor sharp talons, a powerful beak and if female, aggressive territoriality.   And you are moving steadily towards me.

I've seen cassowaries walking slowly as they graze and I've also seen them walk at a determined pace when they are going somewhere.  I've also seen them run and let me tell you, they are fast.  The cassowary that was walking towards me on this path was walking in a determined steady way and had his/her eyes on me the whole time.  I also started to question my assessment of this bird's gender.

Enough picture taking!

It was time to walk slowing backwards keeping eye contact with the bird.  I also waved my palm frond in front of me and up high to make myself look bigger.  The cassowary kept coming.  I tried to back up more quickly, but my hurt calf limited my speed.  We did this for a while, looking at each other. The cassowary walking forward and me, heart thumping, walking backwards as best I could on the uneven track.

If a cassowary is aggressive you are supposed to do just as I did, backup slowly. If you turn and run, the cassowary may run after you - remember those talons and the beak?  Well I knew this but I also knew that with my injured calf, there was no way that I could run.  This is what scared me. What if the cassowary speeds up?  We were keeping about equal ground but I was going my fastest backwards walk speed and I knew that she could easily speed up her forwards walk.  I decided to risk turning away from her and walking forwards.

So I was able to walk more quickly as I walked forwards but I couldn't see the cassowary.   Every ten steps or so I would turn around.  She is still following me!   She wasn't running but still walking towards me and keeping her eyes on me.  Ten more steps.  Turn around. She is still following me!

After I walked around a bend I lost sight of her.  I didn't want to wait and have her appear around the bend close to where I was so I walked further down a straightaway and by now I was pretty close to the Surf Club.  I turned and waited.... no cassowary.  Should I wait some more?  No!  I kept walking onto paved road I was very happy to see people standing around talking at the Surf Club.


When my adrenaline levels settled down a bit I started to take in my surrounding in a whole new way.   What a beautiful place to be!

The rainforest covered hills in the distance looked glorious in the Spring sun. The tide was going out and the blue waters sparkled.  What an amazingly special place to be, right this moment.  I even saw an octopus (dead) on the way back. Or maybe it was an eight-armed sea star.. either way it was cool.

This ain't Amherst Massachusetts!

Addendum: I told some locals about my cassowary sighting and they report that a cassowary near the Surf Life Club has been fed by people and was probably wondering if I had brought it food.  Everyone agrees on one thing.. don't run when they come at you.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A picture is worth a thousand words

[Michele]  I found these instructions reassuring -- I've been going about my business correctly!
instructions on the inside door stall of toilets at
Cairns International Airport

Monday, September 9, 2013

Wiley Willy Wagtail attacks Will!

[Michele] Pick up any guide to far north Queensland it will have a section on 'things that will kill ya'.  The list of poisonous, venomous and just plain aggressive animals is pretty long. The list includes various snakes (land and water), sharks, blue ringed octopus, box jellies, cane toads, cone shells, irukandji, stone fish and crocodiles.  Lots to watch out for here.  We've had very few encounters with any of these creatures and have never been in danger from them.

The wiley Willy Wagtail
Imagine our surprise when the first creature to outright attack us, besides mozzies and sand flies, was a Willy Wagtail.  Yes, a ~20 cm (8 inch) long bird best known for wagging its tail from side to side attacked both Will and Gavin yesterday.

All they were doing was walking back from the beach.  Maybe Will was giving off a particularly threatening "I like to eat baby wagtails vibe".  Or maybe the wagtail thought that Will was going to take all the area's insects leaving none for the bird.  Who knows. All we know is that as Will skateboarded past, the wagtail swooped at Will and pecked the back of his head.  See how sharp that beak is in the photo!  Will wisely jumped off his skateboard and fled.  Imagine this small bird defending its territory against a 11 year old boy. Does the bird go back to what it was doing after scoring Will's skateboard?  No! It chased Will down the street. While he was running from the bird, Will lost one of his shoes.  With the Willy Wagtail chasing him, he didn't dare stop but kept running down the block and around the corner.

When Gavin and Lorna turned onto the street they saw the abandoned skateboard and one shoe a little farther down the road.  Where did Will go? What happened to Will?  They imagined some scary scenarios but none came close to the truth. Still wondering, they continued down the street and when Gavin bent over to picked up Will's skateboard, guess who showed up!  The Willy Wagtail then proceeded to attack Gavin's head!

As we later learned from Uncle Larry's bird book, Willy Wagtails are aggressive about their territory. Wikipedia adds : The Willy wagtail "was widely featured in Aboriginal folklore around the country as either a bringer of bad news or a stealer of secrets."

Ah ha!  Until yesterday, we had thought these birds rather charming with their tail wagging dance.  Now we know the truth about the evil, skateboard-coveting, secret-stealing predators.

Beware the Wiley Willy Wagtail!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

How many Ibises?

How many Ibises can you find?
Robin found 9.
[Michele] On Friday during Robin's ballet class in Innisfail, I took Lorna (Gavin's mum) to the Warrina Lakes park.  This park has many wonderful birds around the lakes.  The different bird songs combine together into an impressive cacophony.  But it wasn't just the bird song that impressed us.

When Lorna directed me to look up in the tree I couldn't believe the scene.  A flock of gigantic and seemingly ungraceful Australian White Ibises sitting up in the tree.  Surely those birds can't fly up that high!  I mean, c'mon, they are huge!  Sure even ungainly chooks can fly but you don't find chooks 80 feet up in trees.  

As I approached closer, the gigantic Ibises dispelled my doubts by actually flying right in front of my eyes from branch to branch. 

And wait, there is more.  When they stretch their wings, they flash a cool red streak that runs along their upper parts of their wings. 

I did not capture the red streak with my camera so I've shamelessly stolen a photo (below) from the internet.  This photo also confirms their ability to fly.  

Simi-related because it has to do with birds but really has nothing to do with Ibises:  We also recently learned that a bird that screeches near our house at night is called a Plover.  I find it amazing that a bird with such a pleasant sounding name can create such a unpleasant noise. This has inspired a poem: "Red rover, red rover, please shut up that plover."

This completes this rather random blog.  Let's all hope that future blogs contain a bit more substance and entertainment value.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Garden of Pumices

[Michele] High winds this week have blown large amounts of pumice onto the beach these last couple days. In the photo at the right, just about all of the debris at the high tide mark are accumulations of pumice pebbles in various sizes.

OK you might be thinking "Big deal. rocks on the beach, so what?".  This is pumice!  You know, pumice -- the rock with all the holes that you can scrub across your foot callouses.  This rock is abrasive on callouses but it is also so porous that it floats.  On our sail last week we saw rafts of pumice floating on the sea.  Some chunks have been floating for so long that they are encrusted with various algae and critters.

Oh, holey rock!
Maybe now you are thinking, "OK floating rocks that sounds kind of interesting but still why blog about it?". This is pumice!  These rocks formed as volcanic ash welded into clumps as the ash cooled in the air during volcanic eruptions.  The sharp bits in the ash make it great for scrubbing feet but pumice is not strongly welded together.  All in all, pumice is a fairly fragile rock so it doesn't stick around for a long long time.  It tends to break apart so you only find pumice near active volcanoes. OK, you've figured it out now, haven't you.  There are no active volcanoes in far north Queensland.

This pumice must have traveled a crazy distance all the way across the Coral Sea.  Based on recent wind directions, and some recent ocean current data

it seems that the source volcano may be in the New Caledonia or Vanuatu areas about 1500 km to the east of us. Since ocean currents are often more complex than the straight line that I've drawn on the map below, the pumice could be from other sites and could have traveled even farther along a circuitous path.

We've seen some pretty cool things on the beach here, critters, shells and cuttlefish bones. But pumice!  Wow!  That is mind blowing.

UPDATE: News report this morning says that the pumice is from an eruption last year in the Kermadec Islands, north of New Zealand. That is 4000 km from us!

Sunday, September 1, 2013


[Michele] Having visitors means that we get to do tourist things.  Last Thursday we pulled the kids out of school and 7 of us (4 Andresens + my mom, step-dad and Gavin's  mum) spent the day on a 60 foot sail boat.  The family that lives on the boat (mom, dad and 9 year old son) takes small groups out to explore the Family Islands.  All of us were really hoping to see some Humpback whales but no luck with that.  They were spotted the day before and even that morning but we didn't see any.  Nevertheless, we had a fantastic time exploring two islands, snorkeling some fringing reef, eating wonderful food and sailing around and chatting with the Big Momma sailing family as well as three other guests.  Well we didn't end up chatting much with one lady because she was sea sick the entire time and spent the trip lying down. Poor girl.

Will drugged sleeping next to Coco the dog. On the other side
of Coco is the boat's minute herb garden.
My mom had distributed dramamine before we got on the boat, which might have helped some of us.  It didn't help Will though.  Here is the deal, Will doesn't actually get sea sick. But my mom, in her overzealous effort to prevent us from getting sick persuaded him to take a pill.   Have you ever taken dramamine?  It zonks you out. And if you are a 80 lb 11 year old, dramamine packs a punch.  Will spent the first couple hours asleep curled next to the boat's dog, a Chihuahua and Australian Terrier mix. (I know that sounds like a strange mix the but Coco was really cute and not yippy at all! He charmed us for sure.)

Family photo early on when Will is trying hard to stay awake.
Fortunately, after a few hours the dramamine wore off and Will perked up to join in on exploring the islands.

Robin the happy pirate.

Will and Grandma Lorna after lunch..
At the second island stop Gavin, Will, Robin and I had fun swimming around the boat and doing all sorts of jumps off the boat into the water.  I think that it had been over a decade since I had last done a somersault.

After a while we managed to settle into the sailing lifestyle.  Bedara Island with Dunk Island behind.
We had a great time sailing on Big Momma. Lisa, Stu, Fletcher and Coco were awesome and we can't wait to sail again with future visitors.